Gallery

Parting Shots: two Michaels and a Leo

This gallery contains 6 photos.

For once I don’t feel the need to apologise for the lapse in posting here: moving house (including buying a house), starting a new job, learning my way around a new university and city, attending many many meetings, doing the … Continue reading

Gallery

Crusaders and money, seen in a different way

This gallery contains 10 photos.

This strategy I have adopted of putting the current content up top and the backlog below is getting somewhat top-heavy, but there is just one more thing to announce, and then I expect actually to start letting some of these … Continue reading

Gallery

The Empress, her Son, her General and his Heir

This gallery contains 15 photos.

Another day, another upload of Barber Institute coins to the web! This one is only small, 27 coins, and these comprise the coins of the notorious Empress Eirini, with her son Constantine VI (780-797) and then without (797-802), and those … Continue reading

Gallery

Byzantium before Byzantium

This gallery contains 4 photos.

I’m pleased to say that since about May my team and I at the Barber have been making steady progress in getting at least some of our coins onto the Internet, and this is another post to tell you about … Continue reading

Gallery

Images in metal of the alleged image-smashers

This gallery contains 5 photos.

Not everything whose recataloguing I have overseen at the Barber Institute has been Byzantine—I invite those with interests in the Roman period to examine our coins of the reigns of Tiberius I (14-37) and Gaius (37-41) if you like, which … Continue reading

While it’s been quiet I have been reading (and writing)

So I am back from Leeds and there are now two Leeds folders of my notes to blog about in the pile which means that, sadly, I am about a year behind again. How has this occurred? Well, I explained a few posts ago that since January my days have been basically taken up with getting stuff written that might get me hired, one way or another—which of course worked, or something did—and also dealing with a truly heroic level of over-commitment, and that this has basically most days taken me up till midnight and bedtime before getting to any space of time in which I might blog. But I felt like some kind of list of what has passed before me in that time and what it was for might also be explanatory, maybe even provocative of thoughts and comments, and mostly generally make me feel better about the lag. So, this is basically a commented bibliography of my life over the last six months or so and I’ll then carry on attacking the backlog…

Jonathan Jarrett's workspace in Birmingham

The workstation as it currently stands, lacking only your humble scribe

Roughly in order then…

  1. Michel Zimmermann, “El bisbe català durant els segles X-XIII” in idem, En els orígens de Catalunya: emancipació política i afirmació cultural, transl. Antoni Bentué, Llibres a l’abast 248 (Barcelona 1989), pp. 137-165.
  2. This was for my Kalamazoo paper. I had to go to the British Library for the first time in possibly years to get at it, having completely failed to find a copy for sale anywhere; most of it is reprinted but without having access to a copy you can’t know how much, the online presence of it doesn’t get as far as a contents list. If it would help people I can actually say what’s in it, but I made a list, read this one chapter (which is only printed here) in a hurry, and then basically didn’t use it as though it’s quite interesting it has no references, which were deferred to a French version that seems never to have come out…

  3. Lutger Körntgen & Dominik Waßerhoven (edd.), Patterns of Episcopal Power: bishops in tenth- and eleventh-century Western Europe. Strukturen bischöflicher Herrschaft im westlichen Europa des 10. und 11. Jahrhunderts, Prinz-Albert-Forschungen 6 (Baden 2011).
  4. Also for the Kalamazoo paper, which as you may be beginning to guess was about bishops, and much more useful, especially for the Englishing of a seminal German paper by Timothy Reuter.1

  5. The first 95 pages of Albert Benet i Clarà, Història de Manresa dels orígens al segle XI (Manresa 1985).
  6. This largely because for reasons that will sort of get blogged about, I had a spare day in Barcelona which I largely spent in the Biblioteca de Catalunya. I have been needing to get at this for a long time, even before I started working on priests around Manresa but especially since then, and I can really only do so in Catalonia. It turns out to be about eight hundred pages, though, so I will need a few more visits…

  7. The introduction of Antoni Pladevall i Font, Tona: mil cent anys d’història, L’entorn 16 (Tona 1990).
  8. For much the same reasons of opportunity, to break up the solidity of the Benet volume and because I’ve repeatedly cited it as a thing I know exists and I felt that I needed to see what it actually says in case this was a bad idea. I only had time for the introduction, though, so the jury is out till next visit.

  9. Jeffrey A. Bowman, “The Bishop Builds a Bridge: sanctity and power in medieval Pyrenees” in Catholic Historical Review Vol. 88 (Washington DC 2002), pp. 1-16, DOI: 110.1353/cat.2002.0006.
  10. I should have read this years ago too, given how I like St Ermengol as an example case, but now I did so as to get it clear for the Kalamazoo paper, and in fact it turned out to be one of the pieces of scholarship around which I oriented the paper, so that was good to have done.

  11. Cécile Morrisson, C. Brendt, J.-P. Callu, J.-N. Barrandon, J. Poirier & R. Halleux, L’or monnayé 1 : Purification et altérations de Rome à Byzance, Cahiers Ernest-Babelon 2 (Paris 1985).
  12. For work, really, and specifically the All That Glitters project, and for that very educational; there will be blog posts about this in due course…

  13. John S. Ott & Anna Trumbore Jones (edd.), The Bishop Reformed: studies of episcopal power and culture in the Central Middle Ages (Aldershot 2007).
  14. Another volume of studies about bishops, and this one very useful; there were many case studies in here which I thought paralleled what I wanted to say, and it turned up a lot in the Kalamazoo paper’s footnotes.

  15. Sean Gilsdorf (ed.), The Bishop: power and piety at the first millennium, Neue Aspekte der europäischen Mittelalterforschung 4 (Münster 2004).
  16. And another, and in some ways the most useful to think with; it also exposed that even Timothy Reuter was not above publishing roughly the same thoughts twice, however…2

  17. David S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012).
  18. Read very rapidly, but avidly, for a paper I was giving in Oxford the week after Kalamazoo, a repeat offence I’m afraid, but I had a lot of reactions to this book (some of which, I will admit, were incredulous) and I will definitely be writing about this here as well as in the final version of that paper.

  19. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii, ed. Gyula Moravcsik & transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, 2nd edn., Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 (Washington DC 1967).
  20. For the recent Leeds paper, and a fascinating read as well as being my first real brush with Byzantine source material; there will also be blog posts about this!

  21. Mark Handley, Dying on Foreign Shores: travel and mobility in the late-antique West, Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series 86 (Portsmouth RI 2011).
  22. Ths I was reading largely because it kept coming up in a project bid I was part of, about which there will be further blogging if it comes off at least, and I kept telling people how important it was on the basis of the paper I saw Mark give once when he was writing it, and felt I had better make sure. But it turns out it’s brilliant, so I was reassured. I’m not just saying this because he may be reading, I haven’t actively enjoyed a work of scholarship this much for ages. I have one post stubbed coming out of this which will engage with a tiny part of it, but meanwhile I can only say that not only is it required reading for anyone working on travel in late Antiquity, it’s also a good read. Enjoy the footnotes…

  23. Romilly J. H. Jenkins (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus: De Administrando Imperii. A Commentary, 2nd edn. (Washington DC 2012).
  24. Given the speed at which I was having to amass knowledge about the De Adminstrando Imperii, the fact that there existed a commentary volume was a godsend, even if it is by now fifty years old in its original form. I saw it while I was at Dumbarton Oaks (about which also future blog) and then made sure to read it, and without it the Leeds paper could not have existed. It was also illuminating about why the work on the De Adminstrando I’ve read is so unbothered about the obviously questionable state of the text, and I will certainly blog about that in due course too.

