Another conference report: Early Medieval Spain at Queen Mary

Six speakers, about forty listeners some of whom appeared to be students, a small but dedicated party of drinkers and a tea-urn; generally success. That would be a very quick write-up of the Symposium on Early Medieval Spain laid on at Queen Mary University of London on 25 January about which I warned you some little time ago, but as someone asked for a proper review, I’ll give it a bit more than that. You knew I would, really. And the style-sheet and a demand for camera-ready copy arrived in my INBOX last night, so if I don’t report soon there’s a danger that the publication will beat me to it…

The old Westfield College building viewed at a strange angle

The brains behind the day, which was technically a special edition of QMUL’s Department of Hispanic Studies‘s regular medieval seminar series, was Professor Alan Deyermond, which to my great joy is pronounced ‘diamond’, but he rapidly handed over proceedings to an early medievalist, and no less a one than Jinty Nelson. She was giving an introductory paper, more or less linking Spain to the Carolingian Empire, which she did by focussing briefly in turn on the shared Roman heritage, the importance of bishops (and most especially for their providing much of our material about the areas), the royal involvement in theological disputes, and the figures who travelled between the two, such as the monks of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and Abbot John of Gorze.1 This gave rise to questions about what happened to Adoptionism and how Spanish Theodulf of Orléans really acted, but the best bit was unquestionably where Jinty ended by observing that it was in fact Robert Burns’s birthday (that one, not the other one—Hispanist medievalists have to be sure you know), and quoting his poem ‘To a Louse’,

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion!

The greatest thing about this was that she was then able to coin the word ‘itherness’, which must be the greatest thing she’d given the world so far that year at least. Damn sight better than ‘alterity’ anyway. But moving on.

Aerial view of the ruins at l’Esquerda, Osona, Catalunya

I spoke for longer than I did the first time I gave this paper, and the extra time mainly went on adding archaeological sites. The paper is basically about the communities and organisation that existed in the zones beyond the accepted frontier, and how much we can detect about them in a body of charter evidence that is basically generated by the process of normalisation and integration into regular social structures, and as I said when I first mentioned it, it features, “churches with no bishops, vicars with no churches, centurions with no armies, judges with no courts and Magyars with no justification”. In a way it’s what I originally intended my thesis to be about before I got sucked in by the evidence of the normalising areas, but I’m not sure that there was ever more than the material for this paper. Ironically, it will likely be in print before the book based on my thesis is, and therefore I shall say no more here except that it seemed to go down well.

A Melgar church in the sun

Wendy Davies gave a much harder-cored paper entitled “Countergift and Suretyship in Tenth-Century Northern Iberia: two aspects of guarantee mechanisms”, in which she examined the measures that a very few people took in their transactions to get people to act, in one way or another, as guarantees that everything would be performed and delivered as agreed. Her preliminary conclusion was that this activity is so marginal that the best interpretation may be the one suggested by the Visigothic Code, that sureties are required only when the transactor who must provide them is of ‘bad repute’. If she’s right, there’s an intriguing route through these documents to the whole question of the value of reputation, ‘fama’, that has recently been opened without really knowing how to go further. In the questions, however, that thing happened that happens when Wendy is presenting and I’m listening, in which I go, “but I’ve got nothing like that in my material!” and she goes “what, really?” and we charter-geek till someone makes us stop. This may make Leeds dangerous

After some technical difficulties, which left Rose Walker briefly gritting her teeth and starting to give an art historical paper without any visual aids, we got sudden IT help and a feast of manuscript illumination. Her paper, “Beatus by the Waters of Babylon”, mainly worked at pointing out the peculiar inheritance of one particular illustration by one strand of the manuscript transmission of the Commentary on the Apocalypse by Beatus of Liébana, in which Jeremiah laments the fall of Jerusalem. She suggested that this was particularly beloved by Mozarabic exile clerics mourning the fall of Toledo as does the author of the Chronicle of 754,3 and as such is a marker of exile scribes. Now, I’ve been active in pointing out reasons why the importance of this migration should be minimised, and I suggested that really, clerics might have been most of it. I thought this would be controversial but actually almost everyone agreed. It makes sense, after all, that the most ready migrants from a Muslim conquest would be those who had some kind of exportable professional qualification and whose occupation was now more difficult to carry out, that is, ministers of the Christian Church. However, I am now left feeling slightly less exciting because of so clearly saying what is widely accepted. I still don’t think anyone else has properly analysed the evidence I used for it though. Moving on once more.

