Monthly Archives: December 2007

Meme-tag: Count Borrell II

Magistra has tentatively tagged me in a meme that she has mutated (which, given how meme theory is supposed to work, is I guess fair enough!) and although I share her discomfort with the chain-letter aspect, I’m never averse to having an excuse to trot out some stuff about my specialism. I can also take some joy in gratifying a recent websearcher whose visit here may have been a little unsatisfying. The rules of the meme, as given by Magistra, were:

  1. Link to the person that tagged you and post the rules on your blog.
  2. Share 7 random and/or weird things about yourself.
  3. My variant is that rather than say 7 random/weird things about yourself, say them about a historical figure of your choice. (Let’s be generous, semi-historical, for all those interested in more or less mythical figures).

  4. Tag 7 random people at the end of your post and include links to their blogs.
  5. Let each person know that they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

Well, I can’t be having with the tagging. Magistra’s already chosen some good ones and I don’t feel I could appeal to people I only know through the blog to jump through a meme hoop for me. I will only say that I expect Derek the Ænglican, Michelle of Heavenfield, Sæsferd of Antiquarian’s Attic and Larry Swain might all come up with interesting things, especially since I’m adopting Magistra’s mutation. Seven odd things about myself? If I tried that here I’d very much fear for my employment chances should any academics read it, or so I like to imagine.

A long time ago in an IHR seminar Jinty Nelson got us to go round the table introducing ourselves and our subjects. John Gillingham, in so doing, concluded with the words, “and my hero’s Richard the Lionheart”. So when it came to me I was moved to imitate with “and my hero’s Count Borrell II of Barcelona”. But no-one knows who he was and occasionally I try and change this. Here then once more…

Modern equestrian statue of Count Borrell II at Cardona

He’s not actually my hero, if only because although his career’s fascinating, it’s far from being an unmixed success, but he’s certainly my main historical figure. He started operating as Count of Barcelona under his father Marquis Sunyer in 945, and succeeded to his father’s three counties of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, basically the south-west of old Catalonia, along with his brother in 947 when Sunyer retired to La Grasse to become a monk. Later that year his uncle Sunifred II of Urgell allowed him to inherit Urgell too, because Sunifred’s son, also called Borrell, had died and Sunifred now had no heirs. He ruled until 993, active till the last, and oversaw the beginning of Catalonia’s facing-up to the growing social change as the economy began to boom around the year 1000. He was an important man and he’s unusually well-evidenced, about 150 charters featuring him in some way or other.

So seven odd things about Borrell! I’m not footnoting these, because they mostly need long arguments; some day, children, there will be a book. I promise you. Anyway:

  1. Although he was titular count of Barcelona, there’s almost no sign of him doing anything there until his brother Miró died in 966 leaving Borrell as sole ruler in their three counties.
  2. He seems to have established a school for judges and recruited especially learned clerics as tame court jurists, presumably as part of a PR exercise for the quality of his own justice. These judges have since become a misleading model for what all Catalan or Meridional judges are supposed to be like, and I hope to have a paper done refuting this some time soon.
  3. They say no man can serve two masters but Borrell was a supplicant at the courts in both Córdoba and West Francia as occasion demanded.
  4. He got on really well with his cousin Miró, who was count of Besalú and also Bishop of Girona, and seems to have effectively run Girona for Borrell; but maybe that’s because Miró and his brothers kicked Borrell’s behind in battle at some point around 957…
  5. We only know of him going to war one other time, in 985 and he got his behind kicked then too, by al-Mansur who went on to sack Barcelona thereby kick-starting Catalan historiography according to Michel Zimmermann.
  6. In 985 one of the places that got hit was the nunnery of Sant Pere de les Puelles, which was Borrell’s and his dad’s foundation but where he’d probably been pressured into making one of his major magnates’ daughters abbess in exchange for getting a castle clawed back from a monastery that magnate had founded and given to Rome; but that abbess was carried off in 985 so Borrell got to emplace his daughter in the end. Convenient!
  7. He went to Rome in 970 and tried to get his pet bishop made an archbishop; and although he very likely failed, he has managed to fool all historians since then that he succeeded, all except me! me! (unless I’m wrong).

I think all of these things are odd enough to make up big chunks of the second book, anyway, but maybe I need to write the current book first… So there you go, web-searcher, Borrell II of Barcelona for you. For more detail and references, until that first book comes out, I really should get my thesis on the web which would allow you easily to get at the references there (which are at J. Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, Ph.D. thesis, University of London 2005, pp. 221-253, esp. 221-225).