  25. And lastly, bits of Jonathan Shepard (ed.), The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire (Cambridge 2008).
  26. This lastly just to get some kind of sense of where Byzantine scholarship on these areas has gone since Ostrogorsky and the edition of the De Adminstrando, and for that also vital, but it gives me less to say that wasn’t actually in the Leeds paper except that I wish Armenia and eastern Turkey were currently safer to visit.3

So that not only wraps up a list, but tells you quite a lot about what I’ve been doing and what you can expect here as, I hope, I reduce the backlog. Meanwhile, any questions? And thanks as ever for reading.


1. Timothy Reuter, “Ein Europa der Bischöfe. Das Zeitalter Burchards von Worms”, in Wilfried Hartmann (ed.), Bischof Burchard von Worms 1000-1025, Quellen und Abhandlungen zur mittelrheinischen Kirchengeschichte 100 (Mainz 2000), pp. 1-28, transl. Dominik Waßerhoven as “A Europe of Bishops. The Age of Wulfstan of York and Burchard of Worms” in Lutger Körntgen & Waßerhoven (edd.), Patterns of Episcopal Power: bishops in tenth- and eleventh-century Western Europe. Strukturen bischöflicher Herrschaft im westlichen Europa des 10. und 11. Jahrhunderts, Prinz-Albert-Forschungen 6 (Baden 2011), pp. 17-38.

2. Reuter, “Bishops, rites of passage, and the symbolism of state in pre- Gregorian Europe”, in Sean Gilsdorf (ed.), The Bishop: power and piety at the first millennium, Neue Aspekte der europäischen Mittelalterforschung 4 (Münster 2004), pp. 23-36, which has maybe a three-quarters overlap with “A Europe of Bishops”.

3. George Ostrogorsky, Geschichte des byzantinischen Staates, Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft XII.1.2 (München 1940), transl. Joan Hussey as History of the Byzantine State (Oxford 1956), 2nd English edn. from 3rd German edn. (Oxford 1968) and then reprinted four times by the date of the copy I bought a few days ago, and as that implies still very much the standard reference.

In Marca Hispanica XXXI: contacts, changes of plan and a main-street hermitage

I said last post but one that I would clarify my itinerary on last year’s trip to Catalonia, because it wasn’t very simple. This was so for four reasons. Firstly, we were trying to hire a car only for one part of the trip, but not all the things we wanted to drive to were close to each other. Secondly, I had made an effort on this trip actually to meet my few Catalan academic contacts, to whom I almost never give enough notice of my arrival, and that left me with many commitments. And the third and fourth reasons I’ll explain as they arise, because they were not planned. The original plan looked like this:

  1. Day 1. Arrive in Girona by air, pick up car, drive to Sacalm and then to Vic.
  2. Day 2. Three castles in a day!
  3. Day 3. Sant Pere de Casserres and the putative Castell by car, then back to Girona, return car, rail to Barcelona.
  4. Days 4 & 5. Meeting people, tourism and book-buying in Barcelona, finishing with rail back to Vic again.
  5. Day 6. Archive work in Vic and visiting one of the Museu Episcopal and cathedral.
  6. Day 7. Visit the other one, then rail to la Garriga and briefly into the bosom of my family at Palautordera.
  7. Day 8. Early lift to Girona and fly home!

This plan had already come adrift by the time we arrived, however, as my companion had been invited to a job interview on what should have been Day 3. I did my absolute best with plans, but in the end Sant Pere de Casserres had to be given up, again, and instead we decided to return the car early, get my companion to the airport and then I spend the next day or so in Barcelona myself until she could join me. A pity, but a reasonable fix, and it did not prevent us either catching up with the inestimable Professor Gaspar Feliu in Sacalm, which was a real test for my long-silent Catalan, or as you have seen doing the three castles with all the energy we could muster the next day. But the day after that was to Girona and then to Barcelona and then a lone trip back from the airport for me to our fairly dreadful accommodation.1 But the actual point of this post is what happened next, which is that, following directions very carefully, I went out to Bellvitge to meet up with Lleida doctoral student Elisabet Bonilla Sitja. I had met Elisabet when she spent a term in Oxford and we immediately bonded over the Vic charters; she is mining them for evidence on mentalities, which is actually quite possible to do, and I am looking forward to there being more of her stuff to read.2 But right at this point, she wanted to show me a church.

Side view of Santa Maria de Bellvitge

Santa Maria de Bellvitge, in its rather urban setting

This is the Ermita de Santa Maria de Bellvitge, and it is about the oldest building in the locality, by which we mean it’s thirteenth-century but in its current aspect mostly eighteenth-century restoration. Some limited reading for this post establishes that it’s hiding something, however, to wit, an eleventh-century church of a rather larger size that was knocked down to build this one. There were burials of the period found when setting up the park in which the church now sits. The whole settlement is only recorded for the first time in 995, and then only as the regario de Amalviga (I don’t have a direct reference here so the spelling may be off), the name having to go through some changes to get to where it is now. The church under this was thus probably the first one here.3 It’s completely invisible now but even this baroque one is doing a good job of looking utterly out of place in what is otherwise an extremely modern-looking area.

Portal of Santa Maria de Bellvitge

Portal of Santa Maria de Bellvitge, probably the oldest surviving bit

Bellvitge’s main claim to fame otherwise, I was told, is that the secret treaty which ended the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713 was signed here, and so it was in the building below that Catalonia was delivered to the Spanish Crown after a fairly prolonged attempt to get away. This takes some particularly careful representation in the area’s promotion of its heritage…

The municipal chambers of Bellvitge

The municipal chambers of Bellvitge. Note the dog expressing the local opinion of this institution and its history…

All the other history of Bellvitge is modern, as far as I can see, which means that I must have got a wrong impression of the structure below, which I saw somewhere along the way. I can’t find it on Google Maps, didn’t think to ask Elisabet and have no idea what it is or how old. But I can end a blogpost with an enigma if I like, right? And so I shall, and in the next-but-one return us to Barcelona proper and one building I’d never before managed to get inside.

Obscure structure in the Parc de Bellvitge (I think), looking a lot older than anything else around but not yet identified by me

Obscure structure in the Parc de Bellvitge (I think), looking a lot older than anything else around but not yet identified by me


1. We do not recommend the Pensión Cortes on the Gran Via de Les Corts Catalanes, and I will not favour it with a link. It is dingy, ageing and there are no locks on the bedroom doors, and the landlady has lengthy and xenophobic directions for how to visit the city which she unloaded on us even though we didn’t need them, or even understand most of them.

