Seminar CLVIII: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, II

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

The second of John Blair’s Ford Lectures was in some ways the first substantive one, the actual first having cleared the interpretative ground more than actually laid down new structures. In this one on the 25th January 2013, however, structures were right up front, the structures in question being those where the élite did their thing. The lecture’s title was “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape, 2: landscapes of power and wealth”.

Reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon site at Cheddar

Reconstruction drawing of the Anglo-Saxon site at Cheddar, a controversial one to interpret…1

As my notes tell it there were three essential contentions to this lecture, buttressed with a lot of data and examples and a good few maps. The first of these contentions was that in the Anglo-Saxon world secular power did not have centres, but zones of interest or focus, in which they would have and use many sites at different times for different things. These would include places for meeting, places for hunting, places for worship and so on. (Here I thought the maps were not as convincing as they could have been: John had focused right down to areas of interest, naturally enough, but this meant that one didn’t have the surrounding landscape to compare to and couldn’t see that these zones were any busier than anywhere else in the larger area. Probably a lesson for us all…)

Drinking horns from the Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow on display at the British Museum

Drinking horns from the Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Taplow on display at the British Museum, from Wikimedia Commons

None of this really needed long-term structures: wooden building was quite adequate for these purposes and would probably have periodically been abandoned to set up somewhere new, which need not have precluded living very splendidly in more portable terms of food, drink and treasure of course. (John briefly drew attention to a division between zones where gold is found, principally the west and uplands as opposed to the silver-using east and coasts; he suggested that this was to do with payment for focused resources as opposed to more general agricultural wealth. He also seems to have suggested that the royal site at Rendlesham has now been dug, too, which shows how fresh his information was as the Archaeology Data Service knows nothing of it and it only hit the news twelve days ago as I now write!)

Excavation of the so-called great hall at Lyminge, Kent

The so-called great hall at Lyminge, Kent, a good enough example to use twice!

The second contention was however that the Church changed this. Where royal and secular élite settlement was light and mobile, ecclesiastical settlement was fixed-location, intensive and highly-structured, often in stone. But it was often in the same places: the number of royal vills handed over to become churches is very large, the most recent and obvious one being Lyminge in Kent where the royal hall has been so dramatically found but others known archæologically being Repton (where the halls underlie the church) or Sutton Courtenay, and others known documentarily including St Paul’s London of course and Reculver. The latter opens up another possibility, since it lies in an old Roman camp: of the kings’ numerous places (N. B. this is not a typo for `palaces’), of which they could apparently easily spare one or two for the Church, these ex-Roman sites were perhaps especially suitable for the slight return of Rome represented by Christianity; one could also name Burgh, Dover and Dorchester and that just from my notes.2

The eighth-century tidal mill at Ebbsfleet, under excavation

The eighth-century tidal mill at Ebbsfleet, under excavation

But the keyword there, and the core of the third contention, is ‘intensive’. Monasteries or minsters used the land in new and resource-expensive ways, like tidal mills, grid-planning, enclosure and so on.3 The results of this, we can guess but also see from the rich finds of such areas, were good, and perhaps too good; John argued, as he has done before, that the ability of minsters to grow resources left the secular élite trying to get back into control of them, and by the 730s indeed doing so. Æthelbald of Mercia controversially subjecting the Church to the ‘three burdens’ of fortress-work, bridge-work and military service as protested against at the synod of Gumley in 749 may have been the pinnacle of this, but may also have been the result of a bargain in which he gave away the right to make arbitrary levies on the basis of hospitality.4 And at this pinnacle things were left, until the next week’s lecture.

1. See J. Blair, “Palaces or minsters? Northampton and Cheddar reconsidered”, Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 25 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 97-121, doi:10.1017/S0263675100001964.

2. For this process, of course, one could see J. Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005), pp. 8-78.

3. These terms’ synonymity has been a cause of much debate: the locus classicus is a tangle in Early Medieval Europe, 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, and J. Blair, “Debate: Ecclesiastical Organization and Pastoral Care in Anglo-Saxon England”, ibid. pp. 193–212, but see also Sarah Foot, “What Was an Anglo-Saxon Monastery?” in Judith Loades (ed.), Monastic Studies: the continuity of tradition (Bangor 1990), pp. 48-57. John gives more recent references in Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, pp. 2-5.

4. Blair, Church in Anglo-Saxon Society, pp. 121-134.

14 responses to “Seminar CLVIII: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, II

  1. 10th c. Do you know anything about the tower at Sompting? Hewett, who is fairly authoritative, dates it ca. 950. Later evidence indicates the timbers are dendro-dated 14th c. The form, I believe, is distinctly Saxon, not Norman. Why, then, would 14th c. Normans build a distinctly Romanesque Saxon structure? Or, if Hewett is correct, did sophisticated carpentry techniques exist in pre-Conquest Britain?

