Monthly Archives: December 2008

Julius Cæsar bids us start another one

The Winter Solstice is past, which is when the Earth thinks the year begins. The Nativity is past, which is when the Christian Church thinks the year begins. We are just about to catch up with the beginning of the calendar year, which is nothing much to do with either nature or cosmology and much more to do with Julius Cæsar’s best mathematics. So for the next few days you should be especially on the look-out for people asking, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”…

That said, the fact that we all have to learn to write new numbers on our letters or whatever still occasions reflection dunnit. 2008 was not the year I had hoped it would be for me. I had expected at least two and probably three papers out, and hopefully the book, and all publications I had hoped for have been pushed back to 2009 now, while the one that did come out wasn’t one I expected, or by then really wanted. There were hardly any jobs to apply for, and those for which I applied all remained silent and unhiring. And one particular personal disaster marred most of the rest of the year for me and it took me quite a while to start enjoying the good things that were happening, such as new friends and in some cases more, international travel and renown and so on.

But, look, it’s the end of the year, and now a new one is due, however you count it. I will be spending the early part of it in Catalonia, for Reis with my family out there, and hope to be climbing castles and finding charters for a short space of time, then returning to the UK for two friends’ wedding on the 10th, and finally resuming normal working life on the 12th, at which point I sink all my time into a definitely actually forthcoming publication, albeit a numismatic one, that should start the year off right. And of course all the stuff that didn’t quite emerge in 2008 is that much more likely to in 2009, and once the book is out I think I could plausibly hope for interviews again, and once the RAE restructure is public, people may start advertising jobs again. So while I have been down for 2008 I am setting up to be up for 2009! And I hope the readership out there experiences similar good fortune. Blogging will possibly be sporadic until I’m back in the UK, but it should thereafter be more interesting than it has been for a wee while. So there you go. Right-ho Julius old boy—reel it on…

Ninny’s Boat

Cover of Clive King's Ninny's Boat

Cover of Clive King's Ninny's Boat

Since not long after it came out I must have owned this book, a children’s novel by Clive King, and the fact that I still have it even though I’d not looked at it for years shows I must internally rate it somehow.1 Recently however I used the special license that parents have to revisit half their childhood stuff in the name of entertaining the child and made it the bedtime book du jour for my nine-year-old son. This means that I am freshly equipped to tell you that it’s great. It may also have a lot to do with sending me towards early medieval history as a supposed career. (Ha ha, we laugh hollowly etc.)

The narrative works fundamentally through the lead character’s slowly diminishing ignorance of his world and the politics of the time, so spoilers really could spoil it, but if I tell you firstly that he arrives in the novel as a black-haired slave to a farming population who call themselves The Folk but whom others call Angles, and then when their homeland floods sets out with them for ‘the Isles of Ocean’ in a boat, designed and built by one of their number who escaped from slavery in ‘the Empire’ with a set of craftsmen’s tools and a wealth of experience, you’ll get the general idea I’m sure. Ninny throughout the book is in search of his origins, especially that of his name, and this could get a bit hackneyed, though thankfully the motivation is never explored in depth: because he feels he wants to find out, is all we really need. But the writing is fresh, the lead character engaging, and the others who refer to the circumstances of the world whose setting the reader knows better than the hero nicely depicted. It’s also funny and terrifying by turns: I found when reading it out loud that its scary moments had to be toned down because it’s written as a sharp but wary child might speak, and consequently catches children’s imaginations all too vividly, but on the other hand as an adult there’s stuff in there I’m only catching now that I’m degree-educated and so on. So I do recommend getting hold of a copy if you have children of your own or if you like reviewing medievalist fiction.

I will risk some engagement with the historical setting, though, but because of spoilers and so on I’ll do it behind a cut. Continue reading

Webpage updates

I’m sorry things have been so quiet around here lately. I’ve been adding (and removing) things from the sidebar and so on but everything I’m currently involved with that might lead to blog posts other than what’s on the web is of the long-term, whole-book sort of nature rather than the quick snappy reflection after a single paper. And of course there are no seminars because we’re out of term, and so on. There will be more here soon when I finish some of the reading, and most especially after I have been to and come back from Catalonia in early January. (Catalonia in early January… I must get some Wellington boots!)

