Monthly Archives: September 2009

Excellentissima et merito famosissima historica I

At last the truth can be revealed. Why was I writing a paper about nuns all of a sudden? Why hadn’t it been in the sidebar as my next due paper? What was all the foreshadowing in that earlier post about? Now it can be told.

RM Monogramme

Very recently Professor Rosamond McKitterick had a significant birthday and, seeing this coming from some way off, various of her students had had the idea of a birthday conference. This, and its title which forms the subject header, was largely the brainchild of Richard Pollard, who also designed the monogram you see above and generally did the bulk of the donkey-work while the rest of us who were in one way or another participating kept quiet, tried not to tell ask anyone for help that wouldn’t be able to do similarly and, in the case of David McKitterick, her husband, made sure she kept the relevant weekend free without explaining why. And duly at 14:00 on September 12th she was escorted into Trinity College in Cambridge and found a gathering of about forty of her fellows, erstwhile and current students there basically to say thanks. As the person in that gathering with, I think, the longest hair other than Rosamond herself, and possibly one or two of the younger women, I feel myself uniquely qualified to say, “there was a whole lot of love in that room, man”. She’s had an awful lot of students and a lot of them have gone on to be important themselves. Some of us still hoping, also. But, well, it’s a conference. With due discretion and all that, obviously I’m still gonna blog it, if only to list the names…

Rosamond McKitterick, Professor of Medieval History and Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge

Rosamond McKitterick, Professor of Medieval History and Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge

The folder I have my notes stashed in has the monogram on the front. It contains a short biography of Rosamond, the programme, a map and contact details (all very well to hand out on arrival, but surely only useful before! this is my only criticism of the organisation) and a full or as-near-full-as-possible bibliography of Rosamond’s work, which registers (deep breath) six monographs, another co-written, six volumes of essays that she edited, another that she co-edited, and two volumes of collected papers, and eighty-two articles and chapters (not including stuff in the volumes she edited), one alone of which was co-written. If you don’t know Rosamond’s work, this may give you an idea that she is an important scholar in quantity as well as quality. Then, on the specially-printed notepaper (why yes, they did get some funding since you ask…), we have notes on the following papers.

    Keynote Address

  • Janet Nelson, “New Approaches to Carolingian Reform, or 1969, 1971, 1977 and All That”. The keynote address, which placed Rosamond in the context of her teaching by Walter Ullmann, something that Jinty also went through, and drawing the roots of Rosamond’s first work into the many branches it now has, full of shared remembrance and intriguing background that could have been supplied by no-one else.

    Session 1. The Reformatio monastica karolina

  • Marios Costambeys, “Paul the Deacon, Rome and the Carolingian Reforms”. Argued that Paul the Deacon‘s conception of Rome deliberately ignores its Christian and recent Imperial heritage, referring to it in terms of its earliest history to place both its history and the new Frankish rule in inarguable and uncontested Antiquity.
  • Rutger Kramer, “The Cloister in the Rye: Saint-Seine and the early years of Benedict of Aniane”. More or less as title except that that was the only terrible pun involved, a critical reading of the Vita Benedicti Anianensis pondering whether Benedict was in fact at first one of Carloman’s party not Charlemagne’s and how far his initial monastic conversion might have been a political retreat, then moving into questions of how his initial drive for asceticism apparently transformed to a desire for uniformity ‘that we can believe in’.
  • Sven Meeder, “Unity and Uniformity in the Carolingian Reform Efforts”. Argued that the Carolingian ideal of unity should not be mistaken for uniformity and that it was always ready to accept a good deal of diversity to which its own efforts only added. Arguable, but probably not with the Oxford English Dictionary definitions used; Susan Reynolds would have been unable to stay quiet in questions had she been there.
  • Some critical questions here especially for the latter two papers, and perhaps most notable among them James Palmer asking if, in fact, Carolingian reform could ever have succeeded adequately for its proponents or whether a perception of failure was built in. Sven responded, I think wisely, that the ultimate aim was to make the kingdom favoured by God and so the proof would be seen in events. It’s an interesting cycle of paranoia that this kind of drive might have set up, however. I think we see something similar with Æthelred the Unready‘s vain attempts to prescribe extra piety when the Danes just keep coming in his autumn years.


    Session 2. Reform from without, reforms to without

  • Benedict Coffin, “The Carolingian Reformation in the Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Churches”. Drawing out even more similarities between Carolingian and English reform movements as well as a few crucial differences, not least that in England it was primarily Benedictine not royal.
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Nuns, Signatures and Literacy in late-Carolingian Catalonia”. You basically saw a chunk of this paper already, and I had to leave a lot of detail out, but it went OK and did everything I hoped for. Completely overwhelmed however by…
  • Julia M. H. Smith, “Wrapped, Tied and Labelled: importing Jerusalem, recycling Rome in the early Middle Ages”, exploring the contents of the altar in the Sancta Sanctorum in the Lateran in Rome, which transpires to have been installed by Leo III and to have contained, in 1906 when it was last opened, a mind-boggling assortment of Holy Land soil, branches, twigs, etc. from significant places there, as well as martyr relics probably from the other patriarchal sees, replacing Rome’s pagan history with a new one imported from Jerusalem and elsewhere. The illustrations were fascinating and it was a really interesting paper.
Behind those grilles is the box installed by Leo III

Behind those grilles is the box installed by Leo III

The evening was rounded off, well, for me at least, with a pre-dinner paper given by Yitzhak Hen. I won’t attempt to describe that here except to say that what I’ve written about his work here before may have failed to take his sense of humour into account. Then, there was a wine reception and a dinner, but I, with my usual mismatch of engagements, ran into London for one of the best gigs I’ve been to for a long time. But I was back the next day, aching of neck and back and short of sleep, and I will describe that later.

