Monthly Archives: September 2013

Big News V: new masters, and other things not yet announced

So, OK, two evenings ago I sent the final proofs of Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters off to the publishers along with the index, and that was only the most urgent thing of about twenty I still have to do, but one of those is certainly to deliver the promised news that the last three posts haven’t contained. So, the quick way seems best: when the book comes out, my affiliation in it will be University of Birmingham, because it is they who have kindly taken me on as a Lecturer in Medieval History for the next little while. So that’s the big news: Jarrett finally leaves the Golden Triangle, and not before time. Everyone I’ve had dealings with in the department so far has been really nice and I’m looking forward to it, though just now I’m mainly looking forward to the move being over.

Aerial view of Edgbaston campus, Birmingham University

Aerial view of Edgbaston campus, Birmingham University

I will not conceal that for quite a lot of this year I’ve been fairly sure I was going to have to leave the profession at the end of this month, and indeed I’d started applying for non-academic jobs and had even been interviewed for one when this came up. Many of you who know me will have heard my various spiels about what seems to be happening here, but I will keep them out of this post. I have stub posts written about some of these issues, and given how backlogged I am, whether or not I reach them before I am back on the market is somewhat uncertain. [Edit: This post initially went on to advertise various publications that had since come out, but they have now all had their details reposted at the right place in the backlog, so search for “Name in” in quotes and you should catch them all if you care!]

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Out here, on Sundays, they leave the churches open

This gallery contains 10 photos.

The summer is pretty clearly ended, and so is my time in Oxford. As I indicated a while back, some time elsewhere has thankfully been found, and as enquirers on other matters have cleverly determined, there is news on other … Continue reading

Trust some of the experts, some of the time

Partly because I had forgotten pretty much any of what was in it, and therefore how much use the students would find it, and partly because I owned a copy thanks to a patron’s generosity and it was annoying me that being true as well as the former, I was over the summer reading Margaret Gelling’s Signposts to the Past, an attempt to write an accessible account of what we can safely gather from English place-names and to stop people reading them wrong. This often comes close to being, and in the introduction is explicitly, an appeal to people to just take the experts’ word on trust because it’s too complicated for laymen, a stance that I never warm to, being more of the persuasion that if one can’t explain something in ten minutes in a pub one doesn’t understand it.1 However, Dr Gelling did provide one excellent type case that I thought merited recounting, its ethnic essentialism not withstanding:

The Anglo-Saxons had three words derived from the same stem as the verb ‘bury’ which they occasionally used in place-names to designate tumuli. These are byrgen, byrgels, burgæsn…. Either byrgen or burgæsn (probably the former) is found in two minor names in Oxfordshire, Berring’s Wood in Glympton and Berins Hill in Ipsden. There are early spellings for both these names, and the derivation is certain in the first instance and probable in the second. This etymology was put forward for both names in Gelling 1953, superseding a long-standing antiquarian association of Berins Hill in Ipsden with St Birinus, the apostle of the West Saxons, who was the first Bishop of Dorchester on Thames. There was an unexpected sequel to this when, by the sort of ghastly coincidence which place-name students must always look out for, an important pagan Anglo-Saxon cemetery recently came to light at a spot now called Berinsfield north of Dorchester OXF. This discovery led to immediate speculation about the derivation of Berinsfield from byrgen, which would have proved continuity of tradition about the cemetery from early pagan times. The caution prompted by the failure of the name Berinsfield to appear in any of the sources consulted for the place-name survey of Oxfordshire proved justified, however, and inquiries revealed that Berinsfield had been invented by a local historian for the benefit of the airfield situated there, and that he intended it to commemorate Bishop Birinus. Although the false derivation from byrgen had a short life, it managed to appear in at least one Ph.D. thesis, and the incident makes a salutary cautionary tale…. It is worth noting the circumstances in which this name, although of quite recent invention by a very well-known local historian, took root and appeared genuine to a team of archaeologists who knew the area initimately. The sequence of events appears to have been: (1) the antiquarian association of Berins Hill near Ipsden with St Birinus of Dorchester; (2) the invention of the name Berinsfield for an airport near Dorchester, presumably on the model of Berins Hill; (3) the alternative derivation of Berins Hill from byrgen in Gelling 1953; (4) the discovery of the cemetery at Berinsfield by archaeologists who knew that Berins- could be from byrgen.2

The archæologists just knew too much! A little knowledge is a dangerous thing! and so on. I think the thing I love most about this story is the way she could describe the discovery of a major new site as ‘ghastly’, but if I’d got implicated in a foul-up like that I might also feel the sting some time afterwards. I assume Dr Gelling was also involved in examining the Ph.D., and I would hate to have been that student, though it was hardly their fault either. But what’s the moral from the point of view of the local historian, whoever they were, that’s what I can’t figure…


1. M. Gelling, Signposts to the Past. Place-names and the history of England (London 1978, repr. 1979), e. g. p. 13: “Because place-name etymology abounds with snares of this kind, it is not possible to invite general participation in the process of suggesting etymologies. The rules have been objectively established: they are not arbitrary, but they are intricate, and few non-specialists master them well enough to be on safe ground in this branch of the study…. It is therefore important at the outset to ask people who have no special competence in the history of the English language to accept specialist guidance about the meaning of place-names…. Etymologies should be accepted from the philologists, or only revised with philological consent.” There’s probably a form you have to fill out.

