Monthly Archives: March 2011

Seminar LXXXV: Viking metal for women

I realise this title may be misleading but I can’t resist it… I have been reminded that I promised to write up Jane Kershaw‘s paper given to the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages seminar on 9th February, and that time has come. I was reminded by Magistra’s own write-up of it, in which she says:

Jon Jarrett has promised to blog this paper as well, so if you want details from someone who knows rather more about both archaeology and Anglo-Saxon history than me (not difficult), you should probably wait for his take, because he can give a more considered view as to whether Jane’s argument actually holds up.

Aha, so you think, but quite apart from anything else I work with Jane, see her most lunchtimes in term, and need her to give a lecture for me on a course next year. The chance of my saying anything that might sound negative is thus pretty low, even if I had such a thing to say, and actually this is becoming more and more of an issue the more embedded I get in academia. I can still aim to be informative, though, and if you find yourself needing to know more Jane has a paper out that covers some of this stuff and you can read it yourself.1 So, OK, the reason for the title is that Jane’s paper, whose title was: “New Insights on the Viking Settlement of England: the small finds evidence”, was about brooches, and specifically metal brooches such as we now have far more of than we used to have because of metal-detecting.2 (Jane estimated that the corpus of Viking-period metal artefacts has multiplied by a factor of 22 or 23 since the last round of major catalogues was published, so we have a lot to synthesize.)

Fragment of a ninth-century Scandinavian oval brooch found at Wormegay

Fragment of a ninth-century Scandinavian oval brooch found at Wormegay, image provided very kindly by Dr Kershaw to replace the less relevant one this post originally had here

The brooches that she was talking about were found in England, between the second half of the ninth century and the second half of the tenth, but were in a Scandinavian style. They are therefore Viking cultural indicators, showing not just Viking jewellery æsthetics but Viking dress styles, as the oval brooches especially only make sense worn on a dress with straps which was not the Anglo-Saxon fashion before the Vikings came. Once they’d come, however, we can’t really tell whether what we have is Danish women who’d been brought over getting stuff made in the style they’d grown up with, or English women dressing like Danes. We can be fairly sure that the brooches were not being traded, though, or at least, not made for export in Scandinavia, because the range of styles found is basically the same as that in Scandinavia, so our notional brooch-seller would have to be working very hard to scoop up a representative sample from all round Denmark… The finds don’t cluster round ports of entry, either, and their distribution is mostly rural, so what we obviously don’t have is someone with a stall in York—in fact, York has thrown up almost none of these pieces, despite being quite heavily dug—getting brooches shipped in by the crate from his contact back in Aarhus, it’s more genuinely popular and incidental than that.

Eleventh-century bronze Viking trefoil brooch

Eleventh-century bronze Viking trefoil brooch, PAS ID NMS-56E967

On the other hand, they don’t really spread outside the Danelaw, and there are some odd patches of non-appearance within it. Distribution is an imprecise measurement, admittedly, but 500+ brooches is a lot, and as Jane wisely said when queried about arguing from silence, even if for some inexplicable reason (I had assumed detector bias, since lots of her sample was coming from Norfolk and Suffolk, much better territory for detectors than anywhere too hilly, but she was ready with a map that compared the brooches to all finds of detected goods and their distribution wasn’t typical) the finds are under-represented in one area, we still have all the others to explain.3 There can be fewer of something found in an area than we suspect there ought to be; but there can hardly be more of something than there should be! This is one of those obvious points that hit me hard in the brain as something I’d never before thought and marks Jane out as an unusually clear archæological thinker (and I’m not just saying that, honest).

Tenth-century cast copper-alloy Borre-style brooch

Tenth-century cast copper-alloy Borre-style brooch, PAS ID NMS-9704F0

So that’s one thing that needs careful explanation, and then we start to find imitations, locally-manufactured versions, which are distinguishable by fastening a different way, the way of the Anglo-Saxon disc brooches that had been usual before these Scandy items joined them on the shoulders of the Danelaw’s women. (This is important: the Anglo-Saxon ones continue to be found too. It’s not a replacement, it’s an addition to a cultural complex.) Whether this marks immigrant women dressing English-style or Anglo-Saxon women wanting to update their brooches to the nouvelle vague is not clear but whatever it is, it’s not clean assimilation; people wearing such items were expressing a new hybrid kind of dress style. Jane was scrupulous about not making easy leaps from clothing to identity, but at the very least, in these communities it’s not necessary to look traditionally English, if there were ever such a thing anyway. And then finally there are new Anglo-Saxon brooches made on a proto-industrial scale in the tenth century, indicating still another change, and it would be lovely to somehow connect this with the English reconquest (campaign buttons?) but somehow I think with this many real women involved it isn’t going to submit to a simple answer, and the fact of the matter is the distribution of these sorts of brooch actually spreads after the reconquest, not shrinks.