I should have read this the moment I bought it, II


The second article in this book I’m reading, not counting the introduction and the mises-au-point that Michael McCormick supplies for each section, is as I said by Joachim Henning and it’s a bit less limpid.1 The argument is basically that finds of slave-chains match up with settlement patterns to suggest that:

  1. The Romans didn’t allow Germanic-style village farmstead sort of affairs with individual enclosures, but the barbarians on their borders farmed like that normally
  2. Once the Germans are on the inside Merovingian Francia is full of that sort of settlement, agricultural slavery inside the old imperial limes is basically over and slavery becomes something you only see on the military frontier
  3. Under the Carolingians however some of the Roman unification of settlements into grand estates resumes and this is bad for the economy

What we have here is basically two patterns, of slave-chain finds and of settlement nucleation, on which is being hung an awful lot, as well as some problematic stuff about the spread of the heavy plough that I thought we’d got over by now. An awful lot is hanging from those chains but they self-evidently don’t reliably index the whole slavery complex; they only show that someone had to be constrained. These could be military captives, their absence still wouldn’t prove that the people who worked an estate weren’t bound to it by fear, threat and the law.

Metalwork hoard from Lyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey, Wales, Pre-Roman Iron Age, including slave-chains

Metalwork hoard from Lyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey, Wales, Pre-Roman Iron Age, including slave-chains

Then, an awful lot hangs from the belief that the evidence shows that bipartite estates were less efficient agriculturally than decentralised farming because of the need for coercion. Philosophically this seems likely to be right, and one could cite the collective farms of the Soviet Union as well as studies of plantation slavery in the USA to show that people work harder when they work for themselves (and Henning has a nice example to counter Chris Wickham’s belief that where there are no lords the peasants eat more and work less).2 All the same, there is an issue here: we are asked to believe that the Carolingian nobility, or the US planters, must have been status-hungry megalomaniacs, otherwise they’d have realised that ‘slavery does not pay’.3 But think about it: the question is not about how much their estates produced, at least in the Frankish case, it’s about how much of that production they could appropriate. If labour on your estate is 10% less effective for being combined and worked as a demesne compared to hutted coloni working their own plots, but you can get 5% more labour out of the slaves for having them right there and that also means you can impose renders with 7% greater efficiency (or other made-up figures that would work, if these don’t), then you as lord are in profit and it does make economic sense. But Henning has a basic ‘slavery is bad mkay’ assumption here that makes it difficult for him to see this. I mean, I agree with that statement, but the estate managers in any of those periods obviously didn’t hold that conviction, that doesn’t make them stupid. And then it doesn’t help that, as Angeliki Laiou points out in the response at the end of the section, that the slave-chain finds for the Carolingian period don’t occur in the areas where there were bipartite estates.4 That is, unlike the Roman slave estates apparently the Carolingian ones didn’t use chain-gangs but got their labour more willingly. So, er, hang on, where did that paradigm go? There are some points here but they aren’t all the ones the author feels that he’s made.

Plan of a generic medieval manor taken from William Shepherd, Historical Atlas (New York 1923) for Wikimedia Commons

Plan of a generic medieval manor taken from William Shepherd, Historical Atlas (New York 1923) for Wikimedia Commons

On the whole what I take from this is that being part of the Roman fiscal complex tended to produce a different kind of estate organisation, and that the Carolingians also did some of that. I take with more salt the idea that the Carolingian period might have been less well off than the Merovingian period, and if I accept it I would again want to blame the weather for most of that and wonder if the conversion to bipartite estates in places where that can be done isn’t more of a response, both to diminishing yields and also to newly huge scales of estate ownership.5 (In other words, Chris’s ‘aristocrats make complexity’ argument tied up with my own macro-economic ones.) I don’t think slave-chains prove what Henning thinks they do, though the distribution is interesting (if, as he admits, potentially faulty).6 But most of all I wonder whether the horse of cause is not before the cart of effect here. Even if we accept the correlations Henning proposes, correlation is not causation, and the causation is still to be sorted out I think.

We’ll get back to my orphan papers at some point: I’m going to have a lot to blog over the next few days.

1. Joachim Henning, “Strong rulers—weak economy? Rome, the Carolingians, and the archaeology of slavery in the 1st millennium AD” in Jennifer R. Davis & Michael McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 33-53.

2. His argument here is based on the fact that lots of Roman goods are found in villages beyond the limes, what implies that they had enough surplus to buy stuff, and presumably, wanted to produce surplus so as to be able to buy stuff: Henning, “Strong rulers?”, pp. 41-42, citing Chris Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), p. 224, whose original printing was in idem, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, repr. in idem, Land and Power pp. 201-226.

3. Though it should be noted that, according to the work there linked, the US studies actually tended to show that it did pay: Robert William Fogel, “Coming to Terms with the Economic Viability of Slavery” in idem, The Slavery Debates, 1952-1990: a retrospective, Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures in Southern History (Baton Rouge 2003), pp. 24-48. For the application of older work in this line to the medieval question, see Pierre Bonnassie, “Survie et extinction du régime esclavagiste dans l’occident du haut moyen âge (IV-XI s.)” in Cahiers de Civilisation Médiévale Vol. 28 (Poitiers 1985), pp. 307-343, transl. J. Birrell as “The Survival and Extinction of the System of Slavery in the Early Medieval West, fourth to eleventh centuries” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe (Cambridge 1991), pp. 1-59. One of Bonnassie’s more appealing features to a modern reader is his humanist outrage at coercion, oppression and brutality but here, I think, it prejudiced his ability to analyse the sources clearly.

4. Angeliki E. Laiou, “The Early Medieval Economy: Data, Production, Exchange and Demand” in Davis & McCormick, Long Morning, pp. 99-104. One of the best things about this book is that they did the peer review internally, but the authors get to keep their original conclusions. It’s like the discussion at the Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo being published, but more worked-out, and I think we should do this all the time so that people can tell more easily where more consideration is needed and where there was a genuinely good point made.

