Monthly Archives: May 2014

Seminar CLXVIII: managing chaos in early Wessex

As we have often seen already here while dealing with my seminar report backlog, Spring 2013 was apparently a time in which, whether I wanted to or not, I could not get away from people talking about Anglo-Saxon England. Mostly this was in Oxford but even London got in on the act on 6th March 2013, when James Lloyd, then finishing his Ph. D. in Cambridge, came to the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar to talk to the title, “Local Government in Wessex before the Hundred”.

Map of Anglo-Saxon Wessex c.900

Wikimedia Commons turns out to have this quite neat map of Wessex circa 900 available, and I struggled to think of illustrations for this post, so, here you are!

You can perhaps already see how this linked up for me with a lot of things I’d been picking up while in Oxford. There had been lots in my world about the organisation of territory and space in Anglo-Saxon England coming into my mental mill for grinding, but John Blair’s Ford Lectures had focused much more on the area of Mercia than on Wessex, because that was where the bulk of the archæological evidence is to be found, and George Molyneaux’s powerful argument that the structures of the Anglo-Saxon state formed up most obviously in the tenth century raised the question of what had gone before, which Andrew Reynolds’s work on assembly sites had sharpened rather than answered. Mr Lloyd’s work thus not only promised at least some kind of thought about the spaces left out in that assemblage of others’ work but also played to my own interests in what happens in these spaces before, after or between jurisdictions where people had some kind of scope to build their communities as they found made sense in their particular circumstances. All that said, the principal problem with such work is that by its very nature it wants to know about areas outside the procedures of government that usually lead to records surviving. This is essentially why the original plan for my thesis wound up being an article and my thesis wound up being about communities responding to authority rather than the creation of those communities: that’s where the evidence was.1 So, OK, enough about me, how did Mr Lloyd approach it all?

A copy by T. King of a 1519 painting by Lambert Barnard of King Cædwalla of Wessex making a land-grant to Bishop Wilfrid in 662

A copy by T. King of a 1519 painting by Lambert Barnard of King Cædwalla of Wessex making a land-grant to Bishop Wilfrid in 662, from Wikimedia Commons; as a charter historian I think you should regard this as a dramatisation…

It’s probably best to work backwards and start with Mr Lloyd’s conclusion, which was that Wessex in the late seventh century, “is not a system, it is managed chaos now under overhaul” (my notes rather than his words). At that point was beginning, as he saw it, a process of depressing and downgrading local jurisdictions vis-à-vis the king that would, by means of making royal reference integral to their operation, slowly make them into things that could be treated as groups of similar size and rôles, like hundreds, shires, courts and so forth. This process, begun by King Cædwalla’s defeat of many of the other rulers of the south of England, would be continued by King Ine and later by Alfred and perhaps between times by others of whose work we have less trace, but before that looking for the fundamental structures of West Saxon society is a fool’s endeavour, there were probably nearly as many as there were communities. This is how Mr Lloyd thought we can best explain the fact that in sources before Cædwalla and Ine Wessex appears to us as a territory with many kings or sub-kings whose various jurisdictions and origins can only sketchily be brought into relation to each other; those origins and jurisdictions did not in fact relate, but by the warlike actions of an unusually successful line of kings (with Church backing, not much mentioned not least because Mr Lloyd was looking at the period beforehand, but I think it must be part of that hardly-visible process) people who had been kings were brought to admit they were, for now, sub-kings and part of something larger, and thus slowly a kingdom began to form.2 But what about before?

The text of the genealogy of the kings of the West Saxons as recorded in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, fo. 67r

The text of the genealogy of the kings of the West Saxons as recorded in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, fo. 67r: probably not the whole story of power in Wessex

Well, Mr Lloyd certainly attempted to describe the prior situation, but making sense of chaos gets all the harder when your conclusion is that actually, there was no single sense to make of it. What one could do is to impose some kind of artificial classification which at least shows us how we might begin to explain such variety. Thus, one source of authority, jurisdiction or just local definition might be blocs of territory that had somehow held together from before, Glanville Jones’s multiple estates or Hector Chadwick’s royal estates which acquired dependent territories with which to feed their (very small-scale) kings, but the latter runs into problems quite quickly if one believes that such groupings would have been inherited: we can easily imagine them thus ceasing to be royal, if royal status was in any way marked out from nobility by such rights to demand, and then what would hold them together? At which point, one winds up imagining that such units might have been in fairly continuous creation and fragmentation as a local ‘big man’ managed to establish claims on their components and then lost his grip or died—although perhaps still being reckoned a ‘king’ by whatever records underlie the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for this period while he was on top of things—or else that Jones was right and that community adherence long pre-existed the authorities that periodically acquired control of such groups.3 Or, as it might well be in different places, both!

