A cautionary tale

Obverse of a gold laurel of James I of England and VI of Scotland, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, BR0025

Obverse of a gold laurel of James I of England and VI of Scotland, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, BR0025; coins like these were the ‘Jacobuses’ referred to in the post below

This week, here is an excellent story to frighten young archaeologists and numismatists in their methodological cradles! I encountered this while reading up for an article that still hasn’t come out about changes in the coinages of the post-Roman world; I’m assured it’s now in final stages… But that doesn’t matter for these purposes. I will not, therefore, paraphrase what John Kent, no less, wrote better:1

One of the few comprehensive accounts of the collection, concealment and recovery of a hoard is related in Pepys’ Diary. At the Restoration of 1660, Samuel Pepys declared himself to be earning £50 a year, and to have £40 cash in hand. By the end of 1666, his average annual income exceeded £3,000, and he ‘was worth in money, all good’, above £6,200, beside two-and-a-half dozen silver vessels. Like many of his thrifty contemporaries, he kept his surplus cash under lock and key in his own house; the unfortunate Mr. Tryan, of Lime Street, who kept the key of his cash-chest in his desk, was robbed of £1,050 in money and £4,000 in jewels held as securities for loans. In June 1667, deeply worried by the penetration of the Dutch fleet into the Thames estuary, Pepys resolved to conceal his money. He was at first undecided whether to conceal it elsewhere in London to to despatch it to the family estate in Brampton, Northamptonshire. The latter counsel prevailed and his father and wife took coach, with a bag containing some £1,300. Finding himself unable to convert his silver in hand for gold – he had been forestalled by others – Pepys sent on another 1,000 gold pieces by special messenger, and carried on his own person another £300 worth, together with ‘directions where to find £500 and more in gold and silver’.
“Recovery of the treasure in October of the same year proved a gruelling experience. His wife gave him ‘so bad an account of her and my father’s method in the burying of our gold, that made me mad; and she herself is not pleased with it, she believing that my sister knows of it. My father and she did it on Sunday, when they were gone to church, in open daylight, and in the midst of the garden, where for aught they knew, many eyes might see them; which put me into trouble, and I presently cast about, how to have it back again to secure it here, the times being a little better now’. Recovery began at night, with a dark lantern, but ‘they could not justly tell where it was’, and Pepys began to fear the worst; but ‘by poking with a spit’, it was at length located, ‘not half a foot under ground’. Frantic digging merely succeeded in scattering the coins in the grass and loose earth. Finally, coins, dirt and all, were raised and washed. To Pepys’ chagrin, he found himself about one hundred pieces short, and fearing that the neighbours might have observed him, and come searching on their own account, he and his servant sieved through the earth until they had recovered a further seventy-nine. Pepys considered it quite acceptable that his special messenger should have lost some twenty to thirty pieces en route, and regarded himself as well content with the matter when all was finally safe back in London, ‘under a bed in our chamber’.
“This true story prompts several reflections. Pepys’ wealth, though certainly a ‘savings hoard’, was assembled over a very short period. It certainly included some old coins – he gave three ‘Jacobuses’ (gold pieces of James I) to his father-in-law and its random origin and rapid assemblage suggests that it would have been indistinguishable from a ‘currency hoard’ assembled ad hoc in 1667. Indeed, since his surplus increased in 1666 by only £1,800, as against £3,000 in 1665, we might suspect that the dates 1666 and 1667 were relatively slightly represented, i.e. that the hoard ended ‘weakly’. The really extensive coinages of guineas lay, in any case, in the future, and we may postulate that Pepys’ fortune consisted predominantly of the old ‘broad pieces’. Great quantities of these were certainly still available; a poulterer of Gracechurch Street died in November 1662 leaving an unsuspected hoard of 40,000 ‘Jacobs’. We may conclude that the recovery of a hoard was not necessarily an easy matter, and that there was a significant risk that it would not be recovered intact. The discovery in modern times of a scatter of twenty or thirty broad pieces at Brampton, or between Brampton and London, would give a totally false impression alike of date, of the circumstances of concealment and of the size of the original treasure.”

I think Kent actually relied on the intelligence of his audience a bit too much here in pushing the full implications of this story. It might be worth just setting out what a likely, nay, reasonable, interpretation of a find of say, twenty-five gold pieces of James I and Charles I in a Northamptonshire garden would be: firstly, that it was a small hoard by someone of moderate means (since it was not larger); secondly, that the owner lived thereabouts, since otherwise why would it be there and how would they recover it? and thirdly, that it was probably deposited because of trouble in the English Civil War, since nothing later than that appeared in it and one would hardly expect the Anglo-Dutch Wars to be troubling people in Northamptonshire, landlocked on the far side of the country from the North Sea. And all of these reasonable deductions would be wrong. On this occasion, there is no actual hoard to interpret and we know what happened. But what of even quite recent cases where it’s the other way about, eh, what about them?

1. John P. C. Kent, “Interpreting Coin-Finds” in John Casey & Richard Reece (edd.), Coins and the Archaeologist, 2nd edn. (London 1988), pp. 201-217 at pp. 205-206. Links in the text go to the online version of Pepys’s Diary.

Fishers of men

This is a post that began in a drunk conversation with one of my oldest academic friends (whom I will not shame by naming, but whom you could potentially help out quite a lot by adding your name to this petition). That conversation was also four years ago, and I’m choosing to claim that that, not the beer, is why I can’t quite remember how we got onto this—my guess would be that this was during a few days I spent staying with them while using a local acadmeic library to finish the paper which became my article ‘Nuns’ Signatures’, and that I was just pulling interesting-looking books off my friend’s shelves—but somehow we came upon a picture of this sculpture.

The Papil Stone in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

The Papil Stone in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, image from Canmore

What this is one face of the Pictish symbol stone from Papil, Shetland.1 It’s not in Shetland any more, where only a replica remains, because it has been carted off to the National Museum of Scotland, but I suppose that does mean more of my readership have a vague chance of seeing it some day. Anyway, the other face has a cross and interlace on it, but it’s this one that drew my altered attention, partly of course because of the odd cowled figures and the lion but mainly because of these guys.

