Monthly Archives: February 2007

This job that I do

As I’ve mentioned here and there, my current post is as a Research Assistant at the Fitzwilliam Museum, where I am slowly working my way through the process of documenting the uncatalogued part of the holdings of the Department of Coins and Medals. On good days this mainly means copying details off the tickets into a spreadsheet and batch-scanning the actual coins, on bad days where there are no tickets, it means identifying the coins from the various standard reference works and getting the data from there, and obviously from the coins.

Now the unticketed stuff tends to be a bit nasty, in terms of corrosion and also of rarity, and that’s why it’s been left, often for most of a century, without any record. Sometimes however it contains treasure, of a sort. Today has been one of those days.

What do you know about the Gallic Empire? Maybe more than I do, but, if not, it goes roughly like this, without trying to do the sort of source criticism it really needs. In 260, during the reign of the Emperor Gallienus, there is a rebellion in the west of the Empire under one Postumus, who is a general on the Rhine. A large part of the army are with him, and so Gallienus is unable to reduce the rebellion, and Postumus’s empire takes in a large part of Gaul, including and especially the Rhine frontier, and maybe briefly Spain. It also includes Britain, and he and his successors and rivals, Marius and Lælianus (rivals, in 268, both put down by Postumus), Victorinus (successor, 268-71) and Tetricus I & II (father and son co-emperors 271-74) maintain themselves there and in Gaul through the reign of Emperors Claudius II and into that of Aurelian, who it is who finally brings the provinces back under central control. Of course within a few years they, at least Britain, are off again, and not for the last time, and you can find people telling you that this persistent secession is why the Empire in the West falls, and maybe one can’t completely dismiss that argument. But although that would be more medieval, that isn’t what this edit is about.

Now, partly because there is a lot of war going on, and therefore a lot of soldiers to pay, all these emperors mint a lot of coin. Because however, especially in the Gallic Empire, resources are scant, the standard of the coin tends to fall, and Victorinus and the Tetrici are basically minting in silvered bronze and pale gold. This means that more actual specie is used in circulation, and because of the political situation it doesn’t circulate as far as Roman coinage usually does, and all in all this means that it is quite common to find this stuff, corroded to ruination because of the British climate and the poor metal used, in digs in Britain. Consequently, British collections formed either on a budget or by accident tend to have lots of it, and it’s often hard to identify. Nonetheless, the types used are fairly well fixed, and the real problem arises in that the stuff was also very widely imitated by forgers due to money shortage, and that this went on for some time even after the emperors themselves were long gone. So there really is a lot, and very varied, but usually along the lines of the few types the real stuff used, and a huge hoard from Mildenhall that I mentioned before has provided some kind of reference from which almost all of these types, and a lot of the imitative ones, are known.1

Now, while going through the rather dubious mixture that is the rubbish end of the St John’s College Collection, I have today found two new types. They’re not in the standard references and nor is anything like them, they are as best I can discover unknown, and being up to weight (for the time) and sharp enough of design and lettering, they are probably also real issues. So this should be exciting, no?

Well, look:

  1. antoninianus, Victorinus, obverse: Bronze antonianus of Victorinus, obverse showing radiate bust of Victorinus right
  2. ditto, reverse: Billon antoninianus of Victorinus, reverse showing Providentia leaning left on column
  3. antoninianus, Tetricus I, obverse: Billon antoninianus of Tetricus I, obverse showing radiate bust of Tetricus right
  4. ditto, reverse: Billon antoninianus of Tetricus II, reverse showing Securitas leaning left on column

Now, get excited about those, go on. They’re treasure. Can’t you tell?

1. E. Besly & R. Bland, The Cunetio treasure: Roman coinage of the third century A. D. (London: British Museum 1983).

Thoughts for the book after next

Catalunya Carolíngia V front cover

Much of this weekend just gone went on adding data to my hideous legacy charter files by which I keep track of who’s who in tenth-century Catalonia and where they turn up. I mainly do this so as to be able to compare counts’ followers count to count, and to place them in their local context and so say something about power working in the area, this is kind of what I do. Lately, as the sidebar until recently reflected, I got to grips with the recently emerged edition of all the charter material for Girona, Besalú, Empúries and Peralada, and this took a while to integrate, mainly because of my creaking old PC and the impractical methods I adopted when all I had was an even creakier PC many years ago.