A page from the Saint-Sever manuscript of Beatus’s commentary, showing the rain of fire and blood upon the Earth

The last two papers were by people whom I didn’t know, but apparently should, and the first was Queen Mary resident Professor Ralph Penny speaking to the title “Early Medieval Iberia: how many languages?” This was a controversial thing to do, especially with Roger Wright in the audience, and he missed out Gothic and place-names, but otherwise it was a pretty comprehensive and thought-provoking survey. A great deal of discussion followed trying to separate what counted as a language, what a dialect and what just some odd habits, but there was an interesting thread about different levels of diglossia, where, after the Conquest, although almost everyone had another language they considered higher-status, even it were only Classical Arabic as opposed to the spoken brands, really everyone in al-Andalus, Arabs, Berbers, Christians, Jews, and whoever else the Arabs may have brought with them, would have spoken Arabic as a second language if not first. We think of these populations as divided and separated sometimes, and as almost entirely the same in extremist assimilation models, but linguistically they must have been overlapping but incongruent sets.

And lastly but not leastly, there was a man who rejoices in the name Andrew Fear, and he managed to make Visgothic bishops entertaining, which is a feat of no small order. He was speaking to the title “A Visgothic hypochondriac: the poetry of Eugenius of Toledo” and managed to enthuse about the poetry while retaining a highly irreverent and hard-headed appraisal of the history and historiography. Rough humour, fine analysis of Latin metre and egregious orange moustaches have never been so well combined. And the conclusion was that Eugenius II might have been something of a whiner, but that it was all put to a higher purpose, which King Chindasuinth probably got but subsequent historians may not have. I don’t know the texts so I don’t know what I think, but it was a good way to wind up. And I can entirely recommend the Department’s hospitality; rarely have I been so well treated as a speaker. All this and a promise of publication—I can hardly ask for more…

*It looks like a lovely place, doesn’t it, but we were actually in the Physics Building, which is that vintage of sixties/seventies architecture which is just starting to cost serious money for rebuilding. This bit though, this is the old bit, where they held the Anarchist Bookfair this year. I’m told that a number of anarchists had to be persuaded anything they’d be interested in could be going on in a building so establishment…

1. For these two sets of voyages, see respectively Ann Christys, “Saint-Germain-des-Prés, St Vincent and the Martyrs of Cordoba” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 7 (Oxford 1998), pp. 199-216, and eadem, Christians in al-Andalus, 711-1000 (Richmond 2002), pp. 108-134.

2. Referring to the various essays in Thelma Fenster & Daniel Smail (edd.), Fama: The Politics of Talk and Reputation in Medieval Europe (Ithaca 2003).

3. Which you can find translated in Kenneth Baxter Wolf (transl.), Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain, Translated Texts for Historians 9 (Liverpool 1990), but see also C. C. de Hartmann, “The textual transmission of the Mozarabic Chronicle of 754” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 8 (Oxford 1999), pp. 13-29.

8 responses to “Another conference report: Early Medieval Spain at Queen Mary

  1. Thanks for the report. Sound like you heard some really interesting papers. Also, thank you for the Brooks report. I always enjoy reading anything he publishes, and this latest paper provokes much reflection not only on how much we don’t know yet about A-S England, but also on how we should approach and reapproach our (meagre) documentary sources. Not to mention the observance of a sort of “proto-feudalism” in pre-Conquest Britain. It certainly bears closer examination.

  2. The papers will all, plus one from an earlier seminar by Jamie Wood, be coming out in the associated series, so you can judge the interest for yourself if you can be bothered ordering. It’s moving fast so I hope to be able to gift people with offprints of mine before, say, Leeds (beginning of July).

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