The birdman figures on the replica of the Papil Stone, Shetland

The birdmen on the lowest register of the modern replica of the Papil Stone, on site in Shetland, photo by J. Dimitrescu, copyright not stated so hopefully this is OK linked through to their excellent site

Now, it will not surprise you to know that scholarship is a little divided on just what might be depicted here. Early (modern) plague doctors seem to be ruled out by the bird feet, the axes and maybe also the human head of which they appear to be sharing custody. Especially since these guys are in the lower register of a three-panel picture, with the upper one being plausibly things of Heaven (a cross, cowled figures with crooks), the middle one being, well, a lion, not sure what to do with that but definitely a thing of Earth (or of Zion, I admit), the easiest answer might seem to be demons of some kind, playing with a member of the doomed dead. But if so, it’s quite a local kind of demon, you’d have to admit; this is not your standard beast with forked-tail and horns iconography.2

Well, I got no further with this thought that night, but a few days later something suddenly struck me. You see, there is a game some scholars of early medieval, and especially, Germanic art, like to play, in which though something looks as weird as hell (perhaps literally) you attempt to persuade people that it’s actually a really cunning Christian reference.3 (I suppose a demon would, kinda sorta, be a Christian reference, but I mean more directly Biblical than that.)

As it turns out, I am not the first person to play this game with this stone. There is other stonework from this site which seems to show monks, and this has led various people to theorise (not unreasonably) that there was a monastic settlement here and (less reasonably maybe) that this is therefore a scene from the Life of St Anthony, arguably the proto-monk and certainly regarded as such by many a medieval community. In this episode from the Life the saint-in-training was, and I quote a recent article about this stone, “tempted by women disguised as birds who whispered into his ear.”4 I’m not going to wonder right now what the heck was going on in Anthony’s personal desert (or relate this to the fact that birds are also supposed to have brought him food), I’m just going to note that this does turn up on Irish sculpture quite a lot, apparently, and that it’s not an unreasonable thing to suppose. Except for the bird feet.

West face of the Castledermot South Cross

West face of the Castledermot South Cross, at Castle Dermot, County Kildare, Ireland, showing the Temptation of St Anthony one panel up from the base; photograph by Liam Murphy, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

For reasons of those feet, therefore, and also quite a number of other reasons (such as that Anthony is pretty much always shown as a whole human being, and not an isolated head between two figures carrying axes), the author of that article, Kelly Kilpatrick, rejects the Antonian hypothesis. Instead, she argues that the stone shows, “a common ideal of mythological war-like creatures in Pictish tradition, paralleled by written descriptions of Irish battlefield demons”, and believe it or not she finds at least four more of these characters, or at least beak-headed humanoids carrying weapons, on stones scattered across the old Pictish territories.5 So case closed? Not when you hear my excellent theory!

So, point one, Dr Kilpatrick is clearly a smart and observant person who has seen a lot of stones, but I cannot agree with her when she says of these figures, “Apart from the beaks, they have human hair, and human-like facial features, including incised eyebrows.”6 But let’s have a close look at one of those heads…

Head of a grey heron

Head of a grey heron sighted at Waterfield Meadow in 2014, image by C. Butterfield from NatureSpot

Papil Stone birdman head

Head of one of the Papil Stone birdmen

So not eyebrows but eyestripes, not hair but crest! Case closed, I think you’ll agree – whatever these creatures are, they have heron heads. Now, for those of you whose native lands may not be blessed with the noble heron (though that’s not many), they are fishing birds, which spend most of their lives looking hunched and uncomfortable ankle-deep in lakes, but every now and then unfold in a lightning quick spearing action which brings up a fish almost every time. And it was when I realised that the sculptor here was thinking herons that inspiration suddenly struck, in the form of this verse of Scripture (a thing which really very rarely happens to me):

And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. (Matthew 4:19)

Need I even say more? Fishers of men is what you have here, caught right in the act by our carver. Not demons but apostles! With bird feet. A completed argument if ever there was one, amiright?7 I expect that recognition from both the academic and ornithological worlds will swiftly follow…

1. I don’t have any of the standard catalogues to reference here (though see n. 4 below) but the stone is briefly described, analysed and illustrated in George Henderson and Isabel Henderson, The Art of the Picts: sculpture and metalwork in early medieval Scotland (London 2004), pp. 156-157 & fig. 228.

2. I don’t actually know how old the horns, pitchfork and forked-tail iconography of devils and demons is, but I suspect it’s later than medieval as I can’t think of any medieval examples. No time to check now though, sorry!

3. The winner at this particular game, not just in quantity of suggestions but their ingenuity, is definitely Anna Gannon, The Iconography of Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage, Sixth to Eighth centuries (Oxford 2003).

4. Kelly A. Kilpatrick, “The iconography of the Papil Stone: sculptural and literary comparisons with a Pictish motif” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Vol. 141 (Edinburgh 2011), pp. 159–205, online here (p. 167).

5. Ibid., pp. 167-180.

6. Ibid., pp. 163-164.

7. I should say, having seen one or two of the other demon figures, my real suspicion here is that Dr Kilpatrick has it right and what we have here are locally-inspired demons. But I stand by the idea that those demons have heron heads! And from there we could spin really all kinds of theories about landscape and cosmology… And I would not be the first person to pitch such theories, either, there being Martin Carver, “Early Scottish Monasteries and Prehistory: A Preliminary Dialogue” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 88 (Edinburgh 2009), pp. 332–351, but for that very reason I might for now leave it to him…

Periodical Coincidences

Here’s something a bit more light-hearted this week, or if you prefer, trivial. This builds on a very old realisation of mine of something basically meaningless, when during building up a list of things I hoped to read for my MA dissertation I clocked that the journals Viator and Britannia started in the same year, with their first issue in 1970.1 Both Latin titles, too, but different sides of the Atlantic and basically different, though overlapping, period focuses, so it’s hard to do anything with that fact other than notice it. And there that idea rested until some way into my doctoral research, which I approached fresh from employment which had given me the dangerous idea that you could solve almost any information management problem with an Access database, as long as you didn’t mind solving it badly. And we have already seen since long ago that my instincts in these directions are rarely sanely guided