2. For now I base my opinion on E. Bonilla Sitja, “Aproximación al estudio de la vida y mentalidad altomedieval: la Plana de Vic, 872-936”, unpublished Master’s thesis (Universitat de Lleida 2011), of which she was kind enough to send me a copy.

3. For detail see Albert López Mullor, “Santa Maria de Bellvitge” in Antoni Pladevall (ed.), Catalunya Romànica XX: el Barcelonès, el Baix Llobregat, el Maresme, ed. María-Lluïsa Ramos i Martínez (Barcelona 1992), pp. 266-267.

Learning from an ailing emperor

The last two posts have involved rather a lot of me getting things wrong in a more or less embarrassing fashion, including about stuff I’ve either taught or written about. Obviously the thing to do next is to start giving opinions about a text written in a language I don’t even read, right? In fact, that might even be safer since at least here I know roughly how much I don’t know… But I have been meaning to write about this since the run-up to the Leeds International Medieval Congress last year, and my current somewhat shaky form isn’t going to stop me. So I want to introduce you to the work known as De Administrando Imperio by Emperor Constantine VII (913-959).1

Ivory depiction of Constantine VII being crowned by Christ

Ivory depiction of Constantine VII being crowned by Christ, now in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow, image from Wikimedia Commons

You see, last academic year I was under a certain amount of social pressure to identify as a Byzantinist, what with the second-best Byzantine coin collection in the world (so it has been claimed) in my charge. I was also trying to get people to participate in a grand effort of comparison of medieval frontiers, and needed to come up with something for a Leeds session on that subject. And so I thought that it would be potentially interesting to compare what my speciality medieval magnate, Count Borrell II of Barcelona (945-993), did with his frontiers to what a completely different but roughly contemporary polity, which given my immediate circumstances should most obviously be the Byzantine Empire, did with some of its. And having declared such an intent, the obvious next step was the De Administrando Imperio.

Now, there are lots of things about this text that struck me and I want to write about at least a couple, without anticipating the actual paper too much since I have every hope that a version of it will some day go into print.2 But to say anything useful about what the De Administrando says it seemed more and more to me that the first step was to understand what it is, which should be simple but isn’t. What it immediately appears to be is a manual of statecraft by a Byzantine Emperor, written for his son and future successor Romanus II (959-963). In fact, firstly not very much of it is explicitly about the administration of the Empire and secondly quite a lot of it is not by Constantine VII.3 I’ll try and explain…

Bronze follis of Emperor Constantine VII with Empress Zoe, struck at Constantinople in 913-919, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4871

Bronze follis of Emperor Constantine VII with Empress Zoe, struck at Constantinople in 913-919, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4871; Constantine is the little one on the left

In the first place one has to understand Constantine’s own life situation.4 He was son of the successful Emperor Leo VI the Wise (886-912) but was only two when Leo died, so although he succeeded he did so alongside his uncle Alexander (912-913), who kept his nephew mostly excluded from power during his short reign. Once Alexander was dead Constantine’s mother Zoe became leader of a regent council, but was for one reason or another unable to hold onto that status and the admiral of the fleet, Romanus Lecapenus, more or less took power in 919, marrying his daughter Helena to Constantine in that year and then assuming co-emperorship in 920.

Pierced gold solidus of Emperor Romanus I, showing him being crowned by Christ, with his son-in-law Constantine VII and his son Christopher sharing a cross on the reverse. Struck in Constantinople between 919 and 931, though narrower guesses have been made; Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4841

Pierced gold solidus of Emperor Romanus I, showing him being crowned by Christ, with his son-in-law Constantine VII and his son Christopher sharing a cross on the reverse. Struck in Constantinople between 919 and 931, though narrower guesses have been made; Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4841

Over Romanus I’s long and more or less successful reign (920-944) power was shuffled and reconfigured again and again, it seems, with his own sons Christopher, Stephen and Constantine becoming co-emperors alongside and indeed in front of Constantine VII, in terms of how they were presented in public display and on the coinage.5 Another of his sons, Theophylact, became Patriarch of Constantinople in 933, although far too young. Christopher, who seems to have been the intended heir, however died in 931, and after that Romanus seems to have accepted that his other sons would not be able to keep Constantine VII from power, and returned him to a more obvious rôle. Constantine was spared the bother of a contest, however, because in 944 Stephen and his imperial brother decided they’d waited long enough, kidnapped their father and deposed him and when they returned to Constantinople the people rose against them and demanded that Constantine VII take sole power. Usurper father and rebels sons all died as monks, although Stephen outlived both Constantine VII and Romanus II. It’s a messy story.

Gold solidus of Constantine VII struck in Constantinople, most likely between 945 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4855

Gold solidus of Constantine VII struck in Constantinople, most likely between 945 and 959 but let’s be honest, could be earlier too; Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4855

What it all means for us, however, is that until 944 Constantine VII had a lot of time on his hands, and he seems to have spent a lot of this buried in books and the archives of the imperial palace. By the time he came to the throne he had a better idea than most about what the empire had been and some strong ideas about what it should now be, based not least on a series of treatises he had written, of which the De Administrando was only one.6 But he proceeded by compilation, pulling in materials of all vintages, so that the empire he reconstructed, and in the case of his book on imperial ceremony even enacted, was an empire that had never quite been, not all at once.

A modern map of part of the world as depicted by Constantine VII

A modern map of part of the world as depicted by Constantine VII, by Hxseek at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6342264

This applies no less to the De Administrando, but this raises particular excitement for scholars of the areas that he covers. These are, more or less, the frontiers with non-Islamic powers: it starts with the Pechenegs and the various other peoples who can affect them, including Rus’, Bulgarians and Turks, then talks at length about the way the Rus’ get to Constantinople, briefly about how to constrain the the Khazars, then goes off for many chapters into a reprise of the early history of Islam, largely retold from the Chronographia of Theophanes, all of which seems to be leading up to the point at which the ‘Abbasids lost control of al-Andalus to the one Umayyad they’d failed to kill, ‘Abd al-Rahman I. But that, 756, is as far as that thread goes and then he moves onto recent diplomatic relations within Italy, a matter of much more current concern as Romanus was married to a daughter of King Hugh of Italy (924-947). After that he proceeds more or less geographically, giving a historical ethnography of the various Roman and Slavic peoples of the Balkans, moving into the Caucasus and then appending a series of anecdotes about treaties and the manning of the imperial fleet. He finishes with two legends from Cherson.

