Monthly Archives: November 2007

Seminary XI: Antoninus Pius would be so pleased

Villa Magna, near Rome, ruined church at left
I missed a week at the IHR between Hallowe’en and the 14th November, when I was back there to hear Caroline Goodson talk about a villa and monastery site that she and some others have been digging at Villa Magna near Rome, under the title “The Vassals’ Post-Holes: living in medieval Villa Magna”. I had lost touch with Caroline it seems, as last I heard she was working on Alatri, but it seems that that’s all terribly 2004. Now she has a new site, which she was led to from that one by a similar piece of wall-building.

Her new site, the villa and later monastery of Villamagna, whose charters will be edited with facsimile as part of the project, which gives me joy, is of unclear chronology as yet. This is mainly because the church seems to have been raised several times due to the amount of burial in the neighbouring cemetery, which it kept coming close to being swamped by, so the whole structure seems to have been rebuilt at least once with doors and windows a good four foot higher than they had originally been. Meanwhile, the layers upon layers of bodies in the cemetery have to be cleared, carefully, before they finally hit the bottom layers of the site and work out how old it is.

That however is the church, and elsewhere on the site is the old villa, and here’s where the title comes in. There is, we were told, a surviving letter from the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius about a stay at this villa, which used to be an Imperial property and was, intriguingly, apparently fortified some time after the early fifth century. In the letter he says that he remembered visiting, in the tow of his father Antoninus Pius, the then-reigning emperor, and they had a good day’s hunting and then ate dinner in an arcade in the villa watching the peasants crush grapes for the vintage.

Now, when the Villa Magna team were digging in 2006, they quite quickly found a room in the villa, with expensive opus spicatum flooring (a term I’d seen before and of which she had a slide so that at last I learnt what it meant), into which holes had been put to expose the necks of big fermentation vessels for wine-making that were sunk into the clay beneath. Here’s a small section of the floor exposed:

Section of Imperial-era wine-making floor at Villa Magna

Caroline had pictures of the whole floor exposed and a volunteer sitting in each vat with room to spare, but those photoes are all cunningly hidden on their site as yet. Here, the big chunks eaten out of top and bottom are where the vessels were later robbed out (leaving the marble floor, surely worth more!) and the square holes are the post-holes of the title, which as yet await explanation but may, only may, relate to a later known set-up of wooden houses belonging to papal dependents in the thirteenth century somewhere on the site. Anyway, the story does not end here. At the end of the large wine-making room, they found a semi-circular kind of apse structure, which is apparently best interpreted as a dining arcade by analogy with other villas where this is known to have occurred.

Or, in other words, it seems kind of likely that they’ve found the exact room Marcus Aurelius was writing about. Among a lot of other things, of course: the whole dig project has a site up here, but that bit’s the coolest I think. I love it when texts and material evidence come together. They can hope for more such connections as the charters are brought into play, but probably not with quite as auspicious a dramatis personae

Mission statements 2: custodians of memory

Logo of the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal

I was going to leave the previous post as a singleton, and then of course it was Remembrance Day. I might have thought the things I go on to say here when I came across Another Damned Medievalist’s post on the subject, but actually I was already thinking it because of, quite unconnectedly, having that evening watched an episode of Dr Who I’d not seen before in which they had cause to show part of a Remembrance ceremony. It was total coincidence that we chose that DVD this evening, as far as I can tell, but it contained the following words that may be familiar to you:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

This never fails to choke me up. And it’s not because of sadness for the loss of life, as such, or any of the more conventional tugs it’s meant to make at the heartstrings. I freely admit, I used to be a war geek, and I’ve made some effort to get an idea of what fighting in the wars of the last century might have been like, but it’s not even empathy that really gets me with that quote. I haven’t got much right to empathy anyway; I have no relatives who died in the war, indeed I exist only because of my father‘s clever ability to stay alive through it out of his own incompetence, as he told it. Somehow his incompetence made him a lieutenant who served at three invasions, so I’ve had my doubts about whether he, a lifelong pacifist, was really as useless a war sailor as he would have liked to think himself, ever since I read a really good article in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society about Australian Great War veterans and how they liked to remember their service.1 Meanwhile, it’s theoretically possible, though vanishingly unlikely, that my father’s landing craft may have ferried my maternal grandfather’s company onto a Normandy beach in 1944, long before they had ever had cause to matter to each other. They both survived. So it’s not even grief.