In the meantime though, since I’ve mentioned things on the web, it may interest one or two of you to know that I have recently given my webpages a much-needed update. This has included updating information about forthcoming publications, of which there are now even more though sadly none actually yet existent (see moans in the blog passim). This time I’ve reluctantly included the solely-numismatic stuff I’ve done for the Museum as well as my mainline academic output, if only because otherwise I feel it looks to the sceptical enquirer rather as if I’ve been mostly idle this year just gone. Though I shouldn’t feel like that: four different conference papers, three of them written for the occasion, in three countries, a book and two papers entirely revised, etc…. All the same, actual final evidence of my activity is thin, and so the other things I have been up to are now there as well.

Also, you may see if you look closely that that page now has a link to this one, where you can find, if for some unlikely reason you want to, a PDF version of my doctoral thesis. This has taken me so long to do that the original’s pagination is irretrievably irreproducible, alas, but that seemed a rather feeble objection to just getting a PDF convertor and running with it. So next time I say, “you can look it up”, you will actually be able to fairly trivially.

In the meantime I hope you’re all having good and peaceful, or at least useful, holidays and I’ll see you in virtuo soon.

Internet 1, Print Media 2, the winner in the Tenth Medieval Incredulity Contest

I love the Internet, obviously. Quite apart from its social function and its various commercial and academic possibilities (I think learning is a social function, actually), it provides daily doses of how odd human society can get direct to your desktop (or laptop as it may be). But one day recently, the housemates’ daily Guardian not only took the biscuit but went and hid with it behind the sofa leaving only a trail of unlikely crumbs and an over-stretched metaphor.

Section of stalactite ring from a cave near Jerusalem, showing growth bands that indicate rainfall, from Science Daily

Section of stalactite ring from a cave near Jerusalem, showing growth bands that indicate rainfall, from Science Daily

First blow to the Internet, as David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe pointed me to this article on Science Daily, which nearly made me write a page-long rant by itself. Then I thought that I wasn’t being constructive enough; instead, I invite someone to set it to their students for extra credit by the hundred words they can produce on how badly the article is done. Someone somewhere involved remembers a bit of history from school, I guess: that we aren’t fully decided on why the Roman Empire fell, that the Byzantines considered themselves the Roman Empire still, and that climate change has been blamed for societies collapsing… and then it all gets mixed up into this. A pity, and a greater pity that that school doesn’t appear to have instructed them in the history of early Islam (unlike some). But pity most of all that it got any kind of publication without anyone stopping to ask a historian… Somewhere in this, however, is the important observation that mostly climate evidence is taken from the poles and that a bit of balance might change the results rather. Let’s not lose that in the utter mess of the history.

Diagram of current use of the erstwhile Greenham Common airbase

Diagram of current use of the erstwhile Greenham Common airbase

But then I got home and the Guardian attacked. This story has actually gone up since then on Archaeology in Europe too but I didn’t find it there so the printed paper wins this one. How often have you wanted, when reading a site report or even doing a dig if you are such a person, to be able to ask an inhabitant how their site got this way? Some archaeologists that the Guardian is telling you about can do just that as they are excavating the site of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, base for twenty years’ bitter hippy protests against a cruise missile installation that of course the US eventually learnt how to replace with submarines, which are harder to picket. Apparently the diggers are confused by how many milk-bottles a largely Vegan group went through; the article doesn’t actually report what any of the surviving protestors could add by way of explanation, though apparently getting their testimonies will be part of the project. All the same it’s a nice indication that social memory can often be contradicted or gainsaid by other forms of evidence, or that interpretation of archaeological finds is a tricky business, or, well, it clearly means something because it is weird verging on the allegorical.

Church of St John the Baptist, Aston Cantlow

Church of St John the Baptist, Aston Cantlow

But then I found this story and nearly shouted out loud. And what I would have shouted is something like:

Feudalism In Action (this is what I’m talking about, seriously, OK?)

