Monthly Archives: August 2007

Information for websearchers

I guess from the search strings that are leading people here that someone out there has just set their students Rosamond McKitterick’s The Uses of Literacy in Early Medieval Europe as part of this week’s reading. I can’t really help you with that except to say, do wherever you’re studying read the Susan Kelly paper, as it’s one of the very few pieces of work out there in English that pauses to think about how individual charters come to be written at all.1

However, I can help the person that was looking for a biography of Mir Geribert, the self-acclaimed princeps Olerdulae. There is one, though it’s in Catalan and I’ve never seen it, by Ramon Planes, called Mir Geribert, Príncep d’Olèrdola. And that you probably found out for yourself, but maybe you can’t easily get hold of it.2 So I recommend that you instead try and find Pierre Bonnassie’s magnum opus, La Catalogne, and soak up the account of the baronial revolt in vol. 2.3 Yes, it is in French, but I’m afraid in this particular corner of Europe there really aren’t any English options. There comes a point where you have to try reading something else.

1. S. Kelly, “Anglo-Saxon Lay Society and the Written Word” in R. McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge: CUP 1990), pp. 36-62.
2. R. Planes, Mir Geribert, Príncep d’Olèrdola (Barcelona: Dalmau 1970). It’s only 54 pages.
3. P. Bonnassie, La Catalogne du Milieu du Xe à la Fin du XIe Siècle: croissance et mutations d’une société (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, II pp. 625-646 & 674-680.

Review: Ralph Turner’s Magna Carta

On Monday morning last I found myself putting off getting ready for work by drinking a huge mug of tea, listening to Pink Floyd’s `Interstellar Overdrive’ and reading a translation of Magna Carta. What, apart from the fact that it may well be that I could take things more seriously sometimes,1 does this mean for you? Well, it means that I’ve finished zipping through Magna Carta: Through the Ages by Ralph V. Turner, which I got as a conference freebie, er, a couple of years ago now.2 (Yes, yes, I know, I don’t get invited to those sorts of conferences now either.) And since the first answer to my recent request for blog-reader feedback basically said, “I like Spain and reviews”, and also because I thought the book was an interesting example of a certain kind of history, I thought I’d spare it a few words.

Cover of Turner, Magna Carta

The student who wants an in-depth study of the reign of King John and the actual issue of Magna Carta will still need to look elsewhere. Turner covers this, in better than adequate detail and with attention to the big arguments about it, but it’s not where his interests really lie and the chapters of the book where he covers this are the least referenced and shortest. He has after all done it elsewhere as well. This time Turner isn’t really setting out to be a historian of the thirteenth century, and his subtitle implies as much. There are points where he appears to be being a historian of historians but really this is a work of legal history. So the meat really starts once he gets away from 1215 and into what it is that this ‘great charter’ has meant to people and for what it has been used. Although, I must say that the part of Chapter 3 where he makes it clear what clauses were kept in what version of the charter, and what was dropped as soon as it could be, is really useful and arguably better than the treatment in some of the more accepted works. If all you wanted to know was what Magna Carta said, in its various versions, this would be the best place to find out.

His study of Henry III and Edward I is quite tight, and I found it a nice reacquaintance with some kings I’d last studied when I was still at school. It leaves me with an impression that Turner may not himself be at the cutting edge in this period, but he gives the reader the context of the main arguments about the interpretation of each reign in a very clear way. Students will have no difficulty getting through this, I’d say. The run from Edward II through Henry V to the American Revolution and the Victorians are a bit sketchier. Turner seems to argue that they can be so because really, Magna Carta only becomes part of current arguments at a few points in these centuries, where he studies it closely. All the same one of the interesting aspects of the sources he uses is that when the common people are allowed a voice, the charter keeps coming up, and I’d have liked a bit more exploration of this popular idea that Magna Carta held ‘our liberties’, rather than just the outcomes of occasional lawyers or politicians trying to prove something with that argument.