2. Ibid., pp. 140-141, citing M. Gelling, The Place-Names of Oxfordshire vol. I, English Place-Name Survey XXIII (London 1953).

Seminar CXLIV: making landowning legal in early Islam

The approaching beginning of the academic year 2013/2014 finds me looking back at the previous one, my last in Oxford and also my busiest, as the ten-month blogging backlog probably makes clear. Leaping straight on the horse, though, last academic year began for me in terms of things to report with a visit to Oxford by Professor Hugh Kennedy of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, to talk to the Medieval History Seminar on 25th October 2012 with the title “Landholding and Law in the Early Islamic Middle East”.

Eighteenth-century Persian depiction of Islam on the march, with Muhammad piously depicted only as a flame destroying idols.

Eighteenth-century Persian depiction of Islam on the march, with Muhammad piously depicted only as a flame destroying idols. What need have these men of landed estates, you may ask? Image from Wikimedia Commons

The reason there’s a paper here is that very early Islam was in fact largely set against extensive landowning; the social structure of conquering Islam was that the conquered had the land, and paid the salaries of the Muslim armies and government in tax. Humanly enough, though, the Islamic élite wanted a secure basis of their wealth and it wasn’t long before traditions began to be recorded in which the Prophet had been a landholder too, and large-scale landholding was evidently possible by, say, the ninth century. In the almost total non-survival in Islamic lands of the kind of document I’d use to look at something like this, to wit charters, you have to go through everything else looking for hints and possibilities and that, as part of a larger economic history of the Islamic Middle East, is what Hugh had been doing.

What we find, apparently, is that something like a doctrine of social utility mapped out the route to private landed wealth. Islamic law quickly came to agree that land that was empty and was put back into use, thus serving the community of the faithful where it had not before, was worthy of beneficial taxation, a situation that was allowed to be inherited. This is not exactly property, but was the easiest route to landholding for those in frontier zones, where such land was easily obtained (or at least, alternative claims to its ownership were easier to ignore, I might suggest). In Islam’s inner territories that was harder, however, and there the way that the very very few documents we do have (about which I knew nothing, and which seem to be more or less caliphal confirmations of benefices with privileges, lots like some would see the Carolingian grants dealing with aprisio1) suggest the trick was done was by building irrigation, again adding utility and thus being able to claim something back from the sultān, at this stage not a person but meaning something like ‘establishment’. The few grants we have are confirmations of such privileges to the heirs of people who’d carried out such projects, and you can see how these could make the basis of a privileged and substantial landed base that subordinate settlers would inhabit under one’s dominance.2 Nonetheless, there is nothing at this stage that suggests that the caliph and the ‘establishment’ could not legally have taken back those lands if they were not being developed, so this is still not quite full property. Hugh still had work to do, therefore, but there was already a clear picture developing of early Islamic law’s ability to shift its picture in response to circumstances and its community’s needs, and to find or create the precedents it needed so to do.

Gharib al-Hadith, by Abu `Ubayd al-Qasim b. Sallam al-Baghdadi, MS Leiden Or. 298, fo. 7r.

Leaf from an 866 paper manuscript collection of hadīth, Gharib al-Hadith, by Abu `Ubayd al-Qasim b. Sallam al-Baghdadi, MS Leiden Or. 298, fo. 7r.

Questions dealt with how Islam would have responded to the landholding it found itself amidst as it expanded, and how much of this might be Roman laws refitted, and James Howard-Johnston also raised the excellent point that converts presumably were not obliged to give up their lands, with consequent implications for the already-faithful. It is quite hard to see how even militant Islam could have managed without some structures for private landed property given how many of its subjects had such, but that just makes it all the more intriguing the time it seems to have taken to work them out to where we can see them…


1. This is kind of the traditional view of the Carolingians’ grants of rights in waste land, argued tentatively by Auguste Dupont, “Considérations sur la colonisation et la vie rurale dans le Roussillon et la Marche d’Espagne au IXe siècle” in Annales du Midi Vol. 67 (Toulouse 1955), pp. 223-245 but nuanced somewhat in his later “L’aprision et le régime aprisionnaire dans le midi de la France (fin du VIIIe-début du Xe siècle)” in Le Moyen Âge Vol. 71 (Bruxelles 1965), pp. 179-213 & 385-399. For references to other work, see J. Jarrett, “Settling the Kings’ Lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (2010), pp. 320-342.

2. I nagged Hugh for a reference to these elusive documents after the paper, and what I wrote down is “H. Kennedy in IRAQ (2012)”. I think this must be H. Kennedy, “The feeding of the five hundred thousand: cities and agriculture in early Islamic Mesopotamia” in Iraq Vol. 73 (London 2011), pp. 177-199, as the 2012 issue has no piece by him in, but it may be that it is yet to emerge.