Monthly Archives: July 2010

Coin for Eileen Joy

Substantive content will follow: I have three more Leeds posts to write and several pieces of important personal academic news. But until I have time to write all that, Eileen, I sawcatalogued this and thought of you.

Reverse of Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.1.265-1990, from the Christopher Blunt collection

As to what it actually is, well, it’s interesting in itself as it’s a Saint Edmund penny from Viking East Anglia, by a moneyer by the name of Martin (I’m afraid), and the obverse actually commemorates the East Anglian king that the Vikings had brutally executed only a few decades previously. This is one of the successes of Alfred the Great and his men, or possibly a testimony to the small number of actual settlers in the First Viking Age if you’re Peter Sawyer (and if you are, wow, I love your work); it really didn’t take very long not just for the dead king to become a saint but for that saint, and therefore obviously Christianity, to be endorsed by the kingdom or region’s most widespread token of officialdom, which is the coinage obviously. (Things were very different on the coins of York, where Alfred did not reach and where swords and things that may or may not be Torshammers share two sides of a flan with the name of St Peter, uneasily.)

So it’s an object with a historical point, but on this occasion I just transcribed the legend and thought, “Right. I know who this image is for.” Happy unbirthday!

Leeds 2010 report I

Since I’ve already been to one other conference that I’m already opining about on other people’s blogs, and since I there plugged all heck out of this blog (not that this seems to have brought any great slough of visitors) it’s probably time I wrote something about Leeds. This year’s was a good Leeds despite the weather; I’ve said before now that bad weather can ruin Leeds because everyone is crammed inside small overheated rooms and can’t find each other, but although it bucketed down for much of the conference I didn’t find that to be the case this year. I had the impression that there were fewer people there than usual, in fact, although there were as many sessions as far as I can tell so I guess it was non-presenters who decided they couldn’t spare the money this year. Fair enough I suppose, but those who were there had a good time I think.

1. Keynote Lectures 2010

Gerald of Wales's Map of the Atlantic Sea

Gerald of Wales's Map of the Atlantic Sea, c. 1200

The theme of this year’s Leeds was travel and exploration, and I did as usual and basically entirely avoided the theme except for the keynote lectures. These were also about the only point when I didn’t have timetable clashes, too; for some reason the early medieval sessions were unusually conflictual this year, which I think may also reflect that there were an awful lot of them. Anyway. The keynotes were both good, and the first of them was Patrick Gautier-Dalché speaking to the title “Maps, Travel and Exploration in the Middle Ages”. What he was addressing here was the fact that to us, often, a medieval map looks worse than useless, used as we are to measurable scales and Mercator’s Projection. In fact, he argued, although maps were largely representational rather than scientific in the Middle Ages, they were far from useless. Some might be just for looking at, in the old picture worth a thousand words scenario, because a map, even a distorted one, is still a very good way of encoding geographical information.1 Then, they could even be useful for actually getting to places, if you approached them in the right way. The Map of the Atlantic Sea by Gerald of Wales above, M. Gautier-Dalché claimed though if the image above really is it I see no sign of this, is marked up with not just the pilgrimage routes through Western Europe, but the distances between their various stopping points. As long as you could find someone to put you on the road to the next destination, therefore, you would still be able to use the map to budget your provisions and journey time and maybe carry some very basic local information. In cases where precision navigation was a bit more essential, to wit at sea, maps perhaps served as aides-mémoire more than literal graphical information; a reminder of what a certain coastline looked like when you approached it, what the hills round the port are like, and so on. Not much use for doing it first time, but perhaps quite useful for doing it first time in say, ten years. The last example was maps’ use in judicial cases; unlikely, you might think, but apparently Columbus’s maps were produced in court in 1535 to prove that he had actually discovered, and indeed drawn, the coasts of South America. So a map might be a teaching tool, a contemplative resource, a planning aid, a piece of judicial proof, and was above all an interpretation, but Mercator has perhaps spoiled us to their possibilities.

An ancient stitch-and-glue boat hull on display in a restaurant in Zadar, Croatia

An ancient stitch-and-glue boat hull on display in a restaurant in Zadar, Croatia

The second keynote was given by Dionysius Agius, and was entitled, “‘In these Seas Horrors beyond Count Befell [Us]: travel in medieval Islam”. This was less of an argument and more of a tour of the evidence for medieval Islamic travel, which was fine by me as I know very little of it beyond the names of Ibn Battuta and al-Mas’Udi, and it was also accompanied with some fabulous, and indeed very presentist pictures, illustrating continuities of construction technique, goods trafficked, routes and so on, not least the stitched boats of which an older example is shown above. He talked us through the trade routes, both overland and overseas, without leaving much time for detail on any of them, just telling us a good story or two, and you know, this too is a skill, especially for a keynote on a specialised theme before a general audience. I did sort of know, for example, that the ends of trade routes across desert zones (and indeed the middle of them) tend to shift according to where the nomads who run the entry-points to them have currently got their shops set up, but it was as well to be reminded in the same few minutes as having the seasonal cycle of the currents of the Indian Ocean explained, there being a large part of the year when it’s far easier to go one way than the other, which is then reversed for another equally large part. After all, some people were plotting to get goods all the way along both routes. The other thing that I technically knew but which was well linked up here was that, at the period when Islamic ships were breaking out into the Indian Ocean (and indeed further) they were far from the only ships sailing it; indeed, as Professor Agius pointed out, they were sufficiently outsized and outnumbered by Indian and Chinese vessels that sometimes those groups were induced to provide warship escorts to keep away fleets of cannibal pirates (or so the travel narratives earnestly tell us, anyway). Whether the stories of Sindbad the Sailor really have a medieval context may, as we have said here before, be doubted, but Professor Agius happily brought them in anyway to illustrate the sort of stories that were probably told. So, not afraid to indulge in anachronism, and perhaps even Orientalism, but not to a bad purpose I thought and an entertaining lecture to attend.

105. Texts and Identities, I: Merovingian Queens – Narratives and Politics

Fifteenth-century illuminatiion of Queen Clothilde offering prayers to St Martin

Fifteenth-century illumination of Queen Clothilde offering prayers to St Martin

This was where the clashes started. I probably wanted, in retrospect, to go to 104. Popular Politics and Resistance in East and West but I hadn’t fully absorbed what I’d be missing (Robert Moore insisting there was no popular heresy that counts in early medieval Europe, Andrew Marsham saying what were apparently really interesting things about rebellion against the Umayyads and Bernard Gowers, whom I already needed to meet, talking about peasants, which I am very sorry I missed but may at least be able to get a copy of) until I’d run into one of the speakers from 105 and assured her I’d be at her paper. A man of my word, therefore, I was there for the following:

  • Julia Hofmann, “Betrayal or Portrayal? The Depiction of Fredegund and Clovis in Gregory of Tours’ Decem Libri Historiarum V. 39-49″. I mainly attended this so as to have seen Julia Hofmann and Julie Hofmann in the same room, in fact. Here the argument was that whereas Gregory of Tours was usually hopelessly partial in his depictions of Merovingian court politics, which is an obvious problem for working out whether he can be trusted to tells us about them, in this particular bloody and skulduggerous episode of family in-fighting he appears to have loathed both protagonists about equally, which suggests that it may even be a fair depiction. I’m not convinced we’d think the same if it were Liutprand of Cremona, myself, though I do understand the great emotional need not to write off so much of our evidence for the sixth century as Gregory represents.
  • Erin T. Dailey, “Merovingian Polygamy”, a title that drew me in but disappointed rather as it largely concluded that there probably wasn’t really any Merovingian polygamy per se, and did so largely by refusing to nuance the category of concubine, which as a couple of people pointed out to me afterwards needs doing because sometimes concubines’ children become kings. So, while marriage may be an important distinction (and valuable security for the wife, as long as the mother-in-law wasn’t Brunhild) it isn’t a total one, and the fact that there’s only ever one queen at a time doesn’t remove the need to ask how far queens are different. Only twenty minutes, I know, but he was pressed on the matter in questions and didn’t get much further with it.
  • Linda Dohmen, “The Adulterous Queen in Early Frankish Historiography”. Full disclosure requires that I admit that I’ve known Linda for ages and it was her I’d promised to come and see, but I thought this genuinely was a good paper, carefully balanced between spice and analysis. It also did something useful by balancing Gregory of Tours out with other sources covering the same era, in their equally biased ways, the Liber Historiae Francorum and ‘Fredegar’.2 What stories like the classic one about King Chilperic, coming home early to Queen Fredegund fresh out of the bath, catching her unawares with a slap on the rear and she telling off the lover she assumed it was rather than the husband it actually was, illustrate, other than in some ways there’s not much difference between a sixth-century court and a twentieth-century soap opera in terms of plot, is that a lot of people were prepared to get into risky situations for a chance to get with the queen, and not, we presume, simply because Merovingian kings selected irresistible brides Balthild not withstanding,3 but because it was a position of power; queens could bring legitimacy to a pretender or an arriviste, could be grounds for launching a coup or mounting a rebellion and could, also, be vital tokens of continuity when those events were unrolling for other reasons. Here as often happens we need a way to express this sort of position of power often occupied by women in the Middle Ages, power which is not the same as agency, which they often didn’t enjoy (Fredegund as with so much else an exception here), being unfortunate prizes to be contested between men who certainly did, but still incredible focuses of… what? One almost wants to use ancient anthropological terms like tabu, did I not know that modern-day anthropologists of my acquaintance (and indeed modern-day feminists) would probably kick me in the constructs for it. But the word ‘power’ doesn’t really get there, and it’s very hard to discuss without accepting the sources’ language of objectification. So yes, this one is still making me think.

209. Between a Rock and a Hard Place: reassessing politics and culture in the 10th century

Decorated initial showing Pope Gregory VII excommunicating King Henry IV of Germany

Decorated initial showing Pope Gregory VII excommunicating King Henry IV of Germany

My colleague Rory Naismith and I have been at the same conferences several times now, and at Kalamazoo we were somehow scheduled against each other, which has happened before too. This not being the case this time, I told Rory I would go to his session (221. The Anglo-Saxons and Rome, II: routes, coins and manuscripts) and then gathered that one of its speakers had pulled out and that this one was on in the same time-slot… I think I’ve still seen more of his papers than he has of mine but he definitely has the moral high ground for now. However, I struggled to find the session I was going to instead and so arrived in a terribly full room slightly after the beginning of…

  • Theo Riches, “Once Upon an Iron Age: telling the story of the long 10th century between Carolingians and ecclesiastical reform”. Some day I hope Theo will write a follow-up to Tim Reuter’s contribution to the feudal transformation debate; I’ve heard Theo discuss this and his Germanist’s perspectives are really interesting.4 However, he keeps letting some excuse about that not being his actual subject get in the way, and so this was not that paper but instead a likewise interesting one about bishops and ritual. He was picking up on a recent piece of Steffen Patzold‘s about the use of ritual in Ottonian court society, as propounded by Gerd Althoff, which makes the very useful distinction between the rules of the game and manœuvres in the game, and the need to be aware which the evidence is showing us.5 This fits well with my objections to some of the French school of dispute scholarship that emphasies competing norms; sometimes, I like to point out, people are actually abnormal, and this was implicit in Theo’s discussion.6 Theo also wanted us to remember the audience, and that it is not necessarily passive; these rituals may be worked out beforehand, but they are pointless unless they are seen, which means that they are also open to interpretation. Patzold sees a change in bishops’ rôles in these contexts in the 820s, from potestas to ministerium, moving from being in charge of their own subjects to the whole of God’s people, with a consequent distancing from politics in detail. Theo suggested seeing this as move from being a player of the ‘game’ to being an umpire, and that the 820s are the point when episcopal lordship starts to become qualitatively different. This was music to my ears as my very first Leeds paper suggested that bishops in my area were lay lords plus, with extra means of recourse and a few corresponding restrictions, but essentially doing the same things;7 Theo’s take here, and Steffen’s behind it, may give me the means to nuance this. I also really liked Theo’s statement in questions that “Canossa breaks deditio, you can’t use it any more” (deditio being a ritual of simulated self-abasement to demand forgiveness from a ruler for disobeying him). This is one of many ways in which the contest between King Henry IV of Germany and Pope Gregory VII overdrives medieval politics, he’s right, things do break in that contest, and arguably not least the Holy Roman Empire…
  • Steven Robbie, “The Duchy of Alemannia in the Early Tenth Century: an ethnic community?” followed Theo, which is hard enough to do, but Theo speaks quite loudly and Steven speaks quite softly; also, it was after lunch and the room was hot and stuffy. I fear Steven may have lost some of the attention of his audience for what was quite a subtle take on the question of the Stamme, the core ‘ethnic’ territories that are supposed to underlie German duchies in a certain old-fashioned sort of historiography. Steven illustrated that this won’t work for Alemannia, which is reconstructed pretty much as needed in the political circumstances of each age and only maps to later Swabia in fairly transient ways. When all of Alemans, Thuringians and Swabians are supposed to be the same ancestral community, you realise that ethnogenesis is a game that many can play.
  • Simon Williams, “Playing to the Gallery: reinterpreting Liudprand of Cremona’s Antapadosis in its contemporary context”, did indeed play to the gallery in as much while I may some day hear a Liutprand paper in which the speaker does not tell the story everyone’s favourite Italian scandalmonger reports about Queen Guilla hiding a valuable belt where only a woman could, this was not it (and neither, of course, is my report of it). However, he did do some interesting stuff pointing out how quickly Liutprand’s work circulated, well within his lifetime too, so even if he was initially writing for a small audience that wasn’t what he revised for. Simon in fact suggested that the target audience was Bishop Abraham of Freising and perhaps Bishop Dietrich of Metz as well as Bishop Rather of Verona, and that we underestimate Liutprand if we see him as a marginal player. Liutprand writing about you, in other words, was something like being mentioned in Tatler; probably unpleasant and trivial but unfortunately read by people whose good opinion of you may be important some day…

Coffee break next but I find it combines badly with adrenalin, so I didn’t, because next was nothing less than my paper!

301. Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Caliph, King, or Grandfather: strategies of legitimization on the Spanish March in the reign of Lothar III” is actually one of my better pieces of work, I think, and compares three contemporary Catalan counts’ reactions to what I’m now arguing is a resurgent Carolingian royal self-assertion by King Lothar III. This is kind of part two of my Haskins paper from 2008 and I hope to have them both in process soon so I’ll say no more here unless people are curious enough to ask.
Grant of King Æthelred II to Abingdon Abbey, 993 (Sawyer 876)

Grant of King Æthelred II to Abingdon Abbey, 993 (Sawyer 876)

