Monthly Archives: August 2009

Antiquarian Catalan photo glee

A Renault 5 parked in a part of Vallfogona vulnerable to flooding...

A Renault 5 parked in a part of Vallfogona vulnerable to flooding...

Somewhen while my back was turned in July some civic-minded antiquarian started about nine historical photo blogs from my area of study. (What is it with Catalans and plural blogs?) The identity of this person is concealed, but they seem to have access to about twenty different local archives from various points of the Ripollès. In particular, one, L’abadia, is covering Sant Joan de les Abadesses, and one, A l’ombra del monestir, the village of its brother house of Santa Maria de Ripoll. Obviously, because they’re photo blogs, they don’t go back beyond the 1920s really, most of the pictures are of people (especially the Vallfogona football team…) and one has to fight the continual idea that all early twentieth-century events tooks place in monochrome, but all the same, the towns and local scenery have changed an awful lot in that time, and become massively more built-up. It’s now quite hard to get a sense of what the actual abbey of Sant Joan looked like in its local context, because it’s surrounded by shops. But it wasn’t so long ago that there were gardens round it:

Sant Joan de les Abadesses surrounded by gardens, date unknown

Sant Joan de les Abadesses surrounded by gardens, date unknown

I think I will be borrowing more from these people…

The unexamined project is not worth… er… projecting? Or, Help, I got some Foucault on me



Despite my initial reservations, the Historical Archaeology I’m currently reading is making me think a lot and mostly in a good way. It is very theory-driven, which might be expected to get my goat, especially since some of the language is not that obvious (I am glad to find I have fellow feeling here)—and I’ve already run across ‘imbricated’ once—but I suspect that I am learning my way through this particular semantic jungle, and also it’s just that bit easier with archæology, because the initial remove of content from creation is not so pronounced as with the study of texts. The empirical existence of a thing from the past in question seems to make an empirical starting position more automatic, which suits me.

That said, a great deal of the writing here is about archæology’s effects in the present.1 While one suspects that in part this is a subject trying to impress on a funding-giving audience its own contemporary importance, it must be said that making this case seems to be a darn sight easier in the USA, where indigenous burial sites, the self-acclaimed descendants of whose occupants are still around, make it a very very live concern. (Contrast the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act with the very British furore over the location of the body of a prehistoric child near Avebury Ring recently, in which the various bodies of modern druidism tried to achieve something similar. Those thousand extra years of antiquity, to say nothing of the problems inherent in druidism trying to claim continuity, just make it so much harder for people in the UK to care, it seems.) The theory that gets invoked for this sort of thing is transferable to any study of the past with no real trouble. It’s mainly about being self-aware, and aware that one’s work is constructed within and affects the society of which one is part. If, for example, one finds a huge Neolithic temple site on Orkney (oh look! how convenient for this example…) it is probably understandable that the modern Western observer may liken it to a cathedral, but there is in that not just an assumption that big-investment Christianity is still normative, but also an impression conveyed to the reader that monolithic high-investment and hierarchical religious practice is also what we should be looking for in the Neolithic period, what is a bit more dubious.

Digging on the Neolithic site at Ness of Brodgar, Orkney

Digging on the Neolithic site at Ness of Brodgar, Orkney

And so on. The authors of the article I’m mainly thinking of here argue that since one cannot avoid being political anyway, it is best to do so consciously and to advance a political purpose in one’s work, in their case by exposing contradictions in our social construction that have become accepted, naturalised and part of our social structures. So, for an example from the past which we can now easily reject, the white male Victorian view that the European human being represented a higher standard of development than, for example, the African. It’s harder to spot ourselves doing this now, though, even though I was already trying. With that in mind, rather than try and give an account of the scholarship here (it would be easier for you to read it, really, and I will go so far as to say it is worth doing), I thought I’d try and apply it to my own ideas deliberately, and see what reflection could do.

So, one of my many future projects (seriously: I have had to cut down my plans for a couple of job applications lately because having more than you can fit on a page just looks unrealistic, and indeed probably is), and the one that I hope to start on properly some time next year, is a book-length study of Borrell II of Barcelona and his times, which I think were not just hugely interesting but partly shaped by him in a way that his contemporary fellow counts didn’t grab in the same fashion. What can I say about the current political impact of the decision to do that?