Church of England enforces archaic rights to fix church roofs

(Yes, I can shout in different heading strengths. Trust me, I can.) I’m having a bit of trouble working out what the actual story is that puts this on The Guardian‘s page 3, because the actual case they’re talking about happened a full year and more ago, and that was after a ‘final verdict’ in the other direction, also reported in The Guardian seven years before. The substance, however, is that since the dissolution of the monasteries that used to own them, the upkeep of some English churches has been partly assigned to certain properties in the church glebe. Such tenures are still legally binding, if they can be proven. You can sometimes find that you’ve bought a house subject to this that no-one had ever thought to charge before, and you can even buy insurance when buying a house against this happening to you, but the costs rarely come to the £200,000 that was involved in the case the Guardian was reporting in 2001. They claim, now, that other churches are looking in to enforcing this, but they have no actual names or evidence, and the only reason this story’s so far up the paper, I think, is because it’s ‘hard times’-flavour.

All the same! What is happening here, allegedly, is a tax that no-one has thought to attempt to exact for years being stumbled over by lords who urgently need to extract more cash from their domains and then being enforced by law that they partly control. (The main case was appealed to the British House of Lords, the upper chamber of our Parliament, for judgement in 2007, but of course the Lords Spiritual, that is, bishops of the Church of England, are part of the House, and I’ll bet they didn’t refrain from voicing their thoughts.) The motives aren’t the same: the Church are hard up just because of owning too much property that no-one uses but which they’re obliged to maintain. The guys I’m thinking of were faced with a fierce competition for status as the area they were in experienced an economic boom at the same time as a political collapse—rather the reverse of our situation!—and lots of new people starting having enough resources to be big fish in a newly-shrunken pond. The strategy adopted by the eleventh-century nobility, for it is of course the “blessed” feudal transformation to which I refer, is however exactly the same: find an old right, grab it and squeeze, even if people complain, until this exaction becomes a ‘bad custom’. I imagine I would be quite annoyed by such a bill if I ever owned a house, and I don’t really approve of our union of Church and State so wouldn’t normally take the side of the Church of England even when it’s a question of preserving historic buildings, but the fact that they’re basically using feudalism to do it has me quite enchanted by the idea, I have to admit… Match that, Internet!

Also, a later reflection that this causes in me is that, if you were an eleventh-century noble whose area was in the grip of so-called feudalization, would you know these were the good times? Would you be aware that general prosperity was growing? Or would you merely be worried that it was getting harder and harder to keep up with the de Montforts, that any kind of riff-raff seemed to have a castle nowadays whereas yours went back to your grandfather, already, and your family had always been beloved by Saint Gilles and so on? Concerned that prices were rising, and that there were more and more traders now, whom you couldn’t turn away in case you looked poor? And the money you had to pay these people with was getting poorer and poorer anyway? That there were bands of heretics up at le Mans causing havoc? That the papacy was making these impossible demands about chapel clerks when you’d always had the advowson of your own grandfather’s chapel for Saint Gilles’s sake! and so on. And would you be looking for rights to exact, not because times were good, but because as far as you were concerned they were tougher than ever? In times of boom I guess people know they have it good but the eleventh century can’t really have been a boom, just steady growth. And I wonder if steady growth and disintegrating political power actually look a lot more like ‘anarchy’ than collapse and retrenchment would, when you’re actually living it.

Seminary XXXVIII: complications in the conversion of Bavaria

The Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research wound up for this term with a visitor from afar, Maximilian Diesenberger of the Österreichische Akademie für Wissenschaften in Vienna, which I showed you pictures of a while back. They seem to recruit some fiercely bright people there, and Max was shown no exception by this, and of course has enough in print that no-one would have thought otherwise; I just mean to start by saying that this was a good paper, very carefully considered, full of interesting suggestions and all well in touch with the evidence. The title was “Christianizing Bavaria in the reign of Charlemagne”, so, back in funds, of course I was there.