So, what I wanted was a database into which I could transcribe my old paper lists of things I hope to read (present tense because by and large I still do hope to…) along with the somewhat crazy system I had devised of clocking their apparent importance and the number of times I’d seen them cited (which is also a measure of importance, however bad), basically an accumulating set of marginal sigla.2 Well, that could be turned into a numerical score and apart from the fact that this system inevitably privileged stuff that was ancient, it was a functional way of building reading lists as far as it went. That wasn’t very far, though, really, because my old paper lists, in an effort to keep things one line long only, had only ever recorded the volume-level location of articles and chapters, not their actual titles, which might have been invaluable as keyword. Without them, however, I just new that, for example, there were lots of things I apparently needed to read in the 1986 volume of Annales but without raw memory or going and looking at it, I’d no idea what they were.3 Not my best piece of diversionary work, all told, but there we go; you don’t go building bibliographical databases by yourself in every developer’s least favourite database software if you’re a completely sensible person, do you?

Screenshot of Jonathan Jarrett's custom bibliographical database

Screenshot of the madness

Anyway, all this does have a point, honest. Because I didn’t have article and chapter titles in the database, when I came across what might be a new journal article, the easiest way for me to find if I had it recorded was not to search for the author’s name or the journal’s title, but to search for the combination of volume and year, which in theory should be close-to-unique. So, for that issue of Annales I’d have searched for ’41 (1986)’. But doing so reveals that also in their 41st volume that year were, probably among others, the Deutsches Archiv of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica and the Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie.4 Now, obviously, this isn’t really surprising: there’s hundreds and thousands of academic journals, even just in the arts and humanities, and only a couple of hundred years of journal-issuing academia in which for them all to have existed. Most of them will be crowding the newer end of that timeframe, too.5 Coincidences are obviously inevitable. But there are an awful lot, once you start noticing them.

Now, I am a pattern-spotting animal and, like man as a species, perhaps so evolved for it that I spot patterns that aren’t really there too easily. This leads one to start asking those always-dangerous questions that begin, “Can it be a coincidence that… ?” For example, Cambridge’s Anglo-Saxon England (not then meant to be controversial…) and the Deutsche historische Institut in Paris’s Francia (perhaps never to be controversial) both seeing first light in 1972 could be coincidence, but could also be certain constituencies of academia all feeling that their interests, perhaps looking a bit fringe in the wake of Vietnam, the hippy movement and its disintegration (remember all those campus occupations…), needed a new forum for their mutual recognition. Was there a cross-channel medievalist moment happening there?6 Or am I spinning hay?

Anyway, whether or not this is crazy pattern spotting, I notice two really boom years, in which I don’t see what any plausible connection could be across so wide a range of journals but something feels like it was going on. The weaker of these is 1975, in which year it seems clear that several academic networks had decided that existing fora for their kind of work were inadequate, as a result of which in one year you get Birmingham’s Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, the Jahrbuch für westdeutsche Landesgeschichte and things like Islamochristiana, Critical Inquiry, Journal of Historical Geography and Journal of Medieval History, as well as the Royal Numismatic Society’s briefly separate list of Coin Hoards. One can work towards reasons for some of these: there’s a Marxist thread linking some of those journals, and if I dug enough into their histories and first editorial boards I might find people who had bounced ideas off each other, but while you might adduce something about the general state of growth of, especially, UK academia in the 1970s, it’s hard to explain why 1975 rather than 1974 or 1976, and of course if I were interested in different journals or different fields perhaps those years would show up instead…

Still. We already drew attention to the student riots and general academic upheaval of 1968, and I can’t help wondering if something really did rattle a lot of cages at that point because the real bumper year shown up by this utterly unscientific and useless sampling method is 1970, when as well as Britannia and Viator already mentioned, the academic world was given, in no particular order:

I can’t help but feel that something was going on, and of course, something had been. Almost certainly it is only coincidence, of course. But let me ask you: can all these coincidences really just be coincidence… ?

1. The former for Herwig Wolfram, “The Shaping of the Early Medieval Kingdom” in Viator Vol. 1 (Berkeley CA 1970) pp. 11-20; the latter, apparently, for A. L. F. Rivet and Kenneth Jackson, “The British Section of the Antonine Itinerary” in Britannia Vol. 1 (London 1970) pp. 34-82 and Anne Robertson, “Roman Finds from Non-Roman Sites in Scotland: More Roman ‘Drift’ in Caledonia”, ibid. pp. 198-226.

2. Ironically, partly because I now actually do use better software, I can now easily produce citations on how useless citation counting is, such as Michelle L. Dion, Jane Lawrence Sumner and Sara McLaughlin Mitchell, “Gendered Citation Patterns across Political Science and Social Science Methodology Fields” in Political Analysis Vol. 26 (Cambridge 2018), pp. 312–327, DOI: 10.1017/pan.2018.12; Eric A. Fong and Allen W. Wilhite, “Authorship and citation manipulation in academic research”, ed. Lutz Bornmann in Public Library of Science One Vol. 12 (San Francisco CA 2017), e0187394, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0187394; or Jack Grove, “Quarter of citations in top journals ‘wrong or misleading'” in Times Higher Education, 16th October 2020, online here.