4. Henning does leave room for climatic factors, in fact, at “Strong Kings?” p. 42.

5. Distribution maps Henning, “Strong kings?”, pp. 38-39; expectation of more data from unanalysed French finds, p. 47.

Look shiny! Links to food for brain and eyes (featuring a lot of gold added at the last minute)

Your humble author was, at the time of writing the first part of this, doing a caffeine detox and so was having trouble constructing reportage and opinion at his usual standard of prolixity and perceptiveness. Here therefore is some distraction:

First of all, here is a fine collection of observations through the ages on the now-vanished Anglo-Saxon bishopric of Dunwich with some sobering musings about what else could go the same way. I can’t remember where I got this from but somebody isn’t getting a hat-tip that they deserve, sorry.

I’ll repair that by giving decent credit here. Emma at Past Presenters linked to a blog I don’t otherwise know called Ancient Tides, and they had a short post about and linking to this article about research at Cornell suggesting that monks who did fine illumination had learnt special stereoscopic focusing tricks so as to be able to work at something approximating 30x magnification. I would love to hear from someone with enough biology nous to say whether this is plausible.

Then, a housemate points me at this, which is a site allowing you to make your own historical tapestries digitally, using the cast of the Bayeux Tapestry. Needs Flash, so don’t blame me if your browser crashes, but it’s really well done inside that limitation.

Too trivial? Well, okay, remember the time I got into a fight about postmodernism because of how excited I was at discovering Carl Becker? Relive the good bit of that experience by reading this, Carl Becker’s Presidential Address to the American Historical Association from 1931, and then consider all the debates that have been had here or at Modern Medieval or In the Medieval Middle or other such fine blogging establishments about just what it is that we historians do and why it’s important, and how we can prove that, and ask yourself again if this man wasn’t nearly a century ahead of his time. This, I owe to Edge of the American West once more. In particular let me entice you with these quotes:

Even the most disinterested historian has at least one preconception, which is the fixed idea that he has none.

Such research, valuable not in itself but for some ulterior purpose, will be of little import except in so far as it is transmuted into common knowledge. The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world.

and, most important of all perhaps:

Nor need our labors be the less highly prized because our task is limited, our contributions of incidental and temporary significance. History is an indispensable even though not the highest form of intellectual endeavor, since it makes, as Santayana says, a gift of “great interests … to the heart.”

I’ll never match that, but I love it anyway.

Gold strip with Biblical inscription from the Staffordshire hoard

Gold strip with Biblical inscription from the Staffordshire hoard

Lastly, and added in the final stages of editing this much-delayed post, of course you’ve already seen this? If you haven’t, the biggest ever hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold was found back in July somewhere undisclosed in Staffordshire and the news was allowed out yesterday morning. Past Horizons has the press release, the BBC story that is linked through the picture has the simple version and some more pictures, but if you want them the whole hoard is available in Creative Commons-licensed photographs on the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s Flickr stream. There is a lot of gold. Now obviously there has been talk of little else in my department since we got the news (which was no sooner than anyone else, in fact, probably because there are no coins in the hoard even though the Guardian was claiming that there were) and I’m pretty sure what I think the interpretation should be, but I have twelve (12), my god, twelve posts queued up here, which I let Professor Deyermond’s obit jump because that was the least respect demanded but which I would like not to let anything else delay. So you’ll have to wait a few days for my opinions, but that’s OK because it’ll take you at least a week to finish looking at the 615 pictures…

Nuntio mortis conturbat me: Professor Alan Deyermond, RIP

Alan Deyermond, photographed for the Asociación Internacional de Hispanistas

Alan Deyermond, photographed for the Asociación Internacional de Hispanistas

In the midst of life we are in death. On Friday 18 September I happened to come round a corner just in time to witness the death of a honeybee that hadn’t stopped to wonder what that eight-legged thing was doing apparently suspended in mid-air next to its desired flightpath. The resultant mortal combat was viciously quick. Now, as I begin this post on the 21st, I do so because news has just reached me of the death of Alan Deyermond, Professor Emeritus of Medieval Spanish Literature at Queen Mary University of London, Fellow of the British Academy and Corresponding Fellow of the Real Academia Española, who passed away in hospital after several months of illness, the day after I watched the bee die, 19th September.

I didn’t know Professor Deyermond well, I only met him at a conference I attended that he’d organised at Queen Mary University of London, at whose various incarnations he’d taught all his professional life, but even then he was full of energy, interest in other people’s work and a worship of accuracy forever warring with his strong spirit of fun. I imagine he would have been an excellent if sometimes scary teacher. His Wikipedia page, already suitably updated, has a bibliography that shows his importance was not just as a teacher, either, and that only tells a part of the story because, as well as not containing his articles, it doesn’t give much clue to the vast amount of work by others that he elicited, encouraged, edited and saw to publication in the Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar series that he founded, including of course my own. He was a renowned man (the sort of person whom people get photographed with for their blogs). There aren’t enough people like Professor Deyermond, and now there is one fewer. Dammit.

I should have read this the minute I bought it, part I

Cover of Davis & McCormick, The Long Morning of Medieval Europe

Cover of Davis & McCormick, The Long Morning of Medieval Europe

Yes, I know I was writing about something else but this is important. If you’re working on the early Middle Ages, especially the Continental early Middle Ages, you need to get hold of a copy of Jennifer Davis’s and Michael McCormick’s The Long Morning of Medieval Europe.1 I got it mainly because I was citing something in that my erstwhile supervisor had written from a pre-print and needed up-to-date page numbers (and also knew that that was good, and that the other stuff in it looked interesting). But only this last week have I got round to actually reading the rest. I’m a fool. While it acknowledgedly doesn’t cover the whole field, and the editors say that they don’t think this could be done by a single volume, they have nonetheless done their utmost to provide a genuine state-of-the-field discourse for each of the themes they do cover.2 So, for example, the section on the economy has an intro by McCormick, then twelve absolutely crystal pages by Chris Wickham (who, as that link shows, has finally let himself be pictured on the Internet) explaining how he now sees the European economic system of the early Middle Ages having written his Framing the Early Middle Ages, then Joachim Henning explaining economy at the village level, and so on, and after reading all the essays you’d be set not just to answer an essay question but possibly to teach one. And it’s all sharp and up to date and written by some of the top experts in the field and it reads a lot like a quick way to get up to date on a lot of important thinking.