Ninth-century Saxon disc brooch with backwards beast decoration

Ninth-century Saxon disc brooch with backwards beast decoration, PAS ID NMS-463627. I can't get more than four Anglo-Scandinavian brooches out of the PAS database and they all look really scummy, so I haven't used one of those.

So, are these items actually telling us about identities, or does it just tell us, as Susan Reynolds suggested, that the gentry of a certain area know a little man in Norwich who makes these darling things you just have to have, and so on in several other places?4 As Jane finished by pointing out, there are other regional mappings we can make that seem to show a similar story of regional distinctiveness. The province that’s thickest with these brooches is not simply East Anglia, but Norfolk and North Suffolk, as distinct from South Suffolk where, glorious detector land though it be, they don’t show up half as much. Now, this also fits, more or less roughly, said Jane, the distribution of common fields versus unified estates in the area in Domesday Book, the distribution of minor place-names (fields, boundaries and so on) and those major ones in -by and -thorp, classic Old Norse indicators. At that rate, it begins too look as if we’re talking about a cultural zone where being, you know, a bit Danish innit, was pretty much OK.

Silver Saint Edmund penny, c. 905-18, found by metal detector at Great Barton, Norfolk

Silver Saint Edmund penny, c. 905-18, found by metal detector at Great Barton, Norfolk, PAS ID SF-DC3EA7

It also matches coinage zones, said Jane: inside the ‘Viking’ zone, the regular Anglo-Saxon coinage hardly runs, the favourite one instead being the enigmatic St Edmund pennies that anyone studying this are has to get their head round: coins minted by a Viking-identified government established by pagan warriors commemorating a Christian royal opponent they’d killed. It’s quite like how rapidly ‘Viking’ York starts minting coins with Christian symbols on, and indeed these are imitated at Lincoln and circulate in this zone too.5 In South Suffolk, by contrast, the stuff doesn’t get out and the royal coinage is found. Now, this is something you can check yourself, because some years ago a clever chap called Sean Miller whom I’ve mentioned here before put means for you to do so on the web, and I have to admit, when I do this with the St Edmund and St Peter coinages and then with the coins of Edward the Elder respectively from Norfolk and Suffolk, I get a distribution that is (a) too thin to be very revealing and (b) more or less the same for Viking and non-Viking types in the counties. So I don’t know if the money side of the comparison really holds up, and as to the rest of these zonal indicators I am mindful of a wise thing that I once heard said of all arguments made from distribution of objects or sites, that they should also be mapped against the locations of telephone boxes and see if that correlates as well. And we know that bad things can be done with this technique. All the same, I’m not convinced that this was one of them; we do have the brooches to explain, the trend has to come from somewhere, and a kind of proud-to-be-a-different-kind-of-English-with-friends-across-the-North-Sea cultural self-awareness fostered by a persistent local-level government established by a Viking territorial settlement and allowed to remain in place helps explain them and their distribution whereas not much else does. I don’t think we can stop looking for other possibilities just yet, but then I don’t suppose Jane was going to stop any time soon either…

1. Jane E. Kershaw, “Culture and Gender in the Danelaw: Scandinavian and Anglo-Scandinavian Brooches” in Viking and Medieval Scandinavia Vol. 5 (Turnhout 2009), pp. 295–325, doi:10.1484/J.VMS.1.100682.

2. Oh, I’m sorry, you were actually interested in Viking metal? In that case may I suggest Simon Trafford & Alex Plukowski, “Antichrist superstars: the Vikings in hard rock and heavy metal” in D. W. Marshall (ed.), Mass Market Medieval: essays on the Middle Ages in popular culture (Jefferson 2007), pp. 57-73, and if you do get it, and happen to have a PDF somehow, I wouldn’t object if it somehow wound up in my INBOX as Oxford don’t have a copy and I’m not sure I have the force of character to recommend it to any of the relevant libraries.

3. My stock reference for things you can get wrong with archæological distribution mapping is now available to you too, it being Mary Chester-Kadwell, Early Anglo-Saxon Communities in the Landscape of Norfolk: Cemeteries and Metal-Detector Finds in Context, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 481 (Oxford 2009).

4. On Viking identities in the Danelaw more widely, as if you like the wave on which this work by Jane is one of the breakers, you could try either or both of Dawn Hadley & Julian Richards (edd.), Cultures in Contact: Scandinavian Settlement in England in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries (Turnhout 2000) or James Graham-Campbell, Richard Hall, Judith Jesch & David Parsons (edd.), Vikings and the Danelaw: Select Papers from the Proceedings of the Thirteenth Viking Congress (2001), or if you prefer a single synthetic view Dawn Hadley’s The Vikings in England: Settlement, society and culture (Manchester 2006).

5. For more on these coinages see Mark Blackburn, “Currency under the Vikings. Part 2. The Two Scandinavian Kingdoms of the Danelaw, c. 895-954″, Presidential Address 2005 in British Numismatic Journal 76 (London 2006), pp. 204-226, soon to be reprinted in the first volume of his collected papers.

Vaig a Catalunya!

