Name in Print XX: crop yields at last

Spelt growing ready for harvest

Spelt growing ready for harvest, by böhringer friedrichOwn work, CC BY-SA 2.5

This post has been a long time coming! It’s been a while since my last announcement of work in print, but there is a bunch coming and the first piece out this year is one that has a history going a very long way back and starting, dear readers, with this blog. For in late 2007, already, after having done a lecture on the medieval economy at Kings College London for Jinty Nelson and having had the good fortune to talk it over with her a while afterwards, I first got the idea that there might be something wrong with the standard literature on the productivity of the agricultural economy of the early Middle Ages. It wasn’t my field, but something in what I’d read didn’t add up. Then in late 2009 I was reviewing a textbook of medieval history and found the same clichés again, so wondered where they’d come from, and the answer turned out to be the work of Georges Duby.1 But at about the same time I also read some exciting experimental archaeology about crop yields done at my favourite Catalan fortress site, l’Esquerda, that seemed to show that he should have been completely wrong.2 So then I went digging into the sources for Duby’s claim, and the first one turned out to have been seriously misread. And I posted about it here, had a very helpful debate with Magistra (to whom many thanks, if she’s still reading, and I owe you an offprint) and thought that’s where it would end.

British Academy logo

But then later that year I decided, for reasons I now forget—quite possibly professional desperation after my fifth year of job-hunting—that I needed to go to the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, which I basically can’t do these days because of teaching. I had nothing else ready and thought that maybe this idea deserved a better outing, and because I was on a small wage back then I put in for a Foreign Travel Grant from the British Academy, a thing they still did then, and got it, which paid for most of my plane fare and made the whole thing possible (wherefore their logo above). And I gave that paper in May 2011, had a splendid time and got some good advice from the Medieval History Geek (to whom I also now owe an offprint I think) and began to wonder if this should actually get written up.

The Bodleian Library viewed from the south entrance

The Bodleian Library viewed from the south entrance, by OzeyeOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The trouble with that was firstly, that I was by now very busy because I had a teaching job, and secondly, that the source I’d already rubbished Duby’s treatment of wasn’t the only one he had used, and the others were largely Italian, plus which there was a decent amount of up-to-date French work I hadn’t used about the first one. I seemed to have Jean-Pierre Devroey’s L’économie rurale et société dans l’Europe franque vol. I (did vol. II ever emerge?) on reserve in the Bodleian Library for a very long time, and I’m not sure I actually started on the Italian material till I got to Birmingham in late 2013; it was just never my first priority.3 By then, however, I’d shown an early draft to Chris Wickham, who knows that kind of thing (and is definitely also owed an offprint) and he’d come up with several other things I ought to think about and read, and the result was that this was one of the articles I agreed to complete for my probation when I arrived at Leeds, by now late 2015. How the time did rush past! Now, the story of my probation can probably some day be told but today is not that day; suffice to say that finally, finally, and with significant help just in being comprehensible from Rebecca Darley, to whom even more thanks and an offprint already in her possession, the article went in with all sources dealt with, to the venerable and honourable Agricultural History Review. And, although their reviewers (whose identity is still a mystery to me) had some useful but laborious suggestions for modification (which needed a day in the Institute of Historical Research reading Yoshiki Morimoto and a day in the British Library reading I forget whom, also no longer easy4, it was finally accepted. And that was in October 2018, and now it is in print.5

Opening page of Jonathan Jarrett, "Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated" in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28

Opening page of Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28

In case you would like to know what it says, here is at least the abstract:

Despite numerous studies that stand against it, there remains a textbook consensus that agriculture in the early Middle Ages was unusually low in productive capacity compared to the Roman and high medieval periods. The persistence of this view of early medieval agriculture can in part be explained by the requirement of a progress narrative in medieval economic history for a before to its after, but is also attributable to the ongoing effect of the 1960s work of Georges Duby. Duby’s view rested on repeated incorrect or inadequate readings of his source materials, however, which this article deconstructs. Better figures for early medieval crop yields are available which remove any evidential basis for a belief that early medieval agriculture was poorer in yield than that of later eras. The cliché of low early medieval yields must therefore be abandoned and a different basis for later economic development be sought.

Not small claims, you may say, and this is true. If I’m right—and of course I think I am—this may be the most important thing I’ve ever written, and though I hope I will beat it I’m not yet sure how. So how do you read the rest? Well, in two years it will be online for free, gods bless the Society, but in the meantime, it can be got through Ingenta Connect as a PDF if you have subscription access, and I guess it’s possible just to buy the journal as a thing made of paper if you so desire! These are mostly your options, because I seem to have given out or promised most of my offprints already…

Offprint of Jonathan Jarrett, "Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated" in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28

Here’s one now!

So statistics, we always like the statistics here, yes, this has had a really long gestation but that’s not the press’s fault, that’s all me and my employment. There were six drafts in all, seven if you count the blog post: Kalamazoo, a 2016 version incorporating the Italian material, a 2017 one adding in what Chris Wickham suggested, and a 2018 one I finished under probational shadow, almost immediately revised into another thanks to Rebecca. Then the last one dealt with the journal comments in December 2018, and from there to print has been more or less six months, which is really not bad at all and involved one of the best copy-editors I’ve so far worked with in such circumstances. It’s certainly much better than my average. But the same is also true of the article, I think, and so I hope you want to know about it, because I certainly want you to! And so, now you do…

1. Jo Ann Hoeppner Moran Cruz and Richard Gerberding, Medieval Worlds: an introduction to European history, 300-1492 (Boston 2004), pp. 162 & 223, with Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: warriors and peasants from the seventh to the twelfth century, transl. Howard B. Clarke (London 1974), in the bibliography, and of which pp. 26-29 carry the relevant material.

2. Carmen Cubero i Corpas, Imma Ollich i Castanyer, Montserrat de Rocafiguera i Espona and María Ocaña i Subirana, “From the Granary to the Field; Archaeobotany and Experimental Archaeology at l’Esquerda (Catalonia, Spain)” in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany Vol. 17 (New York City 2007), pp. 85–92, DOI: 10.1007/s00334-007-0111-0.