Modern equestrian statue of Count Borrell II at Cardona

Modern equestrian statue of Count Borrell II at Cardona

  1. Well, any project that focuses on Catalonia probably has to start with that choice and the current politics of nationalism there. When I first went to Catalonia I found this local pride quite charming, but I’ve since had it pointed out to me how it looks from other, less wealthy and self-developing, parts of Spain. I’m going to be looking at a period when what is now Catalonia was many counties under four or five different counts, who did not act in cooperation; when the counties included numerous uncontrolled independents; and when claims to new parts of those territories and more besides were being developed. I’m also dealing with the count who is legendarily supposed to have led Catalonia into independence even though he only ruled half of it, and that quite shakily as I’ll argue. I am therefore weakening a case for Catalan nationality in the tenth century, and there is no way that that doesn’t at least connect to current campaigns for greater recognition as a nation. On the other hand, even using the word ‘Catalonia’ implies a vision of unity which I don’t profess and so has to be dealt with very carefully whenever it seems to be necessary.
  2. Connected to that, it is my habit to normalise names to modern Catalan, except the place-names in the parts of the territories that are now in France, which I give in French. The pragmatic reason for this is that I want people to be able to find these places on an atlas or a tourist guide so the current usage is important. But it legitimises French possession of those areas and it’s anachronistic. The latter bothers me more of course but I realise that it bothers others less than the politics. Remember at times like this that Perpignan’s rugby team is called Catalans Dragons. In French. Sort those loyalties out if you dare.
  3. Not the least important: his female relatives are going to get featured, along with his other relatives, but what am I doing to scholarship by focussing on a male power figure?
  4. Similarly, what about the peasants? Surely the story of the majority oppressed is more important than the nobility? At least, it’s easy to imagine contemporary perspectives of society that feel that way, and politically I have more sympathy with them than with the sort of worldview that thinks noble ancestry important… and yet, here I am.
  5. Borrell was only one of several counts, as I’ve said, and I’ve also said that his rôle in bringing the area to independence is exaggerated because of this fact (among other things). But I’m still writing about him and not the others, except where he opposed them. I argue that this is because he does more interesting things, to us—reforming the judicial body and the coinage, representing himself to Córdoba as ruler of his area, losing wars rather than being heroic, and making political statements about the basis of his rule—but even though I think these probably represent an insecurity in power rather than a grand enlightened agenda, there’s still questions not just about whether his contemporaries would have seen him, the traditional monarchist patron Gauzfred of Empúries or the dynastic absolutist Miró Bonfill of Besalú as the strongest ruler, but as to the teleology of focussing on things that appear more modern than ‘feudal’ about his rule.
  6. One thing that I couldn’t have articulated without reading this article, however, is what I think Borrell was doing with these elaborate constructions of his power in his somewhat variable hold on it: by looking for opportunities to intervene, and creating systems of justice and exchange that he controlled (and the Church could also come in here, given that he fought over appointments in it), he was creating spaces of governing action that he could claim were his alone but which everybody used. I have never read any Foucault, so without someone else telling me I was never going to use the word ‘governmentality’ for this practice but all the same I seem to have picked the idea up from somewhere, and now I have a reasoned way to express it. Of course a lot of the people I read have read Foucault, which will be where I have assembled this from, but I suspect I must go back to the source if I’m already doing it second-hand.2 And of course if I’m subscribing to that theory, then I am taking a position with respect to the legitimacy of the public intervention in the private and, by pinning it to one power-hungry and status-anxious noble, saying something about the acquisitiveness of the current public power, no? and that was probably mostly unconscious till now.