No, the reason that quote gets to me is because it’s not true. We won’t remember them, for the vastly most part. We’re already getting to the point where there aren’t enough veterans to hold memorial services for the Great War dead. Soon the media exposure those get will collapse as a result. In another century the Great War will be as distant from the people then as the Franco-Prussian War is now. Its history will probably still be taught in schools, but individual connections to the soldiers, whether by acquaintance or genealogy, will be the preserve of amateur researchers and real obsessives. After all, tracing one’s genealogy back as far as, say, the European settlement of the USA, is still fairly reasonable to our perspectives; but when you get people who claim to be descendants of English nobility from before the Conquest (which I have met twice already) you, or at least I, assume that they’re quietly and harmlessly mad, because we know what the evidence is like and that it basically can’t be done. It’ll be a good guess for most people that they had ancestors in the Great War, but for the most part knowing who they were or what they did or didn’t, won’t be an option without doing heavy research at Kew or wherever.

You may already have seen where I’m going with this. When popular memory fades, as it will, who remembers the fallen? Who, in fact, remembers anyone? We do. Historians are our cultural memory specialists. That sets all kinds of agenda that most of us would probably wish to disavow, but nonetheless we are the only ones who can. In the same way as I can’t bring back a full picture of Adalbert of Taradell, I haven’t been able to get a full idea of what, for example, Sergeant Edward Mott of the 1st Battalion, Border Regiment was like as a person: probably fairly frightening I would have to guess, because in my world people don’t charge German machine-gun nests single-handedly even after being wounded in the eye, but in 1915 actually some ordinary people did do stuff like that, because war is Hell. Similarly when I got my hands on the medal group of 2nd Lieutenant John Mitchell, RAF, my personal reaction was, “you madman!” but that doesn’t remember him as someone who knew him would have remembered him. We can’t do it perfectly; but when no-one else can remember them, we can at least pick up the bits and make something, and this is in some sense what we’re paid for (those of us who are).

Badge of Order of Saint Anne, awarded to 2nd Lieutenant John Mitchell, RAF

Now at the moment the Second World War is still close enough that memories are painful and we see the horror and the heroism with an unavoidable attachment. I read too many Biggles books when young and I still feel kind of the same way about the Great War although not to the extent of glamorising it I hope. But as I’ve argued above we seem now to be watching the Great War crossing that threshold of about three generations whereafter it will be difficult for people to be attached to its memory any longer. It will join the other stuff that we study in the past, where relevance is not immediately apparent and has to be argued, or else can even, eventually, be disowned because popular attachment is now so weak that just interest is a more powerful justification, which puts you about where I was with the previous post in this series. And it will be our job as historians, is already some of our jobs, to try and bring stuff like that back as far as it can be brought back, and to try and tell what it was and what it was like, with imaginative reconstruction where necessary and steadfast adherence to the evidence where possible and so on. Because no-one else will know how to do it well. We have been trained in where to look and how to evaluate. We are the memory experts; we’re boring compared to Beowulf’s scop, maybe, and it may be a toss-up as to who wins between us and Patrick Geary’s cartularising monks when it comes to care and disinterest,2 but for better or for worse, it’s we with the research Tardis whom society needs to hear these lost voices for them. I might have quarrels about whether we can improve ourselves by hearing them, but that’s what the previous post was about, why most of the uses for historians are dangerous or unhelpful in a situation where concrete benefit is demanded. This is the use for history that society will pay for least, though I suppose archivists have got it going on. But it might be the most important one.

1. Alastair Thompson, “Making the most of memories: the empirical and subjective value of oral history” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series, Vol. 9 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 291-303.

2. I refer here to Patrick Geary, Phantoms of Remembrance: remembering and forgetting in the tenth and eleventh centuries (Princeton 1985), which is actually really quite relevant to the whole question I’m attacking here.

Seminary IX (places you can’t dig for medieval Islam)

Seminar at the IHR on Hallowe’en was Hugh Kennedy, who has recently relocated to London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, giving a paper called “Landed Estates and Incomes in the Early Islamic World”, a topic that perhaps only he could make interesting to a wider audience, though I being a charter historian and a hedgerow Islamist (by which I mean that I know a bit, but I can’t read any of the real stuff) was fascinated throughout.