3. Jean-Pierre Devroey, Économie rurale et société dans l’Europe franque : VIe – IXe siècles, 2 vols (Paris: Belin, 2003), I, though Jean-Pierre Devroey and Anne Nissen, “Early Middle Ages, 500‒1000” in Erik Thoen, Tim Soens, Laurent Herment, Michael Kopsidis, Per Grau Møller, Jankh Myrdal, Alexandra Saebznik and Yves Segers (edd.), Struggling with the Environment: Land Use and Productivity, Rural Economy and Society in North-Western Europe, 500‒2000, 4 (Turnhout 2015), pp. 11–68, DOI: 10.1484/M.RES-EB.5.108034, now gets you a lot of the same stuff shorter, in English and updated.

4. Yoshiki Morimoto, Études sur l’économie rurale du haut Moyen Âge : historiographie, régime domanial, polyptyques carolingiens, Bibliothèque du Moyen Âge 25 (Bruxelles 2008) is his collected papers, and very useful if you can locate a copy.

5. Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28!


Enlisting medieval history against the Islamic State

Every now and then most medieval historians must get told that their discipline is ‘useless’. Usually this is being done by politicians out to shrink budgets, and they think we’re an easy target, though as Charles Clark found out, sometimes we are better armed for that combat than they expect. (Much better therefore just to cut funding in secret, as Australia’s former education minister Simon Birmingham chose to! Although as far as I know medieval historians were not among the victims that time.) Nonetheless, history can get into trouble when it preaches its utility; perhaps that’s why the best such preach was by America’s finest news source, The Onion, rather than by an academic historian. Usually, though, the problems that history is called upon to address are much more current affairs than the medievalists can easily get purchase on. But an obvious exception was the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which it’s easy to find people calling ‘medieval’ without looking terribly hard. If this was a return of the Middle Ages to the world, what did medievalists have to say about it? In early 2016, as I mentioned, I got to hear two attempts, and they’re worth comparing, especially in the hindsight we now just about enjoy.1

Cover of Hugh Kennedy, The Caliphate (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2016)

Cover of Hugh Kennedy, The Caliphate (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2016)

First of these was by Professor Hugh Kennedy, at that stage just finishing up writing the above.2 He was keen to stress that there certainly were ways in which ISIS was medieval, not just because Islamic thought doesn’t necessarily impose the division of medieval from modern that Western thought does (on which more below), but because of conscious medievalism on the parts of the terrorists’ public image manufactory and even its deeper theology. The Qu’ran, after all, was written down in the (early) Middle Ages; most of the thought about it that ISIS used was also medieval hadith (in the western periodization in all cases), and its political claim to a caliphate, which regarded pretty much all other branches of Islam, as murtadis (apostates) or Rafidis (ISIS’s term for Shi’ites), required it to strike its root as early as possible in the succession to the Prophet, before those divisions had arisen; that first unity was what they professed to renew. Very few later heroic figures or thinkers therefore got into their theology, as those figures themselves were suspect. Now, that would place ISIS’s historical reference point somewhere around AD 650, but their visual imagery was very often taken from a century or two later, being pretty consciously ‘Abbasid.

ISIS jihadis posed for propaganda video on horseback with black banners

ISIS jihadis posed for propaganda video on horseback with black banners

Perhaps this doesn’t look that medieval to the outsider, but let me quote to you a story supposedly told by the first Umayyad Emir of Spain, of the time when he was feeling to Africa from the Middle East after his family had largely been exterminated by the ‘Abbasid rebellion of AD 750:

“As I was on a certain day sitting under cover of my tent, to shelter myself from the rain, which fell heavily, and watching my eldest son Sulaiman, then about four years old, who was playing in front of it, I saw him suddenly enter the door, crying violently; and, soon after, he ran towards me and clung to my bosom for protection. Not knowing what he meant, I pushed him away; but the child clung still more to me, as one seized with violent fear, and began uttering such exclamations as children are wont to utter when they are frightened. I then left the tent, that I might see what caused his fear; when lo ! I saw the whole village in confusion, and the inhabitants running to and fro in great consternation. I went a little further on, and saw the black banners fluttering in the wind. At sight of these a younger brother of mine, who had also rushed out of the tent, and was with me at the time, began to fly at the top of his speed, saying, ‘Away, away with thee, O brother! for yonder black banners are the banners of the sons of ‘Abbas.’ Hearing this, I hastily grasped some dinars which I had just at hand, and fled precipitately out of the village with my child and my younger brother.”3

You can read the rest of it yourself if you like, but suffice it to say, the brother doesn’t make it to the next scene. So this has resonance, and the people who set it up knew that. But more subtle than that, argued Hugh, was the vision put forward by ISIS’s erstwhile magazine, Dabiq. The name itself was a clue: it is a town on the Syrian-Turkish border, as I guess we now know because of the efforts ISIS made to take it, but it’s important to them because it was, according to one prophecy, where the final confrontation between Islam and ‘Rome’ (i. e. Byzantium, in its original context, but for ISIS basically the West) was to take place. Not many people knew that when the magazine started, I think, and this is apparently far from the only such reference, to apocalyptic lore or particular theological slurs or just plain Islamic knowledge.4 Hugh said that he had struggled to place some of them, and you’d think he would be well qualified. Now of course this raises the question: if an expert in Islamic history isn’t catching their full drift, who is the audience for this kind of highly erudite theology? Well, doubtless there were (and are) people who were drawn in by the theology itself, but what may also have been happening here was a performance of superior Islamic knowledge; the normal reader didn’t always know what they meant but he or she could see that the writers know their Islam a lot better than the reader, average or indeed expert… So this is medievalism put to work, whether we like it or not.