Of course I’m not a Catalan, and I’m not publishing it in Catalonia, or at least I’ve no plans to do so (though if I do I know where to go). So it’s very hard, even given all the above, for me to have an overt political purpose other than using Borrell as a platform for my own views about how I think society was changing in Western Europe in the run up to the year 1000, which respond quite strongly to a fairly modern idea I have of political actors having genuine agency in their societies. That has an obvious political import, a message of empowerment; but I suspect that really I’m trying to emphasise an individual’s agency in his environment to me, not to a political audience. These two purposes need not be distinct, of course. And if I’m seriously calling the book Agent of Change (if the eventual publishers will even let me) I have to consider that I am certainly making a public statement of that order, even though it was originally really a shrouded Blue Öyster Cult reference.

Cover art of Agents of Fortune, by Blue Öyster Cult, from Wikimedia Commons

So I’m a bit confused, really. I think these agendas are important, but apart from the nationalism question which I’d like to think I can step outside of, I have trouble locating them in my plans. Do you suppose that it’d be OK to just write the thing and let someone else work out what my political purpose was?

Stones and symbols

Actor network graph for the archæological study of objects, from Galloway's paper

Actor network graph for the archæological study of objects, from Galloway's paper

I also want to mention that Patricia Galloway’s article that I mentioned before, “Material Culture and Text: Exploring the Spaces Between and Within”, is still really important, not least because it finds ways to apply the same schemata of interpretation to both objects and texts while giving suitable accent to their differences. It also, however, as I said, uses the Pictish symbol stones as an example, and neatly summarises Charles Thomas’s work on them from the 1960s which read the symbols inscribed on them not as art but as a code referring to peoples and members of peoples. When I hit the phrase, “It is especially interesting as an example here because in it Thomas literally translated artifacts into texts” I was immediately reminded of Jeffrey Cohen’s current work on stones as, well, long-term historical actors? And I thought I should tell him about this and also about a book called And Shall These Mute Stones Speak?, which is Thomas’s similar work on Welsh and Irish inscribed stones and the ogam script.3 If Prof. Cohen or someone close by doesn’t comment here I shall make my way over there and stick my oar in.

The ogam-inscribed symbol stone at Brands

1. Matthew M. Palus, Mark P. Leone and Matthew D. Cochran, “Critical Archaeology: Politics Past and Present” in Martin Hall & Stephen W. Silliman (edd.), Historical Archaeology, Blackwell Studies in Global Archaeology 9 (Oxford 2006), pp. 84-104.

2. Ibid. pp. 92-96, citing esp. Michel Foucault, “Politics and the Study of Discourse: Questions of Method. Governmentality” in Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon & Peter Miller (edd.), The Foucault Effect. Studies in Governmentality (Chicago 1991), pp. 53-104.

3. Patricia Galloway, “Material Culture and Text: Exploring the Spaces Between and Within” in Hall & Silliman, Historical Archaeology, pp. 42-64, citing esp. Charles Thomas, “The Interpretation of the Pictish Symbol Stones” in Archaeological Journal Vol. 120 (London 1963), pp. 31-97; Charles Thomas, And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? (Chicago 1994).

All the nodes should be named after Geats

Here’s a pleasing little thing: courtesy of Doug Moncur’s Thoughts of a Knowledge Geek I have recently learned that there is a type of computer cluster, in which you link up many normal desktop PCs as nodes to one server so that they become, essentially, extra memory and CPU for it, that is called a Beowulf cluster. This is apparently because (says Wikipedia) the first ever one of these was so named, by its originator Dr Thomas Sterling, because it ‘had thirty men’s heft of grasp in the grip of his hand’. I rather like that.

A 64-machine Beowulf cluster at Michigan Tech University's Computational Science & Engineering Research Institute

A 64-machine Beowulf cluster at Michigan Tech University's Computational Science & Engineering Research Institute

Post scriptum: I had not, when I wrote this, seen this at In the Medieval Middle, but now that I have found it while looking for something else, I wish I’d written this first so they could have linked to it…

And this *isn’t*…


Ages ago I got given a copy of a book edited by Martin Hall and Stephen Silliman, called Historical Archaeology. I have of course a very great many things I haven’t read, but this one recently got to jump the queue because of my plundering one of its papers for my Material Culture class and figuring I should see what was in the rest.1 You can probably guess that my reaction to the following piece of the introduction was less than friendly:

At the same time, many who study the periods for which documents exist, particularly those outside of the Americas, do not in fact refer to themselves as ‘historical archaeologists.’ Instead, they label their work by general period, such as Roman or Post-medieval, or by regional focus, such as Egyptology or Classical Greek Studies.