Replica of Ictineo II, first successful submarine

Not my chosen mode of travel, alas

I’ve booked tickets and hotel, I guess I’m going. Which means I ought to say something like this:

Salutacions als meus lectors catalans! Estaré en el vostre païs bellic a la commençament d’abril. Del quart d’abril al novè, seré basat a Vic, i al onzè seré en Barcelona. Si algun dels meus lectors vulgui em encontre, pugui fer contacte amb el vostre autor via la adreça electronica a aquesta pàgina de web. Desprès trobaré com terrible es el meu català parlat! (No mento; jo puc recordar un temps i potser cinquanta paraules… Espero ho ameliorar.)

For the rest of you, what this means is that, working kit permitting, there will be a lot more photos of Catalonia here next month and I’m probably about to buy a few more books…

P. S. It was a wooden submarine powered by a chemical-driven steam plant that made its own oxygen. Also it worked. There is no more steam-punk than that.

Seminar LXXXIV: going to law in post-Visigothic Spain

On the 2nd February I had a great quandary. In London, at the Institute of Historical Research, the estimable Rosemary Morris was presenting what I understand was an excellent paper featuring charters and shouty peasants; you’d think I’d have been there. But at the same time in Oxford, which is after all where I live now, Graham Barrett was presenting to the Oxford Medieval Church and Culture Seminar about surprisingly similar matters, and his charters and peasants were Spanish not Byzantine. Because of this ability to actually read the documents in question, and the matter of the train fare and late night, and also because Graham is one of two or three people who I’m perpetually glad aren’t working on Catalonia, because if they were I’d have nothing left to say, I opted in the end to stay in town for his paper. It is possible that Professor Morris’s paper will be covered by someone else, and I’ll mention it if that happens; I certainly hope it will. But Graham’s paper was entitled “Visigothic Law after the Visigoths” and it was certainly jolly interesting. It was also rather a while ago, but Graham said afterwards that he was disappointed to see that I wasn’t podcasting it live to the web, so I feel that a slight delay is only just revenge for his taking the mickey…

Title page of a 1058 León codex including a copy of the Liber Iudicorum

Title page of a 1058 León codex including a copy of the Liber Iudicorum, from the Biblioteca Digital Hispanica, seriously would you look at this manuscript isn't it great?

If you don’t know, and why would you etc., after the Muslims toppled the Visigothic kingdom in what is now Spain over the period 711-714, both the parts of it now under Muslim dominion and those not continued to use the lawcode of the Visigothic kings, the Forum Iudicum, Forum of the Judges or Book of Judges (as mentioned just the other day in fact) to regulate their affairs, at least the Christian populations did. This applies as much to Catalonia, and indeed the old Visigothic province in Gaul, Septimania, as it does to Aragón, Castile, León and Asturias (ironically, in the latter case, given how much time it had spent fending off the Visigothic kings when they were around), and argh 25 years ago already now Roger Collins wrote a neat article about this for the English Historical Review which is still an excellent place to start with this stuff.1 (There’s also a bucketload of work in Castilian and Catalan of course, which I don’t know as well as I know I should.2) Since then there has been some work on these matters for Catalonia, but rather less in English than one might wish, and Graham is now moving in to close that gap.3 The Visigothic Code, as it’s also known (and as it’s online in translation), remains important because it is a a weird mixture of the archaic, four- to six-hundred year old rulings being cited in courts, and the current: in Castile and León we have eighteen manuscripts of the code dating to before the twelfth century, mostly from shortly before then, because it was still being copied. These copies are not all complete, and all vary in details, selecting what is useful and adapting accordingly. A detailed comparison of the manuscripts therefore gives a kind of index into what people in any given area were worried about coming up in court, at least it does if we can plausibly locate the manuscripts’ place of use (and Wendy Davies, present, suggested that trying to map usage and citation of the Code around the known manuscripts would be informative, which indeed it would).

A Leonese royal charter of 860

A Leonese royal charter of 860; it doesn't cite the Law, but I haven't got an image of one that does I'm afraid

It’s not just the copies of the law itself that tell us about its use, though, it is cited in dozens of charters, often actually cited with book, title and chapter, and very often these citations are correct. This is impressive, but it’s perhaps more interesting when they’re wrong, or the relevant law doesn’t even exist; here we are presumably seeing a mis-learnt citation or a strong belief that something is such old custom that it just gosh-durn must be in the law; but in the latter case, it’s that it’s in the law that they feel will validate it, not that it’s old custom. (It’s possible, of course, that these citations are intentionally false, since not many people are actually going to be in a position to look this stuff up and in any given assembly the people who are are probably writing the charter…) Not all these uses are even identified, however, which goes to show that to some extent the law genuinely had shaped the way some things were done, or at least the words in which those things were written about. (Graham’s handout has a number of examples of this choice of an otherwise unparalleled phrase to talk about, for example, adultery or homicide.4) These words, Graham hazarded, were probably not usually passing from person to person in the context of full copies of the Code, but just single sheets of the most useful cites perhaps, tucked into a folder of example charters and scraps of formulary that the average scribe might have had to work from, rather than anything as grand as a book. That copying without context could explain a lot of the apparent deviations, though again one would expect practice to dictate which way they deviated.

