Monthly Archives: January 2011

“We’re all gonna be dirt in the ground”

This post has been in draft a while. I first wrote it in January in a sink of a mood, which its contents may explain, and then the content material got worse. Then it went on hold while I got permission to use some of the images, permission that I’m happy to say was readily given by Professor Martin Carver, whom all praise. (Those known to be in copyright are so marked.1) Now that I’ve given the lecture with which it substantially started, I’m a lot more sanguine about things and have revised accordingly, but, nonetheless, this one merits the gloom gargoyle and I warn you that unpleasant mortuary stuff and sad praise of the dead lie ahead.

Right, consider yourselves warned

December was a month of the dead, and it was a long December running well into January. I was predisposed to notice this, because one of the tasks of the term has been a lecture on burial in Anglo-Saxon England and, though I know something of this, there is certainly a lot more I could know and so I was reading it, specifically and especially the site report from the excavations of 1983-2001 at Sutton Hoo.2 It didn’t take long to creep me out. Did you know, for example, that at Sutton Hoo the soil is sufficiently acid that within a decade—a figure the excavators arrived at by burying some organic material and coming back to it a few years later to see how far it had gone—the bulk of a human body buried in that soil is gone, become merely a crust of dark sand that just about holds its shape when carefully dug round and within which, if you’re lucky, a few bones may survive? They look like this.

Burial 34 from the Sutton Hoo execution cemetery

Burial 34 from the Sutton Hoo execution cemetery, copyright Martin Carver & The British Museum, used by kind permission

When Mr Tom Waits croaked the line I’ve used for my title here, I don’t think he meant it this literally.3 And it gets more morbid. The few bodies that survive even this much at Sutton Hoo are not from the famous burial mounds, of which there were once many but all but two of which were robbed out, probably in the sixteenth century. Instead they are from one of two execution cemeteries that were near what may have been the oldest mound, one cemetery around the mound itself (which perhaps had a gallows set up on it after a few decades) and one nearby around a substantial old tree that later blew down and was replaced with another gallows (which I feel sure, though there’s no way to know and the excavators don’t suggest it, must have been made from the wood of that tree).4 Many of these graves are what we would now call ‘deviant’, that is to say there’s something weird about the burial practice. Around the mound the worst that it gets is probable binding of limbs and face-down burial, though several were also decapitated. Around the tree, however, all kinds of stuff occurs: bodies buried sitting up (with their legs or arms tied), kneeling face-down in the dirt backside skywards, more decapitations, prone burial, sideways with the head somewhere else… It is nasty to read. The strangest is this one.

Sutton Hoo Burial 27, as uncovered; image copyright Martin Carver and The British Museum and used by kind permission

Sutton Hoo Burial 27, as uncovered; image copyright Martin Carver and The British Museum and used by kind permission

You don’t get like this in a grave by happenstance. Of course, how you see it does rather depend on what way up it should be seen, but I can’t find a rotation that makes that splay of the legs look at all natural. Was he bound at the legs, struggled on the rope and got one leg free, then, I don’t know, they shot him with an arrow in case he got down? But the weirdest thing of course is that we ask this because they put him in the grave in that position, and indeed dug the grave to fit. There’s a danger of chicken-and-egg reasoning here, I suppose, but from not just this but the others in contorted positions the view of the excavators was that these bodies had been placed in the grave in the positions in which they’d died. I can’t get my head round that at all, but I don’t like the alternatives—such as they are: planned in-grave distortion of the body? Why would you? Who’s the audience? which is where it gets nasty again—and would prefer to give the excavators credit where possible. And then those burying him covered him with planks, or something like, and filled it in.

Sutton Hoo Burial 28, face in the dirt, posterior upwards, hands tied behind the back; image copyright Martin Carver & The British Museum, used by kind permission

Sutton Hoo Burial 28, face in the dirt, posterior upwards, hands tied behind the back; image copyright Martin Carver & The British Museum, used by kind permission

For some, at least, a more regular burial was possible; a few around the tree had coffins, and there were several apparently empty grave pits that suggest that, if one’s family were lucky perhaps, it might yet be possible to get the condemned deceased away from where the old (and presumably pagan) king laid in state, presumably to a proper Christian cemetery. But for some, obviously, no such quarter was offered, and they were to rest with the damned. The thought-world there is interesting—conversion doesn’t so much make these places obsolete as recast their significance, it seems—but I’m glad I don’t share it. I was quite glad to get the lecture out of the way and concentrate once more on the living.

Liber mortuorum

With that all said, I don’t think that it was just my temporarily morbid focus that made me notice a recent array of deaths. Obviously millions of people are dying all the time and it just so happens that the odds have swung slightly more than usual towards my circle of acquaintance, but all the same, we do seem to have lost some of the good ones just lately, and I wanted to notice them here: five scholars (and it was two when I started the post, horribly), and two musicians who didn’t have anything to do with my usual subject matter but who should not, all the same, be allowed to go quietly into that great night. I’ve never met any of these people except the last, but I’ve read or listened to their work, and it’s one of the commonalities of both fields of endeavour that one can feel a connection to a creator who by definition only exists, as author of that work anyway, in the past and is no longer ‘there’, either in space and time or in his or her work. This usually gets me when listening to music by people I know, which of course is by them as they were not as I know them, but it should also apply to scholars, really. Anyway. These are the good names gone.