Seminar poster for Julia McClure, «A New Politics of the Middle Ages: A Global Middle Ages for a Global Modernity", presented at the Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 3 February 2016

A western view was more in evidence at Leeds on 3rd February 2016, however, when Julia McClure of the University of Warwick (then, anyway) came to address the Medieval History Seminar with the title, “A New Politics of Middle Ages: a global Middle Ages for a global modernity”.5 ISIS were only one of her examples of the ways in which modern political agendas appropriate the Middle Ages as a seat of all that was barbaric, cruel, irrational and so on. Despite my anciently mixed feelings about it I still think Kathleen Davis’s Periodization and Sovereignty has the best explanation of this I’ve read, suggesting that progress narratives work best if you’re pejorative about the state before and emphasise how far you’ve come and that winds up putting a barrier of transition between you and the past which it would be barbaric, irrational and undeveloped to breach. Then you can start applying the category to other places and taking them over because they’re not really politically grown up like what we are; sound familiar?6 Anyway, this was not where Dr McClure went with it, or with ISIS; instead she invoked the idea of ‘multiple modernities’, weakening the idea that our way of being modern is definitive and attempts by different competitors to claim the pinnacle from others; and we should admit that some modernities (for her, Marxism) have failed.7 Having done that, however—and for me this was where I felt a skip in the logic—we should choose to emphasise not the violence and conflict with which agencies like ISIS want to populate the medieval past and thus modernity, but the contact, inter-cultural transmission and general getting along between cultures that the Middle Ages can also exemplify, and let that be our message for those who would make the Middle Ages in their chosen anti-image.8

Mihrab in the Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba

Mihrab in the Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba, by Ingo Mehlingown work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Much of this was therefore familiar to me, but some of her examples were truly ill-chosen. Above, for example, we have some of the inside of the once-Mosque of Córdoba, which Dr McClure invoked as an example of cultural fusion. And in as much as there is Islamic-style architecture justly lauded in what is now a cathedral, yes, there is fusion there; but given that it was first converted into a mosque by coercion then recaptured by violence for Christianity some centuries later, soon after which all Muslims in the relevant country were given a choice between conversion or expulsion, I do think the context should change how we read this monument! And indeed, Dr McClure said it showed how even in periods of conflict cultures still interpenetrate, showing the power of contact to survive conflict, but, as Michael Berube once said Auerbach said, “Ew ew ew ew ew!” Is it then OK to conquer people and nick their stuff as long as it’s a cultural growth experience? This was a building repeatedly established by the assertion of domination over one group by another and it is exactly the sort of thing that ISIS used and use to make their audiences angry at the ‘Crusaders’.9 Other examples included the adoption of Byzantine modes of decoration in the Church of il Redentore in Venice borrowed from the Hagia Sophia in what’s now Istanbul; that’s true but the fact that the Venetians also sacked and took over the city from which they got the idea again spoils it as a multicultural example for me, you know?10

The Chiesa del Redentore, Venice

The Chiesa del Redentore, monument to successful colonialism! By Il_Redentore.jpg: Wknight94derivative work: Alberto Fernandez Fernandez (talk) – Il_Redentore.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The problem here for me is not that Dr McClure’s paper was inaccurate, therefore. It’s that to follow her lead would be simply to choose another dominant modernity, or medievalism indeed, which would trump what anyone else sees as important. It’s not ‘multiple’ at all and neither does it seem to me decolonised; it’s still the western liberal philosophy being rolled out as a model to elsewhere. Of course, I am myself an exponent and a beneficiary of that western liberal philosophy but my problem with the strategy, if we were supposed to be applying this to an entity like ISIS, is that they simply wouldn’t have cared. Even if they did, they had a good enough grasp of the history to assert their own dominant medievalism, and their version of history arguably involved less special pleading…

As I see it, the basic problem actually just comes down to a clash of two maxims. I am a big believer in the basic philosophy “do what thou wilt, an it harm none”, and not just because of the subjunctive in it, but it sometimes runs up hard against one I’ve seen attributed to Isaac Newton or Thomas Jefferson but have never been able to trace properly, which runs, “No man can have peace longer than his neighbour wishes”.11 What do you do when the other party doesn’t care about harming none? We could, I suppose, have tried to have video-conference debates with ISIS-inclined imams where we posed the western alternative and the virtues of inter-cultural tolerance and contact, and it would just have made it clearer how effective blowing up Palmyra would be in getting ‘Rome’ to commit forces for the final conflict. ISIS never wanted peace. Given that starting position, why would the ‘Crusader’ gospel of tolerance ever have been interesting to their potential supporters?

So the medievalists of 2016 didn’t really have the answers, it seems. I’ve explained why I think Dr McClure’s suggestions ineffective already, but even Hugh, famous for his knowledge in the field, had few suggestions to offer about how to contain ISIS beyond that we needed to understand what they were doing and that it was smart. That may, I suppose, have helped us avoid mistakes (like having white professionals preaching capitalist multi-culturalism to alienated near-jihadis) if taken up, but I don’t think even Hugh had a better proposal than ‘know your enemy’. I don’t think that’s quite what an attentive Onion reader would have hoped we might deliver. The question could of course be asked whether we should be expected to solve the world’s problems with our research, and I am of course on record with other reasons we might want historians, but the trouble is that the reply of our funding bodies, our lobbying groups and, indeed, our employers, would be a resounding yes; it’s all over their publicity and their themes of interest that solving the world’s problems is what academics are for. This was an obvious problem when the USA started recruiting anthropologist advisors to serve with the military, the weaselly-named Human Terrain System, but that pressure to help with what’s visibly wrong now is the same sort of thing, in as much as it channels our work towards contemporary political problems by throttling funding for anything else. But however you feel about the morality of it, I’m not always sure about the possibility of it, and I think these two papers showed that the closer one gets to trying to do it, the weaker one’s position becomes.