Folio 64r of the 1058 Leonese copy of the Liber Iudicorum

Folio 64r of the 1058 Leonese copy of the Liber Iudicorum, showing Book IV Title 2 law 20

It has to be said that sometimes, when the laws were invoked, they were deliberately bent or mutilated. I think Graham used this example too, but I can’t pin it down in my notes so I’ll import it from Catalonia: there is a particular law in the code (IV.2.20, as shown above), which protects the rights of the heirs of a property-owner, as follows:

Every freeborn man and woman, whether belonging to the nobility, or of inferior rank, who has no children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, has the unquestionable right to dispose of his or her estate at will; nor can any arrangement that either may make, be set aside by any relatives of theirs….

This turns up a lot in donation charters, but when it does, crucially, pretty much everything between ‘whether’ and ‘great-grandchildren’ inclusive is usually left out, so that it becomes a law guaranteeing the right of unrestricted alienation of property when its framer (the glorious Flavius Chindasuinthus, King, no less, as you see above in red) had intended precisely the opposite. Not everyone citing the Code knew this, most likely, but some certainly did because they’d copied it themselves.5 Here we’re nudging at questions about authority and written norms and what you could do with them in the Middle Ages that have troubled many of us and will trouble many more, but the kind of work that Graham is doing here certainly add to the detail we can try and answer such questions from.

Title page of a 1600 edition of the Castilian version of the Book of Judges

Title page of a 1600 edition of the Castilian version of the Book of Judges, from Wikimedia Commons

The way that Graham wound up framing the way these texts were used, then, was as a point of departure. Often, the law would be invoked to set a penalty for a certain thing, but then the document in question records that with that out in the open, a compromise was then reached that was more agreeable to all parties. (Of course, there is a preservation factor operating here, because one of the compromises we see most often was to give some land instead of paying an impossible fine or becoming a slave—those of you who have heard Wendy Davies speak on such matters, or indeed Graham himself in Kalamazoo last year, will recall this practice no doubt—and charters in which land was transferred are tremendously more likely to survive than those in which fines were paid, because land remains relevant long after a person’s criminal reputation or lack of one has disappeared into generational memory loss. On the other hand, we don’t have very many charters at all in which someone sells land to raise money to pay a fine, at least not in which they tell us that’s what they were doing, and precious few where they are actually enslaved (although I could find you one in which such a person was then freed, which may be more likely to be preserved since he would need it to prove he could alienate property legally and that, in turn, would lead to it being preserved with the property charters, etc.6) so it may yet be that the compromise was much more common than the actual sentence being imposed. If I remember rightly, Graham said he knew of one document only out of the thousands surviving (albeit that only hundreds are court cases) where a sentence seems to have actually been carried out as in the law. Even there, I might caution, we’re still just assuming, as other cases where verdicts were subsequently abandoned show. In either case, the law is the framework that the parties start with, but even though the verdict is pronounced by judges, as in the Code, and carried out by an official called the saió just as in the Code, it is very rarely with the Code that people finished. It shaped their world, yes, but they made their own shapes out of it. Authority may not be the word we want: due process may be. The Code determined what was due about the process, and the actual hearing hopefully determined what was fair and equitable. It’s not a bad model for law in a society where enforcement is hard to find.

King Vermudo II of León and Galicia, as depicted in the 12th-century Libro de las Estampas

King Vermudo II of León and Galicia, as depicted in the 12th-century Libro de las Estampas, from Wikimedia Commons

The other thing that interested me especially was a coda in which Graham returned to a throwaway remark with which he’d begun about a note in the Chronicle of Sampiro that records that King Vermudo II of León (985-999) confirmed the ‘Laws of King Wamba’ at some point during his reign. Wamba’s contribution to the Code was very small, and where it occurs lengthy and pompous and making me think more of Patrick Wormald’s warnings about what kings really wanted out of legislation (i. e. to look like real royalty, rather than to improve the affairs of the realm) than almost anything else in the thing, but he was certainly the last king to add to it and therefore the final version was in some sense his; it must be the Code referred to here.7 If so, that’s really interesting because it’s at almost exactly that time that over in Barcelona a certain count called Borrell II whom you’ve heard me mention before started recruiting a new cadre of highly-trained judges to run his courts, one of whom indeed copied a text of the Forum Iudicum that we still have. Why did both of these Iberian potentates at either end of the peninsula decide to revive this juristic form of status-building? For Vermudo, of course, the claim was implicitly to stand in succession to Wamba, as the Code itself says that only the prince may issue laws. To issue the old laws therefore made him a king in that same old style. For Borrell, it was more subtle I suspect: as with much of his policy, his new stress on law and the Code emphasised that his authority stood on ancient foundations that no-one now in power had the authority to deny. The Code was older than the caliphs of Córdoba to whom he sometimes pledged allegiance, older than the Carolingians who’d installed his grandfather, and certainly older than those upstarts in León whom he may once, all the same, have got to consecrate him an anti-Carolingian archbishop.8 I’m pretty sure about all the ways in which, for Borrell, the Code was old. But after hearing Graham’s paper I know that I also need to pay some more attention to the ways in which it was also being made anew.