Bronze coin of Constantine VII struck at Cherson between 913 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4918

Bronze coin of Constantine VII struck at Cherson between 913 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4918

From this you can see that if there was really an overall plan for this work, it was not adhered to very well. This has been explained by suggesting that Constantine had actually already nearly finished a different, more ethnographical work hypothetically known as the De Nationibus, and then before the final edit recycled its material willy-nilly into his new project for his son.7 But lots of that material is not only not his, but not reconciled at all with the other components of the work, which has suggested to many people that what we are getting here is nothing less than palace archival material copied without alteration, and often (it can be argued from the language used) based on or even actually being reports by local officials or informants from the areas concerned. This opens up for scholars of the early Slavs or the Rus’ the irresistible possibility that Constantine has preserved for them the earliest written records from their chosen peoples of study, and so there is great resistance to any suggestion that this is in fact a compilation of Constantinopolitan pseudo-history, selected by Constantine to justify baseless claims to imperial suzerainty of areas he couldn’t actually affect.8

Map of the rapids down the Dnieper river constructed more or less from the account of the De Administrando Imperio

Map of the rapids down the Dnieper river constructed more or less from the account of the De Administrando Imperio

And yet it sometimes seems as if it must be, because Constantine turns up so strongly as an authorial voice, which was the the thing that I liked best about reading the text. He starts the first chapter with a clear agenda:

“Hear now, my son, those things of which I think you should not be ignorant, and be wise that you may attain to government. For I maintain that while learning is a good thing for all the rest as well, who are subjects, yet it is especially so for you, who are bound to take thought for the safety of all, and to steer and to guide the laden ship of the world… I conceive, then, that it is always greatly to the advantage of the emperor of the Romans to be minded to keep the peace with the nation of the Pechenegs and to conclude conventions and treaties of friendship with them and to send every year to them from our side a diplomatic agent with presents befitting and suitable to that nation, and to take from their side sureties, that is, hostages and a diplomatic agent, who shall be collected together under charge of the competent minister in this city protected of God, and shall enjoy all imperial benefits and gifts suitable for the emperor to bestow.”

And he goes on with what is essentially a catalogue of people whom the Pechenegs can be induced to attack instead of the empire or who as allies of the empire may make the Pechenegs think twice before leaving their homeland open to attack by setting out against the empire. But it’s not long before that takes him onto ambassadorial routes to these people and then, apparently, he remembers this excellent account he has of bringing boats down the Dniepr from Kiev, and we’re off.9

Map of the Caucasus during the period of Romanus I's and Constantine VII's rule

Map of the Caucasus during the period of Romanus I’s and Constantine VII’s rule, from Wikiwand

Although a lot of the material can thus be explained as things it is useful for an emperor to know, some of it seems to have a bigger purpose, of presenting imperial claims in areas that lay well beyond the empire’s current control. On the former side there’s the intricate account of the recent politics of the Caucasus, important because almost all the rival potentates there had appealed for imperial support at some point and might do so again, always opening up opportunities for imperial expansion by force majeure. On the latter there are the quite dubious and much-debated claims about imperial Christianisation of the Balkans, which can be made into currently-relevant political statements but are at the least very odd ways to do that.10 Both of these cases are going to get their own posts, so I’ll not say more just now; instead, I’ll just add that not only do some sections, especially that on the Islamic conquest of Spain, not obviously serve any agenda beyond antiquarianism, but some are much more obviously personal. The little section on the imperial fleet—not the navy proper but a squadron maintained to carry the emperor and his officials in suitable style—is perhaps the most touching of these, where Constantine describes some of the men he remembers commanding the imperial galleys:

“When Podaron became vice-admiral, the protospatharius Theophylact Bimblidis was appointed protospatharius of the basin, who was nephew of the protospatharius John, surnamed Thalasson, and he lasted for a few years of the first reign of Constantine the Porphyrogenitus, the Christ-loving sovereign. On his death, since Michael the elder aforesaid [in a part not quoted here] was grown very old indeed and had given many long years of service as steersman, he was honoured with the rank of protospatharius and was also appointed protospatharius of the basin. And when the emperor embarked on the galley in the basin and set out either upon a progress or somewhere else, that good old man, ever memorable for his seamanship, would take his stand amidships of the galley, inspiring and urging the oarsmen of the galley to pull and row more bravely and manfully, and at the same time instructing the steersmen of the day how to manage the rudders and steer the imperial vessel when the winds were blowing distemperately. Well, he died….”11

I like this bit not just for the sheer irrelevance of Constantine’s genealogical detail—Romanus could surely get no benefit from knowing whose nephew an official of forty years before was—but because despite the third-person narrative, it’s clearly Constantine’s own memory we’ve got here, and it tells us that somewhere within the forty-five-year-old emperor who had spent much of his life as a virtual prisoner, albeit in a huge palace, was still the boy who had got to ride around on that galley and watch the elder Michael boss the sailors around in grand style.

Some of Constantine’s memories are less generous, and in particular, and understandably, he has almost nothing good to say of Romanus I Lecapenus. His words vary from lengthy accounts of why Romanus’s policy had been misguided, especially in areas where Constantine was now doing better, to straightforward character assassination:

“The lord Romanus the Emperor was an idiot and an illiterate man, neither bred in the high imperial manner, nor following Roman custom from the beginning, nor of imperial or noble descent, and therefore the more rude and authoritarian in doing most things … for his beliefs were uncouth, obstinate, ignorant of what is good, and unwilling to adhere to what is right and proper.12

One could certainly argue that this had a political purpose, since two of Romanus’s sons were still alive and, indeed, one Patriarch of Constantinople at the time of writing and might still have been seen as threats, and it’s an odd thing so thoroughly to insult your son’s grandfather in a work you’re giving to that son. This is not the only place where Constantine seems to have thought this work might have a wider audience, but on the other hand the contents could have been considered sensitive and the repeated addresses to his son make a specific audience also seem to have been intended.13

Gold solidus of Emperor  Constantine VII with Romanus II, struck at Constantinople probably between 945 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4852

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine VII with Romanus II, struck at Constantinople probably between 945 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4852

One is left to wonder if Constantine really knew what he was doing with this work, or if it was even really finished; it seems not to have been edited, as said, its chapter headings don’t always match its contents and Constantine seems to refer here and there to things he’s failed to say in other sections.14 One explanation of the state of it might be that the single surviving manuscript, which was copied in the second half of the eleventh century, was made up from something that was still a working copy, with notes and materials laid in that were never supposed to be part of the final version. The scholarship is pretty clear that the text was finalised in 952, however, because that is a date actually given as current at one point in the text and was the year of Romanus II’s fourteenth birthday, when he might have been considered to have come of age, and the opening proem not only names the author, in the first person, and the recipient, but gives a summary of the contents that seems to match the order of what we have.15 In other words it looks as if this is something like what Constantine meant it to be, although if so one wonders if our copy was made from the final version, if Constantine had in fact read over that version or if he was really working at full power. Later sources suggest that Constantine drank too much wine, and there is something about the way this text proceeds that does remind me of one knowledgeable but ageing alcoholic I knew well in his declining years.16 But if the De Administrando is, in fact, just badly put together, what does that do to our attempts to divine its various deeper political and intellectual purposes? Maybe they have also to be assumed to be not very well put together. And can we trust such an author to have reported or copied his sources accurately? These are questions people probably don’t want to deal with, as they threaten to diminish how much we know, but what mainly strikes me all the same is how very human Constantine comes across in his attempt to compile his uniquely imperial wisdom.

Copper-alloy follis of Constantine VII , struck at Constantinople probably between 944 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4597

Copper-alloy follis of Constantine VII , struck at Constantinople probably between 944 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4597


1. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperio, ed. Gyula Moravcsik, transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, 2nd edn., Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 (Washington DC 1967), online here.