Scholars’ roll of honour

  • Firstly Rachel Bromwich, whose edition of the Welsh Triads was perhaps the first literary evidence this historian ever wrestled with, an eye-opening glimpse into a fragmentarily-preserved world of oral history in which not just the name Arthur, but more interesting more historical names were woven.5 One of these names was Áedán mac Gabráin, Aeddan Uradawc, the Wily, which was why I was interested, but it was a fascinating read even where he wasn’t and it was Dr Bromwich I had to thank for it.
  • Then, Professor Manuel Riu i Riu, about whom I’ve written here before, one of the most important modern scholars of the medieval past in Catalonia and Spain more widely there has so far been, I kid you not. I phrase it thus because I’ve no idea whether to call him a historian or an archæologist, he did both with equal facility, dug sites and edited charters, and could converse across the disciplines meaning that for a while at least, his colleagues and friends were almost uniquely well-informed in their studies about what was going on the other side of the fence, as their footnotes attest.
  • Then, archæologist and enthusiast Geoff Egan, a friend of my old colleagues and a contributor to at least one of my old endeavours at the Fitzwilliam, a man whom many people will miss.
  • After him, the Islamicist son of a Byzantinist father, Professor Oleg Grabar, not a great force in my own work but mourned by people I know, and certainly deserving of a sad mention here.
  • And lastly, I hope for a while, Professor Robert Markus, the chief rival to Peter Brown‘s throne (or Brown perhaps chief rival to his) and someone whose work I soaked up in quantity as an undergraduate. Always clear and convincing and dispassionate without being dull, he was the man who introduced me to Origen, to Chalcedon and the extraordinarily late date (as it seemed to me then) that the canon of Christian Scripture was, well, canonised,6 all of which was very powerful to me back then, escaping from 14 years of school with integral Church of England worship daily; he earnt an obituary by Jinty Nelson no less, which is worth a read.

So look, that’s enough. But then there’s the musicians.

Not Going Quietly

Arguably one of the musicians needs no notice either, he’s had so many, but I own a lot of his records, one of his songs was even about archæology (or at least palæontology):7 you will have noticed, probably, that Captain Beefheart died, but it’s still a shame. On the other hand, not only did I never meet him, he stopped making music in 1983, and I never had much of an urge to acquire his paintings; his reputation was secure and he had been ill for a long time, it couldn’t be called a surprise and we had, at least, received most of what he had to give us. Less so from a man I did know, Trev Thoms, who dropped out of contact a few months ago, turned out to have pancreatic cancer and succumbed to it a few days before the good Captain did the terminal shuffle. You won’t have heard of Trev, and probably not of any of his bands either—Inner City Unit, the Imperial Pompadours, Atomgods, Bajina, Mother of All Bands—but you might have seen him, either if you hang around in the pubs in Brighton where they have open mic nights or if you saw the right version of Nik Turner’s various post-Hawkwind outfits such as Space Ritual, or if you ever drop in on what remains of the UK festival scene, which he did quite a lot to assist in his own way. Next one I go to, he won’t be there trying to sell me anything, and I shall be damn sorry about this. So here’s some of his stuff to wrap up with, with supporting photo-montage assembled by others who feel the same way. Ironically or appropriately, it’s a song about another dead man and Trev is guitar and lead vocals.

He made the Big Noise, and he had fun doing it. Bye bye Trev, I hope you’re a star if you’re anywhere to be one. I’ll get back to the Middle Ages in a minute.

1. The colour images from the Sutton Hoo dig are thus taken from Martin Carver (ed.), 2004, The Sutton Hoo Research Project 1983-2001, available at, last accessed 29 January 2011, and here cited as per their copyright notice and requirement. The black-and-white one, I scanned myself from M. Carver et al., Sutton Hoo: a princely burial ground of the seventh century, Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London 69 (London 2005), Plate 48 (a), and use here with Professor Carver’s permission. It is not available for further reproduction without his permission; terms for the others are available at the link.

2. Carver et al., Sutton Hoo. This is the basis of what follows: organic preservation in the soil there is covered at pp. 49-53, among other places.

3. Tom Waits, ‘Dirt in the Ground’, on idem, Bone Machine (Island Records 1992).

4. Martin Carver, “Execution Burials of the Eighth to Eleventh Centuries” in idem et al., Sutton Hoo, pp. 315-359 including an appendix, Francis Lee, “Report on the Human Bones”, ibid. pp. 349-359. The feature interpreted as a tree and then a gallows is covered at pp. 324-325.

