Seminary XV: West meets East, is surprised it’s not just Syria

The Earlier Middle Ages seminars at the IHR, which give you the reader so much delight and/or envy and me the writer so much content, have resumed, and on 16 January proceedings were opened with Mark Handley giving a paper entitled: ‘Easterners in the West: the Who, Where, When, Why, and How Many?’

This one interested me for two reasons, the first and smaller of which was that Mr Handley is not an academic, but a lawyer, who does his research in his spare time. As I frequently fear ending up ‘on the outside’ for reasons of heart, health or hope, or the lack thereof, it’s always reassuring to me to see that someone can still produce work of high quality in that situation.

Drawing of a Roman merchantman from

The other reason was the quality, of course. Mr Handley’s subject of research is travellers, writ large, not just traders but all kinds, soldiers, pilgrims, émigrés and exiles, messengers, students, teachers, the lot. In fact, a substantial point of his paper was to try and rebalance our picture of medieval voyagers towards these others travellers away from traders. This appeals to me because although I accept its basic validity, I have still always felt there was something basically upside-down about the methodology that Michael McCormick used in his Origins of the European Economy, where he tracked trade routes through the records left by other sorts of travellers, without really being interested in those others. But then Handley has a much larger sample of travellers than he had, a sample indeed whose diversity defies the kind of generalisations about currents that McCormick would have wanted to make from it. (Handley of course isn’t the first to suggest that modifications could be made to McCormick’s work.)

So where’s this evidence all coming from? What source has Handley got hold of that such scholars could so easily miss? The answer is, inscriptions. Again, writ large; funerary inscriptions, monuments, and humble graffiti, in fact especially the last, because the value of “Kilroy was here” as evidence of travel is actually quite high. He’s been very strict about what he counts as evidence: only named countries or regions of origin or a clear statement of foreign origins, and this still gives him 528 instances not including those at Rome (which he left out for reasons that elicited some discussion afterwards), up to about 650 C. E. This is what most of us early medievalists consider a pretty good sample!

A depiction of Antioch as Queen of the East from the Peutinger map

Obviously he could expand it by admitting things like regional names like ‘Africanus’ and so on, but his rigour has good justifications, and they principally revolve around Syrians. He gave a run-down on the old historiography, which here still relies to a surprising extent on Pirenne, and emphasised that one of its over-riding tendencies was a pair of false syllogisms, that a mention of Easterners meant Syrians (because everyone knew that Syrians were the main traders, right?) and that a mention of Syrians meant traders (because… oh, we just did that), so that effectively from chance occurrences of Easterners Pirenne and others constructed a detailed Syrian-centred trade network which the Muslim conquests therefore wrecked. Handly’s particular rigour allows him to test these assumptions with the extra detail from which his work profits, and pronounce that although Syrians were certainly the largest single group of Easterners attested in the West, they are some way from being a majority of his sample, and really very few of those who are qualified with occupations were traders; rather more were soldiers and of course lots were clerics. Now that might be what you’d expect: in a literate form of evidence clerics would predominate, whereas those to whom travel was all in a month’s work might be less likely to leave graffiti on monuments. But would they be that much less likely to die overseas? Surely more so, which might even balance things back out. So I think it still needs accounting for.

Graffiti from Ostia Antiqua, 2nd century A. D., photographed by Eric Taylor

Some of this work is due to emerge as an article in the Journal of Roman Studies, and although there are certainly questions that can be asked about the methodology, as indeed there were on Wednesday, I think it will be a very useful thing to have out there and will hopefully stimulate more work on this sort of evidence, because there is much more of it than people sometimes realise.

8 responses to “Seminary XV: West meets East, is surprised it’s not just Syria

  1. Does Mark stop at 650 because that is when the inscriptions end or that is when the collected volumes of inscriptions end or for some other reason? I presume he hasn’t been looking at ancient monuments for graffiti himself (or has he)? That seems to me the big problem with taking the project further (i.e. to the ninth century, which, as we all know, is the one that really matters).

  2. I think he stopped there out of latent Peter Brown influence as much as anything; but yes, he was working solely from printed material, though I think he had been to look at some to check. I’ve been told repeatedly that that’s not good enough, which always leaves me wondering why people are allowed to do editions of things at all.

  3. Mark Handley

    Actually I took my sample up to 750, but also included those inscriptions dated only to the ‘8th century’. Published inscriptions obviously continue beyond this point, but you’ve got to stop somewhere.

    I covered Iberia (including Balaerics), Gaul (including Corsica), Roman Germany and Britain, Italy (excluding Rome but including Sicily and Sardinia), North Africa from Libya westwards, Malta, and the latin provinces of the Balkans: so no I did not look at each of the 10s of 1000s of inscriptions in person.

    PS – It is not being published in JRS. This is incorrect.

  4. Mr Handley, thankyou for the comments and sorry to have been in error here. Particularly sorry about the JRS mistake; is it forthcoming somewhere else instead?

    Your comment arriving in my INBOX was particularly odd as I’d just mailed you at another address separately. Is that what’s brought you here?

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