2. Though should you really care and need a citation, that would be J. Jarrett, “De Administrandis Marcis: the 10th-Century Frontier with Islam, seen from Barcelona and Byzantium”, paper presented in session ‘Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, I: Beyond the Reconquista’, International Medieval Congress, 9th July 2015.

3. Also, it’s not called the De Administrando Imperio, in as much as it’s in Greek and it doesn’t have a title in any of the manuscripts, but this is what its first editor called it in an era when it was still considered necessary to give Greek texts a title of reference in a ‘proper’ language…

4. I base my account here mostly on Jonathan Shepard, ‘Equilibrium to Expansion (886–1025)’ in idem, The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire (Cambridge 2008), pp. 493-536, doi: 10.1017/CHOL9780521832311.020, at pp. 503-518. I was working at speed when I put that paper together…

5. On the coinage, which has probably been assigned too precise a chronology on the assumption that its iconography precisely reflects the shifting balance of power in the reign, see Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 172-188. The finer chronology proposed by Franz Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I in Constantinople, 713-976: structure of the issues, corpus of coin finds, contribution to the iconographic and monetary history (Lancaster PA 2007), goes well beyond the demonstrable. I’d give page references but, really, you could say that of the whole book. Even he, however, has to admit (at p. 39) that Constantine struck solidi with both sole and accompanied portraits at the same time, which if it could be done obviously undermines the whole chronology based on who’s on the coins. This really should have been obvious from the copper-alloy coinage already.

6. Others: Costantino Porfirogenito, De Thematibus, ed. Agostino Pertusi, Studi e Testi 160 (Città di Vaticana 1962); Constantine Porphyrogennetos, The Book of Ceremonies, with the Greek edition of the Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae (Bonn, 1829), transl. Ann Moffatt & Maxene Tall, Byzantina Australiensia 18 (Canberra 2012).

7. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, “General Introduction”, in idem (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus: De Adminstrando Imperio. A Commentary (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 2012), pp. 1-8.

8. E. g. Dimitri Obolensky, “C. 9“, ibid., pp. 16-61 at pp. 19, 25-26 & 40-42; Jenkins & Francis Dvornik, “Cc. 29/1-53, 217-295; 30-36“, ibid. pp. 93-142 at pp. 96-101, 112-113 & 118, or Moravcsik, “Cc. 37-42“, ibid., pp. 142-156 at pp. 143 & 145-146, all arguing for local informants behind Constantine’s material on the Rus’, Slavs and Hungarians respectively; cf. e. g. Florin Curta, The Making of the Slavs: history and archaeology of the lower Danube region, c. 500-700 (Cambridge 2001), pp. 64-66.

9. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperio, cc. 1-6, 7, 8 and then 9 respectively, section quoted from c. 1.

10. Ibid. cc. 29 & 31-36, all of which attribute a major role in the pacification and the Christianization of the relevant people of the Balkans to Emperor Heraclius, presumably to challenge any Frankish claims to control of either the peoples or their churches (clearest in c. 29) but picking the emperor who actually largely lost these areas on which to pin the relevant claims.

11. Ibid. c. 51.

12. Ibid. c. 13, though it needs to be clear that this is not Constantine giving voice to his actual thoughts, but part of an excuse he suggests offering by way of excusing the fact that although Romanus I married his grand-daughter to a Bulgarian prince, the foreign embassies with whom Romanus II might be dealing were absolutely not going to get a Byzantine bride to take home for their master. Still, he wrote it for his son to say about his son’s grand-dad…

13. Romanus II is directly addressed in ibid. Proem & cc. 1, 13, 43 & 46, but cc. 26 & 30 both seem to be addressed more generally. For the argument of sensitive contents, see Moravcsik & Jenkins, “General Introduction” in ibid., pp. 1-14 at pp. 13-14.

14. Chapter headings that don’t match chapters: ibid. cc. 9, 10, 51 & 52. Confusion: in ibid. at one point in c. 27 Constantine explains the Duke of Naples’s title in Byzantine terms but never actually refers to him by it; in c. 40 ideas are dropped and picked up again after a paragraph of digression; one could go on.

15. Date: ibid. c. 45; address: ibid. Proem.

16. Obviously I’m not going to name my example, but for Constantine see Moravcsik & Jenkins, “General Introduction”, p. 9, where the emperor’s drinking is excused without identifying the source of the accusation.

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In Marca Hispanica XXX: three castles in one day, part 3 – Tona

This gallery contains 22 photos.

I haven’t done a very good job of explaining my itinerary on last year’s Catalonia trip, I realise, but I’ll remedy that next post but one and in the meantime complete the epic three-castles-in-one-day road-trip. The last stop on this … Continue reading

A somewhat unexpected interpretation of Asser

I have one more thing I want to write about spinning out of David Bachrach’s Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, and then he can rest and I will move onto historians of much longer ago. But it is the way that one such historian is used in this book I want to query here. In comments here, even, Professor Bachrach has said, “Alfred the Great imported a Saxon from the duchy of Otto I’s grandfather to serve as a military adviser.” The book gives the full argument behind this somewhat surprising statement, and, well, I struggle with it.

Statue of King Alfred at Wantage

There being no decent pictures even of people’s imaginings of Asser or John the Old Saxon, it’ll just have to be Alfred, as portrayed in this statue which stands at Wantage

The historian in question is Bishop Asser of St David’s and Sherborne, biographer of King Alfred the Great of Wessex (871-899), and at cap. 78 of his Life of King Alfred he tells us of Alfred’s recruitment of various religious men to instruct him and his court in intellectual matters. In particular,

“he summoned John, also a priest and monk, a man of most acute intelligence, immensely learned in all fields of literary endeavour, and extremely ingenious in many other skills.”

This is our alleged military advisor.1 Not seeing it? Well, you don’t know what happened as a result. Firstly, Alfred established a monastery at the marsh island of Athelney, whither he had briefly retreated in 878 when all seemed lost in the face of Viking attacks. Athelney, Asser tells us, is reachable only by a causeway and Alfred put a fortress at the other end of it.2 The excellent commentary of Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge on Asser’s Life identifies that fortress as Lyng but points out that the 878 episode tells us that there already was one at Athelney itself, into which the monastery was presumably inserted.3 Anyway, a fairly multinational group of monks, English, Gaulish and (Asser says) at least one Scandinavian—paganus is the Latin word he uses, paradoxically—was assembled there and this John was placed at their head as abbot.4

Aerial view of the site of Athelney Abbey

Aerial view of the site of Athelney Abbey, I hope

Now, this did not go well. The Gauls, especially, did not like John, and Asser tells us that this resentment grew to the point where they set up two Gaulish slaves (whose presence itself raises questions), armed them and set them to kill Abbot John when he said his customary small-hours prayers in secret. (Obviously not secret enough!) Asser tells us the outcome:

“At midnight John entered the church secretly as usual (so that no one would know) in order to pray, and bowed down on bended knees before the altar; then the two villains attacked him suddenly with drawn swords and wounded him severly. But he, being a man of customary sharp intelligence and (as I have heard about him from several sources) a man with some experience in the martial arts, had he not set his mind on a higher course – rose briskly to meet them as soon as he heard their commotion and before he saw them or was wounded by them. He called out and resisted them as best he could, shouting that they were devils and not men… However, he was wounded before his own men arrived; they had been awakened by the uproar but, having heard the word ‘devils’, were frightened and did not know what to do… before John’s men got there, the villains had fled as quickly as possible to the depths of the nearby marsh leaving the abbot half-dead.”