3. Actually, they were Dominique Iogna-Prat, “Le « baptême » du schéma des trois ordres fonctionnels : L’apport de l’école d’Auxerre dans la seconde moitié du IXe siècle” in Annales : Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 41 (Paris 1986), pp. 101-126; Michel Rouche, “La crise de l’Europe au cours de la deuxièèe moitié du VIIe siècle et la naissance des régionalismes”, ibid. pp. 347-360; Stéphane Lebecq, “Dans l’Europe du Nord des VIIe-IXe siècles : commerce frison ou commerce franco-frison?”, ibid. pp. 361-377; Bailey K. Young, “Exemple aristocratique et mode funéraire dans la Gaule mérovingienne”, ibid. pp. 379-407; Patrick Geary, “Vivre en conflit dans une France sans État : typologie des mécanismes de règlement des conflits (1050-1200)”, trans. Jacqueline Falquvert, ibid. pp. 1107-1133 and Robert Bartlett, “Technique militaire et pouvoir politique, 900-1300”, trans. Falquevert, ibid. pp. 1135-1159. Crikey, when Annales still meant something…

4. For, respectively: Hartmut Hoffmann, “Kirche und Sklaverei im frühen Mittelalter” in Deutsches Archiv für Erforschung des Mittelalters Vol. 42 (oops)(Hannover 1986), pp. 1-24, and Kenneth H. Jackson, “The date of the Tripartite Life of St. Patrick” in Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie Vol. 41 (Amsterdam 1986), pp. 5-45.

5. If the whole format of the academic journal is a bit strange to you at this point, here’s a confirmation that you’re not daft, it is strange, at least now: Jo Guldi, “Reinventing the Academic Journal” in Daniel J. Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt (edd.), Hacking the academy: new approaches to scholarship and teaching from digital humanities (Ann Arbor MI 2013), pp. 19–24, online here. However, it is arguable that it did make sense once: see for a lightweight intro Bonnie Swoger, “The (mostly true) origins of the scientific journal” in Scientific American 27th July 2012, online here.

6. I’m conscious that I tend to tell the history of culture in the 1960s and 1970s largely on the basis of my music collection, but I could also cite Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture (London 1968) as an intimately involved primary source.

Thoughts on two exhibitions

By one of those occasional happy chances which look like coincidence but are actually probably consistent foci of interest, I’ve had this post intended for ages to follow the previous one, even before I fully realised the previous one was about a cemetery excavation and so would involve me using or not using photos of skeletons. And one commentator has even obligingly passed comment on the fact that I mentioned making that choice. Well, this post is about that very issue. This arises out of my having been to an exhibition which also raised that very issue, but that trip followed very hard on another exhibition opening which we’ve already mentioned, so I’m going just to mention it again first of all and then get onto the big issue for the day. That will involve one, slightly blurry, photo of skeletons, which I have put below a cut, so please don’t press for ‘more’ if such things distress you (already).

The Winchester Coin Cabinet in the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

The Winchester Coin Cabinet, in the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

So, we are at this point in very early October 2017 in terms of my backlog, and it was then that the project I had raised money for called Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet came to fruition and we opened both its physical exhibition and the virtual one that goes with it.1 I’ve talked about both of these before, and how they are very much mostly not my work but that of Leeds student, then undergraduate, now doctoral, Emma Herbert-Davies, so I won’t repeat that story here. However, for value added, I can at least explain how it came to be that the physical exhibition is deep in the Brotherton Library in the entry corridor outside Special Collections, where only people with library access can see it. You see, back in the 1990s when the rather extensive University of Leeds coin collection was in its first phase of care and curation under Christopher Challis, there was a wall display case outside the Library barriers, and it had been used for regular, but quite small, coin displays. Now, the case is still in position, and we had initially hoped to use it for this, but it turned out that it isn’t alarmed, and while that may have been OK in the 1990s it wasn’t going to pass security and insurance muster now. So we replanned for the current location, which has given us about twice as much display space, admittedly, but not where the actual public can see it. On the other hand, it’s also meant that no-one has yet seen a need to change it, so if you can get into the Brotherton Library, you can go see our exhibition still!

The Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet exhibition, curated by Emma Herbert-Davies and Jonathan Jarrett, in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

The exhibition in place: photo by Emma Herbert-Davies and used by permission

But the exhibition which is this post’s real topic I went to see a few days after our one opened, and was nothing to do with the University. It was in Leeds City Museum, and it was called Skeletons: Our Buried Bones.2 It was a single gallery, and the centrepiece displays were twelve skeletons, which had been gathered from collections in London, Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford, in the latter two cases university collections but not, perhaps thankfully, in Leeds’s case. (The London ones came from the Wellcome Collection.) The point of the exhibition was mainly to showcase the different things and personal histories which archaeologists and forensic scientists could learn about the people whose bodies these had been, using just their bones. On that score, I will freely admit, it was extremely well-done, pitched at a low enough level to be comprehensible and a high enough one to sound scientific, and with some fascinating stories to reconstruct, such as…

  • … the Iron Age man and woman with a life of labour and disease behind them who were buried together in a small mound near Wetherby!
  • … the Black Death victim from one of the mass burials in Spitalfields, London, who turned out to have an arrowhead embedded in his spine in what must have been a seriously painful old war wound!
  • … the fifteenth-century woman buried at All Saints York who may have been an anchoress there but also turned out to be suffering from not just severe osteoporosis but syphilis! [Edit: some excellent discussion about this in comments; we begin to think that the anchoress is not guilty here, in so far as guilt is even appropriate to apportion…]
  • … the casualty from the Battle of Towton whose assailant didn’t know or care when to stop: the body had been, “struck by a poleaxe, leaving square injuries in his skull, stabbed in the right shoulder, and decapitated.”3

And of course all these stars of the show were actually physically there, laid out clinically in glass cases with careful explanations of how their histories had been deduced, suitable pointers to things like the arrowhead, and handy display panels around the walls about the sites where these people had been found and the wider archaeological context of which they came to form part. It was really very well-curated. And the one photo below the cut is as close as I’m going to showing you any of it. Continue reading

An argument for Merovingian control in Álava

So, I promised there would be more academic content soon, and I think this is some of it, though there might be room for debate. You see, we’re still back about four years in my academic life here, in October 2017, at which point something happened which I had never before experienced, which was… research leave. It was only one semester, and I had to finish four articles in it, but still, it was a bit of a shock to the system, as I had to learn how to manage unstructured time again.1 Probably the below has nothing to do with anything I was supposed to be doing, but I’m going to explain my happening on it as part of that learning process and just tell you about it.