The basic theory he was propounding was that in the early conquests of the Muslims, powerful or wealthy invaders were, despite the legal prohibitions against profiting from the jihad, allowed to acquire large landed estates in the conquered territories as going concerns, where they lived like the lords who had preceded them on agricultural revenues. After about 800, however, in the wake of the cAbbasid revolution, this was changed, and thereafter Islamic magnates lived off grants of tax revenue. Hugh argued that, among other things, this meant that whereas as landowners the settlers had keenly invested in irrigation and other such improvements to make their estates turn a profit, afterwards there was no such interest in infrastructure, it became harder to make such a system work because of falling land potential and the peasantry going bedouin (and therefore not paying taxes), and that basically it only lasted a generation or two before going into fiscal meltdown. The chronology of this only really came out in the discussion, which had a lot of people saying, ‘but someone must be working the land if the taxes are being paid’, and it’s still not clear, as Hugh willingly admitted, why the cAbbasids pursued such a self-destructive course.

Palace of Qasr ibn Wardan, c.560 CE

For me, though, though the actual theories and discussion and so on were the meat, the gravy was in the illustrations. Hugh has been to the places he talks about and photographed them ,and usually had more detail than we could have got from any publication about the state of their archaeology. The problem with a few of them was that there was no archaeology, however, despite their being enthralling and high-prestige sites well away from development. In fact that’s the problem: these places were on the margins, as close to the desert often as sustained investment could make cultivable. (Another set of questions revolved around climate change in Arabia, where the sources seem to support a wide range of opinions.) This in turn means that they are now well away from the prosperous heartlands where modern states have grown up. Therefore, they tend to be near borders. Bab al-Hawa, as a quick Google will tell you, is in fact now a border gateway between Turkey and Syria, where getting any kind of international dig together is a little far-fetched. Worse still however is the old Persian site of Daskarat Malka, which was once an estate belonging to Shah Khusraw II. You will find nothing about this place on the web: it’s very nearly a Googlewhack, only one irrelevant result (at least until I publish this…). It’s never been dug, although apparently the surviving structures are impressive. Why not? Because, dear reader, the site is in a bad place, and has been for some decades; it’s on the Iran-Iraq frontier. Archaeology with land-mines in it!

So I guess we’re unlikely to find out more. Which bothers me, but it bothers Hugh a great deal more and I can’t say I blame him. Similarly several of his illustrations were from 1930s French military pictures taken from biplane surveys, because since then it’s been rather difficult to do aerial photography over, e. g., Syria, unless you’re the Hel HaAvir. Add this to the losses from archives and museums in Iraq due to the war there and it just makes me want to ask: how on earth are the winners in the Middle East going to write any history?

Mission statements 1: artistic licence

This happens a fair bit, but I have just seen it happen again: someone is asking, from the inside, what the point in being a historian is. I mean, that’s what the post is really about, but because we all really know that—viz, that it floats our personal intellectual boats to find stuff out that was once known and is now recoverable only by an exercise of skill that makes us feel smug as well as enlightened—the question is more how to justify doing that to the general public, especially when the question of HE funding and their tax bill comes to the fore. In other words, how do we answer the question, what have the historians ever done for us?

Well, I have heard various answers and liked none of them. The first one is that which we all fear: that actually, in a market-dominated age, you can’t justify the study of the past, especially the medieval past. Modern history might have something to teach you about the world now but the Middle Ages are pretty much about how it got that way, if that, and things were just too different then for it be relevant. At least so “they” say.

Against this there are two defences. The first and better is that the study of history teaches a critical faculty, allows one to assess the possibility that the sources are lying or misinformed, and if you’re lucky also provides you with informative and interesting parallels to your own experience while you’re at it. But this doesn’t answer the question of why medieval history: in fact, the more sources the better, really, so modern history would be more justifiable with this than medieval.

Also, it doesn’t work so well for higher education as it does for history in schools. By the time they leave school our pupils would ideally already have the critical faculty, in the same way as university maths departments protest when a new intake lack basic arithmetical skills. I always felt, when I was an undergraduate, that I’d learnt all that really needed learning in English Literature when I was at school, because now I had enough skills and mental tools to take apart a text myself to the limits of what could be known about it. I suppose I should have taken note of the fact that I never believed the same about texts in history, but then there’s the increased (supposedly) interface with the actual lived past to account for. English Lit. is about getting to the heart of a text; history is about getting to its heart and going through to the world beyond, which presumes that the real world is reflected in the text in a way with which a literary text would not be concerned. I don’t know how safe a presumption that is, in fact, but certainly few of us would favour a source we thought to be fictional over one we thought to be sincere, yes? So even if the edges of this division are fuzzy, finding clearly defined space is easy enough.