  • Levi Roach, “The Voice of Æthelred?” explored the group of lengthy royal charters of King Æthelred the Unready in which he apologises for the misdeeds of his youth and makes compensation gifts. Levi was arguing that the imagery employed here is sufficiently consistent, across several archives and many scribes, that these documents must represent an actual statement of sorts by the king, even if he probably didn’t choose the actual written phrasing. Charles Insley, who gave a not dissimilar paper a few years ago,8 was generous enough not to point this out in questions, but Levi rallied to what I think is actually new ground in reaction to a question from Steven Robbie about how long it can possibly take to be sorry; these documents after all span most of a decade. Levi’s response was that the only way it all makes sense is a rather paranoid policy of penitence till the bad stuff stops happening, which after these charters stopped was shifted onto the whole kingdom under the influence of Archbishop Wulfstan; in other words, this court’s response to crisis is to escalate repentance until the handles come off and it all goes to Hell… Which, even if it’s overstated, gives one to wonder how neutral a perspective on things anyone at Æthelred’s court could possibly have maintained… What price groupthink? and so on.
  • David Woodman, “The Rewriting of the Anglo-Saxon Past: a Middle English Rhyming Charter of King Æthelstan and the Beverley Cartulary (BL, MS Additional 61901) in context”, lastly, dealt with a rather lovely piece of Middle English fabrication in which Beverley Minster tried to claim foundation by the selfsame rex totius Britanniae in the fourteenth century. The result looks and reads nothing like an Anglo-Saxon charter, and nor does much of the stuff it’s put into a beautiful cartulary with, but it still won them several cases. David set out exactly who the enemies were in this case, and explained the success of the claim not in terms of the cluelessness of the panel judging but of opposition between the abbey, Archbishop Neville of York and Richard, Second of That Name, Kynge, but one was still left with echoes of the story in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where the eponymous publication’s lawyers successfully argue that beauty is truth so the prettier story is automatically true, as one would like rather like Æthelstan to have been one of those congenial souls

Now. I want to talk to you, Internet, about the Problems and Possibilities strand and what’s happening with it, but this is long enough already. I’ll do it in a separate post later on. Instead let it be noted that I managed to miss two separate receptions where free wine was available, somehow, mainly to get lightly drunk with such fine upstanding members of the Internet as Another Damned Medievalist and Ealuscerwen, in the same place but not with Gesta, which seems to be the usual way of things, and a few people who have real names, and I went to bed merry and exhausted.

1. Something that all of us who were in Siena and now also commenting at In The Medieval Middle seem to be agreeing on; a conceptual map of that city might be a lot more use than a strictly geographical one.

2. Pronounced, as I once heard Roger Collins say in a paper he was giving on the author in question, “with the inverted commas silent, like the P in Psmith”.

3. In fact, it surprises me that in a session about Merovingian queens not only did Balthild only get a passing mention, but her supposed seal was completely omitted. It’s got to be part of any discussion about how queenship is visualised, hasn’t it, especially since if it is what is claimed, it’s actually a source generated by or at least for the queen. I begin to wonder if there’s a perhaps a case for asking medieval historians to ask themselves, “is there a good reason your paper is entirely text-based?” And I am not just saying this because it’s lewd, I am saying this because I think we were already dancing near the lewd and it would have been a way to let it in without risking sounding as if one actually wanted to talk about sex.

4. Referring to T. Reuter, “Debate: the ‘Feudal Revolution’. III” in Past and Present no. 155 (Oxford 1997), pp. 177-195.

5. Referring here to Gerd Althoff, Spielregeln der Politik im Mittelalter: Kommunikation in Frieden und Fehde (Darmstadt 1997) and S. Patzold, Konflikte im Kloster. Studien zu Auseinandersetzungen in monastischen Gemeinschaften des ottonisch-salischen Reichs, Historische Studien 463 (Husum 2000).

6. See, if you should really want to, my review of Stephen D. White, Feuding and Peacemaking in Eleventh-Century France, Variorum Collected Studies 817 (Aldershot 2005) in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2006), pp. 124-125.

7. J. Jarrett, “Sales, Swindles and Sanctions: Bishop Sal·la of Urgell and the counts of Catalonia”, paper presented in session ‘Telling Laymen What to Do’, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 21 July 2005, available to you as J. Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of London 2005), pp. 289-313, online here.

8. His webpages mention a chapter, “Rhetoric and Ritual in Late Anglo-Saxon Charters” in P. Barnwell and M. Mostert (edd.), Medieval Legal Process: Physical, Spoken and Written Performance in the Middle Ages, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 19 (Brepols 2009), which will probably be worth consulting on this if it’s actually out; a rapid web-search reveals publication dates of 2008, 2009 and ‘in preparation 2008-2009’, but the publishers seem less sanguine. In fact, damn, I need that book even though I heard half the papers…

A woman, a priest and an inheritance

This post fulfils an old promise. After a careless footnote in which I maintained that, despite all the counter-examples mentioned here there were some women from Catalonia in my period who were not called Adelaide, she who is The Naked Philologist demanded a story about one by way of proof. One sprang immediately to mind, and I then failed to write it up for what is now months. So OK, here she is. I grant you that Riquilda is almost as common a name in my documents as Adelaide, but at least she’s not also a major city in la Philologiste’s country of origin, so slightly more exotic perhaps. So, OK, Riquilda Saruilda, come on down!

We know about Riquilda from a gift that a priest called Seniol made to her in 989.1 She doesn't seem to occur anywhere else, at least not with that surname, and without it it's hard to be sure that any given woman of that name is her. I have my ideas but we'll come to them later. First it's best to get the charter into play.

In the name of the Lord. I the priest Seniol am donor to you the woman Riquilda whom they call Saruilda and your sons and daughters born of one father. By this scripture of donation I give to you my own alod, houses and courtyards and orchards, lands and vines and trellises, cultivated or waste and all the sorts of trees which are there and mills with their millstreams and with all their equipment. And this is that which came to me through my parents and in part through purchase. And all these things are in the county of Osona, in the area of the Castell de Voltregà, in the place which they call Vila Segari, and some in the area of Roda or Savassona, in the place which they call Esplugues or On the Ridges.

He gives the boundaries, and goes on:

All these things written above I give to you Saruilda fully and integrally with their exits and entrances, in such a way namely that while you shall live if you do not join yourself [te non coniunxeris] to any man through any libidinous urge you may hold and possess and make to nourish your sons and daughters therefrom and make well or better whatever you see or are able to, after your death indeed let it revert to them freely and intact and let them hold and possess and divide equally between themselves. For if you shall join yourself to any man [te coniuncxeris] all these things that are written above shall come into the power of your sons and daughters who are born of one father without any delay and they may do about these things as is written above.

And the rest is the usual ‘if anyone abstracts this stuff they must give back twice as much’, the dating clause and the witness and scribal signatures. For once, I’m not interested in them.

Sant Martí Xic, Castell de Voltregà

Sant Martí Xic, Castell de Voltregà, where Riquilda might have gone to repent her misspent youth (if she regretted it)

The first thing to say about this is that although the phrasing is a little lurid, it seems to me, what was legally going on here is not unusual or unprecedented. Plenty of transactions exist in which a woman was given property on which to support herself and her children, but if she should remarry it was assumed that she would thenceforth be supported by her new husband so the kids could now enjoy the full share. (This also stopped their stepfather claiming it was his and passing it on to any new children instead.) But this is almost exclusively done in wills by a still-living husband looking ahead to when he would not be there. That’s not what was happening here, because there’s no relation at all specified between Seniol and Riquilda. Also, they do usually talk about remarrying, whereas Seniol manages to give the impression that Riquilda’s hormones were perpetually on the point of getting the better of her and that marriage might be something she asked about afterwards, if at all.

With that conundrum set up one starts to wonder what was not being said. Does the peculiar emphasis on children ‘born of one father’ imply, along with the sex-negative emphasis, that Riquilda had offspring by more than one man? If so, why on earth didn’t Seniol specify which father was at, er, issue? This was obviously open to misuse. If not, on the other hand, why bother to say anything extra? Was this some kind of moral congratulation for continence? It’s a bit weird if so. Secondly, why was it Seniol who had to provide for her? The property was coming from ‘his’ parents, not ‘their’ parents; it’s not that, or at least not said that, this was family property to which Riquilda had any kind of right, and even if some of it were, that certainly wouldn’t apply to the parts of it that Seniol had bought. As I say, this is the sort of provision which you’d only ever see normally being made by a father for his children.