5. R. Bromwich (ed.), Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads (2nd edn. Cardiff 1978).

6. I think, on looking back at his bibliography, that the one that must have made a dent on me was his Christianity in the Roman World (London 1974), but now I think I would like to read his The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge 1990), which seem to have missed at the time.

7. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, ‘Smithsonian Institute Blues’, on eidem, Lick My Decals Off Baby (Warner Bros Records 1970). As he says, “you can’t get round the big dig”. But then if I start quoting Beefheart wisdom we’ll be here all day. Let’s stick with, “everybody’s coloured, or you wouldn’t be able to see them“.

Seminars LXXVII & LXXVIII: into Lyminge and out of Medina

At the very tail end of last term, I went slightly out of my usual paths to go to a couple of papers, Gabor Thomas presenting to the Institute of Archaeology and British Museum Joint Medieval Seminar in London to the title, “Settlement Dynamics and Monastic Foundation in pre-Viking England: new perspectives from excavations at Lyminge, Kent” on the 30th November 2010, and then James Howard-Johnston giving the inaugural lecture at the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research on the 3rd December 2010. His title was “The Seventh Century and the Formation of Byzantium”.

The excavation site at Lyminge, under work

The excavation site at Lyminge, under work

I’d wanted to chase down Gabor because I’d not been able to make it when he’d presented about the same site in Oxford for some footling reason, and it sounded interesting. As he said at the outset, such a variety of monastic sites have lately been excavated (or in some cases, published having been excavated long before)—Inchmarnock, Portmahomack, Wearmouth-Jarrow, Nendrum—that our pictures of what an early insular monastery looks like in the ground has been greatly diversified just lately. Lyminge is seemingly going to add to this by not looking like the classic church-buildings-inside-a-vallum model that we had once been used to, but like a big basilical affair right next to a royal vill (in which latter respect, at least, it does seem fairly typical).1 It was a mother church for its area that lost its importance once its relics (of St Ethelburga) were moved to Canterbury for protection during the Viking attacks of the ninth century, and the town has more or less left the church alone so there was plenty to find, though much more may well be under houses. There were Frankish artefacts coming up from sixth-century contexts, so we can assume it’s begun in the conversion period, and there are two cemeteries which may relate to the settlement, not the minster (an ambiguous word I use deliberately because we can’t even agree on what the difference is, still less whether we can detect it in the ground).2 A small cluster of sunken-featured buildings showed specialised craft production debris, especially glass of which there was an unusually high amount, including window glass, which some sources would suggest had to be imported from Francia at this time (as indeed it might have been). There was no vallum. There was, however, a large building to the south with a metalled floor which Gabor thought was best explained as a threshing barn, though he did point out that diagnostically it was no different from many things that have been called halls and used to argue for high-status occupation, and invited us to think about that if we like. Being sure what was the vill and what the church, and whether they were united or contemporary was tricky with the data to hand, but it seems clear that the site was busy with stuff and that it helps us broaden in various ways our range of ideas about what a really early Anglo-Saxon church might have been like.

Interior of the Stelios Ioannou School for Research in Classical and Byzantine Studies

Interior of the Stelios Ioannou School for Research in Classical and Byzantine Studies

Rather less specific and local was Professor Howard-Johnston’s lecture, delivered to commemorate the fact that just before the cuts hit Oxford has managed to establish a shiny new and very well-housed Byzantinists’ centre. Few could give better perspective on this than Professor Howard-Johnston, who has been teaching in Oxford for nearly fifty years and remembers being the only postgraduate in the university doing Byzantine stuff. Now there are fifty, almost all of whom (to judge from irreverent murmurings in the stalls) he had taught at some point. This doesn’t seem to have slowed him down, except in as much as he overran badly—but he managed to wrap this into his act, pointing out how many minutes more he’d slipped by every time he finished a section. No-one was going to miss this anyway and he knew it.

Cover of James Howard-Johnston's Witnesses to a World Crisis

Cover of James Howard-Johnston's Witnesses to a World Crisis

The sum of the lecture appeared to be an explanation of what I thought was a forthcoming book, but which appears to have actually come forth a little while ago, and which I’m guessing will be very important. One of the problems with teaching the ‘Rise of Islam’ is that almost all the secondary work in English is by Hugh Kennedy. Now, Hugh is a friend and I love his work; he and Rosamond McKitterick vie for top place in number of books I own by academics. But one voice, especially such an authoritatively learned one, does not encourage the students to argue or to go and get messy with the sources, not least because most of the sources are not in languages they read. Hugh’s concentration, especially lately I think it’s fair to say, has been on the Arabic material, which Western scholars grow less and less happy about relying on because of the very long chains of manuscript transmission, over centuries, and because of studies that have (irreverently and disrespectfully, to some more traditional scholars’ minds) checked to see what this transmission was like in the places where it’s possible and found it wanting somewhat.3 Hugh’s most recent book therefore did a deconstruction on this literature looking for the stories it wanted to tell about a past it doesn’t really reflect. Now, however, here is Professor Howard-Johnston saying, well, we need to get all the material on the table together. This results in a very large book (and a consequently sturdy table I assume) in which he has treated the Greek, Armenian, Syriac, Georgian, Latin and Arabic sources (I may have missed some here) for the Near East in the seventh century and, contrary to the current wisdom, finds that the Arabic material, however shaky it ought to be, is fairly close to the other sources in many matters of fact and chronology.4 It is not that they are without distortion (the capture of Jerusalem, usually placed shortly before 638, was probably much earlier, and the Shi’ite founder ‘Alī’s sons would seem to have fought on for twenty years after he was driven into exile, putting the pact that allowed the Umayyads to rule in more or less peace in 680 not 661 as it is usually reckoned), but it is less bad than has been alleged, or so he himself alleges. This has knock-on effects that will take a long time to consider.