The last two chapters are the most legalistic. One handles Great Britain, where Turner argues that due to subsequent legislation making it outdated, and due to Britain’s prolonged managing without a written Constitution and then adopting the European Convention on Human Rights (which became law in the UK in 1998, as US readers may not realise—indeed, as UK ones may not…), Magna Carta has become an irrelevant if famous piece of history, now mainly studied to show what King John was doing that got his barons so annoyed. The other handles the USA, and argues for a far greater involvement of US law with the Charter, and that Magna Carta is to a much greater degree fundamental to US law’s concepts of liberty and the rights of the individual, however anachronistic a view of its provisions that may in fact be. I don’t know how far I’m convinced by this now, given that he plots a more or less parallel erosion of the rights and liberties that each country has in its own way guaranteed, by a now-over-mighty executive which has succeeded in persuading its populace, not for the first time, to accept such restrictions. (He interestingly points out those champions of liberty, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill abrogating civil rights in similar ways, but then of course the countries were actually under arms and in danger of invasion.)

In this way Turner’s colours are revealed. Although he praises Maitland’s treatment of Magna Carta for its attempt at objectivity, quoting his dictum, “If history is to do its liberating work, it must be as true to fact as it can possibly make itself; and true to fact it will not be if it begins to think what lessons it can teach”, it is clear that Turner does not see his own rôle as a mere commentator. The final paragraphs of the book (save the translation of the 1215 Charter in an appendix, useful to refer to but more useful if it was mentioned that it was there anywhere in the body text), set the parting tone:

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Magna Carta’s great message of limits on government’s pursuit of individuals is again unheeded by a power-hungry executive, just as in thirteenth-century and seventeenth-century England, and in the thirteen colonies in the late eighteenth century. In both the United Kingdom and the United States, fears of war, internal subversion and terrorist attack threaten to tip the balance of power within the country, enabling the executive power to place itself beyond the law’s reach. An American president, following unmindfully in the footsteps of King John and Charles I, takes advantage of the people’s fears in the face of the threats of terrorist attacks to invade their privacy and curtail their liberties, detaining persons indefinitely without specific charges and denying them their right of habeas corpus. Today, at least a few journalists and jurists still stand ready to challenge individuals’ subjection to arbitrary state power in the name of a war on terrorism, and the Great Charter still affords them a rallying point.

Indeed, and at least one historian stands with them it seems. Not that I have a problem with the ethics, but it does recast one’s understanding of the purpose of the book, and defies that very same dictum of Maitland that Turner quotes with seeming approval. I think that this is a good and useful book, but it being willingly bent to serve an ideology does make me think twice before saying so. I don’t know if others would react the same way, but in my guts it seems that history and politics would prefer not to touch each other, however strongly I feel about them both.

1. I mean, why not the original Latin? Why not Wish You Were Here? Why such frivolity Jarrett? You’ll never get a permanent post with this outlook you know, etc. etc.
2. Ralph V. Turner, Magna Carta: through the ages (Harlow: Pearson 2003).

Solomonic bishops and processional communities

That’s a subject line I simply can’t surpass for pretension, but actually, having just mentioned Catalan parish boundary disputes, I thought I’d tell you a story. I mean, enough theory and whingeing, we all like stories, right? that’s what we’re doing this for. So, right then.

The church of Sant Andreu de Baltarga, built in the 980s

Basically, there is a village called Baltarga which in 890 had a church that was owned by Archpriest Fredarius, of the chapter of Urgell. (Here is the one they prepared later.) Just across the way is a village called Say, which is exciting because it’s Saione in Latin, and there was a judicial official called a saió so we get to wonder if such a man founded the place. Whether he did or not, though, by 890 it belonged to the monastery of Sant Miquel de Cuixà, and they had just put a church in there. The villagers had up till then always come to church at Baltarga, but they now had a better church at Say, and they demanded that the local priest (whose name was Orderic) move his operation there. The villagers of Baltarga didn’t want to trek over to Say and abandon their beloved church, so they kicked up a fuss, and by the late autumn Bishop Ingobert of Urgell had had to come out and settle the dispute.1 Ingobert must have fancied himself a Solomon, as the poor old priest finished up having to do a six-month stint in each village, with a procession from one to the other on the Feast of St John the Baptist and back again at Christmas, and Ingobert collected pledges from all the villagers totalling 50 pounds of good gold so that they’d stick to it.