Leeds is on

As a final notice for the year, I can tell you that the Leeds session I and m’learned colleagues were proposing for next year’s IMC, whose programme is not yet on the website, has been accepted, so we will be giving it nine of the best on early medieval charters on the Monday and Tuesday 7 and 8 July. That isn’t actually my next paper, my next paper’s supposedly at Queen Mary University of London on 15 January (and it’s written, by which I mean revised from Exeter but ssh…) but the organiser has as yet failed to actually publicise this so I can’t as yet point you to anything about that either… In both cases more details when they hit the web, but for now, have a good holiday…

Added in passing III: silly genealogy

Just a short note to say, to anyone who winced with me a few posts ago about persons who claim descent from early medieval figures, but is however not in the habit of following my blogroll, may I please point you to one of Nat Taylor‘s recent entries? He has a fine example of exactly this sort of thing, a society founded for those who can claim descent from the Merovingians, and I tell you, our mission as educators will not be over till this same sort of thing stops. For heavens’ sake. I notice that it postdates the publication of The Da Vinci Code. Well, it would have to wouldn’t it. One more thing to blame to Dan Brown for.

Seminary XIV: Tom Brown’s IHR days

Last one in the current run of Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminars was on the 5th December, with Tom Brown of Edinburgh, speaking on “Life after Byzantium: Ravenna and its hinterland in the Carolingian and Ottonian periods”. I think I’ve seen Tom present at the IHR more times than I’ve actually read an instance of his work, and this is in some ways very wrong as his stuff is without fail interesting and entertainingly delivered, but on the other hand his presentations are always work in progress so they have a more human quality than perhaps the dry academic printed word needs. On this occasion he was mainly arguing that Ravenna, although never equal to its fifth- and sixth-century glory days as the Western capital of the Roman Empire, was very far from being a backwater, even once deprived of a coastline, and remained one of the most important and high-status cities in the area until the definitive eclipse by Venice in the twelfth century.

Otto I, from a manuscript from Milan c. 1200

I hadn’t realised Ravenna was supposed to be a backwater, it comes up often enough in the sources, but I was quite interested by Tom’s suggestion that its undoing was its own success in attracting the Ottonian emperors’ court to the city, thus breaking into the previously-untroubled autonomy of the archbishops. This is also the way the supposed ‘feudal anarchy’ in Catalonia is broken when the lords have to deal direct with the counts and thus concede that they are not fully their own masters. Lordship giveth, and lordship taketh away…

Avatar Challenge

Michelle of Heavenfield asks various people, including me, what the deal is with our avatars. I have a feeling she will be disappointed with this…

The monastery of Sant Cugat del Vallès

When I started this blog, I was slightly inconsistent about whether I was going to make my identity obvious. Part of this lack of policy was that I wanted an avatar image (I wasn’t initially clear that this would only appear within WordPress) which didn’t commit me on that till I’d decided. On the other hand, I wanted something that would pin me to Catalonia for the cognoscenti. I don’t think I achieved this, but this is how I went about it.

Sant Cugat del Vallès can claim to be one of the oldest monasteries in Catalonia, possibly going back to the fifth century, though none of the surviving fabric is that old and what it may or not have done during the Muslim occupation of the Tarraconensis is open to debate. (The current Spanish Wikipedia article on it is more cautious.) But more importantly, it was one of the very first to have the charters from its archive systematically published, by Josep Rius i Serra over the years 1945 to 1947. (Federico Udina i Martorell finally provided the index that Rius never managed nearly forty years later.) What this has meant is that almost all post-war work on regional history in early medieval Catalonia used it as a source, because it was for a long time almost all that was in print, especially from big ol’ Barcelona, and though they often had their own pet archives too, just for ease of reference the authors would tend to provide references substantially from Sant Cugat. (The fact of it being a thoroughly good edition also helped.)