1. R. Collins, “‘Sicut lex Gothorum continet‘: law and charters in ninth- and tenth-century León and Catalonia” in English Historical Review Vol. 100 (London 1985), pp. 489-512; you could also see his “Visigothic Law and Regional Diversity in Disputes in Early Medieval Spain” in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (edd.), The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1986), pp. 85-104; both are reprinted in Collins, Law, Culture and Regionalism in Early Medieval Spain, Variorium Collected Studies 356 (Aldershot 1992), V & VI respectively.

2. The things I can most obviously think of are all by Aquilino Iglesia Ferreirós, specifically his “La creación del derecho en Cataluña” in Anuario de Historia del Derecho Español Vol. 47 (Madrid 1977), pp. 99-424 and more recently La Creación del derecho: una historia de la formación de un derecho estatal español : manual (Barcelona 1992) and (I gather from Dialnet) Max Turull, Aquilino Iglesia Ferreirós, Oriol Oleart Piquet, Mònica González Fernández, Historia del derecho español (Barcelona 2001).

3. For Catalonia, I can go no further without mentioning the excellent Jeffrey Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past (Ithaca 2004), of which pp. 33-55 cover this stuff.

4. And since there has so far been no late Latin in this post at all, let me take one of his examples here: the Law says, “If a freeborn woman mixes herself up in adultery with her own slave or freedman, or else wishes to have him as her husband, and she is convicted of this by clear proof, she should be put to death”, “Si ingenua mulier servo suo vel proprio liberto se in adulterio miscuerit aut forsitan eum maritum habere voluerit et ex hoc manigesta probatione convincitur occidatur”, text from Karl Zeumer (ed.), Leges Visigothorum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Leges Nationum Germanicum) I (Hannover 1902, repr. 2005), transl. S. P. Scott as The Visigothic Code (Boston 1922), Book III Chapter 2 Title 2, emphasis Barrett’s. Then, we find in a charter preserved by the nunnery of Sobrado from 858 the confession, “I mixed myself up in adultery with the slave of Hermegildo named Ataulfo”, Commiscui me in adulterio cum servo Hermegildi nomine Ataulfo”, ed. P. Loscertales & G. de Valdeavellano in their (edd.) Tumbos del Monasterio de Sobrado de los Monjes (Madrid 1976), doc. no. 75, emphasis and transl. Barrett. Note, of course that firstly, that was not the woman’s slave but someone else’s, and secondly, that she was not put to death as the law prescribes. More on that below…

5. Here I run shamelessly off the back of Bowman, Shifting Landmarks, pp. 39-43. One of the people we know knew this stuff was my official favourite scribe, the judge Bonhom (or Bonsom, often, in the literature), whom Bowman discusses ibid. 84-99 along with his fellows. We know Bonhom knew it because we still have his own, heavily-glossed, copy of the Law, it being Biblioteca del Monasterio del Escorial, MS z.II.2, and recently fully edited as Jesús Alturo i Perucho, Joan Bellès, Josep M. Font Rius, Yolanda García & Anscarí Mundó (edd.), Liber iudicum popularis. Ordenat pel jutge Bonsom de Barcelona (Barcelona 2003). And, now that I look at Graham’s handout more closely, I see he has an example of just this kind of misuse of the same clause from Emilio Sáez (ed.), Colección documental de la Catedral de León (775-1230), vol. I (775-952), Fuentes y estudios de historia leonesa 41 (León 1987), doc. no. 256.

6. In fact, I will: it’s Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), doc. no. 161, also ed. in Ordeig (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i de Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. 392, in which a priest called Nectar buys someone out of penal slavery enjoined upon him for homicide. The relevance of this example is that the priest, whose name was Nectar, yet, already, says in the document that one sentenced to slavery cannot redeem himself, which looks like a legal citation but is actually not in the Law.

7. The chronicle reference is J. Pérez de Urbel, Sampiro: su crónica y la monarquía leonesa en el siglo X (Madrid 1968), cap. 30, Silense redaction, and when I invoke Patrick Wormald I mean his “Lex Scripta and Verbum Regis: legislation and Germanic kingship, from Euric to Cnut” in Peter Sawyer & Ian Wood, (edd.) Early Medieval Kingship (Leeds 1977), pp. 105-138.

8. On Borrell’s management of the past I hope you will soon be able to see J. Jarrett, “Caliph, King or Grandfather: strategies of legitimisation on the Spanish March in the reign of Lothar III” in The Mediaeval Journal Vol. 1 (Turnhout forthcoming); on the archbishop, meanwhile, see idem, “Archbishop Ató of Osona: false metropolitans on the Marca Hispanica” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 56 (München 2010), pp. 1-41 at pp. 13-16, and refs there.

