Seminary LX: sneaking in to hear Richard Hodges

I need to write something substantive, but I have very very little time at the moment; three papers need finishing before Kalamazoo, and all need reading (which is the hardest thing to find time for, paradoxically). All the same, I am badly behind with reports on things I’ve been to. So, let me renew the seminar reports with something that was actually part of a conference, an event entitled “Crisis, What Crisis? The ‘Long’ Ninth Century” organised at the McDonald Institute in Cambridge. The organisation here, and I hope a colleague of mine who was involved in it will forgive me for saying this, was peculiar. Pick a room with space for only forty people in it, do not advertise except by word of mouth and e-mail, only the most minimal internet presence, just in case anyone might, you know, turn up… and then put on this programme:

    8th-9th March 2010


  • 9.45-10.15 James Barrett “Introduction”
  • 10.15-11.00 Richard Hodges “Charlemagne minus Mohammed”
  • 11.00-11.30 Tea/coffee

  • 11.30-12.15 Nora Berend “The concept of Christendom: A product of crisis?”
  • 12.15-13.00 Søren Sindbæk “Routes for crisis? Early medieval networks and ninth-century ‘relinking’”
  • 13.00-14.00 Lunch

  • 14.00-14.45 Dagfinn Skre “The origins of Kaupang’s settlers and traders in the ninth century”
  • 14.45-15.30 Mark Blackburn “Were the Vikings a drain or a stimulus to the ninth-century monetary economy?”
  • 15.30-16.00 Tea/coffee

  • 16.00-16.45 Vaughan Grimes “Isotope analysis and the Norse ‘crisis’: Reconstructing climate, diet and human migration events in the ninth century”
    16.45-17.15 DISCUSSION


  • 9.45-10.30 Jesse Byock “Vikings and Iceland in the ninth century: Crisis, what crisis?”
  • 10.30-11.15 Stephen Driscoll “The archaeology of the Scottish political landscape: Viking age transformations
  • 11.15-11.45 Tea/coffee

  • 11.45-12.30 Máire Ní Mhaonaigh “A cultural crisis? The nature of learning in Ireland’s Viking Age”
  • 12.30-13.15 Rosamond McKitterick “Representations of crisis in ninth-century Frankia”
  • 13.15-14.00 Lunch

  • 14.00-14.45 Gareth Williams “Without the Vikings we would have no Anglo-Saxons: Discuss”
  • 14.45-15.30 Gabor Thomas “Brightness in a time of dark: Metalwork from Anglo-Saxon England in the ninth century”
  • 15.30-16.00 Tea/coffee

  • 16.00-16.30 John Hines “The ninth-century Viking raids and the kingdom of Wessex: A cloud with a silver lining”
  • 16.30-17.15 Andrew Reynolds “Measuring the indigenous response to external threat: Defining Wessex in the Viking Age”

I mean, had places not been so limited I would have taken two days off work to go, but they were, and I was slow to ask, so I didn’t get to do that. (Magistra et mater did, or at least did rather more effectively than did I, and has been reporting in what is so far two parts.) However, I did take the chance to sneak in for one paper, because although I’ve written about him here, I’ve never before heard Richard Hodges speak, and he’s been quite important for my thinking. So I begged my way in and the seats didn’t quite fill up so I didn’t feel bad about denying properly registered people their chance to hear. So with all that clear, what was being said?

Ongoing excavations at San Vincenzo al Volturno

Ongoing excavations at San Vincenzo al Volturno

Well, it is probably simplest for me to summarise Magistra’s report and then add my own few penn’orth. We took a tour of European development via the sites Richard has mainly worked on, which might cause one to worry about sampling, but Hodges’s big thing has always been to make his sites part of something much larger, and he’s had some splendid sites to do it with. So we started with emporia, right back to Dark Age Economics, and Hodges’s current feeling that these proto-urban trading settlements are already in decline before the Viking Age, though the North Sea networks into which they fit are apparently doing well enough for Scandinavian sites like Kaupang and Hedeby to be building in the ninth century, even though at points west this settlement form was over by the mid-eighth. They also appear to hang on in the Adriatic, however, where Hodges speaks from the authority of San Vincenzo al Volturno in Italy, pictured above where a monastic settlement into which massive Carolingian patronage is briefly poured and which acquires a substantial rural hinterland naturally becomes a local entrepôt, and Butrint in Albania, where urban decay was fairly pronounced between the sixth and ninth century but which then picks up a bit. This is a different local network, and the local variations are significant, but not enough to wipe out the similarity; yes, in the North Sea there are Vikings, but in the Adriatic a good few sites are wiped out in Saracen raids in 881, which is part of why Venice gets a head start thereafter. In general, as Magistra has it:

Overall, Hodges was arguing for two phases of trade. At the start of the ninth century there’s trade of prestige goods – including Chinese jade found at San Vincenzo. By the end of the ninth there’s been a shift away from this small-scale presige [sic] trading to larger scale trade and the beginnings of real sustainability. This was also reflected in more stratified buildings in C9 AS England, the multiplication of Frankish silos (for grain storage) and the development of fortified small manors in Italy. Hodges saw this large-scale economy developing from the 840s onwards and powered by the Vikings and Arabs.