Hullo, did we miss something there? Are there really lots of documents from Classical Greece? Are there really lots of documents from the Roman period, indeed? Oh, really, you think there are? And from exactly when are the earliest manuscripts of those texts, do you happen to recall? Oh yes: they’re usually medieval. That bit you missed out. In fact they’re usually early medieval, and very often Carolingian. That Cicero for example! Quintessential man of Roman letters, right? Yes, they thought so in the ninth and tenth centuries too which is why you have any of his works. Argh. And yet it’s not just these people. I used to have a partner in Brighton, so I particularly noticed when Sussex University there ceased provision of medieval history and archaeology. Now their history course started with early modern, but their archaeology one retained an ancient component and a historical one that started, likewise, in the the early modern. The Middle Ages just dropped out of the middle. (Mind you, this appears to have been unsustainable because, unless I am just being stupid, they have now ceased offering archaeology of any kind.) I don’t know how many other places have these attitudes but I find it very strange and, obviously, inimical to my employment prospects.

Now this here was just a list of examples, I know, but it’s a bit ridiculous to be claiming that Roman archaeology could count as historical archaeology and then miss out the medieval. I wasn’t entirely surprised that they go on to say: “we do need an organising concept to frame and introduce the chapters that comprise this volume. Here, a useful framework is that of an archaeology of the modern world”.2 In fact, the paper I originally used from this volume deals with the Picts, as part of a comparison, and it’s hard to get less textual evidence for a medieval culture than exists from Pictland, so I don’t really know what they thought they were doing with this introduction. They try and break down the work they’re presenting into themes, Scale, Agency, Materiality, Meaning, Identity, and Representation, which should be useful, but they’re all incoherent and run into one another, at least as presented here; for example, almost all of the relevant paragraphs involve questions of scale, in as much as they see a common theme as being the linking of the microcosmic to the global. So why not just say that once? And so on.

It’s not just that this wasn’t thought out and that they slight my period that bothers me. Slighting my period is costing them. If you prowled a list of medieval archaeological seminars from some suitably involved department you’d see loads of centre-and-periphery stuff, at least partly driven by the effect that these anthropological and sociological concepts have had on history of the period; I’m told that agency is now out of fashion though I continue to find it a very useful concept for my work; materiality is a weak spot for many medievalists, but obviously really not for medieval archæologists—how can this be a special characteristic of any branch of archæology?—and meaning is something that this introduction fails to locate at all, but we working on the Middle Ages have to defend that they mean something quite often. Lastly identity (because the question of how we represent the medieval world in the present I feel were best left to those like the team at In The Medieval Middle who specialise in it): how much work on medieval identity is there? To read this you’d think this was a new way to take archæology rather than something that two decades’ work on ethnogenesis could inform.3 The places where the texts can’t guide you through the material remains but both sides have to struggle to work it out are where these theories have been melded, tested, bent, broken and reformed for some time now. It’s worth paying attention to us, guys.

(Oh, and while I’m snarking about bad historicity in historical archæology: really, diggers at Bective Abbey, the Cistercians’ were not the first economically viable monasteries. Look up the Statutes of Adalhard of Corbie sometime to see how much food a Benedictine house that was well-landed and determined could produce. Enough to feed its community, their labourers and twenty to fifty pilgrims daily, up to 420 mouths a day, people.4 Even in Ireland monks did not subsist on food handouts from the nobility. You have taken the Cistercian bait hook, line and sinker, sorry.)

1. Patricia Galloway, “Material Culture and Text: Exploring the Spaces Between and Within” in Martin Hall & Stephen W. Silliman (edd.), Historical Archaeology, Blackwell Studies in Global Archaeology 9 (Oxford 2006), pp. 42-64.