As far as I know this procession does not still happen, but I bet it was a big deal while it lasted. Form your community round that! :-)

1. C. Baraut (ed.), “Les actes de consagracions d’esglesies del bisbat d’Urgell (segles IX-XII)” in Urgellia: anuari d’estudis històrics dels antics comtats de Cerdanya, Urgell i Pallars, d’Andorra i la Vall d’Aran Vol. 1 (Montserrat 1978), pp. 11-182, doc. 8.

Seminary II.1 (there is nothing new under the sun)

Another Victor Farias chapter in the Riquer volume that Liverpool were kind enough to spare me for a few weeks by the magic of Inter-Library Loan threw up some interesting concepts.1 In discussing parishes in tenth-century Catalonia, he observes that from what we can tell, largely from consecration acts and occasional boundary disputes2, rural churches were centres of small districts even before these were organised as parishes, but that these districts aren’t conceived of as zones, but rather as networks of belongings. That is, a map of connections rather than territories.

This was written in 1998, and although Farias seems to be relatively unafraid to introduce new thinking undercover in what’s a fairly discursive work with very few references—which may not be ideal—I presume it is at least reasonably established in the circles he moves in. But as you may recall it was news to me in May this year when Elizabeth Zadora-Rio told it or something very like it to the Institute of Historical Research.

In all the time I’ve been working on Catalonia, I’ve been conscious of a kind of ten-year wall. I find out about new work mainly through citation, and it takes me a while to get hold of it, and it’s very unusual for something to come to my notice and into my hands that’s less than ten years old and actually from Catalonia. I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on the literature up to that point, and better than anyone in Europe I’m likely to have to discuss it with, but it all gets a bit sketchy inside a decade, and I’m always conscious that things could have changed quite a lot and I not know. This time however it seems as if I’m not the only one. I guess this, like the fact that royal charters are worth having to people even when they no longer really convey material rights even at time of award, is something that is easier to see from a well-documented fringe.

1. V. Farias, “Els inicis de l’església catalana” in B. de Riquer i Permanyer (ed.), Història Política, Societat i Cultura dels Països Catalans volum 2: la formació de la societat feudal, segles VI-XII, ed. J. M. Salrach i Marès (Barcelona 1998, repr. 2001), pp. 154-159, 161-167 & 169-173, at pp. 167 & 171-172.
2. The consecrations are all published in R. Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Les dotalies de les esglésies de Catalunya (segles IX-XII), Estudis Historics: Diplomatari 1-5 (Vic 1993-1994), 3 vols in 5.

Hero worship: “Commerce in the Dark Ages”

Or, I can just write about the Middle Ages and its historians of course.

One of the papers I have always remembered reading after I first came across it, unlike so many which I’ve subsequently re-read, made notes on and gone to my notes catalogue to find I’d read before years ago, was one of Philip Grierson‘s, “Commerce in the Dark Ages” (which is available through JSTOR for those with access from that link).1 At the time it struck me as one of the clearest, most common-sensical pieces of historiography I’d ever read, and not that much has challenged it since then (though the sense of understanding you get when reading someone who really does get his or her material is still wonderful).

Philip Grierson at work in the Coin Room for which he paid, at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge

When I, through various routes, wound up copy-editing Medieval European Coinage 6, one of the exciting things about that was that I would thus be working on one of Professor Grierson’s projects. Also, as I rapidly discovered that he was somewhat less well these days (as in, less well at 95 than he had been at 90, when he was still producing scholarly work, and than at 80 when he’d still been beating undergraduates at squash) one of my hopes was that we’d be able to cheer him by seeing another of the volumes of this long series to press before too long. In the end, in fact, there wasn’t that much time: he was already too ill to come into the Department, and I wound up checking the last few footnotes and references from his personal library with him not there because he’d been installed in a nursing home for what would be the last two months of his life. I never actually got to meet him. (And the book still isn’t out, but that’s another story.)