Virgin and Child from an eleventh-century Catalan copy of Bedes De Locis Sanctis

Catalan illustration of another famously misunderstood mother

So on first reading I was led to look very suspiciously at Seniol. There certainly were some priests who gave alms to get people out of poverty, redeem captives, free slaves and so on, but this was a very generous endowment if all he wanted to do was keep her off the breadline. You have to wonder in how many other ways he had fulfilled the rôle of a father, or at least, I do. As a priest, he probably shouldn’t have been having children, though plenty did admit families with no problem. And maybe that’s why no father is specified; he and Riquilda would both have known who was meant but it still wasn’t going to go down in scriptura if he could help it… And so I thought that Riquilda might actually have finally done quite well out of a series of ill-fated liaisons, because you know, mills were a money-earner, the properties she was getting are not small as we can tell from the boundaries, she was sorted for life here, as long as she didn’t marry. So, was the idea here that if she stay comfortable she also stay quiet? (Worse, was he perhaps even keeping her available?) Certainly some kind of arrangement seems to have been made here in which her children acquired a lasting interest in his family property, and whatever the explanation actually was it would seem to involve some fairly close connection.

Now, sadly, there is a better explanation, though it does involve positing some important and inexplicable omissions in some documents, and it doesn’t in any way remove the idea of people having sex with other people whom society might expect them not to. My attention was initially drawn to Seniol because I thought, at an early stage of my doctorate, that one thing it might be interesting to do was to track down people who appeared in the documents of more than one archive, and see what their connections were. This wasn’t actually very interesting, as it turned out, but Seniol was one such man. There is a charter from rather before this, you see, 978, in which one Seniol made a substantial gift of property which he had been holding in trust to a newly-adult lad by the name of Guillem Amat, whom we have met before, the son of a castellan called Unifred who had a wife and a lover, or at least a documented lover. Guillem was not the son of that lover, however, whose name as you may remember was Sesnanda, but of Unifred’s actual wife, whose name was… Riquilda. And Seniol was Guillem’s uncle, and presumably therefore (since he is never named among Unifred’s well-documented brothers) Riquilda was his sister. To top it off, there too property as at a place called Esplugues is concerned. This one has been taken to be in the county of Barcelona, like all the rest of the properties mentioned, but actually the way the text is phrased does not make that certain.2 This seems like too many coincidences. Can this be therefore the same Seniol?

Sant Pere de Savassona

Sant Pere de Savassona, another possible prayer location for the 'lucky' mother

It would make a certain amount of sense. Unifred was indeed dead by 989, so Riquilda would have been without support (though it does imply that both his partners must have been contemporary). The family may well therefore have had to pony up for the children, and perhaps Seniol was all the family that was left. If, just possibly, Unifred had dumped Riquilda because she’d got pregnant by someone else, Seniol’s attitude and silences might still be explicable in terms of disgust, and he have had to disburse property like this now only because the other guy had stopped supporting her as well. If he was already holding property for one of the sons, and had handed that over before Riquilda had had hers, she might have had quite a claim on him as he arguably should have given her hers first.3 Of course, they probably weren’t at that point forecasting that she’d be put aside by Unifred, if that happened.

The biggest problem with this is that the Seniol who gives to Guillem Amat did not use a clerical title. Not just that, but he repeatedly appeared with Count Borrell II without doing so.4 There are certainly cases of priests who didn’t always use their titles in documents, but that many times in that exalted a company is a bit much for me.5 So there are problems either way. If this guy was not Riquilda’s brother, I think he had some explaining to do. If he is, what is he doing with this priestly rank? I don’t know. But either way, Riquilda seems to have done all right out of him. I like to think she had a joyful life, anyway, if a slightly careless one, and that this represented a happy ending. I’m aware that’s not how it works out for a lot of single mothers, but we can but hope for her.

1. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. 1564.

2. Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los Siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18/Publicaciones de le Sección de Barcelona 15 (Madrid 1951), doc. no. 182.

3. If for some reason you should want a quick primer on inheritance law in this area at this time, I would recommend you to Nathaniel L. Taylor, “Testamentary Publication and Proof and the Afterlife of Ancient Probate Procedure in Carolingian Septimania” in K. Pennington, S. Chodorow & K. H. Kendall (edd.), Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress on Medieval Canon Law (Vatican City 2001), pp. 767-780, online at, last modified 9th December 2006 as of 24th June 2007, which will tell you where everything else you need is. Beyond him the key work is Antoni M. Udina i Abelló, La successio testada a la Catalunya altomedieval, Textos i documents (Barcelona 1984).

4. He also occurs in A. Fabregà i Grau (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Barcelona: documents dels anys 844-1260. Volum I: documents dels anys 844-1000, Fonts Documentals 1 (Barcelona 1995), doc. no. 201; Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, docs 1238, 1266, 1464 & 1635 & J. Rius (ed.), Cartulario de «Sant Cugat» del Vallés Vol. I (Barcelona 1945), docs 126, 191, 240, 295 & 302.

5. The best example is in Jesus Alturo i Perucho, “Le statut du scripteur en Catalogne (XIIe-XIIIe siècles)” in Marie-Claude Hubert, E. Poulle & Marc Smith (edd.), Le Statut du Scripteur au Moyen Âge. Actes du XIIe Colloque Scientifique du Comité Internationale de Paléographie Latine (Cluny, 17-20 Juillet 1998), Matériaux pour l’Histoire publiées par l’École des Chartes 2 (Paris 2000), pp. 41-55 at pp. 44-45 but I can find you more if you really need them.

Return from afar

We have that well-documented thing going on here at the moment where, if I don’t post, my viewing figures rise steadily. I’ve never figured that one out. Still, I must break in on my increasing readership with some content, though annoyingly less than I’d like. This is for two reasons, one being that as many of you have heard from me in person by now I’m waiting for a letter that will let me make a fairly large announcement and it’s still not here; but what is here is the second reason, which looks like this:

Two proof copies of Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia

Look! I have proof!

It does look like this publication thing might be taking a step forward, even if those who look carefully will notice that something predictable has occurred. Anyway, this is a long-winded way of saying, sorry, posting may continue to be light.

That said, I have loads to write about, an excellent Leeds and a trip to Siena for what, for me at least, was largely an extended social and about the awful privations of which Jeffrey Cohen has already written. I also have an awful lot of photos, some of which at least I want to share with you. But for the moment I will just put up three, and since they serve little purpose but to continue a harangue you all probably hoped was over, I’ll do so behind a cut and those who would like actual historical content can wait a day or two when I will answer an old request of the Naked Philologist’s with a story that may or may not be about a loose woman. And if that doesn’t bring in the page-views, well, what will?

Oh wait! There was something else. I am hosting the next ancient/medieval Carnivalesque. So far I am doing all right for ancient stuff, there have been some fairly marvellous recent finds and some quality arguments, but the medieval count is really quite thin; as others have been observing, we’ve all been away. If you know of some quality medieval blogging, please submit it hither using The Form. Otherwise I’ll just nominate my own posts till it looks finished…

Continue reading

Some of that critical diplomatic

Doing the kind of history I do means reading a lot of charters. For my thesis I went through some, er, three thousand five hundred maybe? This was not your real archive work such as real historians like Notorious Ph. D. or Robert Darnton do, though some of that came later; this was sitting with a printed edition and indexes, my gods, how hopeless it all would have been without indices, and making the lengthy and interlace-adorned notes I wrote of last time. But still: it was a lot of documents to read, and it has been the backbone of all my subsequent work. As a result of those documents I’ve known places to look for other things and had pet examples to make most of my points with. But reading one of those editions, intensively, when I was doing my thesis and, admittedly, working part-time, took me three to six weeks each and the subsequent processing another week or so initially and continues, off and on, to this day as something new needs chasing or turns up. I don’t have that kind of intensive time any more. Instead, I have been doing the poor second-best of working intermittently through the Catalunya Carolíngia bit by bit. It keeps turning things up, so here’s one of the things.