2. Martin Hall & Stephen W. Silliman, “Introduction: Archaeology of the Modern World”, ibid. pp. 1-19, quotes here from pp. 1 & 2.

3. There’s been so much of that that it’s hard to know where to start but a review of sorts can be found in Andrew Gillett, “Ethnogenesis: A Contested Model of Early Medieval Europe” in History Compass Vol. 4 (Oxford 2006) [ironically, from the same publishing house], pp. 241-260.

4. Partial transl. in Paul Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, Reading in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures 1, 2nd edn. (Peterborough ON 2004), pp. 223-229, citing Léon Levillain (ed.), “Les statuts d’Adalhard” in Le Moyen Âge, 2e série Vol. 4 (Bruxelles 1900), pp. 354-359. It’s in the first edition of Dutton too but I don’t own that to check pp.

Now *this* is interdisciplinary (a testimonial)

Let me set out a soapbox and make a case. It’s not one that I necessarily hold to all of but it stands up by itself when it’s made like this. One of the dangerous things about being genuinely interdisciplinary is that it means not just raiding other disciplines for ideas and running back to Clio’s Citadel to use them, but letting people from other disciplines inside your own to critique your methods and affectations and, in extreme cases, rearrange all your preconceptions in ways that feel inappropriate. In these terms, genuine interdisciplinarity is not just a challenge to one’s own thinking, which of course it should be, but a threat to the discipline. If anthropologists, archæologists, geneticists, mathematicians, ‘social physicists‘ and scientists in general start doing history, and they (as some are) are willing to learn enough history to make it count, purely text-based history stands to lose some of its legitimacy and identity. That said, as I was recently hearing argued at Leeds, it’s hard to know what we might call this endeavour of scientific elucidation of the past except, well, history, but the point is one of the people we train not being the people who can really do ground-breaking research but only those who guide people who actually understand the methods in use, while seeing their paradigms tested and discarded. This makes people defensive.

Skeleton of an Anglo-Saxon girl excavated and reburied at Barton-on-Humber, Lincolnshire, 2008

Skeleton of an Anglo-Saxon girl excavated and reburied at Barton-on-Humber, Lincolnshire, 2008

I first noticed this with the reaction to Heinrich Härke’s work on skeletons and the settlement of Anglo-Saxon England. He detected two different builds of skeleton in several sites on which he’d worked, and argued that they could be identified as ‘British’ and ‘Germanic’.1 There were all kinds of reasons to mistrust that analysis when it was made: the biggest and most obvious one was that the discipline had spent a decade or so emphasising that ethnogenesis made concepts of ethnicity and race fluid and basically unfounded in biological reality, and then here came this archæologist who apparently hadn’t got the memo and was stressing just those realities. (I suspect it’s also possible that people were slightly uncomfortable with a German scholar laying heavy emphasis on race, which sounds old-fashioned in a range of ways not all of which have been harmless. I doubt an English scholar would have provoked the same reaction as Härke did. And no, I don’t think that’s how it should be.) But although his interpretation can be questioned in lots of ways, the data were real: he had two different sorts of skeleton to explain. Now, of course, we would try and carry out isotope analysis of the bodies’ teeth to see where they had actually lived in their lives, but that’s not exactly history rescuing itself; that’s either history using science, or else it’s science colonising history. And the same sort of battle is ongoing with the increasing rôle of DNA analysis, confused by the fact that very few people understand exactly what studies like Blood of the Vikings actually showed, and these people very rarely include journalists; I have a sketchy idea but only because I like talking to scientists and Steve Harding at Nottingham is very happy to talk to people.