    • I don’t know the site, but I would always go with dendro- dates over stylistic analysis myself, for precisely the reason you suggest: it’s always possible people were deliberately using a ‘foreign’ or old style. However, given we’re talking about a timber frame in a stone structure here, there is in this case the possibility that the frames had to be replaced for some reason (fire being an obvious one, but rot another) and that both Saxon and Norman dates are therefore right!


        I’m not questioning the dendro-dating. I believe his argument is flawed for another reason. His conclusion is based solely on the age of timber, rather than cultural or stylistic factors. (Also, 350 years is quite a long time)
        He finds Hewett far off the mark in only two other examples, the Cressing Temple granary (which could also be replacement) and Gt. Coxwell (which is historically Norman, and doesn’t fit neatly into Hewett’s timeline of technical development)
        This may seem insignificant to you, or of little interest, but the relative development of joinery methods had a lot to do with shaping the English landscape in succeeding centuries. The Rhenish helm is not a simple framework, it is quite distinctive, and if the Saxons built it ca. 950, they had control of the prevailing technology, thus a greater power for self-determination. M

        • Aha, I hadn’t gathered that the Hewett dating was in fact of the timbers. Like-for-like replacement still seems possible, though, and the article to which you link places no dating strength on the larger building at all. On the other hand, I read on the site to which I linked that the nave roof was also repaired during the C14th, and so I do wonder if that page’s assertion that, “the original tower construction shows a shape that is consistent with the Rhenish helm” is really enough to go on. But until thermoluminescence gets a very great deal more precise, I don’t how we could get further and I would, as I say, pick scientific over stylistic here if it were clear to me that we can have only one date for the structure. But that is anything but clear!

          In reference to your larger point, though, I would say that technology travels and so did some people with the wealth to build churches. Looking at how quickly Romanesque in general spreads across Europe, I would say that if anyone was building Rhenish helms at all c. 950, a subject on which I have no knowledge at all, that one particular patron of a tenth-century church (who need not himself or herself have identified as `Saxon’ of course) could get one built in England should not surprise us except in as much she or he obviously placed a premium on being different!

  2. Allan McKinley

    Now that’s an appealing idea, and surprisingly obvious when you think about it. After all, in the rest of non-Roman Europe the norm is to see regions of secular power, with Gudme being the classical one. So why Anglo-Saxon kings should not have landscapes of power of their own is a rather obvious question.

    Indeed, the more you think about it, the more obvious the concept that secular power was expressed in a landscape rather than a place actually was. Take the Seine valley palaces of the Merovingians of Neustria for example – kings active across a wide area which is conventionally seen in terms of palaces, but which might better be seen as a set of royal residences in a wider landscape of royal power. I have a feeling John’s model may be applicable way beyond the Anglo-Saxons.

    I am also inclined to wonder whether the fixing power in place in the landscape that occurred with the establishment of churches was not also a general revolution within western Europe at least. I don’t know enough about the exercise of power in the Roman Empire to be sure, but my impression is that the role of civitates as centres of local power (rather than taxation) may have often been limited, and that actual power may have been exercised/demonstrated across a wider landscape (with the civitates being the expression of imperial power in many cases). Certainly the nature of much early western hagiography, which is explicitly across large areas and not localised, suggests that even the early church saw power in terms of regions rather than places. Amongst the Anglo-Saxons I.d even suggest we can see the tension between two ideals of the localisation of ecclesiastical power in the different presentations of the two early Vitae Cuthberti.

    • That sounds fairly sensible, and of course I doubt that John is unaware of the Continental comparisons – in fact I remember that at about this time he was in conversation with Elizabeth Zadora-Rio to ensure that he wasn’t. My first instinct is to compare to my own area but I really don’t go early enough there, and the state of the archæology is not sufficient to let us say very much about the Visigothic geography of power anyway (though there is a well-regarded book on it from the texts I haven’t read). By the time I see it the civitates are either ruins or growing into trade centres and the real centres of power are castles, though the big operators have many of them and all manner of other little properties too.

      So instead, not really having any hagiography for my area either, I wonder whether that trend you see for such texts to be ‘explicitly across large areas’ is one that actually stops at this time. I’m trying to think of later texts and it seems to me that they span just as huge expanses of territory as the early ones, largely because of bishoprics claims to jurisdiction being an issue both sides of the ‘parish revolution’ or whatever we want to call it. Do you see a difference, in fact? I think most hagiographical protagonists get around a bit, really!