Medieval Arabic depiction of Muhammad preaching at Medina

Medieval Arabic depiction of Muhammad preaching at Medina

In this lecture, however, Professor Howard-Johnston was deploying all this to settle the question, ‘when should we stop talking about the Eastern Roman Empire and start talking about Byzantium?’ For him, this is a question about the rise of Islam, hence all the source-gathering, but he opted for Autumn 644, when the first convoy of African grain came into Medina. We, knowing what was to come, can now see this as the beginning of a new world order, all very Pirennian (and that most famous of Belgians seems to be back in vogue in Oxford this winter as shall be told). To contemporaries, of course, even though the West and Middle East were lost, it was not clear that this would be so definitive; in the end, however, Byzantium is what is left holding out against Islam, and indeed almost the only state of the time that does, buffering the others to its eventual loss. A massive pressure on resources must have resulted, explaining a lot of Byzantium’s subsequent internal problems, and the Turks become very important, which of course also has its problems. But, Byzantium endures, and it endures partly by ceasing trying to be Rome, argued Professor Howard-Johnston: by lowering the scale of its warfare, going guerilla rather than field army, playing enemies off against each other rather than swatting or subverting them individually, fighting sieges not field battles, and fighting almost all the time against a superior superpower. Others might disagree, I suspect, but in this lecture at least, that was the making of Byzantium, a remnant polity forged in a determined effort to survive. It was a good lecture. The book looks like a bit of a challenge, but it’s obviously going to have to come on board after this. Of course, I thought the same about Hugh’s new one after his inaugural lecture, so it will be interesting to see who wins…

1. Chris Lowe, Inchmarnock. An Early Historic island monastery and its archaeological landscape (Edinburgh 2008); Martin Carver, Portmahomack: monastery of the Picts (Edinburgh 2008); Rosemary Cramp, Wearmouth and Jarrow monastic sites (London 2005), 2 vols; T. McErlean & N. Crothers, Harnessing the Tides: The Early Medieval Tide Mills at Nendrum Monastery, Strangford Lough (Dublin 2007). These were four of about eight books whose covers Gabor had on a slide, and I’m afraid the only ones I noted; some of the rest was a bit more southern, I think.

2. On which, classically, John Blair (ed.), Minsters and Parish Churches: the local church in transition 950-1200 (Oxford 1988); Eric Cambridge & David Rollason, “Debate. The Pastoral Organization of the Anglo-Saxon Church: a Review of the ‘Minster Hypothesis'” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 4 (Oxford 1995), pp. 87–104; Blair, “Debate: Ecclesiastical Organization and Pastoral Care in Anglo-Saxon England”, ibid. 193–212; D. M. Palliser, “The ‘Minster Hypothesis’: a Case Study”, ibid. Vol. 5 (1996), pp. 207–214.

3. Most famously Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates (London 1986, 2nd edn. 2004) and now idem, The Great Arab Conquests: how the spread of Islam changed the world we live in (London 2007).

4. As you can see above, James Howard-Johnston, Witnesses to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century (Oxford 2010), doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199208593.001.0001.

Tenthmedieval is four and has been for a little while

I think that the last post takes me out of the November backlog and into the end of last year. There are three seminars I want to record but two of them can be done together, and that leaves only three other Decembran things, which I don’t think can easily be combined without missing important stuff. This is the most trivial of the three (and therefore quickest to write), and it’s something that is looking likely to happen every December: Martin Rundqvist, who is more awake than me, posts something celebrating the anniversary of his blog Aardvarchaeology, and I promptly realise I’ve missed that of A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe. We are now into the fifth year of operation here, which I am actually quite amazed by.

Healthy blog!

This year WordPress mailed out a statistical summary of their blogs’ visitors to each of their owners—Saesferd at Antiquarian’s Attic and Magnus Reuterdahl at Testimony of the Spade have put theirs up if you’re interested—and supplied code to turn it into a post. I didn’t want it on the front page but if you’re interested in exactly how much traffic I get I’ve set it up as a hidden page. I won’t be rude enough to give the actual numbers here, but I will just do some meta-analysis.