You see what I mean. Texts are safe, because we can never finally resolve them but we can be expert in them all the same. But the empirical demands of history, when it’s allowed to assert them by its practitioners, draw us to empirical evidence, and the ways to derive empirical evidence from archæogical remains, and indeed buildings, objects and yes, texts, or at least, writing, from non-archæogical contexts, are growing. But they’re complicated, and they’re going to involve laboratories. There is coming a point when those who want to identify as historians are either going to have study a lot of science, or back out and work only on literature. Now I know that some readers quarrel with my distinction between reading as literature and reading as historical source, but let them click the link I’m lengthily touting before they make answer. This is it: here is one historian, Michael McCormick at Harvard no less, who has already decided where he stands, and it’s with the scientists. And as a result all that ethnogenesis work and elaborate explanations of the Celtic assimilation into English society are looking rather bare: but because actual historians were involved, and deeply, and the team seems to like the exchange of ideas, what we are getting is not a return to the old paradigm of fire and slaughter or even mass enslavement of Britons by Saxons but a new idea that there must have been some very distinct preferential marriage practices of which we previously had no idea. Yes, they are proving things about marriage practice in the early Middle Ages using science. We can work with this, if we actually want to discover what happened that is. Or we can complicate it and resist it. So, brothers and sisters, the time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are gonna be the problem, or whether you are gonna be the solution! Are you ready to testify?

(Cross-posted to Cliopatria.)

1. Härke’s work e. g. Heinrich Härke, “‘Warrior Graves’? The background of the Anglo-Saxon weapon burial rite” in Past and Present no. 126 (Oxford 1990), pp. 22-43; idem, “Finding Britons in Anglo-Saxon Graves” in British Archaeology no. 10 (London 1995), p. 7, online here. A measured critique in Andrew Tyrell, “Corpus Saxonum: early medieval bodies and corporeal identity” in William O. Frazer & Andrew Tyrell (edd.), Social Identity in Early Medieval Britain (London 2000), pp. 137-156. Härke responds to his critics, some of whom were less measured, in Heinrich Härke, “Archaeologists and Migration: a problem of attitude?” in Current Anthropology Vol. 39 (Chicago 1998), pp. 19-35, on Scribd here, and has now gone to work on similar themes on Russia where I suspect he meets fewer problems.

Long years of difficult war: identifying a preoccupation

Emperor Lothar I, illustration of a Tours Evangeliary now in the BN Paris

I already mentioned the session that was held in the Texts and Identities strand at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds on Emperor Lothar I, and I had no plans to write more about it till something that it made me think was also provoked by something else I was reading later on. At that point I thought it was worth a post and then while that was brewing I suddenly had a thought about why I thought what I thought. Because, you know how it’s almost a topos among self-regarding historians, especially those who work on other historiography, that every age has its preoccupations and we can’t escape our own because we live in the middle of them? It’ll take someone later to see what we say as odd and explained mainly by our context. Someone at Leeds or possibly on the web since said that the best we can aim for is to be wrong in new ways. It might have been Paul Dutton. Well, it’s me this time, anyway. So where is this going and what is it to do with Lothar? Well, I think I caught myself at this embedded thinking I was describing, which is a bit weird. So I offer it for dissection and consideration, and invite parallels.

Elina Screen, as I mentioned, gave a paper about the youth of Lothar and how his early experiences might have shaped him.1 This included, for example, a possibility that I’d never considered, that young Lothar might never have met his illustrious grandfather Charlemagne; he grew up in Aquitaine where his father was king and there are only two or three occasions when he could have met Granddad. But Elina’s main point about the Aquitaine isolation was that Louis the Pious, Lothar’s father, spent most of his time there on the March campaigning deep into Spain against Muslim powers. Lothar was probably five when Louis’s armies captured Barcelona, and Elina thought this, as well as the opposition to an infidel enemy, might have sunk deep in young Lothar’s mind.