      • Allan McKinley

        I suspect that our definitions of large area may differ here, in that I would not necessarily consider Catalonia as such (nor Alsace for that matter). I am thinking here of the universalism of early versions of saints such as Martin or Patrick whose activities are spread way beyond the jurisdictional or even the normal cultic limits of a single church. In later times they became more fixed and localised – the great example here is Alcuin’s neglected (even Bullough fails to mention it) poems on Martin, which are located within the community of a single church, albeit that church was St Martins at Tours – with an actual church identified as the chief place of the cult. As part of fixing religious power in the landscape, saints’ cults were also tied to one place and increasingly became local and fixated upon the physical possession of relics. The hagiography reflects this.

        To see this process in action look at the early Lives of Boniface, which start off covering a large area and in later versions focus on Mainz and especially Fulda. These not only parallel the development of discrete ecclesiastical jurisdictions in the mission field where Boniface’s posthumous reputation was located, whereby the creation of discrete territories from a formerly unregulated area created smaller units with less direct links between them, but also show how these new units and the sometimes pre-existing churches that were located within them tried to adapt to this by appropriating and fixing saintly power.

        • I was at a paper by John Henry Clay on the topography of the Lives of Boniface the other day in fact, which will duly get reported; your perspective would have added to it. I did think of Patrick when you opened this line of discussion, but there don’t we have the opposite trend? The later Lives take in progressively more territory (and negotiate border agreements with other cults too large to overwhelm, like Brigit’s) as Armagh’s ambitions grow. I’m reminded of a comment of Jinty Nelson’s about some suggestion that the ninth and tenth centuries saw a dropping off of donations to monasteries compared to the earlier period: she saw it rather as part of the life cycle of individual houses, with the codocil that there were a lot of new foundations (whose stuff we have) made in the eighth century so it looks like a social pattern rather than a system one (my terms not hers). (She sets out a very quick version of this theory for nunneries in her paper in SCH 1990.) As for Alcuin, I wonder how much of St Martin’s parochia he can really have seen or been to, given the age at which he took the place over and the structures of governance he would have been able to deploy. Wouldn’t earlier abbots just have spent more time intinerating, like the princes they more or less were? I just wonder whether we can really reach a generalisation here given the individual qualifications.

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  4. Allan McKinley

    Only comparatively – I would advise against comparing different cults directly as the host churches are unlikely to be the same, and what you are likely to be comparing is the reach of churches. The only exceptions will be where a cult was promoted by external agents such as kings, but the nature of these promotions hardly makes them comparable.

    In terms of Patrick’s hagiography, the key difference between the first Life and the later Armagh material is exactly the sort of territorial division of ecclesiastical authority you describe John talking about. Whereas the early Patrick is not bound by territorial limits, and establishes churches and converts kings across Ireland, Armagh’ s claims of authority in later material appear to be based on negotiating relationships with existing cults through stories of relationships between the saints. There are signs of this even in the early material, but this does not show a partitioned landscape in the same way.

    I’d associate Alcuin’s portrayal of Martin not with his lack of local knowledge (it doesn’t stop him in his other hagiography) but more with the more restricted sphere of action available to St Martin’s in the early-ninth century. Following Julia Smith (from memory in her defence) this was a situation in which a cult centre was expected to become more closed and less linked to the population at large, which I at least see as also linked to the rupturing of the link with the bishopric of Tours through royal exemption in the seventh century. In effect Alcuin was writing for a cult, which however strong it was, was no longer the centre of religious life locally. Indeed, I’m happy to argue that there were other more important centres of Martin’s cult at the time, not least the royal chapel (pun intended).

    Incidentally, Chris Wickham once expounded a similar theory on cycles of church giving to me as that of Jinty. You might almost think that they talk about these things…

    • If only I had visible saints’ cults other than Eulalie in my area I might have a decent basis to argue with you about this, but that all sounds so reasonable that I’m not sure why I would except sheer bloody-mindedness. Not that that’s ever stopped me, so maybe it’s as well that lack of data does. (I wish someone would look at patterns of dedication in Catalonia, though. I have all kinds of suspicions about what it might reveal. I also have a suspicion that Anscari Mundó already has and I haven’t yet read it, though…)

      Also, I should apologise for the very long time your comment has taken to appear. I don’t know why WordPress’s spam filters suspect you but I usually have to approve your comments. This time, unfortunately, that coincided with me staying off-blog until WordPress finally announced that they’d addressed their vulnerability to the Heartbleed bug. Sorry!

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