So I should have read it immediately, but I didn’t realise. As a consequence I’ve sounded off about Michael McCormick’s particular bee in the science-in-history bonnet here on the basis of a magazine article when there’s an actual scholarly discussion of it by him here.3 And someone has mailed me for help with the early medieval economy asking the very pertinent question, ‘if all these big estates are generating so much stuff for market, who’s buying it?’ to which I made some suggestions about poor relief and the correspondent wisely said something about feeding armies. Well, Chris asks the same question a few pages in and gives an answer to it, although characteristically he blames aristocrats: “I am not fond of aristocrats, but one does not have to like them to recognise their importance.”4 The argument is that by having the buying power to drive networks over which long-distance luxury trade could operate, and by needing to buy in bulk for followers and households, the big nobility caused the construction of complex exchange systems for those luxuries that other lower-level, bigger bulk forms of exchange could also use. Where the aristocrats were poor, exchange was short-range; where they were rich, all kinds of things travelled a long way. The chronologies of decline and recovery should be seen, firstly as plural and regional (and powered by politics), and secondly as actually being chronologies of simplification and recovery of complexity. We may not all agree (I still blame the weather, but then there’s a paper in here about that too) but he’s asking the crucial question about demand, whereas we have usually before only tried to answer ones about supply and distribution.

Now one can argue with details. I think for example that my correspondent’s suggestion about military provisioning and indeed mine about poor relief need to be in the demand picture as well. I think that saying that what the limited evidence for long-distance exchange of salt mainly tells us is that there was nothing more interesting being traded and moving on is, well, shying at a fence that needs jumping; there’s almost no work on this. And one can wonder whether Chris’s Marxism leads him to discount peasant initiative too early (because, dammit, workers controlling their fates comes later in the dialectic!) given pioneers, migrant labourers, and the special problem of the artisan class, who may have been few but occupy an ambiguous place with regard to the means of production in this period, and perhaps in any. OK, adding value through work to raw materials is something any factory hand does, but is manufacture of luxuries for an élite really a working class activity? Smiths are important men. What class is a swordsmith? Moneyers are important too, though there is argument over how important; but then they don’t actually hammer the coins out themselves. And so on. But basically, arguing these points is how to progress from here; I’m talking refinements, not revisionism. So do yourself a favour and keep up with the top-flight by having a look at this here, I reckon. Meanwhile, it will be blogged

1. Jennifer R. Davis & Michael McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008).

2. Eidem, “Introduction. The Early Middle Ages: Europe’s long morning”, ibid. pp. 1-10 at p. 7: “Echoing slow transformation and abrupt change, the studies in this book include close readings of particular moments such as Charlemagne’s empire or King Wamba’s triumph, as well as analyses of gradual shifts underlying economic systems or the perception of weather. Such a dynamic field of investigation defies the compass of a single volume.”

3. Michael McCormick, “Molecular Middle Ages: early medieval economic history in the twenty-first century”, ibid. pp. 83-98.

4. Chris Wickham, “Rethinking the Structure of the Early Medieval Economy”, ibid. pp. 18-31 at pp. 20-24, quote from p. 30.

Stock take, part II: in need of actual research

So, I have what should be a very respectable print presence, albeit a bit narrowly spread, up till late 2010. (If they ever come out.) But what then? Presumably, if things are going to take between two to four years to make it from submission to print, I need to have submitted more stuff already and at the least very soon. What’s in the bag? This post deals with the things which are not even written yet, and wonders how far off they are.

  1. Furthest of all, perhaps, is a piece with the working title “The Identity of Authority in late-Carolingian Catalonia”. This was originally going to pose, and answer, the question of the rights by which people in my area claimed to or felt that they held power. Actually aspects of that have now been swallowed into ‘Legends in their Lifetime’, which I’ll talk about in another post, and into ‘Succession to the Fisc’ below, and so I don’t quite know what it will eventually cover, but it will get written, because it’s supposed to be the first output from my next big research project and so if I ever get to do that project there will certainly be an initial paper saying, “See what I have found!” This will be it. Not hurrying this because really, unless someone gives me a job where I don’t have to run to stay up with teaching all the time—something I’m expecting to have to do initially—the project is years off. However, I now think that a version of it may surface as 2010’s Leeds paper if I don’t think of anything else.
  2. “The Continuation of Carolingian Expansion”. Already written but wrongly as half of a paper which tried to get two theories about the fragmentation of the Carolingian Empire into dialogue with each other. Half of it has now gone into ‘Legends’, again; the half that remains was originally built to take on the Pierre Bonnassie version of the ‘feudal transformation’ but I’m now looking at doing that elsewhere too. I may actually have emptied this one as it stands, but the vessel, or rather its reading list, still contains a lot of stuff about post-Carolingian development, the differences between Leonese, Castilian and Catalan ‘feudalism’ and so forth and I’m now thinking this might be where my paper for an eventual issue of a journal that I’ve been asked to coordinate about Carolingian borderlands comes from.
  3. “Critical diplomatic: a tool for analysing early medieval societies”. I’ve been luckier with this one that I ought to have been. It began as chapter 1 of my thesis, a structured rant about how tricky charters are to use unless you consider them as authored texts. I presented a paper based on that at the first of our legendary Leeds sessions, and got feedback that I have since learnt to recognise, from people who didn’t work on this stuff saying ‘wow you’ve really opened my eyes to these sources’ and from people who did but for the High Middle Ages saying ‘but we knew all this, everyone knows this’. This was what it also got from its first two journals, but I eventually found a third one who liked it, but wanted me to turn it into a full-scale introduction to and review of the field. Wow, I said, that’ll take some reading, and alas, I still haven’t had time to do it. I’m very keen on finally writing this as it will probably live longer than anything else I do if I can get it right. But when I can find the time, who knows. It’s an awful lot of work for one article.
  4. “Succession to the fisc in late-Carolingian Catalonia” or some very similar title. An old preoccupation here: do the people who hold power in my area manage to do it by controlling public land? Really? After the Carolingians, the Muslims and the Visigoths had all had their go at altering the Roman fiscus publicus? How much do we even know about the fisc? To do this properly of course I’d need to start at the Roman beginning, fight through all that Durliat stuff and then ask how much was left at each successive stage. Well, maybe later. This one actually has a time and place it’s needed, so it has to stay realisable. Instead, therefore, I’m going to start in my period and look backwards at ways in which public land was claimed or described and see how deep their various roots seem to be. Toponymics and claims to succession will loom large. I have a reading list, it’s not too awfully long, it will be done for Easter and could presumably then be submitted once it’s had its baptism of fire.