The Roman walls and medieval towers of Barcelona

In questions I spoke up about this. The thing that is too often forgotten about the Carolingians’ campaigns into Spain is how dogged they were and how rarely success attended them. The first one in 778 was a disaster so famous that it lived on in literature for centuries; in 785 it’s not clear that the counties of Girona and Cerdanya were conquered rather than simply seceded from Muslim rule; and the eventual capture of Barcelona, though glorious (or at least, glorified), came after four years of campaigning and one of the longest sieges recorded in any early medieval source, and was successful only because the locals revolted against the defending Muslims, whose 797 submission to Charlemagne was what had sparked the campaign (because, as in 778, when Frankish forces actually turned up they’d changed their mind).2 Don’t get me wrong, that’s still a win, and the best sort because it leaves you with a functioning and defensible city. But triumphant entry through breached walls it ain’t. And then, over the next eight years as Lothar grew towards adulthood, what? Endless annual campaigns that failed again and again, against Huesca and Tortosa neither of which ever fell and against Tarragona which could be taken but not held, making the endeavour seem strategically useless. Booty and plunder aplenty came to court, I’m sure, but the growing boy may have noticed that strategically nothing was changing. After 809 even Louis lost the will to continue; by 814 his attentions, and Lothar’s, were of course elsewhere. But as a result, I suggested, when Lothar was sent south to suppress Aizó’s revolt in 827, both he and his younger brother Pippin may have viewed the March as somewhere where careful preparation was eminently necessary, where the opposition was always substantial and dangerous, and where ultimately one couldn’t do very much, and I wonder how much of their delay that explains.

I thought no more of this till I recently read, shamefully late as ever, Julio Escalona Monge’s vital article on kingship in early Asturias and the Asturian Chronicles in a volume he co-edited called Building Legitimacy.3 It’s immensely rich and I’m not going to summarise it here; also the bit I want to highlight is not its big thing, but an idea that you would also find in, for example, Roger Collins’s contributions to the New Cambridge Medieval History.4 I just read it here again after thinking the above. It is, however, the idea that the Kings of Asturias might have seen the Carolingian success as a reason to emulate their self-presentation as leaders of Christian orthodoxy and reform, the rhetoric of correctio (a word I last heard from Dr Stuart Airlie as The Pet Shop Boys’ ‘It’s a Sin’ came over the Leeds dance PA, but never mind that right now). And here again, I wondered: if you were in Spain did the Carolingians really look like a success story, or did they look like blundering interlopers whose captures had mainly seceded within 30 years (this being why Navarre and Aragón don’t speak Catalan, or at least why Catalonia does in contradistinction to the areas the Franks held but lost)? The great subtlety of Julio’s article is that he sees this self-presentation not as opposed to a ‘native’ ‘Gothic’ tradition but rather its replacement by an evocation of that tradition precisely as the Carolingian star waned, but I wonder how bright it ever seemed from Asturias and whether Alfonso II’s overtures to Charlemagne were not something of a minority tactic.

Monument to Pelayo of Asturias at Gijon

Monument to Pelayo of Asturias at Gijon

I must have been subconsciously thinking about writing this up for a blog, or the familiarity of the way I was thinking might never have occurred to me. What’s the obvious parallel for our times of an intervention against an unstable Islamic principality by an expanding imperialist power with a righteous Christian agenda? And how does it go for them in that parallel, once they’re there? Do they, perhaps, spend years in costly enforcement and defensive campaigning prior to setting up locals to run things in their interests and retreating to lick their wounds? Well, you can see where I’m going with this. But how far have I gone? And not just me. When Timothy Reuter wrote his famous article “The End of Carolingian Expansion”, arguing that the Carolingians’ wars got more defensive, less rewarding and more solidly opposed by outsiders, in 1990,5 how much of a dent on him had the realisation had that an imperial power with all the cards could still be beaten or forced to stalemate in a war that its people didn’t want to fight, that is, by the USA’s various attempts to intervene in less developed countries south of the Equator in the previous thirty years? When I look at the Carolingian Empire now and see resource exhaustion, overstretch and a rhetoric of correction, protection and liberation from a foreign non-Christian threat failing to meet the needs of a motivation dearth, meaning that resort frequently be made to ‘security contractors’ (I mean, barbarian mercenaries!), I do so not least because others have said similar things about the Roman Empire, for a start. But, well, I didn’t have to reach far for those ideas. And events keep bringing them closer to me. I wonder if I should really have been reaching further if I wanted to escape just thinking like someone in 2000s Western Europe? Might I still be right anyway? What do you think? Especially if you are not someone in 2000s Western Europe…


1. Elina Screen, “Models for an Emperor: The Influence of Lothar’s Early Career (795-814)”, paper presented in session ‘Texts and Identities, VII: The Formation of an Emperor – Lothar I’, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 14 July 2009.