Agustín Azkarate-Olgaun

Professor Agustín Azkarate-Olgaun of the Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea

So, in a fairly obscure volume of proceedings from a conference in Galbiate, Northern Italy, in 1991, there is a paper by Basque archaeologist Agustín Azkarate Garai-Olaun called “The Western Pyrenees during the Late Antiquity: Reflections for a reconsideration of the issue”.2 I’m not sure why he decided to publish this in English, but I’m glad he did or when noting the contents of the volume I might not have bothered to skim it. Having done so, though, this is what I found, summarised as bullets:

  1. We know very little with any security about the history of the ‘Wascons’ (as he unfortunately chose to translate Vascones) in late Antiquity, because writers about them tend just to repeat stereotypes about obstreporous barbarians who wouldn’t toe political lines (pp. 179-180).
  2. Since the fifth century saw them attacked by Romans, Sueves then Visigoths, all coming through the Western Pyrenees, the Basques must have been involved in things (pp. 180-183).
  3. Nonetheless, the first real textual whisper we get of their existence after the collapse of Roman government is a Visigothic royal campaign against them in 581, followed by many more, after a few of which we also start to have records of Basque raiding and even settlement in south-western Gaul, in the patch, indeed, which is now Gascony (pp. 183-184).
  4. However, archaeologically, these violent settlers are basically undetectable; they did not apparently use a distinctive material culture which can be recognised in finds or organise settlement in any distinctive way (pp. 184-185), BUT!
  5. A cemetery at Aldaieta, close to Vitoria, has instead shown, as well as quite a variety of burial rites, weaponry and dress fittings of decidedly Frankish types, rather than the Visigothic ones which the Visigothic sources’ claims of dominion might lead one to expect (pp. 184-186). So, what’s up with that?
  6. Well, others have noted place-names south of the Pyrenees based on the word ‘Frank’, and the pseudonymous Frankish chronicler Fredegar reports sixth-century Frankish campaigns into the Iberian Peninsula as far south as Saragossa, and even Frankish rule of the northern province of Cantabria under a duke actually (and suspiciously) called Franco; but in general no-one much from either side of the Pyrenees in the modern era has thought this at all likely and have pointed to the lack of material evidence which might support it (pp. 186-188).3
  7. So, obviously, Aldaieta looks a lot like that material evidence, as does further burial evidence from a cemetery in Pamplona, where the excavator classed the goods as Merovingian (i e. Frankish) and everyone who’s written about it since has called them Visigothic, and another then-unpublished site called Buzaga adds to this sample (pp. 188-190).
  8. So, maybe this is how come the Basques could keep chasing off the much-more-powerful Visigoths: they had Frankish back-up (pp. 190-191)! He promises more support for this soon (p. 191), and I have not come across it but the man has published a lot, I haven’t read it all, perhaps it’s out there. But this is enough to think with.

It’s an unusual argument: I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else contend that the Merovingian Franks had any control in the Iberian Peninsula, though he has cites for others. But there are things one can line up with the idea. Gregory of Tours records a number of sixth-century Frankish campaigns bound for the Peninsula. They didn’t all get there, but it was still evidently Frankish campaigning space.4 It would also make a certain amount more sense of the Carolingians’ repeated attempts to intervene over the Pyrenees, which have never really fitted with their expressed idea of renovatio regnum francorum, ‘renewal of the kingdom of the Franks’, if some of that territory had in fact previously been claimed by Frankish kings, and an ongoing idea of that kind might even explain the otherwise rather odd apparent obeisance on the part of King Alfonso II of Asturias to Charlemagne recorded by the Royal Frankish Annals in 798, odd because as we normally understand things their territories didn’t meet so you’d think Alfonso could cheerfully ignore Big Chas across the mountains.5

An early medieval belt-buckle found in the Basque cemetery of Buzaga, now in the Museo Romano Oiasso

All the images I can find of the Aldaieta excavation are full of skeletons, perhaps naturally enough given it was a cemetery dig but still perhaps not what you need with your possibly-breakfast reading. Instead, here is an early medieval belt-buckle found in the Basque cemetery of Buzaga, now in the Museo Romano Oiasso.

On the other hand… Gregory’s reports, unlike Fredegar’s, don’t imply any Frankish success in establishing a presence south of the Pyrenees; indeed, as Azkarate notes, what Gregory implicitly records is Basque settlers pushing north, not Franks south. It might be that the Merovingians set out to reverse that, but no-one says so. The Carolingians intervened in plenty of places that didn’thave old Frankish claims and always found a justification, and by the time they did it the government on the other side was even foreign and hostile of religion, though the Basques were not and still got hurt badly by the Carolingian efforts.6 Furthermore, the argument that the Basques would have needed Frankish support to throw off Visigothic overrule looks weaker when one remembers that they threw off Carolingian overrule long after the Visigoths were gone (though by then, we could probably use other evidence, including burials at Pamplona again, to suggest that they may have had Muslim back-up…7 The Asturian appeals to the Franks have by now been plausibly put in the context of long-term contests for the Asturian kingship, which may have been split down party lines over exactly the issue of ties to the Franks and, perhaps, consequent choices of Christian sect according to ‘Mozarabic’ Adoptionism led from Toledo and ‘Frankish’ or ‘Roman’ Orthodoxy led from Aachen, and that may be enough to explain both Alfonso II’s sending a tent to Charlemagne and some Frankish-looking architecture in Oviedo.8

An early medieval belt buckle and weapon fittings from burials at Aldaieta, Basque Country

Actually, I tell a lie, here is some of the Aldaieta kit, apparently on display at the Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseum Mainz, or at least on their website (linked through)

But all that is textual argumentation, you may say, and Azkarate was presenting archaeological evidence, as he points out, indeed, “archaeological data which is often more truthful given its involuntary nature” (p. 180), so hasn’t he still got a point? Well, obviously, material culture is portable, and anyone can use it unless there is some restriction, economic or social, on doing so. I’m conscious that in England there are good cases of proven-locals buried with ‘Germanic’ weapons, that on the eastern Frankish border there have been found Saxons with Thuringian kit and that in the territories of the Avars, to judge by their chosen dress fittings, as someone put it at a seminar I was at once, ‘men are from Bavaria and women are from Byzantium’.9 This stuff is chosen, that’s the point; pots don’t mean people and Frankish weapons do not have to mean Frankish occupation, rather than Frankish arms sales, or raided Frankish armouries, since even arms sales would tell us about contact and a power balance; I’m not sure, given their concern about exporting weapons to the Vikings, that the Franks would have been kitting out Basques when they had to fight them nearly as often.10 But that is to look back from the Carolingian period and its concerns onto the Merovingian one, whose kings surely had their own ideas (and no Vikings).