Aerial view of Santa Maria de Montserrat

Aerial view of Santa Maria de Montserrat

Santa Maria de Montserrat is a monastery whose records have suffered more than most from ill luck. Its own documents were burnt by a French army in 1811. Before then, it had disputed quite a lot of its property with Santa Maria de Ripoll, which meant that lots of copies existed there too, which ought to have been some kind of insurance except that Ripoll’s archive was burnt in 1835 as described here some time ago. Thus, several of Montserrat’s documents have been destroyed twice… Whenever its possessions come up, therefore, we tend to be stuck with whatever copies or registers were made by someone somewhere else before those dates. And therefore, we know about the consecration of Sant Salvador de Ripoll, an extra church in the monastery’s precincts that the counts endowed, only because they endowed it with a village that was subsequently claimed by Montserrat. This, you see, meant that in 1772 a research assistant called Benet Ribas was able to make a note of the Montserrat copy of this document for Jeronimo Pasqual, who was collecting important documents for his never-published Sacrae Cathaloniae antiquitatis monumenta. which is now preserved in manuscript in the Biblioteca de Catalunya in Barcelona, where Ramon Ordeig i Mata found it and edited it for the CC.1 With me so far?

Interior of the Biblioteca de Catalunya, Barcelona

Interior of the Biblioteca de Catalunya, Barcelona (from Spanish Wikipedia)

Now, this is a good document for my purposes, though I wish I’d found it when I was teaching, as I wanted an example of fancy textiles being imported from al-Andalus and Byzantium and couldn’t find one as good. You see, among the things that Count-Marquis Sunyer of Barcelona, Girona and Osona gave the new church were:

… a table worked in silver and ornamented with gold, a silver chalice with a paten similarly of silver, a text of the Gospels covered in silver ornamented with gold… books, namely 1 Missal, 1 Eusebius, 1 Psalter, moreover ecclesiastical vestments, an alb embroidered with gold, two amicts embroidered with gold, 1 stole with maniple embroidered with gold and with schillis [I don’t know what those are] and another stole with maniple embroidered with gold, a succinta embroidered with gold [some sort of sash?], a yellow planet dyed with codrina [don’t know], an orange cape dyed with rodono [don’t know], a subdiaconal of Greek linen, a dalmatic and another dalmatic made from cendal, an alod indeed…

And there, maddeningly for me, Ribas broke off, not including any of the landed property. It’s still cool though—do you notice how the silver-covered Gospels appears to count as treasure and not a book, and not without reason? Why was Sunyer being so generous, though? Well, that is also recorded, between the lines if you will; he gave firstly:

for the remedy of my late parents Guifré and Guinedilda, and at the same time for my late brother Guifré and my late sister Riquilda…

but also, and perhaps more immediately:

for the conservation of our present son, Ermengol by name, and for the increase of his health…

and it was for that that the books and vestments were given. Someone would have had to give such things anyway, but they probably wouldn’t have been as good had Sunyer’s eldest son not been sick. Poor Ermengol must have got slightly better, and we see him operating as count long before his father’s death, but by 942 he was dead even so and Sunyer retired to a monastery shortly after his remaining sons had come of age.2 Sunyer was, arguably, a tough and scheming warlord bully but he seems to have been a family man for all that, and when his family were ailing he tried to call in favours from God like any respectable medieval magnate.3

Sant Martí de Vinyoles

Sant Martí de Vinyoles, the church given to Ripoll by Sunyer in 925 (OR WAS IT)

All that said, this charter made me very suspicious. ‘Cause why, the witness list is full of clerics from the chapter of Vic who had basically retired. The Vic connection is because the bishop is there consecrating the church, but nonetheless some of these priests had stopped appearing some years before. And so I was already suspicious when I got to the next charter that Ribas had summarised, and that turns out to be the bishop giving the tithes that came along with the territories Sunyer had granted, on the same day, presumably at the same occasion and with almost the same people witnessing.4 Except that whereas in the first one a certain deacon Radulf was specified, here Radulf is identified as the bishop of Urgell of that name, Sunyer’s brother.5 The oldest of the Vic clerics is also missing.6 (It does at least add the name of the alods Sunyer gave, which may of course be why Ribas didn’t copy them out in full the first time.)

Cloister of Santa Maria de Ripoll

Cloister of Santa Maria de Ripoll

Now, it seems one of these documents must be wrong or lying. I don’t think we ever see Radulf as a deacon when he wasn’t also a monk of Ripoll, but that had stopped in 904 and by 925, the date of the former document, he was indeed bishop. So if that’s the right dignity, it’s another deacon Radulf—there is such a man at Vic7—and the second document is falsely inflating him to bishop. But if the second document is right, and Bishop Radulf was there as he might easily have been, family occasion as it was, then it begins to look rather as if the former document has had its witness list (and therefore perhaps much of its other detail) sucked in from an earlier document. But the only reason for that that I can imagine is that Santa Maria de Ripoll later found themselves short of proof that they really truly owned Vinyoles and had to make it. Since both documents claim that gift, that would mean they both had to be faked up at least slightly. At which rate can I really use them against each other? and how much weight can I place on the deduction about the sick son? Could it be that both are correct and it was Ribas’s mistake assuming it was the bishop present? and and and… Sometimes having actual originals to work with would help a lot, actually.

1. R. Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i de Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. 283.

2. Ermengol is really only treated in old work, principally P. de Bofarull y Mascaró, Los Condes de Barcelona Vindicados, y Cronología y Genealogía de los Reyes de España considerados como Soberianos Independientes de su Marca (Barcelona 1836; repr. 1990), I pp. 114-116. I think this suggestion of ill-health tends against Albert Benet’s suggestion that Ermengol died in battle against Magyars at Baltarga in 942 (A. Benet i Clarà, “La batalla de Balltarga. Epilèg a la incursió d’hungaresos a Catalunya” in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals Vol. 4 (Barcelona 1982), pp. 639-40, though there is a lot else that could be quarrelled about there before you get down to circumstantial detail like this: see J. Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan ‘Terra de Ningú'” in †Alan Deyermond & Martin Ryan (edd.), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London forthcoming), pp. 83-109 at pp. 99-102.

3. I will very soon have page numbers to cite for the part of J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History (London forthcoming) where I talk about Sunyer! For now, however, ‘the beginning of Chapter 3’ is all I can give you.

4. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. 284.

5. Radulf, almost alone of this family, has a proper documentary study dedicated to him, that being Manuel Rovira, “Un Bisbe d’Urgell del segle X: Radulf” in Urgellia Vol. 3 (Montserrat 1980), pp. 167–184.

6. The priest Athanagild was an interesting fellow. He writes a lot of Vic’s earliest documents, sometimes used very unusual Roman terminology (Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 10), adds Greek notes to another consecration he wrote in 898 (ibid., doc. 37), last wrote (a surviving document) for the chapter twenty years before (ibid. doc. 48), last signed a (surviving) document otherwise fourteen years before (ibid., doc. no. 101) and the same year as this act was making donations causa mortis (ibid. doc. no. 285). It’s obviously possible that he was hauled out for one more for the count, but it’s hard to see why he should be dragged up to Ripoll when he was clearly on his last legs. So I remain dubious.

7. Seen in ibid., docs 78, 103, 238, 267 & 443, probably among others; these run both sides of 925 chronologically.

OMG conferences (AFK)

Masthead of the Leeds International Medieval Congress 2010

It may have reached your notice that this Monday the International Medieval Congress, colloquially known as ‘Leeds’, starts, and the really keen-eyed may have already noticed that I am there (presenting on the Monday, too, do come, I am quite pleased with the paper). I may well see some of you there. For those intending to meet me there, and I may not be fooling myself about this, last year’s post on recognising the Jarrett may be of use. I will also be distinguished by a silver machine but if you see me with it I am probably going to be moving too fast to be hailed.