2. The best source for the capture of Barcelona is Ermold the Black’s praise poem In Honorem Hludowici, ed. & transl. Edmond Faral in idem (ed.), Ermold le Noir : poème sur Louis le Pieux et Épîtres au Roi Pépin (Paris 1932), but as you may imagine from the title this also makes it out to be the most amazing military achievement ever achieved by a Frank, and also would Louis please let Ermold come back to court now? The Royal Frankish Annals hardly bother to mention it amid the other press of business: the edition is Friedrich Kurze (ed.), Annales regni francorum inde ab a. 741 usque ad a. 829, qui dicuntur Annales laurissenses maiores et Einhardi, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) VI (Hannover 1895, repr. 1950), online here, and the whole thing is translated in B. Scholz & B. Rogers (transl.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories (Michigan 1972), pp. 35-125, with commentary pp. 2-21; the relevant passages are also transl. in P. D. King (transl.), Charlemagne: translated sources (Kendal 1987), pp. 90 & 98. To stitch all the various references to campaigns around Barcelona into a narrative however, you really need a Catalan, and the Catalan you need is Josep María Salrach i Marés, whose El procés de formació nacional de Catalunya (segles VIII-IX), 1, El domini carolingi, Llibres a l’abast 136 (Barcelona 1978), does the best that can be done for synthesis at pp. 9-26 & 32-39.

3. Julio Escalona, “Family Memories: inventing Alfonso I of Asturias” in Isabel Alfonso, Hugh Kennedy & Julio Escalona, (edd.), Building Legitimacy: political discourses and forms of legitimacy in medieval societies, The Medieval Mediterranean: peoples, economies and cultures 400-1500, 53 (Leiden 2004), pp. 223-262, esp. pp. 226-232.

4. Roger Collins, “Spain: The Northern Kingdoms and the Basques, 711-910” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History Vol. II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 272-289.

5. Timothy Reuter, “The End of Carolingian Military Expansion” in Peter Godman & Roger Collins (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (814-840) (Oxford 1990), pp. 391-405.

Links on old themes: keeping it digital

Excuse a brief episode of second-hand blogging: something came across the wires that resonated with other things that have been posted here. Echoing my oft-stated concerns about the short-term nature of most digital forms of storage, the news is that a basic form of digital storage using very low-temperature semi-conductors has now been pioneered that, they say, should last 1000 years. (I got this from somewhere else, originally, but I’m gosh-darned if I can remember where, sorry to that brave resource.) The trouble with that, though it’s marvellous given that currently not much of our digital hardware can be guaranteed to remain usable for a twentieth of that, is firstly maintaining the low temperature—I mean, most things would last longer in perfect environmental conditions—but that knowledge often needs knowledge. One group of commentators at The Long Now Foundation have picked up on this, suggested that instructions for how to operate this device should be micro-engraved onto it, because that won’t be obvious in a few hundred years most likely. (Parchment and ink is still winning there, then…)

But to my mind that isn’t the big problem. The big problem is, about the only form of digital information one can store without encoding is plain text. In particular, you can’t hope to save pictures onto such a device: what format would you use that could be sure of being legible in a thousand years? Or is your chip going to have another chip with it with the Graphics Interchange Format standard on it? Although the lab in question is aware that really they need terabyte storage, the test chips so far only store a few megabits, though they will (and this is really cool) power up if subjected to a wireless interrogation signal without having to actually be plugged into anything, so the only interface you need is a wireless computer transmitter that’s been told how to talk to the chip. Though this is a tech. leap forward if it really lasts (and selling something like this as `fully tested’ is obviously not going to be possible), therefore, the basic problems of format and encoding are still there. Otherwise, the future may wind up thinking the art of the past was all ASCII unless they happen to have some really good quality paper prints or, well, manuscripts.


(That there, you see, is the monastery of Santa Maria de Serrateix converted to ASCII. Not really art-historical grade…)

The JPEG of Serrateix I fed to the ASCII art generator linked under both images to make the above

The JPEG of Serrateix I fed to the ASCII art generator linked under both images to make the above