My reasoning was, then, that if there’s one place in Catalonia that early medievalists know about, it’s Sant Cugat. So I FWSEd for it, stole an image with a suitably iconic focus off the tourist board’s website, cropped it and the rest is history. If I were doing it again with current policies, I would probably use an actual picture of me (if possibly not the lolhistorian one, though it is tempting), and I may yet change it, if only because I worry faintly about the imputations viewers may draw about me from the central crucifix. But for now, I shall take refuge in the defence, that a lecturer from Texas once complained to me about having to make to her students, that “people in the Middle Ages really were Catholic, I’m not just saying that’…

Seminary XIII: blogospheric Vandal migration

Anonymous coin of Vandal Africa, AE4, obverse bust of king or emperor, reverse stylised Victory advancing left

In theory I don’t need to write anything about the penultimate IHR Earlier Middle Ages Seminar of this term, because Magistra beat me to it already, but though she and I (as you can tell from her comments trail) have a lot of similar views on the early Middle Ages, when Peter Heather speaks, on “Vandal religious policy under Geneseric” or on anything else, views will frequently differ… I defer to Magistra for the actual description of the paper, and indeed deeper discussion about some of the themes, but I just wanted to mention a few things that came up in discussion.

Firstly, the Alans seem to be the barbarian group that everyone forgets. The first non-medievalist I mentioned this paper to reacted with incredulity that there was seriously a barbarian group called Alan, and refused to be as intrigued by their apparently Iranian dialect (as Professor Heather put it—I suspect much of the world would prefer the term Farsi, but as with his redefinition of Vandal Christianity as Homoian rather than Arian, again not a definition with which all would agree, this just shows that Professor Heather is not afraid to bend words to his views) as by their incongruous name. I was intrigued to learn that apparently there is a reasonable body of epigraphic evidence for this group and their tongue from around the Black Sea, where they’d been neighbours of the Goths with whom their successive generations eventually crossed Europe.

Vandal grave-goods from two finds in Eastern Europe

Another of his points that I wanted to hold onto was the amazing career of the Vandal king Geneseric (or Geiseric as he’s also called). As Professor Heather said, his people when he was born around Hungary can hardly have known about Africa, much less Carthage, its Punic heritage, or Christological heresy, but he leads his men through central Europe all the way to Spain, takes ship to Africa with many thousands of troops, takes one of the grandest capitals of the ancient world by marching along several hundred miles of desert coast in a ten-year campaign, while changing faith to one of two hotly debated brands of Christianity and thus becoming responsible for the passage of hundreds of thousands of people safely to a Heaven of which he can hardly have heard as a teenage warrior king. Before the end of his life he’d had the gates of Rome flung open to him as well. He died in peace. Not a bad run! As Professor Heather again said, almost none of the other barbarian kings travelled so far or lived long enough to see and do so much.

That takes me to the last point, which is one about numbers. Professor Heather is unusual among historians of what used to be called the Age of Migrations in as much as he still believes in migrations, or is perhaps the new wave of a counter-revisionist account of the last years of the Roman Empire in which large numbers of barbarians genuinely do move across Europe. He is not afraid to deal in large movements of peoples. So we talked about the extent to which Gothic names are picked up in Spain, and I said that this is curious because the prevailing wisdom doesn’t contemplate very many immigrants, and talked in terms of Nick Higham’s arguments about the rôle of political status in language change, but Professor Heather thinks it’s easier just to accept that actually there were quite a lot of Goths. As I say, the prevailing wisdom doesn’t, mainly because the immigration is almost archaeologically invisible, but Professor Heather made it clear that he didn’t see why he should defer to archaeologists in dealing with historical evidence, and I saw no point in making enemies there and then. (In this respect he may not fit perfectly into Jinty Nelson’s place at KCL…)

So I asked him for his views on Richard Hitchcock’s ideas about Vandals in the Muslim army that invaded Spain in 711, and he was, although justly critical of Procopius’s numbers for the immigration into Spain, much surer than Professor Hitchcock had been that the Byzantine clearance of Vandals from Africa after the defeat of King Gelimer in 534 could have involved most of them; he said we should be thinking in terms of ethnic cleansing more than political settlement there. It’s this lack of fear to think in terms of really big events that makes Professor Heather’s take on things interesting. All the same, in this case I’m not sure I agree, or at least, I think that Vandal embedding into the Berber population over those centuries of rule in Africa would mean that the Vandal armies and the Vandal population would be rather different-looking bodies and the deliberate deportation of one would not necessarily remove the other. On the other hand, how militarised would the remainder be? and how much would that change in the three generations before the Muslims arrived? Nonetheless, at this beginning of the Vandal kingdom rather than the end where I was last caught thinking, I was entertained by Professor Heather’s take and as ever learned a lot from talking to him. My students will do well from him being their new lecturer…

Seminary XII: Earls of Mercia (but no naked horsewomen)