  1. Overall, the number of page-views and individual visitors has sunk back a bit this year, though it’s still quite enough to keep me happy. I think I probably put this down to me just not posting as often, so that people who visited frequently or from the LJ syndication also didn’t do so as often. I doubt this is actually a drop in readership, which I suspect has probably risen given the increased number of people I know who’ve mentioned reading—thankyou to all of you! This is why I carry on, after all. But it’s interesting how the best we can do with statistics on something that’s entirely based around computers is this kind of guesswork.
  2. This year is faintly remarkable in that my most-viewed post was actually, I think, viewed by people who were after the information in it, although that information was pretty much ‘did Ridley Scott make up those medieval landing ships or what?’ Otherwise it’s all been people searching for pictures, of a motte-and-bailey castle (of which I hardly have a good one, but that’s because when I searched there was none better so perhaps that’s still why), Solomon’s Temple, or of course, Český Krumlov, which still goes on albeit at a reduced level. By and large most of my websearch traffic is, therefore, nothing to do with what I write, but the Crusades essay still gets its traffic and the websearching is not, by a long way, the largest part of my traffic. So that’s changed, over the years.
  3. 580 posts! It seems out of hand somehow. I need to back it all up again!
  4. And finally, thankyou again for reading. The year has seen some genuine academic impact I’ll talk about shortly, and this is not my only source of peer approval any more, but it’s still one of my favourites. I aim to keep writing stuff I hope you’ll be interested in for the foreseeable future.

Seminar LXXVI: let him who is without sin start the Fourth Crusade

Yes, I’m horribly behind, and yes, this is off my normal beat, but the handout for this seminar includes chunks of Geoffroi de Charny and romances, I’m guessing one or two of you may be interested. Dr Laura Ashe is one of the local medievalists: I actually met her in Siena and was pleased to find a future friend there, but I hadn’t at that point realised that she is, as Carl Pyrdum said in that same place,1 ‘kind of a big deal’; she’s now writing the first volume of the Oxford English Literary History, which suggests to me that she may be recognised as knowing a thing or two.2 This she amply proved by speaking to the Oxford Medieval Seminar on 29th November last year (yes, yes, I know) to the title: “‘A Knight’s Whole Life is Passed in Sin’: literary engagements with war, conquest, and crusade, 1100-1250”.

Illumination of knights jousting near Calais, circa 1390 (so claims source)

Illumination of knights jousting near Calais, circa 1390 (so claims source)

I shall be brief with this, largely because it’s not my field, but what Laura was essentially setting up was a contrast between the attitudes of two periods in the history of knighthood and chivalry, typified by these source extracts which I crib from her comprehensive handout:

I have sinned more than most, for the whole life of a knight is passed in sin…3

I therefore say that it is good for him who does it, when, by the grace of God, he does it well; for all deeds of arms merit praise for all those who perform well in them. For I maintain that there are no mean feats of arms, but only good and great ones, although some feats of arms are of greater worth than others.4

The former of these is Peter of Blois giving the words to King Henry II, no less, in the late twelfth century; the latter is Charny’s Livre de Chevalerie. Just to make sure the obvious is clear, for the former a knight, passing his life in warfare, is in perpetual danger of damnation; for Charny, there is no bad feat of arms. Knights of the twelfth century made extensive donations for the sake of their damned souls; knights in the fourteenth century enjoy literature in which it is argued that being a knight is already God’s favourite career. It’s obviously not binary, but there is a change, it would seem. Some have blamed the increasing Christianization of society, but persons such as myself might point to Dominique Barthélemy doing that thing we Carolingianists do where our lot had your high medieval phenomenon going on first.5 John Gillingham, no less, has suggested that the factor changing knightly behaviour is actually monetisation; once a ransom might be worth having, you take prisoners rather than killing, which blurs the line between tournament and battle and makes it more of a contest of arms without the bloodlust.6 Maybe so, argued Laura, but how does Christianity get so deeply embedded in it if so?

Manuscript illumination of Richard the Lionheart jousting with Saladin

Manuscript illumination of Richard the Lionheart jousting with Saladin (N. B. this never actually happened)

The obvious answer, perhaps, and one that Laura had started with, was crusading, which as famously reported by Ralph of Caen, biographer of the Norman Tancred, offered “a new way of knighthood” which might step between the secular, but damnable, career of a knight and the spiritually safe, but difficult and dishonourable, life of a monk.7 But in its earliest forms, this firstly only endorses war against pagans, and secondly only offers salvation to those who die. I might doubt, myself, that the second point really got through to whomever heard Urban II’s speech at Clermont or the import of his letters anything other than first-hand, but the former point is still serious. Indeed, crusading, it has been well argued, is a concept much later than the actual First Crusade, or even Second; the texts talk of pilgrims, mainly, and the rites involved are very close to becoming a penitent.8 Laura however sees a change in the Romances, especially the English ones, from an ideal of divine service with the sword and its necessary life of purity, to one in which the kings and lords who might lead such endeavours (as they had for a while led the Crusades) have lost the plot (literally); instead, she argued, knighthood itself, courtesie and love become the ideals of the knightly class. She suggested that this might have been happening because of knighthood becoming more and more a costly pursuit that only the really rich could practise, and suggested that the stories were now reaching those who were below that threshold, and drew differences in the English and French Romance traditions to their respective homelands’ political structures. It all made a good kind of sense, even if the point of change is still a bit unclear, and was a thoroughly sane use of literature as evidence for mentalities, which also involved treating quite a lot of ‘historical’ writing as literature, which is fine by me. Good stuff.