And Asser goes on to assure us in his nasty fashion that the assailants were caught and tortured to death, although it’s not clear that the actual conspirators were ever disciplined.5 Abbot John could apparently handle himself, though, and you could read that passage as indicating that he also had some kind of bodyguard or troop, though perhaps it just refers to monks who had arrived with him, I think. But it is possible to extract even more implication from it, and Professor Bachrach does:

“Thus Asser, in his De rebus gestis Ælfredi, draws attention to the fact that King Alfred (871–899) recruited a Saxon named John to join his court, and eventually established him as an abbot, an office that certainly required much more than a passing acquaintance with ‘book learning’. Of importance in the present context, however, is that Alfred recruited this Saxon because of the man’s knowledge of military affairs.53 Saxony, which at this point had been part of the regnum Francorum for the better part of three generations, clearly not only offered opportunities for advanced study of the military arts, but also had developed some reputation in this regard, if Alfred was advised to seek there for a man who could hold high office in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom.”6

I can’t help but feel there’s some slippage here. Nothing in the texts we have tells us that anyone advised Alfred to look to Saxony or that he picked John because of his knowledge of military affairs, and it’s misleading to imply that it does. Even if he had done so, surely he would have wanted such a man at court instructing future soldiers, not in charge of a miscellaneous group of cloistered religious in one of the most inaccessible parts of the kingdom. And yet there’s a fortress, a man who can handle himself in a fight, retinues and slaves and no shortage of weaponry, it would seem. Perhaps we could be too quick to dismiss a military role for this community. But hang on: there was a footnote…

53 Asser, De rebus gestis Ælfredi, ed. W. H. Stevenson (Oxford, 1959), chs. 94-97, and specifically ch. 97 for the discussion of John’s knowledge of the belicosae artes. See the discussion of this passage by Richard Abels, Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England (London, 1998), 223. It should be noted that Asser does not accord John an exceptional knowledge of the military arts, saying that he was belicosae artis non expers, but I accept the basic thrust of Abels’ implicit argument that Asser did not wish to overemphasize the secular aspects of John’s career in Alfred’s service.”

And now I am confused. [Edit: I completely misunderstood the Latin here first time through. It makes the post a lot simpler but me look a lot more foolish. I’ve tried to leave the evidence behind and still make the post more coherent. Sorry!] We know that John was a trained fighter… because Asser tells us he wasn’t, but is trying to hide [the fact that John was a capable fighter it… by mentioning it at all? That all makes alarm bells ring for me, but also, the Latin as given there is not at all what Keynes and Lapidge give in their translation, quoted above; no hint of inexpertness there. What does it actually say?

Facsimile of the opening page of the lost manuscript of Asser's Life of King Alfred by Francis Wise, 1722

Facsimile of the opening page of the lost manuscript of Asser’s Life of King Alfred by Francis Wise, 1722, image from Wikimedia Commons

Well, we famously have no surviving manuscript of Asser’s Life, as the only one there was was lost in a fire in 1731, but a 1904 edition by W. H. Stevenson is usually agreed to have done the best possible job in reconstructing the text from early editions and the texts of the numerous medieval historians who quoted Asser.7 And of course because we live in the future, that’s in the Internet Archive and so without leaving my seat I can tell you that the best guess we have at the relevant Latin phrases is:

“Sed ille ut solito ac semper acris ingenio et, ut audivimus de eo a quibusdam referentibus, belicosae artis non expers, si in meliora disciplina non studeret, statim et sonitus latronum auderet…”8

I wish we did have the manuscript at this point, because what this shows is that the ambiguity is Asser’s, at least as we have him, not Professor Bachrach’s (or Richard Abels’s). I can’t offer a translation of this that makes any more sense of it than Keynes and Lapidge have. That word “expers” cries out to me for emendation to “inexpers”, not only because that would make it into a sensible litotes but also because otherwise Asser seems to be saying that John would not have been expert in the arts of fighting if he had not chosen a ‘better discipline’, which would imply that his Church career had actually taught him to fight. If his appointments always went this well one could imagine that being true, I suppose! But then I would have expected him to have a weapon handy himself… and I don’t think it can be what Asser meant. I think Keynes and Lapidge are probably as close to the sense as modern English can get and that Asser probably didn’t write what the edition says.

Holy Island and Lindisfarne

Another isolated place run by a religious man with early military training, sort of, Holy Island and Lindisfarne

Of course, if what Asser did mean meant is that John would have been a promising warrior had he not been called to the Church, then that’s little more than is said of St Cuthbert by Bede, and yet we don’t suppose that Cuthbert was made Bishop of Lindisfarne because the King of Northumbria really needed a tactical advisor, even if Lindisfarne was right by the royal seat.9 Such people had warriors where they needed them. Equally, from the other perspective, while Professor Bachrach is surely right that being an abbot involved more than purely literary knowledge, one obvious layman who ran abbeys and was, indeed, well-known to Asser through his works was Einhard, again, Charlemagne’s biographer, and he more or less tells us he was too small and weedy to have been given a military training. Yet he ran three abbeys for Emperor Louis the Pious.10

Einhardbasilika at Seligenstadt

Here is one of them, Seligenstadt, though it’s, er, come on a bit since Einhard’s day. This is, indeed, the Einhardbasilika. CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=246880.

So it is all quite dangerous: even the simplest reading of this source involves fiddling with the text. I still think that none of this gives us evidence that John was actually recruited or served as a military advisor; that isn’t the context in which Asser mentions him, either, and what Asser says about him is surely aimed at explaining his survival of an attack by two armed men when he had no weapon, rather than at gilding John’s secret career as a martial arts instructor (though now I put it like that it does all seem weirdly like the Hong Kong cinema cliché where a group of armed men unwisely attack the bent old sensei and learn the error of their ways forthwith). And yet, even my opposite reading of the source still involves bending it to fit my view. That mainly makes me think it won’t bear this kind of weight, but I do wish we had the manuscript…


1. Asser, Life of King Alfred, transl. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge in eidem (transl.), Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources (London 1983), pp. 65-110, whence all translations of Asser in this post, the quote here being cap. 78 as said.

2. Ibid. cap. 92.

3. Keynes & Lapidge, Alfred the Great, p. 271 n. 229.

4. Asser, Life of King Alfred, capp. 93-97 for this and the story that follows. The Latin I access through William Henry Stevenson (ed.), Asser’s Life of King Alfred, together with the Annals of St Neots erroneously ascribed to Asser, edited with introduction and commentary (Oxford 1904), online here.

5. Asser takes too much of a delight in people who don’t do what they’re told getting a bloody come-uppance for me to like his authorial character; compare this episode (Asser, Life of King Alfred, cap. 97 referred to and quoted here) with the bit of cap. 91 about people who should have built fortresses when they were told getting slaughtered by Vikings if you don’t know what I mean.