So at the end I’m not sure. I’ve never seen anyone else pick this up; but given where this came out, in a conference volume almost all of which is Italian-focused, would anyone else who needed it have found it? I didn’t come across this by deliberate search, I know that much.11 Obviously a lot hangs on the ‘ethnic’ identification of these weapons and grave-goods, and they were all a small number of the burials in their cemeteries, which again opens up questions about who carried (or at least was buried with) weapons in these societies. I’m no kind of archaeologist, barely know my Salin from my Saxon, so I shouldn’t be allowed to pronounce, really. But I wonder if there is anyone reading who has a better idea, or fewer scruples…

1. To be completed: Jonathan Jarrett, “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (2018 for 2017), pp. 514–535; idem, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: Cereal Yields in Early Medieval Europe and the 2:1 Misapprehension” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67.2 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28; idem, “Keeping it in the Family? Consanguineous Marriage and the Counts of Barcelona, Reviewed” (forthcoming) and idem, “Miles or militia: war-service and castle-guard in tenth-century Catalonia” in English Historical Review (forthcoming). Actually completed: Jarrett, “Middle Byzantine Numismatics”; idem, “Coinage in the Western World at the End of the Roman Empire and After: Tradition, Imitation and Innovation” in Journal of Ancient Civilizations Vol. 34 (forthcoming); “Nuns, Signatures and Literacy in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, for Michelle Armstrong-Partida, Dana Wessell Lightfoot and Alexandra Guerson (edd.), Women and Community in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia (Lincoln NB 2020), but rejected from that volume and only later accepted to be published in Traditio Vol. 74 (Cambridge 2019), 125-152; and Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages”. Some difficult meetings followed those relevations… But we’ll tell that story, or not, as we get there.

2. Agostin Azkarate Garai-Olaun, “The Western Pyrenees during the Late Antiquity: Reflections for a reconsideration of the issue” in Gian Pietro Brogiolo and Lanfredo Castelletti (edd.), Il territorio tra tardoantico e altomedioevo: metodi di indagine e risultati (Firenze 1992), pp. 179–191.

3. The Fredegar reference is equivalent to J. M. Wallace-Hadrill (ed.), The Fourth Book of the Chronicle of Fredegar with its Continuations, translated from the Latin with introduction and notes (London 1960), XXXIII (p. 21), though I don’t have access to that and get the reference from Roger Collins, The Basques, 2nd edn (Oxford 1990), pp. 91-92, who gives the translation as: “He [King Sisebut of the Visigoths] won Cantabria, previously held by the Franks, for the Gothic kingdom; a duke named Francio had conquered Cantabria in the time of the Franks, and it had long paid tribute to the Frankish kings.” For me this raises the question, when the heck was ‘the time of the Franks’ from Fredegar’s perspective? But for most other people it has raised the question of whether Cantabria must mean Cantabria as we know it or whether it could include modern-day Álava (Collins, Basques, pp. 91-92). For Azkarate’s purposes, however, it doesn’t matter, since he’s focused on Álava.

4. Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (London 1974), III.9 (pp. 170-171), III.29 (pp. 186-187), VI.41 (p. 375), VIII.28 (pp. 456-457) and VIII.30 (pp. 459-460), of which only the first, second and fifth were actually more than plans.

5. On the Carolingian ideological pitch, as evinced by the man who actually secured their transpyrenean territories, Louis the Pious as King of Aquitaine, see Josef Semmler, “Renovatio Regni Francorum: die Herrschaft Ludwigs des Frommen im Frankenreich 814-829/830″ in Peter Godman and Roger Collins (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (Oxford 1990), pp. 125–145. On Charlemagne and Asturias, try Roger Collins, “Spain: the Northern Kingdoms and the Basques, 711-910” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History Volume II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 272–289, DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521362924.014, pp. 279-280. He only gives it a paragraph but that is really about all the evidence by itself is worth.

6. Quite a debate has developed in recent years about the Carolingian motivations for intervening in the Iberian peninsula. Compare Jonathan P. Conant, “Louis the Pious and the Contours of Empire” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 22 (Oxford 2014), pp. 336–360, Daniel G. König, “Charlemagne’s ›Jihād‹ Revisited: Debating the Islamic Contribution to an Epochal Change in the History of Christianization” in Medieval Worlds Vol. 3 (Vienna 2016), pp. 3–40, and Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, “‘Those same cursed Saracens’: Charlemagne’s campaigns in the Iberian Peninsula as religious warfare” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 42 (Abingdon 2016), pp. 405–428.

7. José Antonio Faro Carballa, María García-Barbarena Unzu and Mercedes Unzu Urmeneta, “Pamplona y el Islam: Nuevos testimonios arqueológicos” in Trabajos de arqueología Navarra Vol. 20 (Pamplona 2007), pp. 229–284. There’s also the fact that the Arabic sources in the Peninsula for this area seem to think that the Kings of Pamplona were under pact to the Emir, which could very easily have been true: see Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, La dawla de los Banū Qasī: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus Estudios Árabes e Islámicos: Monografías 17 (Madrid 2010), pp. 194-198.

8. Julio Escalona, “Family Memories: Inventing Alfonso I of Asturias” in Isabel Alfonso Antón, Hugh Kennedy and Escalona (edd.), Building Legitimacy: Political Discourses and Forms of Legitimacy in Medieval Societies, The Medieval Mediterranean 53 (Leiden 2004), pp. 223–262.