Illumination of Latin forces besieging Constantinople at the peak of the Fourth Crusade

Illumination of Latin forces besieging Constantinople at the peak of the Fourth Crusade

So, what about the Fourth Crusade, you may be asking? Not least because I mentioned it in the title, but because if you are like me a bit, you will have thought of Villehardouin by now and remembered that his heroes set off to liberate Jerusalem after a tournament.9 No kings, either, but the sort of ultra-rich chivalrous class who are the characters of Laura’s Romances, and not even slightly bothered by their sins, where Villehardouin bothers to report it, it’s all very much a hyper-masculinised “wow we’re the most splendid knights in Christendom you guise we should totally liberate Jerusalem”, albeit reported more soberly down the line by the man who could hear an axe grinding and feared it wasn’t his. Because of that, of course, the big point of Villehardouin’s account of the Fourth Crusade was that despite not getting to Jerusalem and sacking the largest city in Christian possession instead, the Crusaders had done no wrong, in fact their success was so unlikely that it could only have been God’s will. Guilt and hand-wringing, therefore, do not form big features of this narrative, you understand. Nonetheless, it is read, it seems to have fitted, and maybe it is, as I suggested, one place when you could point out this change in what knights are supposed to do and why being fairly recent.

1. About himself, admittedly, but I think the point is transferable.

2. You could probably find some of those things in her Fiction and History in England, 1066-1200 (Cambridge 2007).

3. Peter of Blois, Dialogus inter regem Henricum II et abbatem Bonævallensem, ed. J.-J. Migne in Petri blesensis bathoniensis in anglia archidiaconi opera omnia juxta editiones melioris notae, parisiensem scilicet et oxoniensem, inter se collatas prelo iterum mandantur, ad fidem manuscriptorum codicum emendata, notis et variis monumentis illustrata, Patrologia cursus completus series latina Vol. CCVII (Paris 1855), col. 987C, transl. Ashe.

4. Geoffroi de Charny, Le Livre de Chevalerie, ed. and transl. E. Kennedy & R. Kaeuper as The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny: text, context, and translation, The Middle Ages (Philadelphia 1996), pp. 416-417.

5. I’m thinking of Barthélemy’s “La chevalerie carolingienne : Prélude au XIe siècle” in Régine Le Jan (ed.), La royauté et les élites dans l’Europe carolingienne (début IXe siècle aux environs de 920) (Villeneuve d’Ascq 1998), pp. 159-175, transl. Graham Robert Edwards as “Carolingian Knighthood” in Barthélemy, The Serf, the Knight and the Historian (Ithaca 2009), pp. 154-175.

6. I’m guessing that this is covered in his “Fontenoy and after: pursuing enemies to death in France between the ninth and the eleventh centuries” in David Ganz & Paul Fouracre (edd.), Frankland: The Franks and the world of the early middle ages. Essays in honour of Dame Jinty Nelson (Manchester 2008), pp. 242-265, not least because I think I remember him saying something like this in a IHR paper that had the same title, but I confess that I haven’t yet made time to read the volume (not least because an awful lot of it is actually IHR papers I went to…)

7. Now handily translated by Bernard S. Bachrach and David S. Bachrach as The Gesta Tancredi of Ralph of Caen: A History of the Normans on the First Crusade, Crusading Texts for Historians 5 (Woodbridge 2005), but my quote here is solely from my memory of a handout put together by Jonathan Riley-Smith a long time ago so forgive me if it’s slightly off.

8. Classically argued in Christopher Tyerman’s “Were there any Crusades in the Twelfth Century?” in English Historical Review Vol. 110 (London 1995), pp. 553-577, repr. in his The Invention of the Crusades (Basingstoke 1998), pp. 8-29 & 127-136.

9. Geoffroi de Villehardouin, La conquête de Constantinople, transl. e. g. Michael B. Shaw in idem (transl.), Memoirs of the Crusades: Joinville and Villehardouin, Penguin Classics L124 (Harmondsworth 1963, many reprints); there’s also the IMSB version linked above from the translation of Sir Frank Marzials, where the bits you want are all in the first few ‘pages’.