6. David S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012), p. 113 and n. 53.

7. See Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, pp. 223-227 for an account of the manuscript history and its modern lack.

8. Stevenson, Asser’s Life, Asser cap. 97.

9. Bede, Life of St Cuthbert, ed./transl. Bertram Colgrave in idem (ed./transl.), Two Lives of St Cuthbert: A Life by an Anonymous Monk of Lindisfarne and Bede’s Prose Life. Text, Translation and Notes (Cambridge 1940, repr. New York 1969 and Cambridge 1985), pp. 141-308 at cap. I.

10. For Einhard’s life see David Ganz, “Einhardus peccator” in Patrick Wormald and Janet L. Nelson (edd.), Lay Intellectuals in the Carolingian World (Cambridge 2007), pp. 8-36. On the non-religious duties of an abbot in the Carolingian world, see F. J. Felten, “Herrschaft des Abtes” in Friedrich Prinz (ed.), Herrschaft und Kirche: Beiträge zur Entstehung und Wirkungsweise episkopaler und monastischen Organisationsformen, Monographien zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 33 (Stuttgart 1988), pp. 147-296.

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In Marca Hispanica XXIX: three castles in one day, part two – Taradell

This gallery contains 19 photos.

Returning to fortifications in higher places, you may remember that my reporting backlog was left hanging on the way down from the Castell de Gurb on the 20th April 2015, when I and my esteemed driver managed to visit three … Continue reading

What if Widukind was wrong about warfare?

I feel a little bad about returning to David Bachrach’s book Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany with my claws still out after his generous and lengthy responses to my previous critiques. I’m going to do it anyway, of course, but I feel it more necessary than usual to stress to the readership that I use this blog primarily as a platform on which to look clever, and that someone else’s work gives me the chance to do so is not necessarily an indictment of it. Indeed, the first two substantive chapters of Professor Bachrach’s book are possibly the clearest narrative of the politics of the Ottonian realm under Henry I (919-936) and Otto I (936-973) that I’ve read anywhere, militarily-focused or otherwise, and the whole book does the English-reading population of historically-minded people a favour by making the Ottonians more available to us.1 But every year I have a fresh cohort of first-year students who don’t really understand what I mean by critical use of primary sources, and those same first two chapters provide me with some really good object examples.

Monte Cassino, Museo storico, Codex Casinensis 298, showing a contents page from Widukind of Corvey's Sachsengeschichte

A contents page from the oldest manuscript of Widukind of Corvey’s Sachsengeschichte, Monte Cassino, Museo storico, Codex Casinensis 298, here p. 190 (apparently)

The crucial source for much of what Professor Bachrach sets out is the so-called Sachsengeschichte of Widukind of Corvey, written up in 968 and then edited after Otto I’s death in 973, and very lately translated into English by none other than the well-known firm of Bachrach & Bachrach, indeed.2 Widukind was a monk but seems to have been unusually interested in military campaigns, so the first object lesson for my notional students: just because someone is religiously-inclined does not prevent them having good information on secular matters! You have to go further than that and establish, if you can, what bees this particular author has in his or her bonnet about such things. Now, as I say, Widukind is very often the key testimony for Professor Bachrach’s account but the trouble is that sometimes he is flatly contradicted by other sources. Let’s work through an example.

Roman walls built into later structures at Regensburg, Germany

I’m not sure how much of Regensburg’s medieval walls are left but here is some Roman work that obviously must still have been there at the time we’re writing about… Photograph by Lance Longwell

Even by 921 King Henry I was not accepted by all his German subjects, and one particular hold-out was the duchy of Bavaria, then under one Arnulf. Henry had hitherto been occupied trying to arrange peace on his western borders but with that done was able to turn his attention to Bavaria, where Widukind tells us he laid siege to Arnulf at Regensburg and that Arnulf, realising the game was up, surrendered and terms were reached.3 Well, so far so good, but this is only one version of events. The Italian diplomat, gossip-monger and courtier of Otto I, Liudprand of Cremona, writing in the period 958-962, instead records that Henry and Arnulf met with armies on the battlefield but concluded the truce there rather than fight.4 And if that weren’t enough, another text records that Henry invaded Bavaria but was driven out by the forces of an unnamed city, with terms being reached after that.5 Now, I have all these references from Professor Bachrach himself who diligently records them in a footnote, but what he doesn’t give is any reason why we should accept Widukind’s version over the other two. One might meanly suspect that it is because Widukind alone mentions a siege and Professor Bachrach has hung his historiographical hat on the importance of sieges in the warfare of the period, as we have seen.6 I’m sure it is in fact otherwise, but what could we do instead?

Later tenth-century manuscript page of Liutprand's Antapodosis now in Münich

Later tenth-century manuscript page of Liutprand’s Antapodosis, now Münich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 6338, image from Wikimedia Commons

There are several ways this could be resolved, although none of them are conclusive. I think that the anonymous Fragmentum de Arnulfo duce Bavarie can probably be ignored; its purpose was to glorify Arnulf, so it had no interest in recording his defeat, but more importantly its version offers no explanation for Arnulf actually making terms, which he evidently did as Henry went away and Arnulf was willing to fight alongside him on the eastern frontier in later years.7 Liudprand is harder to dismiss, however; he was writing earlier than Widukind and with access to Otto I’s court and anyone there who might have had memories of these campaigns, and his obvious interest in praising the Ottonians (as compared to his previous employer, King Berengar II of Italy) still didn’t lead him to give Henry a decisive victory as did Widukind.8 In some senses both are telling the same essential story: Henry brought an army and Arnulf decided it wasn’t worth fighting. The difference is that Liudprand thought that was best set in the field and Widukind saw it at the city walls, and at least implies the fighting which Liudprand denies. We don’t know why but it is possible that Widukind was making a literary choice, in which case Professor Bachrach has a problem to deal with.

Reconstruction drawing of the Slavic fortress at Brandenburg

Reconstruction drawing of the Slavic fortress at Brandenburg

Can we get any other angles on Widukind’s historiographical preferences? Yes, we can. In 928 Henry I was busy dealing with the various Slav groups on his eastern border. First among these, because they had raided his territory a few years before and because they stood in the way of any major campaign in the middle Elbe region, were a group called the Hevelli who were centred at what is now Brandenburg, where they had a fortress.9 Professor Bachrach’s account is clear and concise, so let’s use that:

“Widukind, who is our best source for this war, makes clear that Henry’s campaign against the Hevelli involved several subsidiary military operations before the urbs at Brandenburg itself was captured. He stressed that the German forces wore out the Slavs in numerous battles (multis preliis fatigans) over a lengthy period.93 It was only after he had sufficiently isolated Brandenburg that Henry deployed his army in a close siege of the fortress. Widukind draws attention to the fact that by the time Henry actually began direct operations against the Hevelli princely seat, the coldest part of the winter had arrived. As a result, the army was forced to camp on ice (castris super glaciem positis).94 Ultimately, Henry captured Brandenburg by storm, after besieging the stronghold for some time.95

“93 Widukind, Res gestae, I.35.
“94 Widukind, Res gestae, I.35. In describing the siege and capture of Brandenburg, Widukind alludes to Cicero’s speech against Lucius Calpurnius Piso. Cicero, In Pisonem, 17 reads, “exercitus nostri interitus ferro, fame, frigore, pestilentia.” Here, Cicero was listing the causes for the casualties suffered by Piso’s troops when he served as governor of Macedonia. Widukind paraphrases here listing only hunger, arms (literally iron), and cold as the causes for the casualties suffered by the defenders of Brandenburg.
“95 Widukind, Res gestae, I.35.”