‘We’, whoever that shady international cabal may be, have completely failed to organise a blogger meet-up (at least, as far as I know). I don’t even know that there are enough of us present to justify one—I know of four counting me, though an excellent three the others be of course! If we do organise something, I guess it will have to be circulated by word of mouth, but I hereby declare that I shall be at dinner in Bodington and then at the Stables pub in Weetwood on Monday evening, outside weather permitting, and maybe we can organise something round that. Tuesday looks solid with unmissable receptions in the evening and Wednesday is the dance so otherwise I suspect it would need to be lunchtime, which is also possible but my lunches are all at Bodington. So now you know.

Cropped masthead of the 17th New Chaucer Society Conference

And then I am off to even further climes, for the New Chaucer Society conference in Siena, which I am attending mainly in my rather unlikely capacity as ‘Internet celebrity’. There I suspect that my brief presence will be entirely a long blogger meet-up but I’ll let that organise itself.

Anyway, the practical upshot of all this is that I’m not here this week. This has gone up automatically (or else you’re not seeing it) and so will one further post I already have written, but I’m not going to be around to answer or moderate comments or reading other peoples’ blogs till the 20th, for all practical purposes. Have fun, play nice, see some of you soon.

Take note(s): a miscellany of how-to posts

I don’t talk here very often about the actual techniques of scholarship. I write about diplomatic, and text criticism, and close reading, or at least I get these things out and show them off in practice, but that isn’t quite what I mean. In fact, I am probably a little scared of writing about my actual approaches to the daily business of learning, because whereas I have no problem writing, and always feel guilty reading the posts of those who do, I do often feel that the way I go about reading scholarly work and taking notes could be a little dysfunctional. So I don’t really want to display it in case everyone thinks I’m a freak.

A sample of Jarrett notes

Over the last few months I’ve noticed a range of posts that go deeper than this and make that revelation, or otherwise tackle the basic techniques of study, and it seemed worth making the comparison at last. This is not because I feel vindicated or anything, I have a lot to learn from these people; rather, it’s that I think I now need to express this as an issue as a first step to tackling it. The first of these was a post at Medieval History Geek about note-taking. Curt Emanuel regularly downplays his knowledge in medieval history at that blog yet plainly reads more than most of us ever manage and seems to recall an awful lot of it: here he explains how. The crucial bit is this:

For the past several years, whenever I read something I keep a notepad nearby and jot down anything which I think I may want to refer to for future reference. These can be broad concepts but typically these are specific arguments, quotes or research findings that have a bearing on issues I’m interested in. I’ve found that writing an actual review I intend for public consumption raises my recall level immensely – those take me 2-4 hours to put together, I have to refer back to whole passages/sections of the book, cite specific statements, etc. Unfortunately I haven’t reached the point where I do that for everything I read.

However when I have time, I take my notes and enter them into a spreadsheet. The columns are titled Topic, Time, Region, Author, Title, Pub Date, ISBN, pp, Category, Location, Date Read, and Comments. Most of these are self-explanatory…

He also says, “I wish I’d started doing this 15 years ago”, and I could say the same, I see the value of it very immediately. I suffer a lot less now that I have many of the books I regularly refer to on my shelf but as a postgraduate I was continually hampered by the reference I couldn’t find. Curt says this is an amateur tip but it seems to me it’s quite the reverse, it’s a professional approach, taking the material less as an entire work in itself and more as part of a greater project—it’s clear that Curt loves reading this stuff of course, but what I mean is that his notes are squarely aimed at future use he may be able to make of it, rather than a need at some point in the future to reprise what the whole thing said, which is much more where I have wound up aiming.

The Jarrett primary bookshelf

Before I go on to the whole comparison though, there then cropped up in the London Review of Books this piece by Keith Thomas, who despite his more modern focus has featured here before. Here the crucial bit is this:

When I go to libraries or archives, I make notes in a continuous form on sheets of paper, entering the page number and abbreviated title of the source opposite each excerpted passage. When I get home, I copy the bibliographical details of the works I have consulted into an alphabeticised index book, so that I can cite them in my footnotes. I then cut up each sheet with a pair of scissors. The resulting fragments are of varying size, depending on the length of the passage transcribed. These sliced-up pieces of paper pile up on the floor. Periodically, I file them away in old envelopes, devoting a separate envelope to each topic. Along with them go newspaper cuttings, lists of relevant books and articles yet to be read, and notes on anything else which might be helpful when it comes to thinking about the topic more analytically. If the notes on a particular topic are especially voluminous, I put them in a box file or a cardboard container or a drawer in a desk. I also keep an index of the topics on which I have an envelope or a file. The envelopes run into thousands.

This procedure is a great deal less meticulous than it sounds. Filing is a tedious activity and bundles of unsorted notes accumulate. Some of them get loose and blow around the house, turning up months later under a carpet or a cushion. A few of my most valued envelopes have disappeared altogether. I strongly suspect that they fell into the large basket at the side of my desk full of the waste paper with which they are only too easily confused. My handwriting is increasingly illegible and I am sometimes unable to identify the source on which I have drawn. Would that I had paid more heed to the salutary advice offered in another long forgotten manual for students, History and Historical Research (1928) by C.G. Crump of the Public Record Office: ‘Never make a note for future use in such a form … that even you yourself will not know what it means, when you come across it some months later.’

This makes me feel a good deal better. Professor Thomas is obviously aware that in some ways this is so antiquarian a practice as to merit words like ‘dinosaur’, and yet no-one could question the quality of the work he gets out of it. It makes even me quail at the labour involved and the time wasted on filing, but then these are very much the problems I see in my own methods. So, I suppose it’s on to them.

Work paused for ironic photography moment

I take long notes. I take them in longhand, and they are laborious. I originally started doing this because I was aware that I would not necessarily be able to get at the relevant works when I next needed them—even if the library were open during my essay crisis, which was unlikely given that I used to write in the absolute last possible small hours, the relevant volumes might be on loan or ‘in use’—and therefore my notes were going to have to be a halfway useful précis of the original from which that might be reconstituted. I mark things I know I will want to be able to find with asterisks in the margins; I also record citations, where I think I ought some day to follow them up, and their signes de renvoi go in the margins too with a note of which bibliography it’s necessary for. In my notes on charters, the margins also feature lines joining up occurrences of persons or places. My margins get very full. Arguably, I no longer need to do this; I could database the charters straight off, I could have a subjects/themes file like Curt, I own many of the books and they have indices, much of the journal material is online, and so I have folders full of notes I never look at because electronic search is so much quicker.1 Also, my longhand is execrable, and even I tend to be unable to read it after a while, so when I come up against something I know I’ve read but can’t recall properly I type up my notes on it. I also do this when someone else wants my notes on something, which does sometimes happen, but I do it less out of generosity than because I know this is the only chance I’ll likely get to remember what was in there. And of course it is doing the work twice, to a great extent, which is wasteful of precious time. There are all kinds of ways to forget things like this, too, though I would usually have at least some chance of finding them again if I can remember what work it was in; often I do, but not always. A file like Curt’s or even envelopes like Professor Thomas’s would serve me well here.