How to teach the feudal transformation

This term I have been able to add a new line to my CV by getting involved in some graduate teaching. This came about because Oxford Faculty of History offers a Master of Studies course on Medieval History, and its second term is spent on an Option course and there had been complaints, because all the options available were cultural history. So the person in charge at this point balanced all, brought all to mind etc., and naturally enough lit upon The Amazing Explanation For All Change in the Middle Ages ™!

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

This is a thing that I know at least a little bit about, and so I was happy to be asked to join in. I am in fact convening the course, but that’s misleading as I am the very junior wheel on a vehicle mostly supported by much more senior and knowledgeable colleagues. We have, however—and I don’t think I’m giving anything away to the students here should they find this, alas—had to invent it fairly quickly from scratch, and the result has been a bit various. In particular, the blurb I originally supplied for the Faculty website has turned out not to relate to the classes much. It went like this:

At the beginning of the Middle Ages, European society is often characterised as late-Antique or post-Roman, heading into the supposed Dark Ages; by the end of them, it is the home of the castles, chivalry, trebuchets, Romances and fine gowns that have fuelled the imagination of many a fantasy author and game designer. Since the early 1950s, a body of scholarship has existed that locates the series of changes that took the world from the late Roman to the high medieval periods closely around the year 1000, in a more or less violent and sudden ‘transformation’. Can this have been true? If so, how much, and where? Answering this question has produced almost as many answers as scholars and involves the study of knighthood, popular culture, the economy, castles, royal politics, heresy, reform, the effects of impure LSD (ergot) and a phenomenon that some historians argue never existed, feudalism. This option reopens the questions with a number of case studies and detailed examination of sources in a variety of genres, and encompasses a strongly comparative approach to European history around the year 1000 that will equip students with a critical basis to take on a much wider historical literature.

I mean, that still looks like an awesome course (to me at least), but the talk-up is a bit misleading. I’m pretty sure, for example, that none of us teaching this had time to discuss ergotism or heresy, and I would guess probably not medievalism either, more’s the pity. Instead, we went regional, with introduction and conclusions sessions, and between them sessions on France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Byzantium and England by various people. All of these areas have their own version of the debate about whether there was a rapid change circa 1000 and if so what it changed, and they certainly need comparing, not least because so much of the literature is on France, especially when you’re confined to English-language reading, but I would still like somehow to squeeze that quart into the pint pot and get some of the broader socio-cultural themes into play across the European board. We also used a variety of different class structures: set-piece debates, individual presentations followed by discussion, source-packs for close reading in class,1, and just free discussion of preset material, and that’s just the ones I know about. That seems as if it could either be a strength, being good training and avoiding dullness, or else a whirling confusion of expectations with no clear goals week-to-week; I could see either point of view, but can’t decide between them. It may vary per student and their individual capability.

An Oxford University seminar class in Exeter College

Stock picture of an Oxford seminar in a different faculty. You think History can afford chocolates? And of course I would never let people put bottles down on red baize without coasters!

We will obviously get student feedback and, equally obviously, I am consulting within the teaching group first and foremost, but since I haven’t written for a while it struck me that it might be interesting to ask the people reading this how you might go about working such a course. We have eight classes of two hours each; at the end of it they write an essay of 8,000-10,000 words, and that’s their assessment for the option. Can it be done in this scale? Should we knock stuff out, abandon the regional perspective, fix on a more limited set of teaching methods or mix it up some more? What would you advise? I make no promises about taking your advice, not least because it’s not all my call, but I’m interested in what shape it may take, if you feel like opining? If not, stay tuned, a seminar report should follow this rapidly.

1. This was me, and I didn’t feel it worked very well, not least because I didn’t have translations of the right sources ready and had to use what I had—this much I can fix, of course, and there are improvements I could also make to the instructions. Even so, I’ve yet to make this method deliver as a class. How about you?

Seminar LXXXIII: arguing about kinship with anthropologists and families

Sorry, fell off the ‘net to a certain extent again there. Let me return to the fray with a seminar report, from where the amiable and erudite Dr Conrad Leyser (a man whose Oxford web presence is even more exiguous than mine, but who is at Worcester College, not Jesus College or Manchester University any more, whatever their webpages may tell you) presented at the Oxford Medieval History Seminar (though there again he is not listed, he’s like the Internet’s invisible man) under the title, “History, Anthropology, and Early Medieval Kinship”, on 31 January 2011. This was a lively paper, which is not something you can ordinarily say about presentations on the history of scholarship (unless they’re by Dr Beachcombing of course). It also served to teach several of us, I suspect, including me, just where some of our teachers, mentors and in Conrad’s case parents had been getting their ideas from…