There’s quite a lot that can be read between the lines here, it seems to me. One is Henry’s determination in pursuing the campaign, which may well be what Widukind wanted to illustrate: the king presumably hadn’t meant to be campaigning still in the dead of winter, which would have been nearly as difficult for his troops as for the defenders and was an occasional cause of mutiny in the Byzantine world.10 It looks rather as if siege was his last resort after trying to beat the enemy decisively in the field had failed several times. Even then, he seems to have waited before risking an assault. Presumably at each stage he hoped for a surrender that the Hevelli weren’t willing to offer. That, at least, seems as fair a reading as one that makes it all strategic wearing down of the enemy; who would have planned to make their army camp on ice? (Though that does suggest that perhaps the fortress was unreachable previously because of surrounding water—as indeed above though the Ottonian forces presumably didn’t camp on the moat—in which case Henry probably didn’t start out meaning to besiege it.)

Portrait bust of M. Tullius Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero, no less

But you saw the footnote, right? Object lesson number two for the notional students: always glance at the footnotes. Perhaps more important than the campaign’s duration is the unexpected presence of this guy in the text, this of course being Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman orator and politican of the first century B. C., and with him arrives a possibility unsettling for someone wanting to read Widukind straight here, to wit that he had a written model in mind for how this situation should be described that was nothing to do with what had happened. For most history undergraduates in the UK I guess that this methodological problem is first opened up to them when briefly studying Charlemagne, because they will be set to read Einhard’s Life of Charles and if their teacher’s any good, will then be faced with the fact that Einhard borrowed almost all of his description of Charlemagne from Suetonius’s Twelve Cæsars, in order to make Charlemagne truly the image of his Roman imperial predecessors.11

Portrait denarius of Charlemagne as Emperor (812x814)

Silver denier of Charlemagne, struck at an uncertain mint in 812-814, Künker sale 205 (March 12 and 13, 2012), lot 1405, now in a private collection

Silver denarius of Emperor Vespasian struck at Rome in 69-71, Beast Coins Z2844

Silver denarius of Emperor Vespasian struck at Rome in 69-71, Beast Coins Z2844

The good ones will then work out, of course, that if Einhard was picking descriptions from twelve different emperors to describe one, the best reason for him to select the bits he did was probably because they actually fitted Charlemagne—it’s like my bit about formulae mentioning dovecotes in charters, most probably used because the property in question actually had a dovecote. Maybe the same thing was happening here, so that Widukind had a historical story to tell and saw how perfectly the Cicero quote could fit it. We can hope so, especially since there seems to be no other lifting from Cicero in the story. But one does have at least to think about it. Now, I’m sure that Professor Bachrach has thought about all these questions, for the very simple reason that he’s put the evidence that provokes them in his own footnotes! But I wish he’d had space also to explain how he resolved them in favour of Widukind’s accuracy each time.


1. David Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012, repr. 2014), pp. 14-69.

2. Widukind, Res gestae Saxonicae, ed. & (German) transl. Albert Bauer & Reinhold Rau as “Die Sachsengeschichte des Widukind von Korvei” in Bauer & Rau (edd.), Quellen zur Geschichte der sächsischen Kaiserzeit (Fontes ad historiam aevi Saxonici illustrandam), Ausgewählte Quellen zur deutschen Geschichte des Mittelalters 8 (Darmstadt 1971), pp. 1-183, (English) transl. Bernard S. Bachrach & David Bachrach as Widukind of Corvey, Deeds of the Saxons, translated with an introduction and notes (Washington DC 2014).

3. Widukind, Res gestae, I.27; Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, pp. 20-21, citing Widukind at p. 20 n. 38.

4. Liudprand of Cremona, Antapodosis, ed. Paolo Chiesa in Chiesa (ed.), Liudprandi Cremonensis Opera omnia: Antapodosis, Homelia paschalis; Historia Ottonis; Relatio de legatione Constantinopolitana, Corpus Christianorum: Continuatio Medievalis 156 (Turnhout 1998), pp. 1-150, transl. in F. A. Wright (transl.), The Works of Liudprand of Cremona (London 1930), pp. 27-212, II.21, cit. by Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, p. 20 n. 38.

5. Fragmentum de Arnulfo Bavariae, ed. Philipp Jaffé in Jaffé (ed.), “Annales et notae S. Emmerami Ratisbonensis et Weltenburgenses” in Georg Heinrich Pertz (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores in folio) XVII (Hannover 1861, repr. 1990), p. 570 of pp. 567-576, cit. by Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, p. 20 n. 38.

6. Thus also ibid. p. 22 where Adalbert of Magdeburg, who describes a siege at Metz in 923, is preferred over Flodoard of Reims who describes a different sort of campaign by the German king. They both make it look as if their preferred king won, of course, and maybe there’s something going on where Flodoard focuses on the invading king as a general force of unjust destruction and Adalbert has him single-mindedly focused on the target, Bishop Wigeric of Metz, who had attacked a royal estate. That’s only my speculation, though, and doesn’t settle the question.

7. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, pp. 29-30.

8. On Liudprand’s agenda, see Karl Leyser, “Ends and Means in Liudprand of Cremona” in James Howard-Johnston (ed.), Byzantium and the West c. 850 – c. 1200: proceedings of the XVIII Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Oxford 30. March – 1. April 1984, Byzantinische Forschungen 13 (Amsterdam 1988), pp. 119-143, repr. in Leyser, Communications and Power in the Middle Ages, ed. Timothy Reuter (London 1994), 2 vols, I, pp. 125-142, but in searching out that reference I find also the very relevant-looking Antoni Grabowski, “‘Duel’ between Henry I and Arnulf of Bavaria according to Liudprand of Cremona” in Roman Czaja, Eduard Mühle & Andrzej Radziminski (edd.), Konfliktbewältigung und Friedensstiftung im Mittelalter (Torún 2012), pp. 387-400, which I have not seen but seems worth mentioning.

9. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, pp. 27-28, quote below on p. 28.

10. As under Maurice in 592: see Andrew Louth, “Justinian and his Legacy (500-600)” in Jonathan Shepard (ed.), The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire (Cambridge 2007), pp. 99-129 at p. 127.

11. See Matthew Innes, “The classical tradition in the Carolingian Renaissance: ninth-century encounters with Suetonius” in International Journal of the Classical Tradition Vol. 3 (New Brunswick 1997), pp. 265-282.

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In Marca Hispanica XXVIII: three castles in one day, part one — Gurb again

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I am now, whether I like it, pretty much a full year behind with reporting again, and this is not going to get better quickly because the last part of April 2015 was pretty dense for me in terms of … Continue reading