Fifteenth-century woodcut of the martyrdom of St Emmeram, from Wikimedia Commons

Fifteenth-century woodcut of the martyrdom of St Emmeram, from Wikimedia Commons

Max was mainly working with sermon literature, of which there is a surprising amount from here, and other sorts of episcopal ephemera, inventories, brevia, scraps; he seemed to have had some dæmon finding useful manuscripts for him, though the main one he referred to was this one, Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Codex 420, which that library catalogue explains contains various saint’s lives and hagiographical writing. Using as his conceptual framework the idea that conversion is in some ways an ordering of space, Max explored what these sources could tell us about how the process and task of conversion was seen. I can’t attempt to convey everything he brought out, but some things are worth emphasising. Many of the saints’ lives, for example, especially that of poor Emmeram above, exist in plural versions. This means that we can compare the oldest Vita Emmerami with the later ones, and note that he like other saints of the Bavarian age of conversion never used to get beyond the River Enns, but after Charlemagne’s defeat of the Avars and the first moves into Pannonia from Salzburg, new versions of the Vitae are constructed that send the missionary saints into those areas too, to try and claim the territory by story-telling. This was the kind of thing Max was doing.

Other good chunky bits were these suggestions:

  • Those saints don’t initially get much further than the Enns because, although the west of Bavaria is converted early on, late-Roman sub-Roman sort of period, the east is arguably not really touched until the 700s, the era of these saints, and may well not be terribly Christianized as the Carolingians rise to power
  • This suggests that the dukes of Bavaria, despite their Carolingian connections, were very deeply identified with the new religion and its apostles – Duke Tassilo founded more monasteries in Bavaria than the Carolingians did en bloc, for example. (A weird comparison arises in my mind between the Agilolfing dukes and the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, arriving as questionable foreign impositions and ending their days as cornerstones of their nation’s identity as a new foreign power rolled over them… )
  • The Carolingians have to rearrange space to free themselves of this legacy, as well as the historiography;1 so rather than maintain the Bavarian metropolitanate at Regensburg where the Agilolfings had it, they start a new one at Salzburg. But the Agilolfings had probably moved it to Regensburg from Augsburg, to place it in their new eastern conversion zone, and Augsburg can be detected playing with texts that seem to remember this, bitterly.
  • Once the churches get into them, the old Avar territories are briefly zones completely free for the imagination. The few charters we have for land there (and there are some, at Freising predictably… ) give boundaries on things like ‘pagan graveyards’, it’s a land of legends and no-one knows what’s going on there at first. Annoyingly, of course, we still don’t. I compared it in questions to Pictland, in as much as it’s an area that we identify by a political over-rule seen by outsiders but which seems from material evidence to have been populated by many distinct groups who perhaps wouldn’t have seen themselves as a single group. I need to do more reading about the Avars.

One particular tension that Max brought out at length was between two approaches that we might epitomise as the Alcuin approach and the Arn approach, referring to Charlemagne’s leading scholar and the first new metropolitan bishop of Salzburg respectively. Alcuin thought, famously, that mission work should be accomplished by persuasion, humility, and not imposing tithe too early. Arn, who unlike Alcuin actually had to do some such work, however preferred a heavy institutional approach, and many of the writings Max was talking about are basically stories showing how important it is to give land to the Church so as to be saved. Now it is very very easy to take a modern anti-clerical view of this and say, with some reputable scholars and also with Terry Jones (who is a disreputable scholar, but scholar nonetheless), that this is just a profit motive and that no-one cares about the souls if they can get the lands.2 But in a hostile territory, whose conversion efforts are the more enduring, hey? The lone and charismatic missionary who, Hewald-like, wanders into pagan lands and stands up against their unholy customs with only the force of his preaching? (Max emphasised that many of these texts express an conviction that the biggest thing that made conversion effective or not was the quality of the preaching.) Or the place which gets land, whose men are always there because they live among you expressing their religion as well-defended power and wealth, who offer not a charismatic example but a comfortable one? How much of a mission can you run without a church? How can you have a church without upkeep? How do you therefore sustain a conversion effort without tithe? The harsh institutional extortion so lamented by Alcuin may have implanted the faith rather more durably… and the guarantee of treasure in Heaven may sound more plausible from someone who’s already got this world’s wealth when Apostolic poverty is still a new idea to you.