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Edward Evans-Pritchard

Edward Evans-Pritchard

The reason Conrad was doing this was that he is editing the proceedings from the sort of interdisciplinary conference we don’t have enough of, and has therefore got to write an introduction.1 This was one possible shape of it, explaining how we got to the points of needing the conversation that that conference had provided. Conrad started the paper by setting up a great opposition in old (social) anthropology, between the structuralist approach of Claude Lévi-Strauss (who only died in 2009), interested in working out what the system of kinship does for society and especially in the incest taboo, and the much more empirical, descriptive approach of Edward Evans-Pritchard, more interested in just documenting different societies than reflecting that back on the entirety of humanity, and seeing genealogy not as a structure, since it was so readily edited in the social memory, but as a narrative, with a point to make.2

From here Conrad diverted into history, but for summary I think that works better at the end so I’ll stick with the anthropology for a minute. By the 1970s, he told us, anthropology was getting quite suspicious about kinship as a term an a field of study, the suspicion being that it was occidentally-centred and a political concept unsuitable for application to many of the subjects of study. The logical outcome of this was that the field began to look at such ideas much more in the west itself, and that some genuinely challenging work has come out of the debates around in vitro fertilisation, because sometimes donors of eggs or sperm can be close kin to the people who will raise the child.3 Asking who then is the real parent is tricky enough in any surrogate situation—an ex-girlfriend of mine has six parents by some reckonings, thanks to adoption and divorces—but it gets a lot trickier to describe relationships when the incest taboo is broken like that, and so forth. Conrad pointed out here that medieval and indeed modern Christianity wrestled or wrestles with this all the time: Jesus was after all a surrogate baby, right? But He was also of the house of David! via, er, Joseph… Exegetical kinship in the minds of our subjects is therefore something that this kind of work may help us find words for and thus be able to explain better.

But, you would be entitled to ask, what has all this to do with medieval history? Well, fair enough, and as I say Conrad had kept that ball in the court all along, I have just chosen to do it differently here. The point is, of course, that the anthropological state of the field has informed an awful lot of the work we now take as gospel in early medieval kinship. Furthermore, it has often been only one side of the field that people pick up, citing “anthropology” much as we cite archæology or even history itself, as a more or less positivist bank of knowledge on whose existence we are all more or less agreed, without realising or if realising, without making it clear that the interpretation of such knowledge is crucial to its presentation, expression and safety of use by outsiders, and that even what look like raw datasets are being shaped by these debates before they reach the reader. Thus, the shift that Georges Duby and Karl Schmid saw from an agnatic to cognatic kinship system around the year 1000, from a broad kindred drawn from both father’s and mother’s families to a patrilineage and ultimately primogeniture, for example, this is derived ultimately from Lévi-Strauss and does not use the rival English work. Conrad’s father, Karl Leyser, based in England (indeed, in Oxford) however took a much more Evans-Pritchard-like line, there was an argument about it that didn’t establish either point and as a result Jack Goody was able to borrow the point back and use Karl Schmid’s work as a fair and accurate guide to the development of medieval families, and then of course (I editorialise here) the historians all cite Goody, even if we disagree, because he’s an anthropologist and therefore we think he has special knowledge, not realising where it came from and via whom, and round and round it goes.4

Back in the field of history, however, others were noticing that our categories for this sort of thing had been assumed ever since Duby and were adjusting to the idea that kinship might be more strategic than structural, altering reproductive practice and inheritance rights to fit social circumstances.5 Now even those ideas have been called into question—who sets a family strategy anyway and how do you get anyone to keep it?—and, for example, Kate Cooper (who is Conrad’s wife; his mother, Henrietta Leyser, was also evident in questions, which must be especially awkward to argue with but at least proved, along with the other factors, as Chris Wickham said, the abiding relevance of kinship in academia!) is now arguing for an agnatic-cognatic shift under the late Roman Empire, a change which Karl Ubl is reading in basically functionalist terms…6 so it may well be that after a while in which anthropology and history have had little to say to each other on such matters, it is actually time we got them talking again. But to do that, it’s necessary for each side to have some idea of what the other has already said. So I guess Conrad’s conference was a timely affair!

1. It’s thankfully fairly easy to cite stuff for this because half of Conrad’s handout was a seriously thorough bibliography, which I even showed to my anthropologist of resort and they agreed that it was as fair a summary as you might fit onto a side of A4, so if the above seems inadequate or just wrong, it’s going to be my fault not Conrad’s. From it, anyway, I can tell you that the volume in question is C. Leyser & K. Cooper (edd.), Making Early Medieval Societies: conflict and belonging in the Latin West, 400-1200 (forthcoming). Conrad’s handout doesn’t give place of publication for anything, and I’m afraid I’m going to skimp on time and not provide it either, just because there is so much backlog to clear here.

2. Cited on the handout: C. Lévi-Strauss, Les structures élémentaires de la parenté (1949); E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Kinship and Marriage among the Nuer (1951).