Very recently I had cause to pick up the first of his volumes of collected papers, Dark Age Numismatics, for another paper, and was reminded afresh of the existence of “Commerce in the Dark Ages” because it immediately precedes the one I needed in the volume. So I read it again, and then I decided I needed to encourage you to.

It is basically a warning to people who use coin evidence and other goods ‘out of their place’ as evidence for trade, and I can summarise the whole attack of the paper in one extract:

The most recent work on the economic life of the Dark Ages… takes it for granted that trade, and trade alone, was responsible for the distribution of goods and coins in the centuries with which [it] deals.

Such a view is altogether too narrow, and prejudges too many issues. There are other means whereby goods can pass from hand to hand, means which must have played a more conspicuous part in the society of the Dark Ages than they would in more settled and advanced periods. They can be characterized most briefly as ‘theft’ and ‘gift’, using ‘theft’ to include all unilateral transfers of property which take place involuntarily—plunder in war would be the commonest type—and ‘gift’ to cover all those which take place with the free consent of the donor. Somewhere between the two would be a varied series of payments, such as ransoms, compensations, and fines, while such payments as dowries, the wages of mercenaries, property carried to and fro by political exiles, would all form part of the picture.

He went on to give an amplitude of examples of such alternative forms of transfer, and finished by reckoning that really for a lot of the Dark Ages2 those forms were a good deal more important than trade.

Now since he wrote Peter Sawyer’s work on the Vikings has led to a fairly large-scale revision of the way those particular ‘alternative exchangers’ did their work, and the whole raider/trader controversy has opened up around them, and this sort of evidence is key, if only because such vast amounts of English coin is known from eleventh-century Scandinavia as to require explanation in one or other terms. Meanwhile there is some argument over the importance of long-distance trade in the European economy as a whole,3 but that debate is at least half-aware of Philip’s article. In the Viking studies world, however, the tendency to play down the violence and plunder has reached a level where this kind of caution can be forgotten, and this is wrong. Myself I lean towards the idea that the Vikings are best understood as unrestrained capitalists with political ambitions, trying to amass the capital with which to mount hostile takeover bids, whether those be of a homestead in Norway or of a freshly-carved kingdom in England or Francia. But even if you violently (or non-violently!) disagree with me, if you’re working on this stuff you have, please, to have an answer to Philip ready one way or the other. Okay? Thankyou. Here endeth the lesson.

1. P. 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, repr. in idem, Dark Age Numismatics, Variorum Collected Studies 96 (London 1979), II.

2. I’ve been laughed at for using that phrase, but relatively speaking we do have far less knowledge of the centuries it describes than those around, and I have no problem with it as such. The joke about “ended with the discovery of the candle/lightbulb/etc.” does get a bit tired though.

3. Referring to Michael McCormick’s Origins of the European Economy: communications and commerce A. D. 300-900 (Cambridge 2003), which sees such structures as fundamental to the development of the later economic orientations of Europe, and Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2006), which argues among a great many other things that such trade was always only marginal in the period and of no long-term effect beyond the aristocratic level. With that one might argue (and I have, with him indeed) that effects on the people who represent society’s controlling interests are not to be discounted, and with McCormick’s thesis there are a whole range of arguments (mostly expressed in a debate with him in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 no. 3 (Oxford 2005), pp. 259-324, linked up above). Wickham has read and cites Dark Age Numismatics however, and McCormick may though I have no copy to hand to check. They are at least aware.


I don’t understand the way people come to this blog. WordPress are remarkably informative, but their information confuses me. Sometimes the process is obvious. Richard Nokes kindly links one of my posts, I get a shedload more readers, this I understand. I don’t know how many, because I guess most people are reading through feeds, and WordPress only counts actual direct hits, but I see the effect on that. (I guess that means, in fact, that I will see more effect from links than from anything else but that that doesn’t necessarily relate to regular readership.)