Baroque refurbishment of the medieval basilica of St Emmerams, Regensburg, from Wikimedia Commons

Baroque refurbishment of the medieval basilica of St Emmeram's, Regensburg, from Wikimedia Commons

1. If the Carolingian takeover of Bavaria is an interesting topic to you, you’ve probably already read both Stuart Airlie, “Narratives of Triumph and Rituals of Submission: Charlemagne’s mastery of Bavaria” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 9 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 93-119, and Warren Brown, Unjust Seizure: conflict, interest and authority in an early medieval society, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past 2 (Ithaca 2001), but if you haven’t, they’re both really good.

2. For example, Jack Goody, The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe (Cambridge 1988); Robert Burton Ekelund, Robert D. Tollison, Robert F. Hebert, Gary M. Anderson & Audrey B. Davidson, Sacred Trust: the medieval Church as an economic firm (New York 1996); cf. Lester K. Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy (Cornell 1983). As for Terry Jones, I’m mainly thinking of his TV series Medieval Lives, which aired when I was first teaching and was what my students would bring in reports of to taunt me with, but his book Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary (London 1980) is a genuine scholarly contribution, whether you agree with it or not, and if you would rather doubt that the ex-Python could have a terribly sophisticated view of the Middle Ages, you could have a look at this interview on News for Medievalists and tell me if you still think he’s a charlatan. I don’t. Provocative and annoying, yes, but from knowledge.

Hyperlinks are not rocket science: a thing about publishing online

The Archaeology in Europe blog has a notice about a recent award to the Department of Archaeology in York that’s got me thinking, and not thinking much of what I think. The Mellon Foundation have given the department quite a lot of money to develop ways to link their journal Internet Archaeology to other electronic resources, thus allowing articles to “make use of the huge potential of internet publication to present archaeological research in unique and exciting ways“. And indeed, few would contest that online publication can “allow researchers to link their work to related databases, video, audio and other information in a way that traditional paper-based formats do not allow“! So go York, huh?

<a href='http... >

I mean, is this money for old rope, or what? There are certainly potentials here which money could bring out, but they could start by actually using the web for what it’s for and linking to stuff. If you have a look at an article in Internet Archaeology they do do various cunning things with links between a table of contents per article and links to bibliographical references and so on. One of the nice things about the web is you can make footnotes clickable, after all. But honestly. Linking to related information? How about to academics’ departmental home pages? How about to universities’ home sites? How about linking to other publications that are online rather than just cite them by URL? How about any hyperlinks at all that lead outside the article? I’m not sure I have seen an online journal that does all or any of this, but to me it seems so obvious a potential. I write my posts here shot through with hyperlinks. One or two of them are ironic or humorous, because there are obviously affected possibilities when you have such a visual way of expressing subtext, but most of them are intended to ensure that no-one needs to read my posts and not know what I’m talking about. Heavy hyperlinking is exactly what allows me to throw what I hope is sometimes academic-quality writing up here and hope that a general audience will be able to follow. I applaud Professor Richards for having got so much money to explore this possibility in his more sophisticated turn, but if I’d realised the Mellon would fund it I’d have applied…

Tenth Medieval is Two

If I schedule this post correctly, since I’m not necessarily going to be near a computer at the right point, when this goes up A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe will be two years old. First post was on 14th December 2006.

It did more or less nothing for the first year, though Professor Steve Muhlberger and the ever-vigilant Professor Richard Scott Nokes both did me great favours of linking. Both continue to point traffic my way and I do appreciate it, but especially over the last six months, what they send me is less and less of my total page-views because they really have grown. One or two very well-publicised posts have brought a certain number in to stay, and a few just keep drawing searches and the numbers slowly climb. Each month has been better than the last for most of this year in terms of figures, so I must be doing something right.

Tenth Medieval past to present

Tenth Medieval past to present

Actual academics have found this, not just the actual academics on my blogroll who are safe because they are aware of why people might blog seriously, but also people I know, was taught by even, and hope to work with in the future. I have become correspondingly less trivial about content, and have also been finding that writing regularly is good for one’s ability to write at any time, but can easily suck time away from what one should actually be doing, though I have long had this problem with the Internet generally.