Portrait of Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona (945-993)

In this work I’ve so far concentrated on one count in particular, Borrell II, Count-Marquis of Barcelona, Girona, Osona and Urgell. Now, if you have a look at the map below the thumbnail below you’ll see that’s quite a chunk of Catalonia as was back then. But he wasn’t the only count, although he’s become sort of legendary because after the last Carolingian king died, Hugh Capet wrote to him and asked if he wanted to swear allegiance to him, or to the Muslims. Borrell, who had spent a fair portion of his reign at sworn peace with the Caliph of Córdoba, seems not to have replied, and thus swung Catalonia unwittingly into sovereign independence. The fact that Hugh seems to have had a letter asking for help from Borrell a few years later should obviously be neither here nor there…


Anyway, he is not the only count on the march. His relations with his elder cousins who rule Besalú and Cerdanya would be an article by themselves, but just lately, and partly because of this new material, I’ve been focussing on Count Gauzfred of Empúries, who is much less famous. But I’m not sure he was so obscure at the time. His counties cross the Pyrenees, and he has a lot more contact with the Frankish kings than Borrell did; Lothar III calls him not just dux but dilecto amicus noster, our dear friend. Borrell doesn’t deal with the kings at all until the sack of Barcelona by al-Mansur in 985.

The odd thing is how rarely Gauzfred, who was considerably older (and indeed longer-lived) than Borrell, turns up in the same place as his more powerful colleague. They appear together in quite a few documents, but various signs usually make it possible to show that actually one of them signed it later than the other. Several monasteries which lie in Gauzfred’s territories but fall under the bishopric of Girona, which is much more under Borrell’s control than Gauzfred’s, are careful to get both of them to confirm awards, but getting them into the same place at once seems to have been beyond most of their powers.

What set me thinking on this was one document where Gauzfred and his son, who is Bishop of Elna, confirm to one of these houses, Sant Pere de Rodes, lands that they granted to it years before (a group of three island fisheries near their main castle in fact) but which, despite a royal confirmation that the monastery got from King Louis IV, has been contested by a local who has now been forced to back down. Now, this land is in Gauzfred’s core territory; it was his gift; it’s got a royal confirmation, for whatever that may be worth; but Borrell and the later Bishop of Girona, who is also Count of Besalú, sign anyway. They’ve had similar difficulties with a settlement over another monastery, Sant Esteve de Banyoles, which Sant Pere claims and which Gauzfred and most of the other counts on the March at the time, as well as the king, think is fair enough; but Banyoles go to the counts of Barcelona for defence and in the end they have to come to a pact because without Barcelona approval nothing can be finally achieved, and the king then backs that one up despite having royally confirmed the contrary only the year before…

So although I have to write up Borrell and Gauzfred as colleagues, you can see how I’ll have difficulty picturing them as friends. It’s just interesting to be able to get this from administrative documents, and of course, it does hold the problem in it: if we got all this from three or four documents, what would our picture be like if we only had two? and therefore, how might it change if we had six? or seven? Oh, it’s a dicey game we play when we claim to know anything in this field.

Sidebar changes

The sidebar, though it proclaims my endeavours good and loud which is as it should be (given whose blog this is, at least), is a bit thin in the alleged blogroll, homepages and resources sections. This is partly because of West Michigan having recently redesigned the Rawlinson Center, where so much useful stuff was online, out of their new site–hopefully it will return–but also because I mainly have that sort of stuff elsewhere.

Yesterday a truly obvious omission from the resources section struck me though:

Volumes of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica

Had you realised that the whole of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica is now online for free? Take that, Pro Quest!

Feudal Transformations

Currently filling the gaps in my reading when some text I need isn’t available, because for example I’m on a train and the Internet isn’t, is something that arguably I should have read a long time ago, Poly & Bournazel’s The Feudal Transformation.1 Instead I’ve got my head round this literature from the point of view of Pierre Bonnassie’s La Catalogne,2 and by reading the critiques that other people have made of the newer, broader and double-headed work.3 There have been fewer criticisms of Bonnassie’s work because his evidence is so much more tightly focussed; his attempts to generalise out of Catalonia to the rest of France were less successful I think.