1. Of course some people have disagreed: see David M. Perry, “This is not the Crusades: There’s nothing medieval about ISIS”, News in CNN, 16 October 2016, online here, or Jason T. Roche, “Islamic State and the appropriation of the Crusades – a medieval historian’s take” in The Conversation, 12 July 2017, online here.

2. Hugh Kennedy, The Caliphate (Harmondsworth 2016), repr. as Caliphate: history of an idea (London 2016); there now exists a rival text in the form of David Wasserstein, Black Banners of ISIS: the roots of the new caliphate (New Haven 2017).

3. Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Maqqarī, The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain, extracted from the Nafhu-t-tíb min ghosni-l-Andalusi-r-rattíb wa táríkh lisánu-d-dín Ibni-l-Khattíb, trans. by Pascual de Gayangos, 2 vols (London 1840), II, online here, p. 59. Al-Maqqari is thankfully not the earliest historian to quote this story, given his eight-hundred-year distance from the events, but it’s almost certainly not contemporary; I think it does have to date to the Umayyad period in Spain, however, because why would you invent the story once the dynastic hero was no longer relevant?

4. By the time it fell, however, the legend was sufficiently well-known that it was left to Islamic troops—no ‘Crusaders’ or ‘Rumi’—to take the place.

5. This was, acknowledgedly, a presentation of an article that was by then in print, so you can see for yourself in Julia McClure, “A New Politics of the Middle Ages: A Global Middle Ages for a Global Modernity” in History Compass Vol. 13 (Oxford 2015), pp. 610–619, DOI: 10.1111/hic3.12280.

6. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia 2008), where pp. 62-74 show exactly this rhetoric being deployed by the English crown and the East India Company as they started their conquest of India, including invocations of ‘feudalism’.

7. McClure’s cite for the ‘multiple modernities’ idea is Arif Dirlik, “Global Modernity?: Modernity in an Age of Global Capitalism” in European Journal of Social Theory Vol. 6 (New York City 2003), pp. 275–292, DOI: 10.1177/13684310030063001), but in his defence, Dirlik warns against exactly the position I think Dr McClure reached.

8. Here, obviously, I would cite Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty or specifically for ISIS, Kennedy, Caliphate; Dr McClure’s cite was Michael Cook, Ancient religions, modern politics: the Islamic case in comparative perspective (Princeton 2014), which I admit I’ve not read.

9. A good essay on the symbolisms, and indeed chronology, of the building’s various existences is Nuha N. N. Khoury, “The Meaning of the Great Mosque of Cordoba in the Tenth Century” in Muqarnas Vol. 13 (Leiden 1996), pp. 80–98. If you prefer a more contemporary take, though, well, there’s me

10. And for a quick guide to this cultural aggressors’ church, there’s Deborah Howard, “Venice between East and West: Marc’Antonio Barbaro and Palladio’s Church of the Redentore” in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians Vol. 62 (Berkeley 2003), pp. 306–325.

11. I think, maybe, that I read it as a quote at the head of a chapter in a book by Gerald Durrell, in which case it is not impossible that he himself was the source. But I can’t find it, either way.


Marking is over for the season, and suddenly a whole fleet of tiny toy boats that had been submerged by its extent bob back to the surface of my academic bathtub, or something. (I’m sorry, I’m not actually completely well just now but I’m not sure it excuses that metaphor. Let’s press on shall we?) One of these is really quite soon, and I do realise that if you’re in London this coming Monday you probably already have plans. Nonetheless, doesn’t this look interesting?
Conference poster for Medieval Women: comparative perspectives, Birkbeck, University of London, 17 June 2019
I am more interested in the other papers than my own, but then I know what’s in mine. Very alert readers may recollect that I have done something similar in the past, but since then it has been through a bit on the way to forthcoming publication so it will be more definitive now, and meanwhile the other papers all promise some very interesting perspectives and, well, not dialogue, is it, because that’s two voices and there will be many. What’s the Greek here, anyone?

Still, it is quite short notice. So you might also want to be notified, especially if you are already going to this year’s International Medieval Conference at Leeds, that so is the Rethinking the Medieval Frontier project, in strength, with four sessions running the whole length of Tuesday 2nd July. Details are up on our blog and we would very much like you to come along!

A disconcerting realisation about my past (and perhaps yours)

As I got set up, in early 2016, for teaching the high Roman Empire for the first time as described three posts ago, I obviously had to do a lot of reading, and in the course of that I came up ineluctably against the name and ideas of Edward N. Luttwak. Since Luttwak has been writing for a long lifetime and has probably not even finished, I’m not by any means going to attempt a summary of his impact on the field of Roman, Byzantine and indeed world history here; suffice to say it’s considerable. But both because of teaching the third-century crisis and because of my own interest in frontiers and how early medieval polities (and thus, often, late antique ones) managed them, the work that did keep coming up was his [Edit:]oldestfirst venture into history, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire.1

Cover of Edward Luttwak's Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire

Cover of Edward Luttwak’s The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, from the First Century A.D. to the Third (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976)

Now this is a work that has spawned a slew of refutations, and again that is a debate I don’t want to try and reprise here.2 But while I was reading other things around the issue, I came across something that made me suddenly feel decidedly uncomfortable, as follows:3

“Luttwak gave scientific precision to the theory of defensive imperialism, arguing that the ‘escalation dominance’ of the legions (that is, their perceived efficacy as a weapon of last resort) would serve to deter any large-scale attack without their actually having to be used. Meanwhile a ring of satellite states (client kingdoms) was expected to cope with ‘low-intensity threats’ beyond the borders of the Roman provinces; and the territory of the satellite states could be used as the battle-ground if the legions had to be deployed. Needless to say, this made extremely uncomfortable reading in Europe during the 1970s, and particularly in the 1980s under President Reagan, whose leading security adviser was none other than Edward N. Luttwak.”

