Blogroll policy, and some more archaeological experiments

I appear, over the nearly-two years this blog has been running, to have developed a blogroll policy. Given that, it seemed like a good idea to explain it, especially as I’ve just pruned it and I suppose the prunees might be wondering why. Basically it comes to the two things this blog is, at its core, intended to be, which is (a) academic and (b) advertising. Then there is also the idea that what I link to reflects my judgement in some way, so that in combination, I want the blogroll to show that I know that there are other medievalist bloggers out there trying to communicate their field to the general public. What this all means is that I want what I link to to be current, academically-inclined and more-or-less medieval. In practical terms, I seem to have wound up defining these criteria as “updated within the last quarter”, “having academic content on the front page” and “medieval, well, all right, ancient is also cool and archaeology is relevant almost without period”. Now I think that everyone I have linked to here satisfies those criteria, even if in a few cases I have linked to their categories so as to filter out non-relevant material. On the other hand, I’ve just removed The Punch Die, not because its focus is ancient and numismatic but simply because it hasn’t been updated in a quarter, and one highly erudite medieval blog currently featured on the blogroll was for a while removed because its entire front page was then squeeing about dogs, and I didn’t think that anyone following that link would think I was trying to tell them anything very useful about the medieval blogosphere. And I by and large don’t link to Livejournals, because they function rather differently as social networking and even where their content is largely medieval it’s often drowned by life, love and the pursuit of drunkehappiness. (I don’t link to the Medieval Studies community LJ for a different reason, which is that it’s locked to LJ users only; open it up to OpenID so I can comment some of the places I’ve been mentioned, and I’ll reconsider. Huh.)

This is not, please understand, a quality judgement! All of these exceptions have stuff in I like to read and think is well-written. I was glad when Highly Eccentric hived off her academic thought to The Naked Philologist, but precisely because I was already reading and enjoying Atol is Þin Unseon and was forever in a quandary about whether to link it. I’d love to link to several blogs that spark up about once a year, I’ll mention Westmynstre Blues and Recent Finds in particular, but it makes it look as if I’m not paying attention to my own site. And even the squeeing about dogs was well-written, though I freely admit that dogs are not a great interest of mine. So please, if you find yourself excluded, don’t think of it as snobbery, but mission focus. Or, of course, should your case be appropriate, bloody well update :-)

Now for those of you not following my blogroll, and why the heck should you after all, you may just be missing out. In particular David Beard is doing sterling work keeping us abreast of what I’d call Recent Finds had that name not gone, with his posts to Archaeology in Europe, and it’s about one of those I want to write for the rest of this post.

L\'Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Osona, Catalonia

L'Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Osona, Catalonia

You may just have heard of Dr Peter Reynolds, who died in 2001 but had until then been in charge of the thirty-year research project at Butser Ancient Farm, which is a site founded to farm and build as the Pre-Roman Celts and Romans did, with authentic crops and methods, by way of finding out how that worked, how much the original farmers knew about what they were doing, and of course try and rediscover some of what they knew that we don’t.1 What you may not know is that he was also part of a project doing similar reconstructive work for the medieval period in Catalonia, which is of course how I know about it though even then only by the sketchiest of chances.2 And I was reminded of this by a recent post by David Beard, you see, and thus find out (because his link leads to the whole paper, which is in English) that this work has carried on since 2001, in one of the most interesting sites in Catalonia, l’Esquerda.3

L’Esquerda’s principally notable for being a Carolingian refortification of a Celtic oppidum that time basically forgot as the frontier moved outwards. Most of the existing building is twelfth-century but a burial sequence goes back to the Carolingian era, and there seems to be a reference in Astronomer’s Life of Louis the Pious to orders that would have seen it rebuilt.4 That’s by the by, however, as what they’ve been doing that’s described here is, Reynolds-style, constructing a replica of a granary that was found on the site some time ago. This has told them a lot about the storage capacity and techniques of the building, but the real meat of the project, and the bit that got Reynolds involved, was an attempt to recreate the agronomic range of the medieval site using the seed remains in the granary as a guide. This is essentially what the paper that David has linked to is about, and it’s all good stuff and tells us lots about what grew and what didn’t, and in particular suggests that the miserable cereal yields we are often told to think of medieval agriculture as producing are in fact so miserable as to be difficult to replicate without deliberately screwing it up, which medieval folk presumably weren’t doing, so we should probably call those sources into question (as has indeed been done).5

Chenopodium album, or Fat Hen

But I’m more pleased about the work it reminded me of, which was in a way more interesting although based on a very old-fashioned idea of the relationships between lord and peasant in medieval times. It is pretty clear from various sources that where in Catalonia wheat could be grown, it was. It was Reynolds’s contention that the lords would have taken most of this as tax, and certainly that wheaten bread or porridge couldn’t have been the peasant diet very much of the year. The same also applied to the second, spring, harvest of barley or millet, much of which would have gone for fodder. What did the peasants eat once all this was gone? And Reynolds’s article that I remembered was about this ‘third harvest’, the unlikely crops we no longer think about except at really fancy bakeries like spelt or the above-pictured vegetable and grain-source, Fat Hen or white goosefoot, which as well as having edible cabbage-like leaves also has seeds out of which a passable bread flour can be ground.6 He pointed out that this stuff and other food sources like it grow wild, in the places between cultivation, and that though we might not consider it as food, a starving peasant who knew his plants, as most of them would have done surely, certainly would. The upshot is that the state of the medieval peasant, even in hard times, may not have been as hard as we sometimes think, his diet more varied and seasonal, and less of his ill-being down to lordly exaction than it might be because there were some things lords didn’t exact. The ideology of the paper was a little questionable, to say the least, but the food science was fascinating. So yes: I recommend knowing what peasants ate and here is some good evidence. I don’t know if they have a medieval bakery at the l’Esquerda visitor centre (needs Flash, this one, but a good site) selling you Fat Hen bread but if they did (and I hope to go some time in the coming year) I would totally buy and eat some in Dr Reynolds’s honour.