Anyway. At that rate, the only point in historical research would be the progressive problematisation of our source material. If we ever achieved understanding and orthodoxy we’d cancel out the gain from criticism. So although I cling to it as a hope of something I may achieve in the classroom, I don’t think it explains why Joe Taxpayer should feel he’s doing something useful when he learns that the British Academy give me research money. (You never know, it’s happened before.)

So the alternative defence is that it leads to a greater understanding of what it means to be human. That is, it’s like literature, the study of the people of the past opens a window on the human condition. Or, better, because then you can claim to be a social science, it’s like anthropology, the customs and practices of the study group of past populations, as obtained through the particular practice that is historical study, contribute to a grand picture of what humans are and do in society. Only, even anthropologists don’t believe that’s what they’re doing any more do they? There was no Ursociety to be reflected in modern survival populations, and thus neither in past ones. And such anthropologists as I know and talk to have trouble crediting historians with anything like the scientific aims that some claim to have.

PhD Comics strip for 3rd September 2007

Well, fair enough I say. We’re not scientists, at least I’m not. I use science, I have methods that owe a lot to science, I build and fill databases fer losh sakes and so on, but any definition of science that allows what I do to count—with no control groups, no ways to conclusively test theories except whether they fit the (statistically insignificant) data well enough to get away with it—is no kind of science I want to be part of. A bit Groucho Marx but you get my point: this is an arts subject. And what’s the point of art? To make people feel better. There is no other. It can all be put to a purpose, but it doesn’t inherently have one and often such a purpose will distort the purity of the art in question (although I freely admit, sometimes that distortion is an enhancement).

At which rate, is not the actual point is that combination of smugness and enlightenment I mentioned that we get when we come closer to what we think is a truth about how things were? You can explain it many ways—hearing a voice from the past, touching someone’s life long gone, or even finding something recognisable in an alien culture, but you know what I mean. The buzz. And we teach others how to get it.

So where does that leave Joe, and is there a point for research in this construction? Well, yes. What distinguishes history from literature at that rate is that we think we’re accessing a truth. I realise that this is contentious, that some current theory would rather stress that because our knowledge is imperfect we shouldn’t fool ourselves we’re in with a chance of reaching any actual facts, if there are even such a thing. I continue to insist that that’s what we’re trying to do.

(And I think there are some facts, or at least things that we can treat as such. Only missing-years theorists would say that Charlemagne was not crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day 800, for example. We can argue endlessly about what those things all mean but we could agree on that much. At my end of the scale, when Sarra of Gurb is recorded in a charter selling land that neighboured on some belonging to an heir of hers, I don’t see any point questioning that she and her heir both existed, as she turns up in other documents, although I admit that without perfect evidence I don’t know for sure that she had any right to the land, or that the land transfer she makes in the charter was ever actually carried out.)

So we hunt the truth, and we feel good about finding it. Jeff Sypeck feels he’s achieved something getting closer to Charlemagne, I put together the surviving pieces of the career of an insignificant landowner called Adalbert of Taradell, and in him I have exhumed someone from of the records and stood him up, and even if it’s only a cardboard cutout that partly reflects one face of who he was, what he did and where he did it, and how he set up to face death, I think I’ve found some truth that we didn’t have before. We’re after the truth. It even makes it sound like a noble pursuit again, doesn’t it?

But, the big question. Our truth is not very useful. (Jeff’s is more useful than mine though.) Why should it matter to good ol’ Joe? Apart from, perhaps, the somewhat weak argument I use on my webpages, that people are per se interesting and this way we find extra ones, and (what I don’t say there) usually in the past the data is so limited that it’s easy to know all that is possible to know about them, which you can never manage with the living. What if Joe has enough people, and no time to read about more? What, apart from breeding competition for my own job (ha!) and lowering the market value of a degree, am I doing?