Customised version of Lady Godiva’s ride through Coventry

The IHR Earlier Middle Ages seminar for the 21st of November actually took place in the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, which turned out to be just as well as we’d have overflowed the normal room. This was mainly because, as one of ‘the locals’ was speaking, several of his pupils joined us, but it was certainly an interesting paper. It was, in point of fact, Dr Stephen Baxter of King’s College London come to tell us about his new book, The Earls of Mercia: Lordship and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England (and ignore what that link says, it is published, I’ve seen a copy). His paper was thus of the same title, and dealt with the family of Leofwine (and therefore Leofric and therefore Lady Godiva, who only got a mention to say that she wouldn’t get a mention, but as with the Beowulf entry, we like the search terms anyway). I won’t try and do what he did and summarise the book; I’d wind up summarising his summary and it would do little good, but there were two or three quite particular points that I thought were worth dragging aside in the style of a hunting-hound dragging a bone away from the feasting table and gnawing at.

The first of these was his insistence, on what seemed to be a sound basis, that the lands that were held by the various earls or ealdorman of Anglo-Saxon England were largely granted to them by the king, and remained sufficiently under royal control that they could easily be revoked when as frequently happened earls were moved around or removed from office. His best example was of Earl Eadwine, when he’s appointed to Northumbria after the exile of Tostig; Stephen pointed out that he has land in many parts of the earldom, despite the family having no useful background there at all and him hardly having time to buy very much; this, he argued, must be coming from the king. This is a bit of a maximum government idea really, and although no-one studying the high Middle Ages would think this odd for a king to be able to do, to anyone used to the early Middle Ages on the Continent it seems almost impossible. This is the era of the supposed feudal transformation! If you’ve got a castle you’re independent! If you’re miles away from the king, tough luck to him! and so on. But here, if Stephen’s right and these aren’t just family holdings that intermingle so much as to be dangerous, which seems less and less likely the more you realise how quickly earldoms are flipped from family to family in Edward the Confessor’s reign, the royal officials who actually keep these estates running and producing care enough about the king that they don’t, for example, take it for their own castle, form a pact with the local lord to respect his claims before anyone else’s in exchange for protection and so on. Despite the numerous advantages there must be of being a lord’s man in this troubled period, and despite all the work Robin Fleming’s done elucidating the nature and number of the people who did make choices like that, in these areas it’s still a better deal being the king’s local man. Well, we really need to know more about how the kings managed that and where it came from. If more work along those lines comes from reaction to Stephen’s book much good will have come of it. One initial reflection of mine is that this would be one reason exactly to keep the earldoms flying round places, to stop anyone getting a toe-hold. If you can hand them enough revenue to work with anyway, you don’t lose too much by not letting them wear into the job, maybe…

He also made something of the idea that the lords, denied local anchorage through their lay lordship, made some attempts to fix themselves in local power structures through the patronage of the Church. The Church would remember for longer, and also could revoke its benefices less easily… He had some very good examples of what it might cost a cathedral or monastery to have a ‘patron’ of this sort, in terms of grants in trust to their ‘great friend’ whom they could not ignore. This sort of tactic obviously had to be confined to core areas, though, and it seems to me that this implies some better basis in those areas to start with. At this point, of course, I need to read the book before pontificating :-)

Alan Thacker however also wanted to know what made these ealdormanly families worthy of the rank, but as Stephen pointed out, entirely new earls are made, and function, so it keeps coming back to the maximum state again. Just leaves me champing at the bit and wanting to know how, how, how, and why not elsewhere.


I must be the only person on my blogroll who’s posted since the Beowulf film came out not to have mentioned it. That was at first just down to my peculiar scheduling of these posts, but as I delayed for that reason I realised that I was seeing more and more references to Beowulf-not-the-film in popular culture. Like this:

I begin to understand that the educated, or at least slightly educated, market for the film is bigger than I had expected. Not a lost hero after all, perhaps! And not just in pop culture either, because flicking idly through the latest issue of Speculum, Vol. 82 Pt 4 I believe, that Jinty Nelson had left around her office, I found that it opens with a paper by Roberta Frank called “A Scandal in Toronto: The Dating of Beowulf Twenty-Five Years On”, which came over to this reader very much as being the dressed-up, phoneme-spattered and fully referenced academic version of the neutral stance used by Professor Drout for his series of posts on the subject. Typically of the field, however, if I read both correctly they don’t actually agree even if their senses of the literature coincide closely. Drout’s version was of course intended for the kind of readership who would be fuddled by the high specialism of Frank’s paper, and I count myself as one of the fuddled here: what I understood, I understood mainly because of having read Drout’s posts, so that’s valuable work he’s doing there making specialism accessible. (I will be writing more about that before long due to the extreme reactions going through Van Engen’s Past and Future is giving me, but that’s for later.)