1. Peter J. Reynolds, Iron Age Farm: the Butser Experiment (London 1979) (non vidi).

2. I found idem & Christine E. Shaw, “The third harvest of the first millennium A. D. in the Plana de Vic” in Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 339-351 with Catalan résumé p. 339, French résumé pp. 351-352, & Provencal résumé & English abstract p. 352. This volume is not easy to find: in fact, if you do, I’ll buy it from you! I’ve been to Vic to look (among other things). But it wasn’t Reynolds’s paper I’d inter-library-loaned it from Madrid for…

3. Carmen Cubero i Corpas, Imma Ollich i Castanyer, Montserrat de Rocafiguera i Espona & Maria Ocaña i Subirana, “From the granary to the field; archaeobotany and experimental archaeology at l’Esquerda (Catalonia, Spain)” in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany Vol. 17 (New York 2008), pp. 85-92, online at, last modified 19 June 2008 as of 15 July 2008.

4. There’s a wealth of Catalan work about l’Esquerda, mostly from the team of Imma Ollich who has been leading the excavations there for a good many years now. I think the most thorough thing is Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer & Montserrat Rocafiguera i Espona, L’Esquerda: 2500 anys d’història, 25 anys de recerca (Roda de Ter 2001), which i’m still trying to get hold of, but there’s loads more, and Prof. Ollich is available in English on the subject too, in the translation of her “Roda: l’Esquerda. La ciudad carolingia” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la Época Carolingia, pp. 84-88 as “Roda: l’Esquerda. The Carolingian Town”, ibid. pp. 461-463. Now, honestly, I’ll not often say this, but you should buy that volume. It’s an exhibition catalogue, and so it’s full of gorgeous illustrations: all the articles, which cover a good swathe of Carolingian Europe and England even if it focuses on Catalonia, are translated into English from the original Spanish and feature genuine notables (Pierre Riché is the first to spring to mind but that gives you the idea). Plus which, my copy, which I got from Oxbow Books where it is still on sale, albeit at rather more than I paid for it, came in shrink-wrap with a ticket for the exhibition in, which I rather liked even if I don’t have the time machine that would let me make use of it. It’s genuinely worth having for any early medievalist. Anyway. If, instead, you would prefer current English-language scholarship on l’Esquerda, may I ask you to wait a short while and then avail yourself of J. Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: organisation of society in the pre-Catalan ‘terra de ningú'” in A. Deyermond & M. Ryan (eds), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London forthcoming), or indeed J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London forthcoming), both of which have something to say about the area, among lots more.

The refortification reference is Astronomer, Vita Hludowici Imperatoris, ed. E. Tremp in idem (ed.), Thegan: Gesta Hludowici Imperatoris. Die Taten Kaiser Ludwigs. Astronomus: Vita Hludowici Imperatoris. Das Leben Kaiser Ludwigs, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum Germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) LXIV (Hannover 1995), online at, last modified 8 November 2004 as of 10 November 2007, pp. 278-558 with introduction pp. 53-153, cap. 8: “… ciuitatem Ausonam, castrum Cardonam, Castaserram, et reliqua oppida olim deserta, munivit…. Now, it’s an oppidum desertum once again… Apart from the archaeologists and tourists!

5. Often hard to know what to cite on this: I would work from Norman Pounds, An Economic History of Medieval Europe, 2nd edn. (London 1994) which is solid but thorough and gives you some references that weren’t in the first edition. Much more readable is Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: warriors and peasants from the seventh to the twelfth century, transl. Howard Clarke (London 1974), but very of its time and quite possibly where Reynolds got his ideological stances mentioned below. Pp. 25-27 of Duby’s book give the minimum figures and their sources, but as Pounds and many others have observed, it seems very unlikely that medieval agriculture could have fed so many on so little surplus. Reynolds’s most focused work on this was “Medieval cereal yields in Catalonia and England. An empirical challenge” in Acta Medievalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1998), pp. 495–509.

6. Reynolds & Shaw, “The Third Harvest”, an unpaginated text of which is online here, last modified 20 February 2008 as of 15 July 2008.

14 responses to “Blogroll policy, and some more archaeological experiments

  1. Perhaps you can keep a category on your blogroll labelled “Would be good blogs if they ever actually updated”?

    As for the LJ comm–Open ID may be technically feasible, but given the relatively youthful demographics there, closed commenting is both fairly normal to LJ comms and probably a reasonable provision. (Of course, for me, relatively youthful has become an alarmingly large category. I remember manual typewriters, and if I age a little more, I’ll probably be able to remember medieval scriptoria.)
    (And thank you for the tip to the LJ comm, which is now added to my burgeoning Flist.)

  2. I have a manual typewriter right here, if it’s any comfort. I use it for forms that are only available in PDF and for my son to play with, so he too will remember manual typewriters. See me, I’m in the heritage sector I am.

  3. Ok, I can take a hint… :)

    Updated with pics from Outremer!

  4. Bravo sir! Returned to the blogroll with a fanfare from Syrian Crusader battlements. Did you find anything interesting? Well, I shall read when you post I expect…

  5. Due to some meddling and a bit of unexpected WordPress behaviour the rss-feed for my blog has changed. It’s now:
    Sorry for the shamelessnessity.

  6. Aha, yes, I see. Blogroll will be duly tweaked. Good stuff there, too, like Aardvarchaeology you remind us that the people who lived on top of the medieval period’s remains were also probably interesting…

  7. Oh, the way you put it…

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