And I’ve met some cool people, either online or in some cases in real life, been invited across the Atlantic, and been able to feel connected to scholarship in new and exciting places while struggling to make the old-media dent that still eludes me. I’ve learnt a lot about teaching, and how much some people need to know, want to know, and sometimes both.

So this is no time to be stopping, but I did just want to say thankyou, to everyone who feels themselves included in the above musings and everyone reading this, for making it worth making it happen.

Christianization and State Formation in Central Europe website

A very short and much-delayed blowing of my own trumpet, if you don’t mind. Back in 2004, before this blog was even a glint in my eye, I briefly sustained myself by working for Dr Nora Berend of the Faculty of History in Cambridge on a project then called Christianization and State Formation in Central Europe and Scandinavia. The basis of the project was that the team agreed on a uniform set of questions they would like to ask for each of the countries they were surveying, and then got an author or number of authors, largely archaeologists but some historians, to try and answer them. This was supposed to give as close to comparability as possible. The language of operation was English, but the language of many of the authors wasn’t. This could give rise to problems, which was where I came in, Englishing the English.1 This did in fact take a bit of specialist knowledge: for example, when I was faced with one particular pagan prince of legend who had, according to the text I had before me, been “beaten with mousses to death”, it was only the vague recollection of the story of Bishop Hatto of Mainz that led me to wonder if the real answer might have been “eaten by mouses to death”, or as it wound up, “chewed to death by mice”, because that did indeed transpire to be what was meant. Much of it, however, was not that much fun. And it was all due for urgent publication and therefore had to be rushed. That was 2004.

Cover of Nora Berend (ed.), <u>Christianization and the Rise of Christian Monarchy. Scandinavia, Central Europe and Rus' <i>c. </i>900–1200</u>

Cover of Nora Berend (ed.), Christianization and the Rise of Christian Monarchy. Scandinavia, Central Europe and Rus' c. 900–1200

Now, I don’t blame them. I’m by now certain it’s me, somehow, because apart from my first paper every single publication I’ve been involved with has had this year or more of inexplicable delay. (Sometimes rather more than a year…) I don’t know what’s holding up Medieval European Coinage 6 or the Lay Archives books or indeed the publication of our own Leeds papers, or the volume of Papers from the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar that’s going to have me in it. They are just stuck and my CV grows stale. It’s hard to have more in print when there’s an infinite delay in the process. I’m only sure that the hold-up is not lack of my own work, because everything I have been asked to do is done. It seems to just be my luck that nothing I write or edit comes out for years. Anyway. By 2007 I’d given up waiting for notice when I saw the above book in Foyles in London and was mildly outraged, because I’d hoped to at least be told, if not indeed to actually get a copy.2 But I was still more perplexed when I examined it and found that it didn’t appear to resemble what I’d done at all.

Detail of the portal at Urnes church

Detail of the portal at Urnes church

This perplexity has now been slightly resolved by Dr Berend who has pointed me at the parallel website. I had been under the impression that book and web were to share text, but this seems to have been wrong. In fact, although it apparently only went up in December 2007, I’m not at all sure that this site retains all the editing I did, as it still reads rather oddly. Nonetheless, it is there, and it’s really quite interesting. We don’t know a great deal about Slavic paganism, and we know precious little about the Christianization (a longue-durée word for a long process, we mean more than just conversion here) of these areas, but what we do know, except possibly about Sweden where I’m not sure that we really had the newest perspectives sadly, is now available at this underpublicized resource. For some reason Google doesn’t really know it’s there, and if you try Googling for the project all the links point to pages at CRASSH that are no longer there, but in fact it does exist, it covers Bohemia, Denmark, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Rus’ and Sweden, and it does so in a way that makes them very easy to quickly compare. It also has extensive bibliographies for further research and a few choice images. And, in as much as it’s readable English, I helped make it so. I humbly commend it to the readership.