So, there’s one at least, and only six months away! So, with my usual luck, it might be out in… 2013? Perhaps there’s something that can be done quicker than that…

CFP: Desire in Dante and the Middle Ages

Last post was all about me, let’s have one with no connection to me at all. This got circulated to me and though I’ve no interest myself I think there are people reading who may do…

Call for Papers: Desire in Dante and the Middle Ages

University of Oxford, 22-24 April 2010

  • Concept and Organization: Manuele Gragnolati (Somerville College,
    Oxford) and Elena Lombardi (Bristol); with the support of the Paget
    Toynbee Fund, University of Oxford, and Somerville College, Oxford
  • Assistance: Tristan Kay (The Queen’s College, Oxford)
  • Keynote speakers: Bill Burgwinkle (King’s College, Cambridge) and
    Christian Moevs (Notre Dame)

Dante’s Divine Comedy has been appropriately called “the poem of desire”, not only because it features desire as the fundamental trait d’union between the self and God, but also because it covers the whole semantic area of this very large concept and its implications. Although rooted in the sensual (if not erotic) love for a woman, it also encompasses the theme of rational desire for knowledge, and combines the two in the spiritual drive towards the divine and the transcendental. Thus, Dante’s magnum opus explores the multiple tensions through which the notion of desire has been articulated and discussed in the diverse cultural fields since antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages ? tensions which still reverberate in modern theories. Desire in Dante’s work questions the tension between lack and fulfillment, absence and presence, and earthly and divine love, with which Western culture had long engaged and would continue to do so.

Dante’s formulation of desire in the Comedy is the result of his long meditation on this concept in his other works (Vita Nuova, Rime, Convivio, De vulgari eloquentia, Monarchia), as well as his reception of many other discourses of desire in the Christian Middle Ages. Indeed, from courtly literature to theology, from medicine to mysticism, from spirituality and devotional practices to political theory, the question of desire is central to medieval culture, matching, and occasionally surpassing, our contemporary “obsession” with it. Whilst in each of these fields desire has a specific significance and its own terminology, it also transcends the borders of these single disciplines and is a truly inter-discursive feature of medieval culture. Although often in service of normative relations (such as the relation between matter and form, lover and beloved, soul and God), desire can also be subversive, endowed with a protean nature and transformative powers.

This conference takes Dante’s multifaceted discourse of desire as an occasion to investigate medieval concepts of desire in their multiplicity, fragmentation, and interrelation. We therefore invite papers engaging with notions of desire in Dante and/or other authors, contexts, and discourses. We particularly welcome papers that, in addition to close readings of their chosen texts, explicitly address and theorize how desire operates within them. Possible topics include:

  1. desire as a bridge between the human and the divine or between soul and body
  2. desire in relation to eroticism, sensuality, sexuality
  3. desire in relation cosmology and the sciences
  4. desire in relation to knowledge and power
  5. desire in courtly literature, medieval Aristotelianism, medicine,
    mysticism, and political theory
  6. desire in relation to memory, loss, or death
  7. desire between lack and fulfillment, excess and control, suffering and
  8. desire negotiating between the sacred and the earthly/profane
  9. desire in relation to language, poetry, textuality
  10. medieval vs. modern concepts of desire.

Papers will be limited to 30 minutes. Please email an abstract of maximum 500 words and a short bio-bibliographical profile (no more than 1 page) to and by 15 October 2009. An answer will be given by the end of November 2009. For any other information, please contact Tristan Kay:

Stock take, part I: in press

Over a recent weekend I finished a paper, for a purpose that by now it will be possible to explain but since I am writing this before, and the bending of chronology and twisting together of past and future amuses me, I shall continue to keep schtum about it for now. However, this means that another text joins the ranks of my as-yet-unpublished work. I have rather a lot of these. I made the mistake of counting them the same day and was horrified enough by the results that I thought it was time to involve my limited public. Let’s start with what I’ve finished, and move on to the things where I’m failing or flailing once that happy glow of achievement is established… If you’re better-established than me you can tell me where I’m going wrong, if you’re not, be warned about what you may have coming.

At the time of writing I have five papers that both exist and have an agreed place of publication. (I have one more with an agreement but no finished text that causes me mild guilt every time I look at the relevant part of my to-read shelves.) These are, in probable order of publication, short titles only and destinations concealed to protect editors from embarrassment:

  1. “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia”. First written for the departmental seminar in early 2007. Two subsequent rewrites and much helpful critique from editor, just missed deadline for publication in 2008 alas, rather longer version with fewer tables of charter cites should be out in a respected journal in December 2009 subject to a final referee’s report. Here’s hoping. I actually see the editor enough to get some genuine dialogue about this one and it’s salutary how much difference this makes.
  2. “Arabic-named communities in ninth- and tenth-century Asturias and León, at court and at home”. Half of a larger paper I wrote for a conference in 2006, just before the blog, back in much happier times. It got thoroughly critiqued and I rewrote it for presentation in 2007. Torturous problems with graphing the data. Rejected by old fusty journal, accepted by new exciting journal and reviewed by someone helpful but very interventionist, rewritten once since acceptance therefore in time for publication in July this year, which didn’t happen; it probably needs another rewrite yet, if so it’ll have to happen soon as last I heard it was scheduled for publication January 2010, which I therefore no longer believe.
  3. “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan Terra de Ningú”. Written for conference in 2006, rewritten for another early 2007 at which publication was expected so imminently they had an ISBN for the volume within two months. Not so, alas. I submitted on time, but some other contributors appear not to consider this urgent and so despite the best will of the editors this has languished. It could be out any minute! But it presumably won’t be. Also, it’s been waiting so long that almost everything of mine I cited in it has changed names and in some cases even almost come out…
  4. “Coinage, Digitization and the World-Wide Web: numismatics and the COINS Project”, with Achille Felicetti & Reinhard Hüber-Mork. A much-inflated version of a paper I gave in 2007 in Vienna, then submitted to a CFP I learnt about from The Heroic Age blog (thanks Larry!) and accepted, now about to be revised before final submission, due out May 2010. Another edited volume but because it’s a volume on digital stuff I presume that most of the people writing will be junior, hungry for more CV points and therefore probably submit closer to deadline than the previous one.
  5. “Settling the King’s Lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective.” ‘A small point of pedantry, or, as I like to call it, scholarship.’ First written in 2002 as an invective against another article I disagreed with vehemently. Subsequently revised several times as I took in more and more previous scholarship and took out the bile and spleen (or most of it). Sufficiently declawed to be accepted by a premier-league journal and now with them and in the print queue but no word about schedules. I hope that 2010 is a good bet.

So okay, I have stuff forthcoming for ages ahead, and some of it has been that way for ages behind. But prior to that I had almost nothing for five years and the reason for that was mainly that I was working on too many other things at once. This could easily happen again, at this rate, and I don’t want another five-year drought. Many of these pieces are also finished, or mostly. So what hasn’t happened? I’ll confess and promise to mend my ways in a few very near-future posts. I can tell you’re all eager already…

Copied with approval

“The place of charters in social practices cannot be fully appreciated without an adequate knowledge of their production, their range and their diversity. The documents that survive, together with those known through indirect references (in scattered copies or mentions of losses), are only a residual part of what was produced. Any given charter collection has been affected by accidents of conservation: by selection–whether deliberate or not–and by differing amounts of attention being devoted to different documents, while at the same time addition of new materials was taking place. To know to what extent the visible tip of the documentary iceberg reflects the part that is invisible is an old methodological preoccupation…. The question is certainly a quantitative one but it is even more a qualitative one. Does the view conveyed by the sources simply show a reduction of what was once there, or is it a distortion? Similarly, how should we interpret the ebb and flow in the numbers of documents? What part of this is due to fluctuations in the production of writings and what is due to the vicissitudes of conservation?”1

And he goes on to do a case study using three cartularies compared to the preservation of loose documents from the same place and concludes that, at the very least, the originals were still around for a good while after the production of their first cartularies because, for example, they were used in subsequent larger cartularies. However, the cartularies are still, mostly, selective.2 This is tantamount to calling Patrick Geary wrong, which, nothing loath, he goes on to do in a footnote.3

If I don’t get on with it I shall be able to write my article on this subject entirely by quoting other scholars. It may be difficult to convince someone it deserves printing if I do, or even if I just could. Time to get some stuff finished…

1. Laurent Morelle, “The Metamorphosis of the Monastic Charter Collections in the Eleventh Century (Saint-Amand, Saint-Riquier, Montier-en-Der)” in Karl Heidecker (ed.), Charters and the Written Word in Medieval Society, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 5 (Turnhout 2000), pp. 171-204, quote at p. 171.

2. The one that isn’t, apparently, where he thinks the compiler was just too overwhelmed by the material to organise to an agenda (ibid. p. 191), wasn’t edited when he wrote but now is, by Constance B. Bouchard (ed.), The cartulary of Montier-en-Der, 666-1129 (Toronto 2004).

3. ‘On this point P. GEARY, Phantoms of Remembrance: Memory and Oblivion at the End of the First Millennium (Princeton, 1994; French tr. by J.-P. RICARD [sic], Mémoire et oubli à la fin du premier millénaire (Paris, 1996), is not strong enough; see my remarks on the chapter of the book concerning archives: L. MORELLE, “Histoire et archives vers l’an mil: Une nouvelled ‘mutation’?”, Histore et archives 3 (1998), pp. 119-141.’ (Morelle, “Metamorphosis”, p. 173 n. 8.)

Sindbad met a moa, met a moa on a mountain…

In recent days I have been doing a lot of work on nineteenth-century New Zealand. You will guess that this was my job, not my research, and the germ of it is the fact that the Museum where I work holds one of the 23 New Zealand Crosses that were ever awarded, and several bits of the recipient’s family have been in touch with us about it and supplied material that is going to be part of an online exhibition about it that yours truly is building. So far so simple. What is not simple, however, is summarising nineteenth-century New Zealand history. It has become clear that there is not just one official line but several to take note of, and for each an unofficial line wandering somewhere between critique and conspiracy theory. Currently, for example, the New Zealand government’s official stance about the past eviction of the Maori from their lands is conciliatory, but of course it was not ever thus, and there are people in the islands who feel that the granting of public land in compensation, not usually directly relevant land, is wrong, either because it diminishes public resources for all in favour of some and is therefore only another kind of expropriation, or because it is not the land in question, which is of course now hallowed by a fair few generations of settler occupation as well as the few centuries of Maori occupation before that. People’s livelihoods depend on the interpretation of the past, so it’s a very politically dangerous and morally questionable field in which to be trying to find out what really happened.1

Now this makes the archæology of any settlement or occupation prior to the Maori arrival, usually dated to 950X1150, problematic. Many people would say that it’s problematic because there isn’t any, but of course there are those on the Internet who argue otherwise, and indeed who argue that evidence of such settlement has been suppressed, by a pro-Maori conciliatory government terrified by the Maori majority in the New Zealand Armed Forces in extreme cases. And then there are those who may just be having a laugh. I found plenty of the latter in my websearching for images, and one of these theories is actually period-wise more or less on topic for here, which is a bit alarming. The guy behind this site has collected a bunch of ‘radical’ theories as well as giving European and Maori versions of the islands’ history. Well, one can put as many wild theories on the Internet as one likes but occasionally someone who knows the period turns up and then, I think, it’s that person’s duty to at least look around quickly and then put something up on the Internet himself, saying what he thinks. And when I say ‘he’ I mean me. So I will.