In short, Luttwak is where the idea that Rome maintained a range of barbarian ‘buffer states’ about its borders as first-line protection came from, but it was an idea as much from his now as the Roman then. Now, you will not know this about me, could not know this about me unless you are the one sometime commentator here who goes this far back with me, but I was schooled at a place really quite close to the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters. The Navy base there used our playing fields. Every now and then a helicopter landed there to shuffle some dignitary outside the M25 more easily than a motorcade would. We were pretty clear, therefore, in the last days of the Cold War, before even Gorbachev had begun to defrost things, that when the four-minute warning went, we probably wouldn’t get four minutes (and no-one ever told us if there was a bunker). In short, we were in the firing line. We weren’t really into the full-on, “who cares, man? The bomb may drop tomorrow” disengagement; this was the era of Thatcher as well as Reagan, after all, and most of us would wind up yuppies not hippies (and as far as I know no yippies). But still, we had a certain bitter consciousness that the absolute best we could do for our futures could, still, be totally extinguished any minute by a decision that was utterly out of our hands, and we wouldn’t even know till it happened. And well, how that paragraph above takes me back.

Cover of Cullen Murphy's Are We Rome?

Cover of Cullen Murphy, Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2007). I love this as a teaching example.

Of course it’s not surprising that any state that gets big enough to push others around, and which sees its roots in the Graeco-Roman intellectual complex, begins to see the similarities between itself and its own archetype of super-state, the Roman Empire; it can’t be escaped, and one can only hope that people are conscious of the fact that there are important differences between then and now, or of the fact that they’re drawing those parallels.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and cabinet attired as Romans for a White House party in 1934

Franklin D. Roosevelt and cabinet attired as Romans for a White House party in 1934. Not sure how fully this was thought out…

Some of the lessons drawn from the comparison can be good, some can be bad, but they can all be instructive if handled well; that’s fine. It’s just that, perhaps especially since I grew up in a state that still sees itself in those terms really, I had not till I saw those words above ever realised that from some points of view, I and my fellow countrymen were just expendable barbarians whose strategic purpose was to keep the real new empire safe. And Edward N. Luttwak’s Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire helped make us so.

It’s probably safe to say that the current US régime, whose exalted leader has indeed just left my homeland, doesn’t think much on Luttwak’s work by now. Maybe I’m wrong, and as all the reviews one can find of it admit, it’s not as if it’s not good, well-historicised, amply-supported work. But it’s not often you read academic work that could have helped get you killed, and as you can tell even some years later I’m not quite sure how to process it yet…

1. Now available as Edward Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, from the first century A.D. to the third, 40th Anniversary edn. (Baltimore 2016). For the crisis of which I speak, a quick introduction to the debates is Lukas de Blois, “The Crisis of the Third Century A. D. in the Roman Empire: A Modern Myth?” in idem and John Rich (edd.), The Transformation of Economic Life under the Roman Empire (Leiden 2002), pp. 204–217.

2. I believe a good place to start is C. R. Whittaker, Frontiers of the Roman Empire: a social and economic study (Baltimore 1994), but Glenn Bowersock, “Rules of Battle” in London Review of Books Vol. 32 no. 3 (London 2010), pp. 17-18, online here, brings you more up to date in one direction at least.

3. Tim Cornell, “The End of Roman Imperial Expansion” in John Rich and Graham Shipley (edd.), War and Society in the Roman World (London 1993), pp. 139-170 at p. 143.

All That Glitters, Experiment 6 and final

So, as just described, almost my first academic action of 2016 – for that is how far in the past we are for this post – was to head back to Birmingham, freshly remobilised, to pursue what was supposed to be the last run of experiments in the All That Glitters project of which I have now told you so much. Since the last one of those posts was only a short while ago, I’ll not reprise the project plan beyond saying it was to try and find out what was in Byzantine gold coins besides gold using X-ray fluorescence spectrometry and we were finding it difficult to get beyond what was on Byzantine gold coins. Now, read on!

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4599

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4599, in XRF analysis sample cup

Since we now more or less had a working method established, if it could be called that (since it didn’t really work), we had decided that our original research goal, of spotting changes in the trace elements in the centrally-minted gold coinage of the Byzantine Empire, was beyond the technology, and we needed to work out what else we could do with the remaining machine time. At first we’d thought we wouldn’t have enough, now we had more than we knew what to do with… But the most obvious thing seemed to be to broaden our sample as much as possible. So, we selected more of the Barber Institute’s coins, taken from imperial reigns we hadn’t covered, extra denominations from ones we had and sets from other mints than Constantinople that we could compare to coins of the same emperors there, and we took them all over to University of Birmingham’s School of Chemistry over a period of four days, where we were as usual excellently looked after as far as they could manage, and we subjected them to analysis. In all of this we were hampered by the fact that results were basically hard to reproduce; in fact, this became so frustrating that when it became clear that we still had a dribble of machine time budget left at the end of these experiments, we set up one more to address that problem specifically, and that will be the last of these posts when I get so far. But for this one I can basically give you only a very simplified set of findings, some of which might address real questions if only we could trust our results, and then gently suggest that even what we did get might justify some careful conclusions, though they might not really have justified the labour. So: some late antique numismatic questions, as answered by the S8TIGER in January 2016!

Bruker S8 TIGER XRF analyser open for business

Our tool of analysis, the S8TIGER WD-XRF machine, ready for action

Our first question in this set of tests was about fractional denominations. Though the primary imperial gold coin was the famous solidus, the “dollar of the Middle Ages”, there were also small numbers of halves (semisses) and thirds (tremisses) struck, with slightly different designs.1 Were these actually struck from the same metal as the solidi? Our results, shaky as they were, suggested that the answer was broadly ‘yes’, at least at Constantinople and, as far as we could test, Carthage. The only place where we picked up any reasonably substantial difference was Syracuse, in Sicily, but we’ll come back to that…

Gold solidus of Emperor Maurice struck at Ravenna 582-602, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2390

Gold solidus of Emperor Maurice struck at Ravenna 582-602, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2390

Gold tremissis of Emperor Maurice struck at Ravenna 582-602, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2391

Gold tremissis of Emperor Maurice struck at Ravenna 582-602, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2391; note the different design

The other thing we were hoping to establish in this set of tests was variations between mints. I admit that I was cynical about this; as I think I’ve said before, it had sort of become clear that almost all the elements were shared, and that this made sense in a world where imperial coin was being sucked into Constantinople in tax from right across the Mediterranean each year, melted down and then returned to the world as new coins; the recycling should have mixed everything together over time.2 So the only place we had a hope of seeing such variation was in places where that centralisation was breaking down, and in fact, from very early on it had become clear that late coins of Syracuse were gold-poorer than their Constantinpolitan contemporaries, to the extent where the one of us who hadn’t loaded a coin, so didn’t know what it was, could still tell if it was a Syracusan one from its results.