A request for your signatures, or, after the protests, a petition

It doesn’t take a lot to make me angry at the moment. Most people in higher education in England have got good reason to be angry, as the UK government has decided to cut its subsidy of university teaching there by nearly halfeighty per cent, starting in the next financial year. This will, ineluctably, mean the further raising of tuition fees on new students, a massive consequent rise in the cost of higher education and its consequent restriction to those who can pay to a much greater extent than at present. If you believe in meritocracy, equal access, a level playing field and so on, there is no way not to be angry about this. If you believe that higher education contributes something to a person, and that academic research and teaching are worth something, this is an attack on that belief, a belief which is clearly not shared by the powerful part of the current government. So if you’re not angry, you’re just not paying attention. [Edit: my numbers were wrong in the first take of this, optimistic even: see the round-up of facts and commentary by JPG in the comments.] It’s not just me it’s been making angry, either. On the Internet we find fellow medievalist blogger Gesta reaching new heights of outrage and no less a figure than Professor Guy Halsall not just writing on the Internet, but actually going to protests himself. He seems to have been lucky, however, because the protests where students have been charged by police on horseback and where schoolchildren have been penned up outdoors in sub-zero temperatures and clubbed if they try to escape, were not the ones he was at, though it is still from him that I learn of them. Let it not be said that the police are the only ones bringing violence to these situations, but they are also the ones being paid to keep order and maintain the law, yet they are also notoriously invulnerable to prosecution if they go too far, as the eventual lack of outcome against the murderer of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests of 2009 only too well shows.

The London protests obviously got the most coverage, because the UK press basically lives in London and so does the government and both operate under the illusion that London is the only place important things happen. You can see from the above, however, and other videos too, that even Cambridge was up in some kind of arms, and a fairly sustained campaign of occupations and protests was managed there for a week or so. I am so impressed with this. I used to be mildly politically active in Cambridge, I went on a couple of protests and indeed helped to organise one (badly): getting any more than forty people together for anything political was just impossible then. Clearly, one of the things that New Labour and now the Coalition have done is radicalised the student body, or possibly removed its sense of any other option. To me, the idea of police beating down student protesters in Cambridge with clubs, rather than simply laughing at them from a careful distance as they did to us, is completely alien: I am amazed that things can have reached this pitch.

You will readily see from this that the students were in some cases fairly obnoxious, and it isn’t really the police about whom they’re supposed to be protesting. They are, of course, supposed to be allowed to protest, although the Criminal Justice Act makes it difficult, and the occupation of Senate House was, though trespass, not criminal, so that the police were not at first sure of their right to take action. The suspicion of damage, however, and most of all the humorous, but unwise, removal of the police officers’ helmets, rapidly altered that position. I’m pleased to see that Cambridge’s MP, of whom I used to be a colleague and whom I’ve known since before he was either of those things, who may even indeed have been on that protest I helped organise way back when, has condemned the violence of both parties, separately, and has pressed the government to investigate the police’s conduct here and in London. Anyway. I’ve nothing but admiration for the students who go in order to be heard, rather than to start fights, which seems to be almost all of them. We need people who set out to try and change things, after all, because the assumption that we can change nothing is exactly that on which this government, like the last one, trades. But a protest is as nothing if it doesn’t get into the papers and onto the Internet, you know? “Pics, or it didn’t happen.” So it bothers me that the protests in Oxford hardly got a notice.

The Oxford protest was rather eerie, in fact, for me at least, because we had been speculating at dinner in college the previous night what form a rumoured occupation might take, and drawing on my ‘radical’ background no doubt, I said something like: “Well, if they’re stupid and want to hurt the university, they’ll have to attack the administration, which is not going to get any notice. But if what they want to do is get press coverage, then they’ll have to do something in the centre and they’ll have to attack somewhere people have heard of, which basically means the Bodleian or the Radcliffe Camera, doesn’t it?” And, er, lo and behold, there you are…

But, though there was some coverage in the Oxford Mail, I’ve been able to find no evidence that any national paper came up to cover this, an occupation that went on for two days with reinforcements arriving by night, and which, I learnt yesterday, was broken with exemplary police tactics using a large roll of carpet. True story. But it deserved better press: there was no serious violence, no damage, and though it is, granted, a little counterproductive perhaps occupying the undergraduate portion of the Bodleian (for this is what the Camera now holds, the University’s teaching library), it certainly should have got the press. Presumably if they’d been idiots and started a fight it would have done, though you’ll see from the above that the difference here was mainly the police commendably not rising to provocation. I fear that this is why people do deliberately resort to violence, because at the moment doing anything less means one is silenced.

But, there is something else we can do. It may not be much, and it may not be effective, but it is at least funny and clever, and that’s no small thing. A valued colleague has directed me to this, and asked if I would put it on the blog. And so I will. It is a petition asking the current government, degree-holders almost to a man and a very few woman, to cough up the cash that they would have to have paid for their degree if they had taken them under the same rules that they are now setting. I mean: only fair, right? At least Nick Clegg, who has in the past shown signs of a sense of humour if not a conscience, ought to dig in his pockets for this one. Pass it on, do. (And as you do, note the name of the petitioner. If that’s not medievalism in action, I don’t know what is.)

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria.)

Seminar LXXV: more skeletons, and this time Vikings

So, the new term’s seminar series at the Institute of Historical Research starts on Wednesday, and I still have four seminars or lectures from last term I was hoping to give some notice of. Whether I manage this, only time will tell, but here is one that deserves a quick write-up and which fits into what is sadly becoming a real theme round here at the moment, to wit, untimely death. More on this soon, alas, but this one is probably not news to you as such, because these images travelled the web quite quickly.