The only way we get round this is outreach. I once said that I had to go into medieval research, because otherwise I just ranted at people in pubs about stuff, and this way at least I kept it safely in tutorials or conferences. But the pub ranting is important. When Dan Brown writes a book, and it’s historically rubbish, we are expected to be able to say something about it; people do actually want to know. How many times have you, if you’re a medievalist, been asked for example, whether Arthur existed, how much truth lies behind the Robin Hood legends, whether King John was really as bad as that, what Magna Carta actually is, whether the Crusaders weren’t really just in it for the money, or equivalent non-English things? (Not counting “where was Carolingia anyway?” which I’ve had a few times too often.) I mean, people want to know. And because they want to know, they want us to know. But we have to be ready to tell them. We have to be available, not just to students and people paying, but to the people who maybe contributed a few pence in taxes to our education, or who just keep up my place of work‘s visitor numbers and thus help keep it going. Their payback is our knowledge. So we have to put it on the web, explain things at parties, the same questions over and over; it is how we give back for being allowed to spend our time doing something that, even though people like to know it, has no authentic use whatsoever. (And this also entails trying not to have to give the answer, “it’s not really my period”, however true that is. Is that how people should think of historians, people with fields so narrow you can’t find them in conversation? I hope not.)

It comes down to this. Knowing stuff is fun; pass it on. And I’m sure we most of us are. But sometimes, a post like the one I started by referencing tries to ask a bigger question, about a purpose in society or whatever. Well, OK, sure, we have at least one; but it’s the same one as novelists, artists, musicians and sculptors. We have access to stuff that people like to feed their brains with. Less, in some ways, than the authentically creative; but more, because we draw on so much past creativity and effort. We like to think it’s the truth, and perhaps it often is, but that’s just what we have to sell; a particularly rarefied form of entertainment and enlightenment. The thing I’m trying to say is that selling it puts us into the market, and we can’t make it there. To transcend the question of what history’s worth, we have to be all about giving it for free. Or so I think, anyway. Whether you agree or not, the bloggings will continue until morale improves.

Seminary VIII (a room packed with archaeologists)

You know, at the moment my readership actually goes down when I post something, whereas the longer I stay silent the healthier it gets. I’m not quite sure what goes on here, whether I’ve just reached search-engine critical mass or something. Hullo the new readers anyway. I shall risk driving you away by putting in more content, as I’m running badly behind.

falling pots! by Mary Chester-Kadwell

On Wednesday 24th October the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar took a short trip up the road to have a joint meeting with the University College London Institute of Archaeology. This is obviously the sort of thing that should happen more often, and indeed the speaker referenced a paper by Guy Halsall that pointed out how silly it was that these two seminars never met, as of 2003, though unfortunately I didn’t get a handout and Guy’s own webpages haven’t been updated since he moved to York, so I can’t give a further citation.1 It was pointed out by Andrew Reynolds, who had organised the meeting (for which the archaeologists had generously shifted their usual meeting day), that ordinarily of course Guy had never been able to go to that seminar himself because he was usually teaching at the same time that it was on. Generally we all agreed that London is just too busy, which was easy to do given the hundred or so of us that were crammed into a room made for forty to sit in comfort.

But I’m digressing. What on earth led a hundred-plus academics to come and squeeze into a darkened room in UCL, you may be wondering, and the answer is that the speaker who was talking about Guy, historians and archaeologists was none other than Professor Dame Janet Nelson, or Jinty as most of us know her, and she was speaking to the title, “Spades and Lies? Interdisciplinary encounters”. Now Jinty’s worked with a good few archaeologists, and meanwhile has her own definite views on what’s useful and what isn’t in the study of the past, so it was clearly going to be worth hearing, and she didn’t disappoint, although she had warned me beforehand that it was going to be a rambling anecdotal piece. Well, so it was I guess, but every anecdote had a point as an example and Jinty’s own asides and self-deprecations make her an endearing speaker, especially when she has something definite to say but, you get the impression, isn’t sure whether you’ll take her seriously. What she had to say was largely a set of stories that, like St Bede with his Ecclesiastical History, aimed to give examples of interdisciplinary practice both bad and good,

For if history relates good things of good men, the attentive hearer is excited to imitate that which is good; or if it mentions evil things of wicked persons, nevertheless the religious and pious hearer or reader, shunning that which is hurtful and perverse, is the more earnestly excited to perform those things which he knows to be good…. (HE, Preface)

I can’t even attempt to reproduce the various stories that came out, but the upshot was that she feels that the two fields need to respect each other’s aims and our common ground a lot more. We’re all trying to do the same thing, she argued, and it doesn’t get us anywhere to denigrate the other approach when we should instead be trying to see what it can contribute to our understanding.