Graph of gold content over time for Byzantine mints of Constantinople and Syracuse

A very rough Excel-generated graph of coins’ gold content over time for the mints of Constantinople and Syracuse, by your humble author

Some of that impurity was visible by eye, indeed, but we could pick it up from before that. Indeed, there are one or two problem cases where mint attribution is uncertain for such coins, and for one of those at least, we were pretty sure we could now partly answer the question.3

Powerpoint slide showing three tremisses of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V from different mints

This is a slide I’ve grabbed from a presentation I will come to tell you more about in Princeton, and it’s the one on the right that’s the undecided case; but its metal content is much more Italian than Constantinopolitan, and we might get further yet

Why Syracuse was allowed to run its coins differently is a separate question, since as far as we know it was still paying tax to the centre and its coins must have been detectably poorer there too, but maybe what we’re seeing here is actually proof that it didn’t pay tax; its small change, too, seems to have been treated in such a way as to restrict its circulation, and Rebecca Darley (I can take no credit for this thought) wondered therefore if Sicily was persistent suffering a currency drain to the East that these measures were meant to stop by deprecating the exchangeability of Sicilian money.4 It might have helped!

Scatter plot of silver content versus copper content of Italian-attributed Middle Byzantine coins

Scatter plot of silver content versus copper content of Italian-attributed Middle Byzantine coins, which is probably Maria Vrij’s work, though I don’t remember; it was certainly her idea to do it

But as it turned out, we could get one step further with such distinctions. One of the other enigmas about coinage in Byzantine Italy is that we’re not totally sure which issues belong at which mints. Syracuse’s particular characteristics become distinctive after a while, but there are a rook of issues which are tentatively attributed to Ravenna, Rome or just ‘Italy’ that no-one’s really sure about.5 We haven’t solved this problem, but we may have spotted something that will help with it. I say ‘we’, but just as I owed the previous point to Rebecca Darley, this one was thought of by Maria Vrij; I sometimes think my sole intellectual contribution to this project was mainly defeatism. Maria noticed that whereas the Syracuse coins were debased with both silver and copper, and thus maintained a ruddy gold colour even once quite poor-quality, the elemental profile we were getting from supposed Ravenna issues included nothing like as much copper. Instead, the Ravenna issues seem to have turned ‘pale’, being adulerated only with silver. In that respect, they were following the trend of the post-Roman West at large, but it also makes sense in its own terms: Ravenna issued silver coin, which Syracuse didn’t, so when they had to cut corners with the solidi it makes sense that it was the refined silver from the local coinage that went into the pot, while Syracuse was presumably using less processed metal with accompanying copper content.6 So that’s something that belongs to Maria to write up properly, but hopefully it won’t be as many years before that happens as it has already been since we found it out… I make no promises there, as we all have other priorities, but nonetheless, we did find stuff in these tests that people might want to be able to refer to, and I hope this write-up at least gives some basis to believe that!

1. If you want the basics on these coinages, you can do no better even now than consult Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), where pp. 50-56 will cover you for these purposes. The catchphrase, though, comes from Robert Sabatino Lopez, “The Dollar of the Middle Ages” in Journal of Economic History Vol. 11 (Cambridge 1951), pp. 209–234, online at

2. My picture of this process comes pretty much direct from M. F. Hendy, “Aspects of Coin Production and Fiscal Administration in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Period” in Numismatic Chronicle 7th Series Vol. 12 (London 1972), pp. 117–139, which is clearer than his later treatment in Michael Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, c.300-1450 (Cambridge 1985), pp. 257-303.

3. The standard reference for such matters, Philip Grierson, Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection, volume three: Leo III to Nicephorus III, 717—1081 (Washington DC 1973), Part I, where the coins in question are listed under Leo III 18a.1 (the Barber’s specimen online here), 48 (the Barber’s specimen online here) and, maybe, 12, 13 or 42 depending on what the Barber’s specimen (online here) actually is; the metallurgy makes type 42 seem likely though!

4. On the relevant Sicilian small change see for basics Grierson, Byzantine Coins, pp. 166-168, but for a different view of what was going on with its currency see Cécile Morrisson, “Nouvelles recherches sur l’histoire monétaire byzantine : évolution comparée de la monnaie d’or à Constantinople et dans les provinces d’Afrique et de Sicile” in Jahrbuch der österreichischen Byzantinistik Vol. 33 (Wien 1983), pp. 267-286, repr. in Morrisson, Monnaie et finances à Byzance : Analyses et techniques, Collected Studies 461 (Aldershot 1994), chapter X.

5. Grierson, Byzantine Coins, pp. 168-171.

6. Ravenna’s silver is discussed ibid., p. 140, but for the bigger picture see Mark Blackburn, “Money and Coinage” in Paul Fouracre (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History volume I c. 500‒c. 700 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 660–674.