Troston Mount, nr Honington, Suffolk

Troston Mount, near Honington, Suffolk, the old meeting site for Bradmere hundred

The other major category of articulation would however be jurisdiction rather than territory, here again covering a variety of forms. Even if they were not centres of hundreds as they became, we know that there were local meeting sites in the countryside and that people met at them for centuries before hundreds were settled on some of them: Andrew Reynolds’s example of Saltwood is still a good one.4 Presumably, people knew to what site they should go to get a judgement, to find a judge, to carry out a sale with the kind of witness that would prevent it being questioned later. Who would those judges have been, and how were they supported? The Old English word scir helps emphasise the ambiguity here: the root of our modern ‘shire’, when referring to an eleventh-century earl it carries clear senses of geographical territory within which that earl administered top-level justice and called out the army, but at its root it means merely ‘office’, ‘charge’ or similar, and has no necessary relation to any given unit or person. Someone who held a scir could, etymologically, have easily been elected by a folk-moot as a kind of speaker as nominated by a king to represent him in the community. And of course the cunning king would want to turn the former into the latter. In this respect, ealdorman, gerefa and sub-king become almpst inseparable concepts: without the later hierarchy within which we read these titles, they could be words for the same people viewed from different perspectives or distances.5 And of course all this is made harder for us to grasp because at the very outset we have sources that were created not within these small units of either land or people or followings or any two or all three, but at a level where many such units could be seen as part of a larger grouping called the West Saxons (or the Gewisse or both), so that the systematisation has already started before we even have words recorded for any of these things.

Map of the hundreds of Dorset as of 1834, from Wikimedia Commons

Map of the hundreds of Dorset as of 1834, from Wikimedia Commons

This all provoked discussion of course, not least a wry comment from Susan Reynolds that she rather thought she remembered writing a book about such processes once upon a time,6 but also a debate around the important question of military service, raised by Stephen Baxter. Cædwalla and others can start to surmount this variety because they could call on men to fight for them: how come? Mr Lloyd felt that there was little sign that such authorities were not ad hoc things grown out of personal house-troops, and someone I didn’t know suggested that such things might be larger and more organised at the edges of territories compared to the centre, which not only fits with the anthropological idea of borderlands and many many a Roman coup by a victorious frontier general but also, if you stop and think about it, the way Mercia came out of almost nowhere in the early seventh century.7 Susan Reynolds also made the sharp point that authority over people and authority over territory are obviously hard to separate when people are settled, and that the only time where the separation might be clear is when populations were moving, so that again by the time we can see communities it’s already too late. Issues like these make it clear that figuring this stuff out is probably doomed to slow if any progress, but it remains so fascinating for people like me and, clearly, Mr Lloyd, that we are probably also doomed to go on trying.


1. The article, J. Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan ‘Terra de Ningú'” in †A. Deyermond & M. Ryan (edd.), Early Medieval Spain: a symposium, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London 2010), pp. 97-127; the thesis, Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of London 2005, online here, rev. as idem, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), available for purchase here, but you all knew that, right? Sorry.

2. The obvious starting point here now seems to me to be Barbara Yorke, Wessex in the Early Middle Ages (Leicester 1995); Mr Lloyd’s handout references D. P. Kirby, “Problems of Early West Saxon history” in English Historical Review Vol. 80 (Oxford 1965), pp. 10-29, as fundamental, and it also reminds me of the annal for 626 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in which a campaign by King Edwin into Wessex “slew five West Saxon kings, none of whom was the West Saxon king, Cynegils” (Lloyd’s paraphrase). There might be a number of ways to explain that but none of them will likely work without change both before and after…

3. G. R. J. Jones, “Multiple Estates and Early Settlement” in P. H. Sawyer (ed.), English Medieval Settlement (London 1979), pp. 9-34, and Mr Lloyd’s handout also alerts me to Jones, “Multiple estates perceived” in Journal of Historical Geography Vol. 11 (London 1985), pp. 352-363; Hector Munro Chadwick, Studies on Anglo-Saxon Institutions (Cambridge 1905).

4. Stuart Brookes & A. Reynolds, “The Origins of Political Order and the Anglo-Saxon State” in Archaeology International Vol. 13 (London 2012), pp. 84-93, DOI: 10.5334/ai.1312.