1. I know I’ve said this before, but I don’t know whom to credit for this phrase; it’s not mine, however, as I get it merely from a footnote I think I read on Usenet. However, although I can turn it up on Google Groups more or less as I remember it, that’s in a post from alt.english.usage, which I never read, so I am still mystified. Well, for now, ‘Harvey’ can have the credit for writing in 2002 that “the very concept of having an anglicised form of the word ‘anglicised’ is somehow very pleasing”. Thankyou sir. You were quite right.

2. Nora Berend (ed.), Christianization and the Rise of Christian Monarchy.
Scandinavia, Central Europe and Rus’ c. 900–1200
(Cambridge 2007).

Waxing lyrical: a brief reflection on the Great Pool of Reference

'if you seen her you know the reason for the caper'

Luxoria, from a 10th-century manuscript of Prudentius's Psychomachia: 'if you seen her you know the reason for the caper'

Other blogs, especially of medievalists in the USA whose courses are more literary than my hard-history background and approach, occasionally feature poetry, not always even medieval poetry. This has never happened here, but my outdated counter-culture tendencies may still sometimes out. And it’s surprising what you can find there. Recently, I have been very much enjoying a song with these words:

Banged up in the spires of bone and glass
A heavy blue chain dragged the Pencil Kid down
Wailing for the spoils, the loot, the swag
Of Annwn and to wear the crown
Be the champ while the next contender
Answered his Mayday from behind the fender
Still only seven dangled back from the Otherworld
Still only seven breezed back from the Otherworld
Still only seven drifted back from the Otherworld
Still only seven made home base from the Otherworld

While the castle keeps on spinning
Transmissions from the One Cauldron
Nine dames making with the heavy breath
He grabs a cloud and loses the come-on
Horns of light shall blaze from the portals
Shed no light away from the revels
Still only seven dangled back from the Otherworld
Still only seven breezed back from the Otherworld
Still only seven drifted back from the Otherworld
Still only seven made home base from the Otherworld

Twilight and Jet was shacking up together
Six KG men making with the rubber neck
I’ll drink a bracer to you of hooch on the rocks
Some wiseguys say they know Studs the big ox
And the A T A of K is that constitutional
And the cat with the silver head is that emotional
Still only seven dangled back from the Otherworld
Still only seven breezed back from the Otherworld
Still only seven drifted back from the Otherworld
Still only seven made home base from the Otherworld

Art with his smile like a frozen fish
His face as grey as arsenic fly paper
Gone skirt simple over a rotoqueen
If you seen her you know the reason for the caper
She’s the kind of dame who settles her accounts
And him the hot grounder that took a big bounce
Still only seven dangled back from the Otherworld
Still only seven breezed back from the Otherworld
Still only seven drifted back from the Otherworld
Still only seven made home base from the Otherworld

This is ‘Otherworld’ by a band called Space Ritual and the words were written by Nik Turner, mainly famous now for having been the man behind the saxophone in the early days of a band called Hawkwind, where he was the first person to do that flying saxophonist thing that Madness made famous. Nik is a lovely guy, if a bit, er, under-rehearsed, but I evidently don’t know the Mabinogion, Damon Runyon or Mickey Spillane and Philip K. Dick (at a guess) as well as he does. (Edit: Michelle of Heavenfield shows her wisdom in comments by pinning down the medieval source as a poem in the Book of Taliesin called ‘The Spoils of the Otherworld’.) Because they’re all here, aren’t they, but I have no idea what Nik may have thought he was writing about. It sounds fabulously significant and ominous when it’s chanted past you so quickly you have no time to realise it’s nonsense, and just see in your mind’s eye a kaleidoscope of dissonant and disassociated imagery coming together in a weird half-imagined literary device.

Cover of Space Ritual's album <em>Otherworld</em>

Cover of Space Ritual's album Otherworld

But it struck me as I thought about Nik pulling imagery from twelfth and twentieth centuries without apparent care or distinction, that this is a lot more like the literature of our subject period than a lot of the literature of that where we just happen to live (like friends we can choose versus relatives whom we can’t). For Prudentius, for example, that’s a narrow range: the Psychomachia draws on legends from the Homeric age, the Classical one, and a newer late Antique world of martyrs who themselves however considered themselves as the inheritors of a Judaean culture going back as far as Homer if not further. (A translation is here and a text here if you would like to experience this yourself. The translation appears to be by one W. Stevens, the text is unattributed.) And one could say very similar things of Martianus Capella, and these two are medieval best-sellers par excellence if you go by manuscript transmission. A reminder, perhaps, that conventions of genre and period and the avoidance of anachronism are fairly modern things to care about.