Anyway, the point is that even without the film Beowulf is pretty darn hot as topics go right now, so it’s safe for me to re-enter the blogosphere, because on 19th November I actually managed to go and see the film, and moreover in 3D, which was rather fun. I’m not going to do a real review, because more expert people than I have done so and I think Professor Nokes has probably linked to most of them. Nor am I going to use this opportunity to gratuitously include a shot of Angelina Jolie (or her CGI hwaets) in the blog (though you’ll notice that following Dr Virago‘s lead I still include the search terms); a mere picture could never convey etc., and in any case do I really want potential employers to catch me expounding on æsthetics like that? No. So, instead, merely some observations as follows.

Good things about the Beowulf movie

  • the dragon. I mean come on, whatever you may have thought of the animation elsewhere (and I went with a lot of computer types who were very snotty about it indeed), that dragon was the absolute business
  • prehensile hair
  • a realistic sense of the importance and, er, adaptibility, of renown in the Heroic Age
  • I don’t care if the Old English was mispronounced, it was intelligible enough to make maybe a few extra brave people go, `I could more or less understand that! How hard can it be?’ and I thought it was really cool

Bad things about the Beowulf movie

  • the music (and no, I don’t want a copy of the soundtrack thankyou)
  • “period” geography. Come on Gaiman, the only people who know enough to place Vinland and the Middle Kingdom also know roughly when they were and so should you
  • I don’t think the armour was actually a cunning attempt to suggest that fifth-century Danish warriors were essentially sub-Roman in terms of military apparel, though I was prepared to entertain the theory for a while
  • the ship near the beginning looked like an actual cartoon, I mean sub-Disney
  • “All the characters in this film are fictitious and bear no intended resemblance to any real persons alive or dead”, eh? Don’t be so sure, we may yet prove you wrong…
  • most of all, it would have been nice if, at any point in either opening or closing titles and credits, any mention of the ruddy poem that actually exists and can be bought and read had been made anywhere, don’t you think? Just because we don’t know who or how many people composed, wrote or edited it, or when, doesn’t mean they wouldn’t want their royalties, if they could be brought up to relevant speeds on things like, er, moving pictures, 3D, payment of writers in money, 21st-century society generally… But you get the idea! Scop wants his credit! Pah. I keep expecting more from Gaiman than he’s able to deliver.

I’ve probably now done enough damage to the sober critical and adult reflectiveness for which, in my wild aspirations, this blog is already famed, so I’ll leave it there and just say, I enjoyed that, more or less, despite the relative weights of pros and cons, so if like me you are not by profession an Old English expert it’s possible you might also. I leave you with this further evidence of the cultural embedding of our lonely Old English heritage in pop culture. First Drafts is a series of cartoons that runs, among other places, in a satirical British news magazine called Private Eye. Usually it’s some novel everyone knows well enough to get the joke; last month, it was this…

Simon Pearsall’s First Drafts: Beowulf

Metablog II

Dear oh dear. Once again my stats indicate that really, there’s nothing I can do that drives traffic to this blog down so much as post in it. On the other hand, there’s little I can do to raise traffic except to post… so here is some light observation while I faff with imagery for the next planned post.

I’ve been messing with the side-bar, which causes me to want to say a couple of things. Firstly, it’s possible you may have noticed your blog dropping off the sidebar; this is a policy I have slowly come round to where if bloggers I link to don’t write anything for a full quarter, I take out the link; that side-bar’s crowded enough. So far I have not removed anyone else for any other reason, so it’s not personal I promise you.

Secondly, what happened to the University of the Blogosphere? It’s all gone 404. This seems sad.

Lastly, a tip of a hat I never wear to the Antiquarian’s Attic for a link to an apparently new site on the St Gall Plan, which has been greedily added to the Resources section. Here is a taster thumbnail! But beware: the site uses the phrase ‘objective correlative‘ in cold blood, in a way I’m not at all sure dear ol’ T. S. would have been happy with ;-)

The St Gall Plan, Codex Sangallensis 1092