3. Here citing especially J. Carsten, After Kinship (2004), though the handout also has M. Strathern, Reproducing the Future: essays on anthropology, kinship and the new reproductive technologies (1992) and C. Thompson, Making Parents: the ontological choreography of reproductive technologies (2005), which I include because it strikes me that this is the kind of edge-of-the-human territory where some of my readers have their camps currently set up and they may be interested…

4. Duby himself learnt a lot from Schmid, whose “Zur Problematik von Familie, Sippe und Geschlecht, Haus und Dynastie beim mittelalterlichen Adel” in Zeitschrift für Geschichte des Oberrheins Vol. 105 (1957), pp. 1-62, remains seminal (edit: thanks to Levi below, details corrected here) but remains untranslated; there is however his “Über die Struktur des Adels im früheren Mittelalter” in Jahrbuch für fränkische Landesforschung Vol. 19 (1959), pp. 1-23, transl. Timothy Reuter as “The structure of the nobility in the earlier Middle Ages” in Reuter (ed.), The Medieval Nobility: studies on the ruling classes of France and Germany from the 6th to the 12th century (Amsterdam 1979), pp. 37-59, for an Englished introduction to Schmid’s arguments. For Duby Conrad cites the foundation stone, G. Duby, La Société aux XIe et XIIe siècle dans la région mâconnaise (Paris 1953, 2nd edn. 1971, repr. 2000), which is largely untranslated (a few parts as “The Nobility in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Mâconnais”, transl. Frederick L. Cheyette in Cheyette (ed.), Lordship and Community in Medieval Europe: selected readings (1968), pp. 137-55) but, as Conrad’s handout mentions, quite a lot of the supporting work and especially that about family structure is available in English in Duby, The Chivalrous Society, transl. Cynthia Postan (1977). The argument that failed to convince is Karl Leyser, “The German Aristocracy from the Ninth to the Twelfth Centuries: a historical and cultural sketch” in Past and Present no. 41 (Oxford 1968), pp. 25-53, Donald A. Bullough, “Early Medieval Social Groupings: the terminology of kinship”, ibid. 45 (1969), pp. 3-18 and K. Leyser, “Maternal kin in Early Medieval Germany: a reply”, ibid. 49 (1970), pp. 126-134. Goody’s contribution is of course J. Goody, The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe (Cambridge 1983).

5. So, see for example Pauline Stafford, “« La mutation familiale »: a suitable case for caution” in Joyce Hill & Mary Swan (edd.), The Community, the Family and the Saint: patterns of power in early medieval Europe (Turnhout 1998), pp. 103-125 or Ian Wood, “Deconstructing the Merovingian Family” in Richard Corradini, Maximilian Diesenberger & Helmut Reimitz (edd.), The construction of communities in the early Middle Ages: texts, resources and artefacts (Leiden 2003), pp. 149-171.

6. Kate Cooper, The Fall of the Roman Household (2007); Karl Ubl, Inzestverbot und Gesetzgebung: Die Konstruktion eines Verbrechens (2008).

Elsewhere on the Internet…

… there has been rather more of me than there has been here, sorry about that. It’s not so much that this term has been impossibly loaded, it hasn’t really though keeping four new courses ready to roll week-to-week has been a challenge, I will admit. It is much more that I have also been trying to crunch through the next step of the Casserres project—I will write about this soon—and to read quite a lot of stuff I need to have a grip on for teaching, some of which I may also write about, and these have all filled quite a lot of time. I have kept coming to the Internet just before midnight and sleep has usually won out. Nonetheless, on Friday I did actually catch up with all the blogs I follow, more or less; and since then I even socialised with some people somewhere other than a seminar! Incroyable!

But, I have not been completely inattentive to the web, I’ve just been attentive elsewhere. In particular!

  1. I’ve updated my static webpages, so that if you really wanted an up-to-date Jarrett bibliography or to remind yourself of my conference-going history, or even to know what my big projects are supposed to be whenever the small ones temporarily die down, that information is now current. N. B. these pages may plug the book once or twice. Maybe.
  2. Not just one but two of the places I’m teaching for here have now got as far as acknowledging my existence on the web, and I have to thank Pembroke College, where I am only a Retained Lecturer, for actually giving me a full page to play with, yet another thing to keep up to date but very welcome as now is not going be the first hit for me when people Google me at Oxford; after all, there are others claiming an Oxford affiliation there who have nothing of the kind any more, and I don’t want to be mistaken for one of them.
  3. I have also been writing at Cliopatria. Ordinarily I can go months between posts there, because I only post when asked to or when something broader than my focus here crosses my synapses. But recently both of those happened, so you can find me writing:
  4. And, indeed, while I have your attention over there, I’ve also thrown in on a question that fellow contributor Chris Bray raised there, to wit: “in whatever place and period you study, do you find that the political ruling class was generally aligned with common people in a struggle against the economic elite? Where and when has that happened?” I had some weak answers but maybe you have a stronger one? Trot over and cast it into the pool if so, we can always use comments from out of field over there.

Meanwhile, I have five posts in some form of draft, quite a lot of seminar papers to talk about, and an imminent access of slightly more time, so with a bit of luck you’ll be seeing more of my Internet presence again shortly.