I’ve just realised on starting to write the next post that in the last one, covering January to March 2016, I forgot one fairly major thing that helps explain why I was finding that period so difficult to manage, which is, I was getting over surgery. Obviously that wasn’t in my academic diary, so I didn’t find it while gathering notes for the post, but still, it’s true. In very late December 2015, while in Birmingham, I was hit suddenly with quite severe abdominal pain and once I was in a hospital, back in Leeds, was diagnosed with a inguinal hernia (which I advise you not to websearch), which I could then appreciate I’d had for some time but had never before struck me like this. Additionally, while we were down in Birmingham someone tried, and thankfully failed, to break into our house, so that on our return my partner had to choose between getting me to hospital or calling the police and an emergency glazier. Happy Christmas! I was back out, now containing extra plastic mesh and marked with a bonus scar, in time for the actual celebration of Nativity, which I thus unexpectedly got to spend at home, freshly secured, but of course I was a good while fully healing; it strikes me as I write that it must be a few months since I noticed the residual ache, in fact, but it’s been that long. So that might be considered a reasonable excuse for not being quite at top speed. Somehow, however—and this is why it struck me now as I’m putting together the next post—I was still back down in Birmingham to supervise more coin-zapping less than a fortnight later. Some of the damage of this life we do to ourselves, you know… But stay tuned and I will tell you about that without any further mention of my injury!

The other reason I wasn’t working at full speed that semester was of course the death of a cat, as I mentioned at the time, which along with various factors like the break-in (sadly not the only such factor) set us looking to leave that new home and find a safer one, for us and for cats, further from busy roads. So I was also house-hunting in this period. It’s perhaps not surprising that I don’t remember it as an especially good time, though I certainly got to see a lot more of West Yorkshire than I’d expected! Also, I should say because people don’t enough, the hospital and general NHS provision was absolutely superb; I couldn’t have wished for better care. I could, however, have wished for better timing in needing it…

Chronicle III: January to March 2016

I’m sorry there was no blog last weekend. Frustratingly, the thing I spent that time on now isn’t going to work out, so I’m determined to make sure there is a post this weekend, and the post that is due is the next round-up of my academic life, which has now reached 2016. It has been five months since I posted the last of these three-month slices, and the only real consolation there is that it took me less time to get through those three months of blog content than it did the previous one, but we will hopefully still see further gains made as marking ebbs and the summer shapes up. Can but hope, eh? But meanwhile, here’s how it looked at the beginning of 2016 for your humble blogger.


It’s not just tradition but also a reflection of the real state of life that the first item on the bill is always teaching. Actually, in the first half of 2016 I had a lower teaching load than I have had since or likely ever will at Leeds, given what they need me to cover; I was running one module, albeit a big one, and contributing bits to a couple of others. That said, the beginning of the semester was still a fairly steep learning curve, as the module I was running was an inherited first-year course called Empire and Aftermath: The Mediterranean World from the Second to the Eighth Centuries, and even my undergraduate study experience only previously went back to AD 284; I’d never done the second or third centuries before in any context, let alone one where I needed to show expertise. Thankfully I had the help of two postgraduates who’d taught the module before and that made everything easier, although I did also have to second-mark and observe those postgraduates so they were not solely a labour relief. It was all a fair bit of work, and it coincided with the early part of the excellent but intensive Palaeography: Reading Medieval Manuscripts that we put our MA students through, which has continuous assessment. Furthermore, Leeds has examinations on the first semester’s modules as soon as the students get back in January, so I was reading up for the new stuff and choosing manuscript images for palæography at the same time as marking these exam scripts, and by the time I was done with those the first palæography assignments were in, and they were only just back to the students by the time the first-years’ formative essays came in, alongside the second palæography assignments… and in general it seemed a long time before the marking stopped.

Wolfenbüttel MS Codex Guelfybertiani 13, fo. 6v

One that was set; can you read this? Come to Leeds and we’ll teach you! But if you want to know more independently, it is Wolfenbüttel MS Codex Guelfybertiani 13, folio 6 verso, and you can find out more via the link through the image

In between these I fitted a couple of workshops for an Institute for Medieval Studies module, Medieval Narratives on the Modern World, on European national origin myths and on the so-called Reconquista, but those were fun and much less work. And there were also personal tutorials to be fitted in, to which only half the students turn up but of course you must book the time anyway, and feedback meetings, and also joint care of a visiting Chinese Ph. D. student. I felt fairly busy. Still, looking back, I was not carrying very much and the next year would have been much harder if I hadn’t had this run-up.

Extra Labours

That must also be how I had time for the other things I was doing. In particular, having found out that there was this coin collection in the bottom of the Library, I had resolved to make it part of my teaching, and so one of the few changes I did make to Empire and Aftermath was to turn one of the seminars into a coin-handling session to try and get people excited about the reality of the period in their hands. I’m not sure how well that worked, though commendably both my postgrad assistants leapt at the chance to be able to say they’d taught with coins and did some crash-course Roman numismatics with me, which made me feel useful. More prosaically, in the state of the collection there wasn’t really a way to find out what there was to teach with except to inventory it, so I put aside my Friday afternoons for most of this period to inventory the medieval, Byzantine and late Roman coins and got through a fair few. Some day soon I will get round to sorting out the photographs I took of the cool ones…

Copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Constans II overstruck at Constantinople in 641-642 on a coin of Emperor Heraclius, DOC II Constans II 59c, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued

Here is one that perhaps only I could think is cool, a horribly-made copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Constans II overstruck at Constantinople in 641-642 on a coin of Emperor Heraclius, DOC II Constans II 59c, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued

There was also other stuff involving coins. Back at the Barber Institute the process of replacing me had unfortunately crossed with their normal exhibition schedule, so my humble effort, Inheriting Rome, was extended for a few months to give the new curator a chance. I got to see my thus-prolonged exhibition again because there were still two more sessions of the now-legendary All That Glitters project to do, about which I will tell you shortly, and of course back at Leeds this was also the time in which I started the wheels turning on the project that would become Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet. My head of department was actually concerned that I was going to spend all my time doing late antique numismatics and not the research on whose basis I’d been hired, which I didn’t see as a serious worry because, at this point, there was still time and I used it on stuff that was interesting and useful for others as well as for me.