Well, this all works pretty well for me, because the idea that there is a low-level economic solidification in the ninth century prior to the taxi run for the later take-off in the tenth century, fits with what I see in my material, an intensification of settlement and exchange, so you might expect me to quarrel with little except a bizarre defence Hodges made of hedge fund managers as being necessary for the economy like the Vikings, which I have all kinds of problems with which needn’t be explored here. And I did like his warning that archæology shouldn’t be expected to show negatives: we have very little evidence of activity in Venice in this period, but we know full well from other sources it was getting going.1 I also rather like his assessment of the size of the population at San Vincenzo by how many beds you could physically have fitted into the dormitory. I mean, the monks probably slept on the floor if they were proper reformed Benedictines, but the number is probably about right (110 maximum, which is considerably below some estimates, including that of the abbey’s own chronicle—I suspect lay brothers of some early kind were being included here). And a pointed question about the slave trade elicited Hodges’s opinion that it was marginal until the end of the ninth century, except in the East where both Byzantium and the Caliphate increase demand for slaves hugely as they stabilise; he willingly admitted that Michael McCormick sees things very differently here, but as we have recently discussed, indeed, neither texts nor archæology are particularly good for demonstrating slavery. So, on the whole a well-grounded, if opinionated, tour of a pretty large part of the European economic sphere in a fairly short time, and with some suitably impressive pictures and factoids to remember. I found this one useful and snuck back out with a feeling that I’d used my time wisely.

The currently-standing parts of the sixth-century basilica at Butrint

The currently-standing parts of the sixth-century basilica at Butrint

1. Something I know quite well, from when a particular Cambridge archæologist set me to do a seminar presentation on it during my M. Phil., and then had to admit after I came back to them, panicked, four days later with no data, that they couldn’t find any published archæology on it either, now that they came to look.

10 responses to “Seminary LX: sneaking in to hear Richard Hodges

  1. Hard to believe with a speaker list like that they’d limit it to 40 people!

    Looks like I’ll have to buy a copy of Hodges. I’ve held off mainly because I internally shudder whenever someone uses “Dark Ages” in their title. But I probably need to read his Viking Theory before I dismiss it out of hand.

    I’d love to meet McKitterick sometime – I’ve really enjoyed her books on Carolingian literacy.

    • Well, before you go back to the original Dark Age Economics—which I thought was really useful, if impenetrable in places, when I was a fresh undergraduate, but might not see the same way now—you might want to wait for his upcoming retrospective, Dark Age Economics: a new audit (London forthcoming), which will presumably be much more like what he now thinks and feature recent excavations. The original is, I think, worth looking at if you want a theoretical basis with which to read early medieval archæology; but if what you want is the historical data, perhaps not necessary these days. The title, however, is a riff on older and ground-breaking work by the anthropologist Marshal Sahlins called Stone Age Economics (London 1976), and shouldn’t be read as quite as old-fashioned as it may seem if you haven’t met that work.

      Rosamond was a teacher of mine and has always been immensely helpful to me, and she is, indirectly, one of the people to whom I currently owe a paper, so I may not be the best person from whom to get a fair opinion, but there are these posts (which you may of course already have seen).

      • I think if you’re going to read Richard Hodges, it makes sense to do it in reverse chronological order, because his theories have changed a lot over the years, partly due to redating of the evidence. There’s a book of his recent papers out: Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-reading early medieval archaeology which might be the best starting point.

        As an example of the changes, when I last heard Richard Hodges four years ago he was arguing for the key role of Charlemagne in the development of the early medieval economy. In the paper this time round, he seemed to be arguing for the 840s as the key moment (with the Viking attacks modifying northern trade patterns and San Vincenzo starting to become a production, rather than just a consumption centre). That rather rules out Charlemagne’s influence as key.

        • I must have narrowly missed that report of yours, Magistra, interesting. I’d say your perspectives on this sort of material have changed as much as his in those four years, to judge from the write-up?

          • My perspectives on archaeology have certainly changed; I’m less sure whether my perspective on Richard Hodges has. This time he was talking archaeology to archaeologists, so there was no half-baked comments on Carolingian history, but I don’t know if that’s because he’s abandoned those ideas or just not mentioning them to this audience.

            As for the exclusivity of the conference, have you ever known a conference organised by Cambridge University that wasn’t either invitation only or only grudgingly publicised to the outside world? The view seems to be that if you’re not either based in Cambridge or a personal friend of the organisers then you’re not really worth bothering about. (And yes, this is written out of personal bitterness at some of the conferences I didn’t get to go to).

            • In this instance, I understand that many of the problems with publicity were down to the main organiser being located somewhere quite distant from Cambridge itself. However, I have to admit that thinking back I can’t think of any other conference I’ve even heard about at Cambridge except ones where colleagues were presenting. I presume they happen, so I am presumably not in the loop either…

  2. James Gerrard

    Firstly, I’m glad that you found the event useful and interesting. However, I think I need to set the record straight though.

    This was not a conference but an ‘advanced research seminar’. The audience and speakers were invitation only and this was a deliberate decision built into the project design and funding application. The funding provided to run this event (and the other two Crisis, what Crisis? seminars) was to bring a small group of researchers together.

    There were no publicity problems – the event was invitation only. The very few spare places were advertised internally by email. In the event 60 people attended over the two days.

    The project has an open conference for which registrations are now being accepted:

    • Dr Gerrard, thank you for the clarification. I suspect I’m not close enough to the MacDonald to have gleaned the subtlety of the distinction. If the seminar was anything to go by, however, the conference should be amazing. I’ll make sure to stay updated on it.

  3. Pingback: Kalamazoo and Back, II: ritual, chronicles and arm-wrestling « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  4. Pingback: On reading more Richard Hodges « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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