9. England: Janet Montgomery, Jane A. Evans, Dominic Powlesland and Charlotte A. Roberts, “Continuity or Colonization in Anglo-Saxon England? Isotope Evidence for Mobility, Subsistence Practice, and Status at West Heslerton” in American Journal of Physical Anthropology Vol. 126 (Washington DC 2005), pp. 123–138, cf. Heinrich Härke, “‘Warrior graves’? The background of the Anglo-Saxon weapon burial rite” in Past & Present no. 126 (Oxford 1990), pp. 22–43, though to be fair to Härke his views have shifted in the light of critique, and idem, “Anglo-Saxon Immigration and Ethnogenesis” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 55 (Reading 2011), pp. 1–28, is probably a better reflection of them, if less relevant. For the Saxon-Thuringian example see Patrick Geary, “Rethinking Barbarian Invasions through Genomic History” in Magyar Régészet / Hungarian Archaeology (Autumn 2014), pp. 1–8. A less anonymous reference for Avar material culture could be Falko Daim, “Avars and Avar Archaeology: an introduction”, trans. Ingrid Bühler, in Hans-Werner Goetz, Jörg Jarnut and Walter Pohl (eds), Regna and gentes: the relationship between late antique and early medieval peoples and kingdoms in the transformation of the Roman world, Transformation of the Roman World 13 (Leiden 2003), pp. 463–570.

10. On the Carolingian bans on weapon export, the reference I most easily have is Anne Stalsberg, “Herstellung und Verbreitung der Vlfberht-Schwertklingen: Eine Neubewertung” in Zeitschrift für Archäologie des Mittelalters Vol. 36 (Bonn 2008), pp. 89–118. On the Basques getting away from their rule, see Collins, “Spain”, pp. 284-289. As for the fact that goods transfer need not mean trade, of course you have all got bored by now with me citing Philip Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: A Critique of the Evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123–140, but it’s still really important.

11. It must be admitted that Professor Azkárate has tried addressing other audiences: while looking for images for this post, I found out about A. Azkárate Garai-Olaun, “Francos, Aquitanos y Vascones: Testimonios arqueológicos al Sur de los Pirineos” in Archivo Español de Arqueología Vol. 66 (Madrid 1993), pp. 149–175, online here, which is very much the same argument as idem, “Western Pyrenees”, and Agustín Azkarate, Aldaieta: necrópolis tardoantigua de Aldaieta (Nanclares de Gamboa, Alava), Memorias de yacimientos alaveses 6 (Vitoria 1999).


Finding the Medieval in Rome V: Fixing a Hole in a City Wall

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This is the last of the Rome 2017 photo posts, and then as promised last week, some more properly academic content will at last materialise. But right now, I hope you can forgive some more photographic antiquarianism. On the last … Continue reading

Some words for Richard Sharpe

I seem to have spent quite a lot of last year not hearing about people dying. I guess the specifics of personal mortality were getting lost in the global version, and I also wasn’t looking at news very much, but still, there are those I would have expected to hear about somehow that I didn’t, and such a one was Richard Sharpe, Professor of Diplomatic at Oxford, who died suddenly of a heart attack all the way back in March 2020. I found out last week.

The late Professor Richard Sharpe, in life

The late Professor Richard Sharpe, in life; the image is all over the web but I borrow it from the Cultures of Knowledge obituary linked through since, perhaps ironically, they mention no copyright.

I didn’t know Richard very well, but I did know him. We first met, as with about half my academic contacts really, when he was presenting at the Institute of Historical Research, in 2002, on intellectual contacts in very early medieval Northern Italy, when I was much too junior to say anything much to such an eminence. It would have been fine, I subsequently learned, not least because he was back there again in 2006 to present a paper about a putative daughter of King Harold II of England (he of Hastings fame), who of course survived her father into the reign of the man who defeated him.1 That got a bit of a conversation going, as I recall, and then a few years after that I was in the same institution as him, in so far as Oxford is one institution, and considering whether or not to get him to lecture on the Celtic parts of the early medieval British syllabus. (I didn’t get him to, though I don’t now remember why.) Before I was gone from Oxford, we’d been thrown together by someone going on leave and thus making us supposedly the two most qualified people to run the Norman Conquest Special Subject that year. That’s where I really first had dealings with him. He was tremendously helpful and energetic and made me feel very much as if I were the person who knew what was going on, which compared to him could hardly have been further from the truth; but we got on fine and it ran OK. I think I ran into him twice after that, once at a paper in Cambridge and once again at the IHR, and thus (as it has transpired) ended our acquaintance. Still, his death has shocked me somewhat, not least because he was an active man in robust health bar one deaf ear, and everyone else seems to have been just as shocked when it happened, I imagine not least himself.

Thankfully, rather a lot of people who knew him better have been busy since he died recording stories about Richard that give a better impression of him than I have managed there. I might just quote some:

“As an undergraduate he acquired a firm grounding in the medieval Celtic languages and literatures to add to his Classics. But his first love was to history. Professor Simon Keynes remembers teaching him: ‘The depth of engagement with the primary source material for any given subject was phenomenal . . . I distinctly remember the appearance of his essays: the top five or ten lines comprising main text, and the rest of the page the numbered footnotes, perfectly judged to fit the page—but of course all hand-written rather than typed let alone word processed.’”

Thomas Charles-Edwards, ‘Tribute to Professor Richard Sharpe (1954-2020)’

“His first job, in 1981, was as assistant editor of the Dictionary of Medieval Latin in Oxford; he made himself a formidable Latinist by reading nothing but Latin for a year.”

Nigel Ramsay, ‘Richard Sharpe obituary’

“Used to the testing limitations of evidence from the ‘Dark Ages’, Richard was not reluctant to express his view that the study of English political history after the publication of Magna Carta was ‘mere journalism’.”