Reconstruction of a moa being attacked by a Haasts Eagle, New Zealand Museum, Te Papa Tongawera, from Wikimedia Commons

Reconstruction of a moa being attacked by a Haast's Eagle, New Zealand Museum, Te Papa Tongawera, from Wikimedia Commons

The short version of this theory goes like this. Please note that these are not my own beliefs but my summary of others’s assertions; we’ll get to my input in a minute. The Geography of al-Idrisi reports a voyage in the time of Caliph Harun al-Rashid of Baghdad that found a new mountainous land south-east of what is now New Guinea. This can only have been New Zealand. Furthermore, a rock carving at Mount Tauhara appears to show an Arab dhow. Also, the Seven Voyages of Sindbad the Sailor, well known from the Arabian Nights story cycle and also set in the time of Harun al-Rashid, feature a land and fauna that could easily be identified with locations in New Zealand and its erstwhile giant birds, like the Moa (Sindbad reports a Seemoah), hunted to death by the settlers, or the New Zealand Giant Eagle, apparently hunted out earlier by the Maori. Furthermore, an artefact known as the Korotangi, a sculpture of a bird carved from green serpentine that only occurs in China or Indonesia, must have come along a trade route from Jakarta which was then an Arab-held trading port. So there.

My on-the-spot reaction to this was pretty good, actually. The Sindbad stuff is pretty stretched, but we know from recent finds that actually there was Arab-type shipping in the general China Sea area from only slightly later than that period, at least from before al-Idrisi was writing, and so it doesn’t seem to me a priori impossible that Muslim sailors in that part of the world knew of New Zealand, though that’s a long way from saying they settled there even by accident. At which rate, well, it could feature in stories, however distorted, and get wrapped into the Sindbad cycle, though I know almost nothing about that I freely admit. So I thought it was worth checking a bit.

The alleged Crying Dove, or Korotangi, sculpture

The alleged Crying Dove, or Korotangi, sculpture

And oh dear. Let’s start at the end, with the Korotangi. The site I started with is startling in being the only place on the web I can locate with an image of this sculpture, and yes, it’s not very like the Maori stuff I agree. If that’s it. Any kind of publication of this find seems to be lacking.2 One website claims that the object is now in the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, and I’m not saying it’s not but I can’t find it in their online catalogue. (Obviously suppressed!!1!) So we seem to have only hearsay about this thing’s discovery and even if that were accurate it’s not clear to me that it proves anything about Arab connections rather than Indonesian ones. So though it’s a beautiful thing, I’m going to dismiss it.

Alleged carving of Arab dhow on Mt Tauhara, Taupo, New Zealand

Alleged carving of Arab dhow on Mt Tauhara, Taupo, New Zealand

Nextly the ship carvings, as I don’t see any way of evaluating the Sindbad stuff that isn’t completely subjective or based on the other evidence (though we can at least refute the Seemoah, which is a Persian word, `Simurgh’, and doesn’t have to relate to anything outside Arabia). These carvings have also not been published. Various websites, all of which except this one hold that they are Phoenician (an origin which our writer maintains for some of them), say that one Perry Fletcher discovered them, but his standing doesn’t seem to be professional and he has not published it. He is however cited as a contributor to a government report on early land use in the area of the finds, and that completely fails to mention anything pre-Maori. Out of their remit? Out of their comfort zone? or actually not Perry’s idea at all? Who knows? However, some NZ sceptics have been to look for these carvings and not found them discernible without very selective highlighting, or at least so they say. And, something that they allege that is beyond question, there is no good way to date these carvings whatever they depict. So that too looks like evidence bent to fit a theory rather than anything that suggests an inherent answer, and I’m going to dismiss this too.

So that basically leaves the texts. Well, al-Idrisi is well enough known, though it seems that there were problems getting hold of a text in New Zealand when this story started. Our source website here says:

Augustus Hamilton, Director of the Museum of NZ in the early 1900’s had written an article on the “Early Mention of New Zealand in a Geographical Treatise of the 12th Century” (Journal of the Ploynesian Society [sic], 1886, Vol 4), and the 12th century document was Al-Idrisi’s. Translated into French in 1840 by Monsieur Jaubert, and published as “Recueil des Voyages” by the Geographical Society of France.

The passage at top is from Volume 6, where Al-Idrisi described an exploration by Arab explorers around 790 AD of the Southern Ocean, and their discovery of a large, mountainous land-mass. South-east of New Guinea is nothing but ocean – and New Zealand.

A bit of work located the Hamilton article, whose more cautious title is actually “Notes on a supposed early Mention of New Zealand in a Geographical Treatise of the 12th Century” and is actually in Journal of the Polynesian Society Vol. 4 (Auckland 1895), at p. 206: it’s only a note, and it goes:

In the account of the Proceedings of the Otago Institute, at a meeting held March 16, 1870, (Trans. N. Z. Institute, vol. iii, part i, Proceedings, p. 65), it appears that the Vice-President, Mr A. Eccles, read a paper “On the Discovery of New Zealand.” He suggested that New Zealand had been visited before Tasman’s time, giving the following as his grounds for so doing:–”The editor of the English Mechanic, (December 3rd, 1869, p. 279), states, in answer to a correspondent, ‘Urban,’ that various Arabic geographical works of the 13th and 14th centuries, many of which, having been translated, as ‘El Ideesee,’ by M. Jaubert, are to be found in the fine libraries of Vienna and Paris, as well as in the various Asiatic Ethnological Societies, both English and foreign, describe New Zealand as a large and very mountainous country in the farthest Southern Ocean, beyond and far south-east of both Ray (Borneo) and Bartalie (New Guinea), and as being uninhabited by man, and containing nothing but gigantic birds known as the ‘Seêmoah.'” Mr Eccles then gave the names of several foreign publications in which passages of the works are to be found translated. I have several times tried to get to the source of the information given above, but have always been unsuccessful. Within the last three months I wrote to the Librarian of the great library at Paris, enclosing the paragraph and asking for his assistance, but have as not yet heard from him. I have, however, just discovered the key to it, and by the insertion of this note in the Polynesian Journal I trust that we may soon have the passage supposed to apply to New Zealand published. The paragraph, after the words “13th and 14th centuries,” should read, “many of which have been translated, as those of El Edrisi by M. Jaubert, and are,” &c. El Edrisi is a well-known geographer of the 12th century, and his writings have been translated by M. Jaubert into French in 1840, as vols. 5 and 6 of the Recueil des Voyages issued by the Société de Géographic [sic] of France. It seems that in 1861 a number of oriental scholars arranged to undertake a new translation, each taking a separate division. According to the last edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Central and Eastern Asia (which I suppose would be the section in which we are interested) was allotted to Defrémery. One portion appeared in 1866, but I cannot ascertain if any other part has since been issued. Perhaps some foreign members of the Polynesian Society may be in a position to forward a translation of that part of the work which is supposed to apply to New Zealand, and also that part in particular anent the “Seêmoah.” Possibly this may be our friend the “Simurgh” again—the “Roc” of the Arabian story-tellers. From the account given in the Encyclopedia, the general map of El Edrisi’s work is published by Dr. Vincent in his Periplus of the Erythræan Sea. This is probably inaccessible in the colonies, but a sketch of the Australasian area would be of interest to us. The Bodleian contains a MS. of the work dated about 1500, which would give probably what is required. The University of Jena has a MS. with a Latin translation by Velochius, not published. Although further research may possibly prove that there is nothing in the work relating to New Zealand, the investigation will be the means of settling a matter which has been an open question for a quarter of a century.—A. Hamilton.

Mr Hamilton, I have not answered your request. Nor, as far as I can tell, has anyone else, but, I have at least gone back to Jaubert’s translation. The fact that our source website names Vol. 6 bothers me slightly, in as much as the full citation is Amédée Jaubert (transl.), La Géographie d’Edrisi. Traduit de l’arabe en français d’après deux manuscrits de la Bibliothèque du roi et accompagnée de notes, Recueil de voyages et de mémoires publié par la Société de géographie, Paris, 5-6 (Paris 1836-40), but the China Seas are in the first volume, the relevant parts being part IX & X of the 1st Climate. Now. I may have missed it. I did spend a short while looking, but it might be out of logical sequence: al-Idrisi detailed each climate west to east, though, so it’s fairly easy to be sure. He covers India, what is now Burma, Malaya, Sumatra and Java (the last three more or less under those names) and a myriad of smaller islands, but that seems to be it. I can’t find the text that our website quotes, anything that could be the source of the passage known to Hamilton, or anything about Seemoahs anywhere in there. I don’t think it is there, unless Jaubert dropped it from the translation; but our source seems to believe that it’s in Jaubert. Well, if he wants to provide a cite I’ll look again, but till then, damn, there is nothing in this at all except hearsay and guesswork!

The overview map from the Bodleian MS of al-Idrisi's Geography, from Wikimedia Commons (much larger version linked beneath)

The overview map from the Bodleian MS of al-Idrisi's Geography, from Wikimedia Commons (much larger version linked beneath)

Well, not quite nothing. Al-Idrisi didn’t just write about the world’s geography, he also tried to draw it. The geography itself contains a stylish world map which makes him seem quite confused about what he drew as the top left, since his projection had the south at the top, but he produced a much larger version of his worldview for King Roger II of Sicily in 1154, called the Tabula Rogeriana, which is also on Wikimedia Commons in a scholarly glossed version but which you’d far better consult in an online version of that gloss at the Library of Congress, which is zoomable and navigable and lots of other good stuff. And if you look at the top left on that, you get this:

And if you zoom in on that interesting pair of islands just to the left and above the grid intersection, you find that they share a name, uākuāk:

and that, to me, starts to look relevant. This appearance rapidly dissipates, however, when you realise that he is naming the islands by their supposed kings and that the same king rules not just those but the extensive and urbanised southern continent which seems to want to be Antarctica.3

I’m not quite prepared to dismiss this yet, though this would make the next island along, Sabarma, I don’t know, Tasmania? and the huge long Kamar Australia, whereas he says its people are white (he was very interested in skin colour and what the women wear, uncovered female hair gets him all of a twitter). So the quote still doesn’t fit al-Idrisi’s actual texts, neither, apparently, does his own map, and I’m not sure how much more reliable his knowledge of this area was than the Sindbad stories. Without him, too, Sindbad is really the only evidence for early Arab knowledge of New Zealand. And when your only evidence is in the Arabian Nights, it may be time to rethink your position…

1. If you want an actual academic in the field talking about these issues, you could do worse than consult Jane Lydon, “Pacific Encounters, or Beyond the Islands of History” in Martin Hall & Stephen W. Silliman (edd.), Historical Archaeology, Blackwell Guides to Global Archaeology 9 (Oxford 2006), pp. 293-312 at pp. 297-298, which I read by complete coincidence.

2. It’s not quite true to say it’s unpublished, as it seems to get a mention in a pamphlet by one Matthew Eru Wepa called Great Mysteries of the Mäori World (Rotorua 2004) which I haven’t seen, but as that’s self-published I’m not sure whether it really counts; I doubt it went through review…

3. The glosses on the map are Roman transliterations of al-Idrisi’s Arabic and come from Konrad Miller, Weltkarte des Idrisi vom Jahr 1154 n. Ch., Charta Rogeriana (Stuttgart 1928), which is still, it seems, fairly current about his understanding, at least this far off the Eurocentric area…