Other people’s work

I was also at this point still managing to travel for seminars a bit, and I have a lot of notes from this period that I’m not really going to say much more about. The itinerary looked like this, though:

  • Katherine Cross, Dominic Dalglish and Robert Bracey, “Images, Relics and Altars: comparing material religion on the first millennium”, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 20th January 2016, to which I went mainly because Robert is an All That Glitters collaborator, but at this stage he was also busy with a project called Empires of Faith, which was doing the kind of cross-cultural comparison implied by their title here, with Katy Cross bringing early English Christian monuments like the Gosforth Cross to the table, Dominic Dalglish coming from the ancient Mediterranean world and Robert from Kushan India, but here talking as much about what made for valid comparison in this set-up as the actual objects. This was interesting but the results of the project can now be investigated on the web, so I’ll leave this one aside and move on to…
  • Hugh Kennedy, “ISIS and the Early Caliphate”, Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages Annual Public Lecture, University of Birmingham, 27th January 2016, to which I travelled down and which I thoroughly enjoyed, but which needs treatment together with…
  • Julia McClure, “A New Politics of the Middle Ages: a global Middle Ages for a global modernity”, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 3rd February 2016, also substantially about the way people were reading the Middle Ages into the situation in the Middle East at that time, but approaching it from a very different direction. So I’ll do a post about those two together.
  • I also made it down to London for Alex Rodríguez Suárez, “The Komnenian Emperors: a Latinophone dynasty”, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 11th February 2016, about the extent of the changes brought about in Byzantine court ceremonial under, especially, Manuel I Komnenos that would be attributed to Latin influence, which Dr Rodríguez wanted, I think rightly, to read as appropriation of ways to assert dominance over the new Latin lords in the Middle East, not an aping of their flashy chivalric habits as they have often carelessly been read. That seemed convincing to me but I don’t have much more to say about it, so on to a clutch of things back at Leeds, as follows:
  • Pat Cullum, “‘Looking the Part’: presentation and representation of clerical masculinity in late medieval England”, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 24th February 2016;
  • Esther Eidinow, “Seeing into the Future? Oracles and the Ancient Greeks”, Classics Seminar, University of Leeds, 25th February 2016, about ancient Greek stories in which oracles were tested before being consulted for real, pushing at the edges of our categories of rational and irrational, interesting and my first step in a plan to make friends with my counterparts in Classics and Ancient History;
  • Natalie Anderson, “Tournament Trappings: Textiles and Armour Working Together in the Late Medieval Joust”, Medieval Group Seminar, University of Leeds, 7th March 2016, the culminating presentation by one of our Ph.D. students then about to finish and very much a mature piece of work about the ways in which combatants in late medieval tournaments displayed and distinguished themselves, which was as much or more a matter of fabric as the armour that more often now remains to us.
  • Then, back to London again to see a big name, Philippe Buc, “Eschatology, War and Peace: of Christ’s Armies, Antichrist and the End of Times between ca. 1095 and ca. 1170″, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 10th March 2016, arguing for a change in the way that medieval people thought about the oncoming end of the world that occurred with Crusading, in which it becoming OK to kill for God was itself a sign of the end times, but one that could last for quite a long while, setting up the fight that would now go on until everyone was Christian and the End finally came. I remember this being fun and extremely erudite, but looking back over my notes I’m not sure what I have to add to that summary, so it’s back to Leeds for two more to close the season, the relevant items being:
  • Travelling the World: from Apuleius to the Icelandic Sagas, from the picaresque novel to travel literature, a more substantial seminar in Classics whose separate components were:
    • Regine May, “Travelling to the Land of Witches: Apuleius’s Golden Ass“, about Thessaly’s Classical reputation as a hotbed of magic and sorcery and how travel might thus lead you out of the known world in several dimensions, and
    • Ros Brown-Grant, “Encounters between the East and West in Fifteenth-Century Manuscript Cultures”, on pictures of Westerners meeting Easterners either in West of East as imagined by Western manuscript artists, usually for tales of betrayal where Greeks were concerned or conversion where Muslims were, sort of inevitably.
  • and finally, Ross Balzaretti, “Early Medieval Charters as Evidence for Land Management Practices”, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 16th March 2016, to which I would have gone even had it been further afield since Ross has been a supporter of mine for a long time and I am very interested in his work, but precisely because it’s quite similar to my own, I’m not going to do a detailed write-up here because it would look a lot like, “Ross’s charters say things like mine do!” It was good, but you can already read the same sort of thing here.

My Own Research?

So that brings us to the end of the timespan, and I have only promised three extra posts out of it this time, though actually there are also one news and two tourism posts that should also be fitted in there. But what is as ever missing is my own research. What was I working on in this period, looking back? Well, for one thing I was finishing revisions on the conference paper that nearly wasn’t, “A Problem of Concavity”; the final version of that was fired off into what became a suspicious silence in the middle of February 2016. After that I seem to have turned to the reading to support the revision of my venerable paper on early medieval crop yields, of which I’d done the bulk while still at Birmingham, and I had a new draft of that done in March, although, it would seem, not one I thought submissible; that was still a way off, and I now don’t recall why. But beyond that it’s hard to see what I was doing, and the conclusion has to be, I think, that despite the apparently light load I was struggling. I would build up academic muscle from here, and reluctantly trim back a lot of the activity above to make other things possible, but at this stage I was still enjoying being an established academic as I’d imagined it and seen it done by others, as well as reading a lot for teaching, and perhaps not getting that balance entirely right, in retrospect. I think, also, I still hadn’t actually worked out how to schedule research in a job that finally actually included that as a duty, but had structured time only for other activities. Actually accepting that it was a legitimate use of my employers’ time to read a book, after years governed by the next deadline, was still proving weirdly hard for me… Of course, I still was governed by the next deadline, functionally, but I was only letting others set them, wherein a mistake with future complications. Anyway, this story will be continued! But for now there’s enough queued up to write about, and this has already been a long post, so I’ll wrap it here and thank you for reading.