Seminary XXXVII: small pieces of metal from the ninth century

Alice Rio’s fabulous programme for the Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminar continued to unfold on the 25th November when Jinty Nelson, no less, came up to talk to us to the title “Bits and Pieces: why historians should think about small metal objects from the ninth century”. Jinty is as I’ve said before always an engaging speaker, her papers perforated with tiny sidetracks that seem like digressions but that function as hooks to help you remember what she was talking about afterwards. A different result of this is, though, that there’s so much gravy in any given paper that it’s hard to just talk about the meat if, like me, you’re trying to report it…

Bark of a palm tree

Bark of a palm tree

Broadly speaking this was a second instalment in one of Jinty’s recent themes, that historians and archaeologists not only can learn a lot from each other but absolutely need to, this kind of being the case studies to support her anecdotal introduction to the theme of last year. So she started with the annal for 858 from the Annals of St-Bertin, which of course she translated years ago but only really saw this time round.1 Prudentius of Troyes, still writing it at this point, recorded a year full of terrible and unnatural events, and among them is a tree washing up from the sea whose trunk was covered not in proper bark but in triangular protrusions, which he likened to the decorations that men and horses have on their wargear. I know what it brought to my mind, to wit something like the picture above, but what this brings to the mind of those learned in objects is apparently strap-ends, and I suppose I see what they mean.

Trewhiddle-style strap-ends found in Shropshire, online courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Service

Trewhiddle-style strap-ends found in Shropshire, online courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Service

Now these are treasure, and so Jinty took us through some of the social meanings of treasure in the early medieval world, and highlit power, of course. Then from there to coins, especially the portrait coinage of Charlemagne, which I touched on here some time ago, and the messages it sends to have your likeness sent about the realm. This had more mileage in it than some discussions of this I’ve seen, because of considering whether people really looked at the coins (and could read them)—without looking, UK people, what’re the queen’s titles on a British coin now, eh?—and also whether they could be effective without also being economically functional. This garnered some discussion afterwards, though because my boss was lecturing in London the same day Jinty had quit there for Cambridge, of course, I kind of had to be the numismatist in the room, which isn’t something I enjoy too much because I fear type-casting in a sphere where I’m really not very expert.

The Alfred Jewel, shamelessly purloined from Scribal Terror

The Alfred Jewel, shamelessly purloined from Scribal Terror

The last example of metalwork and power was another famous one, the Alfred Jewel, which is now believed to have been the head from an æstel, a book-pointer; you’d have had a stalk of some sort marking your position on the page and your hand over the jewel, like, as Jinty said, a computer mouse. But did you know we’ve now got several of these things, three found quite recently? None as grand as this one, but one from the Lofoten Islands of all places. Or, given the one visitor to Alfred’s court whom we know went there, maybe not so strange… But this little clutch of things shows how eloquent some of these non-speaking objects can get: they are intimately associated with the written word and are probably gifts of a king trying to get his officials to read more; they may even be associated with office, which might explain why they don’t seem to occur in wills (this was the neatest answer to an awkward question I’ve ever seen anyone give in a seminar). Every time you pick one up that message is implicit in it, and if you were given one by the king, then anyone who sees it knows you’re one of a new kind of élite with a special badge. This was an aspect of the political policies of Alfred the Great where Jinty confessed herself indebted to David Pratt, not least because he was there,2 but it all fitted very nicely into the theme: messages in the metalwork, for those with ears to hear.

1. Janet L. Nelson (transl.), The Annals of St-Bertin, Manchester Medieval Sources (Manchester 1991).

2. David Pratt, The Political Thought of Alfred the Great, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th series no. 67 (Cambridge 2007), pp. 189-192.