Hugh Doherty and James Willoughby, ‘Richard Sharpe’

“Politically, he was liberal, and was a member of Oxford Town Council between 1987 and 1995, where he was a strong supporter of the rights of Headington freeholders to erect giant fibreglass sharks on their roofs. He felt such a thing could only add to the gaiety of the Oxford skyline, and enjoyed the self-answering objection of another councillor: ‘But if we give this shark permission, then everyone will want one!’”2


“The volume and versatility of his research were nothing short of mystifying. Richard confessed that he himself found it difficult at times to keep track of the state of his many projects and side projects, which could range, in a single year (2016), from an article on the earliest Norman sheriffs, through early nineteenth-century printing of Irish poetry, to the composer Tommaso Giordani (‘accidents happen, as I sometimes pick something up along the way’, he wrote on his webpage in relation to that one).”

Roy Flechner, ‘Richard Sharpe, 17 February 1954 – 22 March 2020’

“He was already working on Hebridean history: his first book, Raasay: A Study in Island History was published in 1977, the year he graduated, followed by a second the following year, Raasay: A Study in Island History. Documents and Sources, People and Places (Raasay lies between Skye and the mainland). At the same time he was working on editions of the two earliest Lives of Brigit, a saint of peculiar interest—as a female counterpart to St Patrick, as the premier patron-saint of Leinster, and as someone widely culted in Britain as well as Ireland. He never published his editions but was generous in allowing others to use them.”

Ramsay, ‘Richard Sharpe obituary’, as above

That last strikes chords with me all the way back from those years in Oxford. I remember hearing, on two different occasions, someone (Hugh Doherty once, I think; can’t remember who the other was) say that they’d been to talk to Richard up in his office about some new problem they’d just stumbled on in a project, a saint’s life or manuscript they’d never heard of before or similar and were going to have to track down, and Richard going, “Oh yes! I wrote a piece about that years ago”, striding over to a cupboard and after a short search pulling out a neat stapled and paper-covered typescript on the exact topic, existence unknown to anyone but him. I should say, it’s not that Richard was shy about publishing; as Roy Flechner’s obituary that I’ve linked above says, his total of works even at the point of death was at least 212 separate items. But apparently he still wrote more than he could manage to publish… If there is a tiny crumb of compensation for him being dead it’s that we will now presumably have found out what else was in the cupboard; but it’s not how either he, I’m guessing, or I would have wanted that learning to be made available. I don’t know how many other people the world can make like this, or what the academy looks like if ever we run out.

Next post will be a final short one about (early) medieval remains in Rome as of some time ago; and after that I promise some actual academic content for once; but having finally got this news I didn’t want to let a kind colleague go unrecorded when he was so very important in understanding records.

1. That paper eventually published as Richard Sharpe, “King Harold’s Daughter” in Haskins Society Journal Vol. 19 (Woodbridge 2008), pp. 1–27. No-one seems to have attempted a full bibliography of Richard’s work, for reasons which may be suggested by what follows, and I’m not up to the challenge; there was a lot…

2. I’m bravely assuming that most of these anecdotes can stand by themselves, but the Tale of the Headington Shark—in which I’d had no idea Richard had had any part—might need a link for the unfamiliar


Finding the Medieval in Rome IV: Teaching with the Crypta Balbi

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I mentioned a little while back that when I started in post at the University of Leeds I inherited a late antique survey module for first-year undergraduates which, indeed, I still run. That module has always ended with a class … Continue reading


Finding the Medieval in Rome III: Emperor Hadrian, Defender of the Popes

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Obviously, the subtitle of this post is not true. Not strictly. How could it be, after all, when Hadrian, ruler of the Roman Empire from 117 to 138 CE, and respected chief priest of it too, probably didn’t even know … Continue reading

Missing Michael Matzke

While still not wanting to let this blog become an obituaries column, this is obviously not a good time in human history to ask people to stop dying. However, this is late news that only came to me when my partner opened up the current issue of the Numismatic Chronicle and found a review of Medieval European Coinage 12: Northern Italy, over whose text I myself toiled for a while in 2008-2009, and noted the fatal † by one of the author’s names.1 And that’s how I found out that I had missed Michael Matzke, Kurator of the Münzkabinett at the Historisches Museum Basel and erstwhile Assistant Keeper at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, dying at the age of 54 last year.

Dr Michael Matzke, late Kurator of the Münzkabinett of the Historisches Museum Basel

Dr Michael Matzke, late Kurator of the Münzkabinett of the Historisches Museum Basel; the (German) article linked beneath provides links to many other notices of his passing

I could not say that I knew Michael well; he was out of the department at the Fitzwilliam before I got there, and our scholarships hardly crossed paths. There is, all the same, a certain closeness to someone you only get by editing them, trying to think far enough into their thoughts to make them sit more accurately on the page in your language that they’re currently obliged to use. Without my knowing that much about his life, he thus became very familiar to me as an intellect. Michael was, in any case, very much not a problem to edit, and always polite and helpful in the event of queries, and although due to reasons beyond either of our controls the volume didn’t come out until years after I’d left the Fitzwilliam, I’m glad to say that the last time I saw him was actually at a party celebrating its then-actually-imminent publication, at the XV International Numismatic Congress in Taormina, which of course I reported here.

Courtyard of the Palazzo dei Duchi di Santo Stefano, Taormina, during a party

Michael’s not in the picture, sadly, but here is the party, in the Courtyard of the Palazzo dei Duchi di Santo Stefano

The evening before that, I’d been able to introduce that same partner of mine to Michael, among other people, on an extremely crowded balcony four floors up, where one of the Congress receptions was being held. The considerable press of people would be unthinkable now, of course, even without the low parapets, but was getting close to it even then; as Michael observed in stagey discomfort, “this would never be allowed in Germany”. I shall never know now whether he was laughing at his own nation or not, but given what I knew of his humour, utterly deadpan and razor sharp, I shall always suspect it. I’m glad I got to laugh with him and I’m sorry I won’t any more.

1. Andrea Saccocci, Michael Matzke and William Day Jr, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 12: Northern Italy (Cambridge 2016), reviewed by Monica Baldassarri in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 180 (London 2020), pp. 507-509. I should give more reference to Michael’s work but I wouldn’t really know where to start, other than the Bibliography of MEC 12! The links in the text will take you to more if you need to know, however.