The legendary notes file as I see it

Instead, I patch this leaky technique with technology. I have a digital list of all my notes, which I mainly use for copying and pasting bibliographical citations but which also helps me find things (the online version lacks my scribbles about what folder the notes are in). Very often, when I come across something significant, I ensure that I can find it again by adding it into a draft paper as a footnote, usually in the intention that it will stay there but sometimes quite consciously simply so that I have it somewhere where a search on text in a file will bring it up. And indeed this is one of the things that the blog has come to do for me as well; I post about something I ought to know about or work on and then after a while Google, and to a lesser extent WordPress’s inbuilt search, will find it for me. Without electronic search this whole enterprise would founder very quickly. So there is a case for change here; as with quite a lot of my life, academic and personal, I have started with a badly dysfunctional practice mainly designed to keep me away from criticism and interaction, and then patched it till I can pass as a functional human being in sossity without having to uproot embedded practices. I’ve got quite good at this over the years, and know from experience that this is much more likely to work with my brain than deliberately fighting its deficiencies with a slash-and-burn approach I’m always too scared to embark on. All the same, I see room for change here and wonder how I may convince my recalcitrant psyche to go about it. Not least, I will I think very soon at last be getting a laptop. This will make illegible longhand notes an even more stupid thing to cling to, and yet, I already type far too much and the note-taking has become part of my reading process. I am slowly digitising my bibliographies, as an Access database, but you know, there’s Endnote and so on. So there is quite a lot I could do to modernise myself. I’m just not quite sure where to start…

Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed that when you’re writing apropos of something you saw on the Internet that suddenly half the rest of the Internet seems to be distracted by the same thing? It may just be that when you have a hammer you start seeing the nails in things or possibly it’s that the operational experience anyone has of the ‘net is quite small and filtered quite strongly by their own preferences. Either way I find Doug Moncur today writing about very similar themes in a way that suggests that maybe patching with technology is still the best way to go, if I don’t mind updating my technology a bit:

All my interesting, work related pdf’s sit on my windows live skydrive in a great chaotic heap. Call me Nennius – but even when I was a researcher and one built collections by writing the details on index cards and organising them I was never particularly diligent. More a pack rat with a good memory rather than organised….

Of course what Zotero and Mendeley do is allow you to build collections, and put metadata around them, ie impose structure….

… I reckon I need to start using these tools properly in order to understand about them, in fact become more structured myself ….

Which last bit is, you see, more or less what I was trying to say myself, without knowing what the tools might be. So there’s a project for some future weekend.

Another workspace shot

Meanwhile, however, I also want to note a couple of articles about reading. Here I have less to say. I think of myself as a slow reader, but it would be much truer to say that the heavy note-taking and reference-copying have slowed my naturally high reading speed down. Reading without having to take notes is a liberty I hardly ever get to indulge in these days and when I do it’s kind of a giddy feeling to be operating at full speed again (although there are obvious problems here). The point is to keep reading, and continue to feel like you’re in touch with scholarly work and able to deal with it. Rex at Savage Minds codified this even further and says, “read an article a day,” and you will see that I am there agreeing with him though, interestingly, not all his commentators do. And I found out about that from a post at Stephen Chrisomalis’s always-excellent Glossographia, which picks up the theme and works it a little. I have far less to say about these two posts, because I essentially agree with them or feel that I have beaten the weaknesses they identify, but I certainly recognised what they were talking about and would recommend them as reading to anyone who is wondering how the hell we are ever going to get all our stuff done. It is an issue. The blogosphere is probably a good place to look at it. Here’s my ten pennyworth.

1. I actually revolt against the database approach for charters, however. A big part of my reading of charters is to treat them as narratives with stories to tell. If I database first I don’t actually read the stories, I just skim them for keywords and never get the context, the oddities of phrasing that may overlay crucial details, the personalities of participants and scribes. I also feel it would be a very poor way to respect the people I study to essentially depersonalise them into data like that. So although there are certainly issues with the way I process the data once I have them, issues that I have identified and that, one day when I can afford to hire someone, I will get fixed by Wikifying my data files, I think the way I first encounter that data is actually about right, here at least.

That demmed elusive rational economic medieval actor

While some of the paper-writing pressure was off I punctuated my reading with some of the stored-up PDFs I’ve stashed at various points, having followed web-links and gone, “that looks interesting and potentially relevant!” and one of these was a paper by Cliff Bekar and Clyde Reed called “Open fields, risk, and land divisibility”.1 I’d like to question it, and I imagine the readership at large won’t mind if I do.

This is one of those episodes where someone from outside medieval studies has a theory they want to test and decides that a medieval sample would be cool, though in this instance the papers that did that were some way down the line and this is the return of the son of the heir to the open fields debate that apparently economists have been having for close on forty years. At the beginning of it one D. N. McCloskey seems to have taken issue with an understanding that then existed that consolidating and enclosing agriculturally productive land was economically beneficial, and that peasants in the Middle Ages had instead worked common land or at least open land and so must have been completely benighted. McCloskey argued that actually, scattered land holding was a good insurance strategy because it meant one’s crop was less likely to all fail at once, and the decrease in yield was the ‘premium’ one paid for that.2 This meant that the peasants were making a sound decision for economic reasons and seems therefore to have attracted economists and an argument, as Dr McCloskey doesn’t seem to be or have been one to back down easily. Where Bekar and Reed came into this in 2001 was that they wanted to use simulation to test some of the assumptions, and so tried to estimate the possibility of actually running out of economic resource over a fifty-year period for a peasant population of 300 ‘agents’ each holding 20 acres, given various set-ups of field system. They set the system up so that it more or less approximated McCloskey’s figures and then started changing things, showing that in their system there was a ‘sweet’ range, in which actually scattering landholding was less effective at preventing disaster than either of (i) storing surplus against hard times individually or (ii) pooling it as a village reserve to be redistributed at the end of the year.

Peasants at work on a plough team, from the Luttrell Psalter

Peasants at work on a plough team, from the Luttrell Psalter

So instead they suggest that scattering lands instead had other advantages: firstly, it made a pooling system much easier to police because what one was growing each year would be obvious to anyone walking through it so that one couldn’t decide, for example, to grow only flax that year hoping to max out one’s income secure in the knowledge that you could live out of the village reserve. I’m a bit dubious about this because it only works if no-one with scattered holdings ever fenced or hedged them and quite frankly I’d have thought wandering animals, including wolves at this time in England, would have meant that almost everyone did. The core assumption that enclosed and open are opposite along with consolidated and scattered looks very strange to me, though I haven’t read enough Chris Dyer to know if they’re wrong, and from their footnotes they have. Well, I’ll leave it. Secondly, they suggest that scattering meant that lands could easily be sold off as a form of income substitution in bad years, whereas a consolidated enclosed estate couldn’t easily be fragmented and selling big lumps of it would hit productivity permanently. They also note in the works of their chosen medieval historians that a lot of land on the last medieval English market was indeed tiny units and that enclosure did massively increase vulnerability to disaster for the small-holder (here esp. pp. 322-323).

So, OK, there are so many problems that I am about with the assumptions here that one hardly knows where to begin. At the beginning I suppose; here are the ones I marked while reading this in a café in Oxford.

  1. They assume that harvest quality follows a normal distribution (p. 310), but we know (you and I, dear readers, we know) that actually harvests are usually either poor, adequate, good or really disastrous, and people have done real simulation, with crops and work and stuff, showing this.3 So it’s garbage-in right from the get-go.
  2. A small thing, but they compensate for the fact that a pooling system would take administrating by effectively charging the system for it, deducting 20% of the yield as running costs (p. 317 & n. 20). Actually, though, the impact of this cost would not be on the final product, but on the availability of labour to generate it, and they have already said that effects on labour are disproportionately heavy on yield (p. 316).
  3. Most importantly of all, McCloskey’s figures were derived from nineteenth-century information. By that stage, in England at least, agriculture was at least part mechanised, in mills and threshing at least, and certainly far better tooled up than anywhen in the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages themselves are problematic because towards the late end blast furnace manufacture of iron makes large-scale production of iron tools more practical and so late medieval agriculture is probably more effective than early. Also, there’s the climate, but let’s not do that again, let’s just note that since an estimate of likely yield range is fairly vital to their simulation, if it should actually be a lot lower I think that ‘sweet range’ may disappear. They need medieval figures very badly, though as they say there aren’t any. All the same, there is earlier stuff than this they could have used I’m sure.
  4. At all stages there is no money factored into the system. Land is converted to grain direct (p. 316), yield is never monetised or invested as capital for improvements or sold at market, agriculture is stationary, autarkic and closed of distribution. And this is just not how it was, anywhere really. People took yield out of the system for a range of reasons, not just their self-protection against disaster.
  5. Most of all, the simulation ignores lords. It does this firstly by forgetting that surplus left the medieval food system, as we’ve just said, although it does talk about tithes as a form of pooling (p. 321), which is only partly the case—doesn’t factor for that though—and thus ignores any form of taxation, but it also assumes that the peasantry are free economic agents unconstrained by outside factors. The idea that the local lord might make them grow oats that year because he was experimenting with horse-breeding, or tax all the wheat and nothing else, or whatever, doesn’t appear here at all; even though they talk about different patterns of land exchange on demesne land the authors don’t allow for other rules to enter the system. BUT THEY OUGHT. And the idea of any extra-economic factors, tradition, religion and so on is completely lacking.