The Ridgeway burial pit containing 51 Viking-age bodies

The Ridgeway burial pit, containing 51 Viking-age bodies

This is a burial pit that was found in the course of construction work along the Ridgeway in Dorset to build the Weymouth Relief Road in 2009. The big news when the find was let out onto the web was twofold, firstly that the bodies had all been men, none probably older than 25, and all apparently executed, and secondly that initial radio-carbon dates placed them smack between the two Viking ages, c. 890X1030 and 910X1030, with potential to be from either one. It could have been neither, of course, but then the isotope analysis came back as being, for the most part, non-local and most likely from much further north than Dorset, one even north of the Arctic Circle, at which point it became hard to doubt that what we had here was some Scandinavians who’d lost the big game quite badly. And so, on 29th November, David Score from Oxford Archaeology, the contractors who’d dug the site, came to the Oxford Medieval Archaeology seminar to tell us more.

Leg bone showing signs of serious infection from the Ridgeway burial

Leg bone showing signs of serious infection from the Ridgeway burial

This proved valuable for both macro- and micro-scale detail. I did not know, for example, that the landscape in which these people were buried is absolutely busy with prehistoric barrows; several of the site photos had barrows lurking at their edges. There had also been Roman burial here and a Roman road runs through the area; in short, this landscape had a history of use written all over it, but was also easy to get to. Secondly, only the team who’d done the dig and the analysis could have told us how the victims died: all of a single or multiple blows to the head, possibly all delivered from the same direction at least at first. It looked as if the blows had been intended to decapitate; subsequent blows might have been to finish that job and may have been delivered once the victim had fallen. These were almost their only wounds; that is, they were not battle victims, and had apparently been brought to where they died, perhaps even here, in good health, and presumably knowing what was going to happen. The exception was one man with what must have been a horribly infected leg wound—as you can see above the bone looks all wrong—whose presumably hindered mobility was an unsolved question; he would have been a problem for any warband, which raises questions about whether this was one. The first body appeared to have fallen into the pit, which was just an old quarry pit, not dug out or deepened, face-first, arms extended, as if he’d been trying to break his fall; the rest were felled on top of him, one after the other, with their severed heads placed separately on a slight natural ridge in the pit.

The skulls from the Ridgeway burial

The skulls from the Ridgeway burial

There were fifty-one skulls, but fifty-four bodies (probably; unjumbling them from where they’d collapsed into each other over the centuries was tricky). It was suggested that the missing heads may have been displayed on stakes, as warnings, but if so, not here. Executing fifty-four people by sword must have taken a long time, which makes the absence of wounds the more surprising. One had apparently put his hand up to protect himself, as he had lost his fingertips to a sharp edge, but otherwise they took what was coming in fairly good order, or were perhaps bound and held in such a way that they had little choice perhaps, though there was no sign of rope in the grave (or indeed clothing). The last few must have had to be exceptionally brave, all the same.

A skull from the St John's College, Oxford, burial pit

A skull from the St John's College, Oxford, burial pit

The inevitable parallel is with another set of Scandinavian-isotoped bodies of this sort of date-range that were found even more locally to me, in St John’s College Oxford in 2008. That hasn’t been properly published yet, but it was discussed here in questions by people who knew about it, and the contrasts were huge; those bodies were hacked about, some even partly burned as if they’d been caught in a fire or tortured. There was no order to their deaths, and if, as seems possible, the burial has been correctly associated with the infamous St Brice’s Day Massacre of 1002, then the Danes of Oxford must have been chased through the street and killed wherever they couldn’t escape. Horrible in its way, and terrifying to experience no doubt, but this one, this looks much more nastily like organised death. There are obvious parallels from our times, of course, which show that perhaps even fighting men wouldn’t struggle when they knew that all was lost except the chance of dying with honour. One wonders whether they really were raiders, or whether they were a mercenary group or even a garrison whom the order of 1002 found dispensable. We will never know, most probably, but it is strange that with these finds we now have overwhelmingly more evidence of Vikings being killed by the English, and not in battle either, than we do for the reverse.

Coalition government and the Norman Conquest (new post on Cliopatria)

My apologies for the silence here, I’ve been trying to get big things done and in a very few cases succeeding. Meanwhile various other long-completed endeavours have at last had their outcome, but mainly, I have a lot of new courses to teach this coming term and a vast e-mail backlog. I will put various things here yet, more seminar reports, an explanation and some pictures of the completed endeavours, and a morbid but necessary post of honour for the rather too numerous dead in my various worlds in the last two months; but none of these are ready yet. I did, at least, write the piece of the title for Cliopatria, and will at some point follow it with a post there about the student protests of the last quarter, since I have written about such things there before. But, though it’s rather angry, I’m quite pleased with the Cliopatria piece and maybe you would like to read it.