Thus, her title referred to an article by Philip Grierson that I reminded you all about a little while ago.2 I didn’t mention this, but that article opens with the memorable quote, “It is said that the spade cannot lie, but it owes this merit in part to the fact that it cannot speak.” Philip then went on to stress how all archaeological evidence is subject to interpretation and that, really, people ought to be more careful with that then they often are, and so on. Jinty stressed that she was a great fan of Philip’s work and owed him a great deal (not least because he’d been one of her D.Phil. examiners!),3 but had to say that this was exactly the kind of attitude that she felt wasn’t helpful; mocking specialists from across the divide for how they use ‘your’ evidence is not the way forward. Of course, archaeology has moved on a lot since 1959, and meanwhile there exist far too many historians who’ve forgotten Philip’s warning as I was trying to point out, but it’s a fair enough point. Which is not to say that Jinty didn’t herself have some private gripes about some archaeologists’ use of documents, but some historians came in for mild censure too. Overall it was entertainment: but I must get hold of the handout as the depth of reference it seemed to involve would be a really useful thing to have handy when next I have to deal with the gap (which will be in January I think, though details are not yet on the web) between the text and the trench.

* The roadsign image at the head of this post is the work of, and copyright to, Mary Chester-Kadwell. I’ll justify my use of it to her if she objects next time I see her as `fair use’ somehow or other, possibly by buying her drinks till she agrees, but I think she would prefer it if it didn’t get distributed from here, so please don’t be reusing it without her permission. A link to her web presence is concealed under the image.

1. Though if I had to guess, I’d imagine it would be his “Early medieval archaeology and history: some interdisciplinary problems and potentials for the twenty-first century” in Hans-Werner Goetz & Jorg Jarnut (eds), Mediävistik im 21. Jahrhundert. Stand und Perspektiven der internationalen und interdisziplinären Mittelalterforschung, MittelalterStudien des Instituts zur Interdisziplinären Erforschung des Mittelalters und seines Nachwirkens, Paderborn, 1 (Paderborn 2003), pp. 163-185, about which I am able to inform you thanks to the incomparable Regesta Imperii OPAC.

2. 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.

3. As well as a faint horror of the passing of time during my lifetime, this fact again makes me marvel at Philip’s longevity. Jinty is retiring this year, 2007, two years later than she wanted to in 2005. I don’t know when she did her doctorate, but Philip, who examined it, had at least six papers out in 2001 and a last one in 2002, and was still firmly intending to get back to work, when he felt up to it, until very shortly before he died in early 2006, and was still collating reference material and reading new work for most of 2005. If Jinty had had her way she’d have retired before her doctoral examiner had stopped working. It’s not a bad run, you know?

Seminary VII (digging in a church with a Pict)

On Wednesday 17th October, the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminar was given by Thomas Owen Clancy, who was asking, “The churches of the Picts: when, where and what were they for?” Which is fair enough really. As he said, the simple answer was, ‘during the Pictish period’, ‘in Pictland’, and, ‘for the Picts to worship in’ but actually pinning it down beyond that was tricky. Thomas is very cautious, as anyone in that field has to be to avoid getting stuck into heavy politics and stupid anthropology comparisons, or just being mistaken for a blue-rinse loony. He did however have some new input on the place-names that filled out the picture of the early Scottish Church a bit, which otherwise looks terribly western-focussed and therefore Gaelic. He found good evidence to suppose that a widespread pastoral network existed in genuinely Pictish territory (where we agreed to define Pictish as ‘not Gaelic’, except maybe in Atholl but that’s my own personal bee in the bonnet) before the Gaelic takeover of the ninth century, although some at least of that probably had to be blamed on the Anglo-Saxons in the seventh century. As a counter to that, however, he also opened up the suggestion that Gaelic was always a privileged language for those in charge of the cult, because writing and Christianity both seem to have been imported in it (except where a rival Anglian import was preferred) and that the Pictish Church may therefore have had little use for Pictish.

By and large, it was a paper full of interesting ideas not pushed too far, and though no-one was very much the wiser at the end in some ways, Thomas is very good at leaving us feeling better about how little we know in this area, because he always has some hopes that we might some day work it out and ideas to follow up.

Happy to answer further questions about this should anyone be interested, but for now that’s as good as you get because I had to move house and prepare a lecture the week I drafted this and my brain is mostly elsewhere…