So what we have here is that elusive creature, the free rational economic actor. He or she is fully informed about the consequences of their decisions and operates unconstrained with perfect foresight. Yet the practices that the authors are describing would have had to have been observed, and observed correctly, over a lifetime and then accurately passed down to the next generation. So actually, at the beginning of our simulation the actors shouldn’t have the knowledge required to behave as the simulation needs them to. Likewise, medieval peasant villages were of course not all made up of 20-acre landholders: once the authors allow land sale into the model, indeed, change occurs rapidly and much more variation exists at its end than at its start. That’s when they should have started: I’d be much more interested in what the results were if one continued the model for the next fifty years.

Now, I don’t want to imply that this was a completely useless paper. It certainly makes explicit the economics of peasant-scale land management in some ways that most early medievalists would just ignore: one does get a sense of options and consequences from it. Secondly, because the same problems exist with all the simulations, they do at least have some comparative value. If the nineteenth-century figures can be accepted for what they are then the idea that scattering one’s landholdings might still make sense is interesting. One would, as I say, prefer to know whether it still held when many of the values were altered, and since we’re looking for a cross-over point where wealth and probability of disaster meet, if that shifted violently one way or the other then any economic viability for storage, pooling or land scattering might immediately disappear from the figures. But in its own terms it does show something. As long as it’s showing an isolated population sample who didn’t use money or barter with outside interests, who didn’t pay tax or spend on non-subsistence goods and all of whom were nicely-landed and knew what the results of a fifty-year survey would be when it started, though, what it shows isn’t going to have much to do with the Middle Ages as people lived them, and lived (and died) by such decisions.

1. C. .T. Bekar & C. G. Reed, “Open fields, risk, and land divisibility” in Explorations in Economic History Vol. 40 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 308-325, doi:10.1016/S0014-4983(03)00030-5.

2. D. N. McCloskey, “English open fields as behavior towards risk” in P. Useldine (ed.), Research in Economic History Vol. 1 (Greenwich 1976), pp. 124-170.

3. Carmen Cubero i Corpas, Imma Ollich i Castanyer, Montserrat de Rocafiguera i Espona & Maria Ocaña i Subirana, “From the granary to the field; archaeobotany and experimental archaeology at l’Esquerda (Catalonia, Spain)” in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany Vol. 17 (New York 2008), pp. 85-92, online at, last modified 19 June 2007 as of 4 January 2009, citing Peter J. Reynolds, “Mediaeval Cereal Yields in Catalonia & England: An Empirical Challenge” in Acta Mediaevalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1997), pp. 467-507.

Seminary LXVI: chopping up Augustine with David Ganz

I have been buried in conference writing and too busy to write much else lately, for which I apologise. Let me now, at least, get the last of the queued-up reports on other people’s papers done before I descend into the maelstrom of Leeds and the write-ups that will require… This paper was David Ganz‘s appearance at the last Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research for the academic year, on the 26th May (yes, that was a while ago, you’re right, sorry) and his title was: “Chopping up Augustine: reading and fragmenting in the early Middle Ages”.

St Augustine refuting a heretic, New York, Morgan Pierpont Library, MS 92b (a C13th Book of Hours), fo. 112r

St Augustine refuting a heretic, New York, Morgan Pierpont Library, MS 92b (a C13th Book of Hours), fo. 112r

What David was asking about was the practice of reading by excerpting, compilation of authors’ most pithy remarks into effectively new works, without regard to the context that we (rightly) think of as crucial to understanding the source. Many a medieval user of these texts was, however, less concerned with understanding Augustine (or whomever) and more concerned with understanding the greater Truth they were all studying, and therefore most interested in the points where the writer they were using seemed to have got closest to it or was most helpful in breaking it open. The result is a vast number of manuscripts of such ‘best of’ compilations: the Liber scintillarum of Defensor of Ligugé, for example, is known in some 350 manuscripts (not a typo), which is surely more than almost any single original Patristic or medieval work. “Here you have what you want to find”, says Defensor in the preface (albeit this is only preserved in manuscripts of the eleventh-century and later, so may not be his), and it seems to have been an accurate assessment. This is, then, a widespread practice, but is relatively unstudied largely because we don’t work like that nowadays. David had a long array of early modern and Renaissance sages (none of whom, I confess, I had ever heard of before) who defended this style of ‘broken learning’ because it provoked enquiry more easily, but it’s still not how we usually play the game of scholarship now.1

Defensor of Ligugé, Liber Scintillarum (Book of Sparks), London, British Library, Royal MS 7 C.iv, fo. 62v

Defensor of Ligugé, Liber Scintillarum (Book of Sparks) in a C11th1 copy, London, British Library, Royal MS 7 C.iv, fo. 62v

Augustine was naturally a popular target for this approach, though not the most popular: Defensor used half again as much by Gregory the Great and twice as much as that from Isidore of Seville, whose style of work rather lends itself to excerpting I guess. Defensor was rigorous about naming his sources, and the oldest manuscripts (C8th2) have flashy rubrication indicating where the excerpted author changes (see below), but later excerpters, many of whom used Defensor, were less bothered about this. The truth was the thing, not exactly which authority it came from. Peregrinus, writing c. 780, does name his sources and they include not just Augustine, Gregory, Isidore and other Fathers but also Virgil and even Pelagius! Defensor tells us that he was selecting deliberately for the simple (which would, I’d have thought, exclude more Augustine than it admits…) so that the reader could take away the nugget of truth and meditate on it. That’s the purpose of works like these, another thing that we don’t do so much any more perhaps: to provide a kernel for prolonged and sustained reflection. That may of course be because this type of reading would exist most happily in a monastic context, and that’s not where scholarship largely takes place now. Even when we get to take time off and think, and how rare that is, we’re not thinking about just one paragraph. In this respect, I think personally, vive la différence, but the fact that this is how many of our authors are trained is probably something to bear in mind.

Hraban Maur presenting his Liber de Sancti Crucis to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz, encouraged by Alcuin: Vienna, Codex Vindobonensis 652

Hraban Maur presenting his Liber de Sancti Crucis to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz, encouraged by Alcuin: Vienna, Codex Vindobonensis 652

One last point was possibly the most interesting to me: the manuscript survival of this material is quite early, and all the texts that refer to the practice of excerpting and contemplation like this are also early. David therefore wondered if it might not have been principally a Merovingian practice, and whether that in turn might explain the relative rarity of the copying of entire books that early. It is usually assumed that the Carolingian Renaissance mainly represented an increase in quantity of intellectual endeavour, because there was more patronage being put behind it; David however showed here at least one reason to suspect a change in the quality of that endeavour too, which is something that could mean a lot more when it’s fully worked out. However, there are a lot of grey areas around this, and for a lot of them, as David said in questions, the only ethical response is, “We don’t have the evidence, and sometimes we have the integrity to say so.”

1. There may be a teaching point here: how would it work to take four or five scholars on a debated subject, take a paragraph from each and/or from the sources under debate, hand them to students as a worksheet and say, “how can these people all be talking about the same thing? Discuss”? This is even sort of the model I begin my forthcoming paper on aprisio with, though it was nothing like as conscious as that. It might be worth trying, rather than immediately giving them the full articles or books to read.