But sometimes the information I get makes no damn sense at all. The day that I drafted this, apparently, I got fourteen hits from the blogroll beside an old, worthy and sane but uncommented and ancient, post of Another Damned Medievalist. Surely this is someone’s browser going mad, and not real information? It goes on. The same day, more people read the well-hidden Sex and Medievalists post than any other. But this seems to be because hits on the actual front page (which linked to it at the time of drafting) aren’t separately recorded so the click-through shows up as most important even though it wasn’t really because more people read what’s up front. Certainly only one of the search engine strings WordPress tells me of would have led there, and mainly what those tell me, comfortingly but uselessly, is that my little First Crusade paper is something people want to find. This is useless because it wasn’t actually a blog post so although it’s nice to know it’s being useful, without reorienting my research by some way it’s not something I can develop further for the readership’s benefit.

So what this means is that actually, although WordPress is trying very hard, I don’t really know what people are reading and what they’re skimming, what brings you here and what sends you away, unless you comment. Now, this blog was originally set up as self-publicity after a suggestion at a party by someone who seemed to believe that the blogosphere was the new Stock Market. This is why for example I don’t mention rejections or lack of progress in it; I get them, as does everyone at my level I think, but I don’t necessarily want prospective employers or rivals to find this out easily. (No, I don’t really have any rivals, fair enough. Anyway.)

But even such readership as I do have makes me wonder whether I shouldn’t be bearing them in mind as well. Currently I just spout whatever I’m currently finding interesting into draft posts, and then stick them up when the action seems a bit quiet webwise. (This is also good for last-minute reconsideration of exactly where I’m hyperlinking to or whom I’m arguing with, I’m finding…) But is that floating your boats?

I therefore tentatively invite feedback, from anyone that might wish to give it. For example, I have categories set up, many of which I hardly use, for:

  • Currently reading… (mini-reviews and outraged spluttering)
  • General medieval (i. e., ‘this is not really my area…’)
  • Anglo-Saxons (which only used to be my area)
  • Carolingians
  • Catalonia
  • Charters
  • Crusades (I keep forgetting this is there)
  • England (I do live there)
  • Feudalism
  • Islamic Crescent
  • Picts
  • Spain
  • Humour (for want of a better word)
  • Next paper is due (advertisements and panic)
  • Now working on… (doesn’t everyone use the web as a sounding board nowadays?)
  • and

  • Uncategorized

And these, apart from the last, are sort of the areas that I know my way in, a bit. Some more than a bit. If you have no other feedback, let me ask you, would you like to see more use of any of these and if so which? Or some other? If there seems to be some definite movement I’ll try and come up with a Que sais-je? kind of post or two or some recent relevance. If not, I’ll assume things are probably OK as they’re going. But thankyou in advance if you do have feedback to add.

Also in a metablog kind of way, hey Carolingian, nice to meet you but dammit next time I buy the lunch, all right? :-)

Feudal Transformations IV

More Josep María Salrach, this time from the older Procés de Feudalització, where I find him observing that both before the feudal revolution (say 950) and after it (say 1070) the count is in charge of the nobility who run his castles for him. (Although there is as you will have observed from the previous post something of a blip between times.) The difference is in the way the link works. Beforehand, the count is the representative of the public power, the power enshrined in the law as the princeps, delegated from the king, and the nobles are agents, whose title is constituted by their office that he gives them. Afterwards the relation is more two-way, an agreed sharing of power that leaves the noble the count’s vassal. Actually this means that the count has more power over the vassal, as the vassal owes not just the castle if requested, but also military service and most importantly homage, which has nasty consequences if broken, whereas before the count’s power was more or less restricted to the taking back of the officer’s honores, if he even could. But the exchange is that the count has to give away more power, leaving the vassal more or less independent in a territory that had once paid the count dues and renders which are now going to the vassal. Both sides give more to get more.

Castle of Gelida

Now of course some might say that the Carolingians imposed universal oaths of homage with theoretical penalties of death for transgressors, the local nobles were always more or less invulnerable in their heartlands unless ousted by force, and that generally less changes here than Salrach implies except in the field of theory and rules. But as ever I’m interested to see the change described so clearly. The big problem remains that we are looking at a lot of changes altogether which are not necessarily associated by nature.

Some day I’ll write it, some day.