In any case, Poly and Bournazel’s work has been easier to attack, and now I’m getting into it I am seeing why. The main thing that strikes me however is not a criticism that I can remember seeing anyone else raise. They describe the phenomena of change that they detect in the material, and for each phenomenon there are a small bushel of examples taken from the extensive `terre et les hommes’ historiography.4 So phenomenon 1 is backed up with evidence from Catalonia, from Provence, from the Auvergne and Picardy; phenomenon 2 is backed up with evidence from Provence, from Mâcon and from Neustria; phenomenon 3 is supported by observations from Brittany, Neustria and Flanders, and so on. And it all looks pretty inarguable, because look, there are examples from everywhere, no? But when you stop and look at this, actually what is being set out is a picture of almost-infinite variations. Why doesn’t phenomenon 3 show up in the Auvergne? Is 2 completely lacking in Catalonia? (And where is Germany in all this, eh?5) None of these areas go through these processes of change in the same way. Every transformation is different, and we need to ask ourselves, even twenty years after this book was written and thirty after Bonnassie’s was, what forces draw these sets of changes together, rather than seeing them as something whose deviations from the `mutationniste’ pattern are what needs explaining.6

1. Jean-Pierre Poly, Eric Bournazel, The Feudal Transformation, 900-1200, transl. Caroline Higgitt (New York 1983).
2. Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe siècle à la fin du XIe siècle (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols.
3. Probably best accessed still in the debate with Thomas Bisson in Past and Present nos 142, 151 & 155 (1994 & 1995), some of which is online at FindArticles.
4. Gathered in a review article by Thomas Bisson, “‘La Terre et les Hommes’: a programme fulfilled?” in French History Vol. 14 (Oxford 1990), pp. 314-325.
5. See Reuter’s article in the debate referenced in n. 3 above.
6. Poly & Bournazel have maintained a fierce debate with one of their sternest critics, Dominique Barthélemy, in the pages of Revue Historique du Droit Français et Étranger, in vols 72 & 73 (1994) and (1995) respectively; full references are provided by a review article by Christian Lauranson-Rosaz online at the Université de Clermont.

Seminary featuring yours truly

Last night I had the pleasant experience of peer approval, which is something I hadn’t had the chance to experience for some time. As the now-altered sidebar has been telling readers of these pages for some time I was presenting a paper entitled “Neo-Goths, Mozarabs and Kings: chronicles versus charters in tenth-century León” and it went very well, with only slight pacing errors, and a number of searching questions. ‘Tis the advantage of working on so marginal an area of course, but not many people could tell me that I was wrong; Wendy Davies was however there and didn’t, which was encouraging.

I thought it would be worth giving a kind of abstract here, and maybe even tie some of the more various reflections earlier posted here together, so here goes.

The cathedral of San Salvador de Oviedo, capital of the Asturias

Neo-Goths, Mozarabs and Kings: chronicles versus charters in tenth-century León

The paper reprised the historiography of the three texts usually collectively known as the Asturian Chronicles, and evaluated their supposed status as cornerstones of the Reconquista ideology. Concluding that only the so-called `erudite’ redaction of the Chronicle of Alfonso III really contains the neo-Gothic ideology that these texts are widely considered to sing with, the vexed problem of its dating was opened.

Since the dates of the text are not fixed, we cannot as has often been done date ideology in the area from it (even if the text is representative of a wider popular feeling, which is not at all clear). We can however perhaps compare ideology in the area and date the text from it instead, and in this the charters of León are crucial. These charters are notable both for their number, and for the large number of persons appearing therein with Arabic names, even in apparently ecclesiastical offices. Families chose names for their children in these groups from both Arabic and Occidental traditions without apparent fear or favour, and persons in these groups often had a name from each tradition which they chose to use or not to use as context suggested. These people appear in some number immediately after the shift of capital from Asturian Oviedo to León in 914 and for a generation or so are of considerable importance as frontier settlers and developers.

Historiography has been divided on the origins of these people and others like them less detectable, and this paper did not resolve this question although several ways of breaking down this data that might answer this question were tested. The main conclusion that this evidence led to was however that such persons were especially obvious at the Leonese court, beyond the level at which they appear in non-royal and non-Leonese contexts or any area where they might be thought to be locals. This was used to argue for a courtly culture of mixed-tradition convivencía at the court of León that suggested that the neo-Gothic ideological message of the `erudite’ Chronicle of Alfonso III would have met little success there. It is therefore more likely to be a product of the same period and court as the other known chronicles, c. 883 Oviedo, and its dating should be considered accordingly early.

There’s loads more that one could do with the Arabic names, and the seminar came up with some good suggestions, but the first thing that I’m going to do with it is send a draft to Julio Escalona Monge and see what he thinks I should do with it. Then it can be used to source research funding proposals and occasionally start another paper off. I have too much else on with my main topic area to concentrate much more on this for a bit.

This seems to make the next due paper that I promised the Departmental Seminar at some unfixed point in Lent Term, which means that for the time being I can concentrate on stuff for actual publication!