5. My go-to work on this kind of thing nonetheless remains Alan Thacker, “Some Terms for Noblemen in Anglo-Saxon England, c. 650-900″ in Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History Vol. 2 (Oxford 1981), pp. 201-237.

6. That book of course being S. Reynolds, Kingdoms and communities in Western Europe, 900-1300 (Oxford 1984, 2nd edn. 1997).

7. Though here cf. Morn D. T. Capper, “Contested Loyalties: Regional and National Identities in the Midland Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, c.700 – c.900″, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sheffield, 2008, pp. 26-34.

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Any Old Iron (in which I am behind the times on medieval technical change)

This post is probably more a note to myself than anything, and comes again apropos of my having a while back read Jean-Pierre Devroey’s L’Économie rurale et société en l’Europe franque.1 It relates to iron-working, which is something I’ve had a vague interest in for a long time, as I do with technical knowledge in general. (It also relates oddly both to the subject of the last post, as one of the things Robin Fleming has argued about sub-Roman Britain is that iron-working there became a matter of scavenging rather than production for centuries, and to some of my most recent reading, the polyptych of Santa Giulia di Brescia, in which several of the estates surveyed were obviously working iron out of the pre-Alps, so the world remains full of coincidences.) My interest is more than general, however, as the spread of iron-working in Catalonia was one of the things that Pierre Bonnassie saw as being part of its agricultural take-off in the late tenth century which help set up that area’s particular instance of the so-called ‘feudal transformation’.2

Adam and Eve after the expulsion from Eden, from the Biblia de Ripoll

That image again from the Bíblia de Ripoll, which we now know to show Adam and Eve after the Expulsion from Eden, but hopefully for Bonnassie with tools typical of the medieval Catalonia in which the Bíblia was made…

Most people from Bonnassie’s part and generation of the academy would have been informed on this by the work of Georges Duby, whose picture of the use of iron in the early Middle Ages was extremely gloomy and largely based on minimalist and decontextualised readings of such sources as the Brevium exempla, which he would now find matched in Professor Fleming’s vision of early medieval Britain, I suspect.3 In this respect Bonnassie was unusual, however, as his cite of reference for such matters, aside from the charters he knew so well, was Lynn H. White Jr’s Technology and Social Change.4 In its day that was an excellent book, I think, and I own it with pride, but there seems little doubt that the picture of 1962 has moved on somewhat. Finding out where the new picture comes from, however, has been a bit tricky for me and this is where M. le Professeur Devroey switches the light on for me. Since I don’t now have access to the original, the best I can do for you is to transcribe my notes and you’ll see at least what I took from his text:

“La question de l’outillage”

“Delatouche argued that serfs brought own tools to work, hence low record of them in inventories but has not been followed (P. Reigniez, L’outil agricole en France au moyen âge). Largely based on Annapes.”

There is a small inset section here taking apart Duby’s reading of the tool lists in the Brevium exempla, of which Devroey observes that here as elsewhere, “Duby ne pose pas la question essentielle de savoir ce qui est inventorié dans cette liste,” ‘Duby does not deal with the essential problem of knowing what is inventoried in this list’, music to my eyes, and then returns to the main text. The book is filled with these inserts and it makes it quite hard to follow at times, because they’re individually quite interesting but not always where you would expect in the text. Anyway, my notes go on:

“Archæological finds however show lots of iron tools right through, often in burials. Also we find lots of smelting debris, furnaces everywhere and renders in metal v. common (Un village au temps de Charlemagne… [Leroux]; Lesne).”

Here an inset box analyses the renders in iron in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés polyptych, partly coming in in finished items, and notes that this is paralleled elsewhere, as indeed I have been seeing at Santa Giulia di Brescia. Then we return to the thread.

“In Germany, and maybe not just there, this spreads a lot in Carolingian period, metalwork part of everyday production; remember, their swords are famous… (McCormick, Origins; J. Decaens in Archéologie Médiévale 1 (1971)).”

“Technologies, entrepreneurs et artisans”

“It’s not a Revolution; slow changes C5th–C12th with local adaptations. Many parts of this system around before 1000, heavy ploughs, water mills, three-course rotation, diversification of crops; it’s the combination that makes for the big changes though (G. Comet in Études rurales 145-146 (1997)).”5

That last point sounds excellent news to me who have been arguing something similar about the feudal transformation for many years, that it was the outcome of many things already happening happening at the same time, in different places at different times,6 but in general it is clear I have a lot of reading to do now, which is good: an idea of where to read this stuff was exactly what I lacked. The best of these may be the last, the Comet article, because investigation reveals that it was but one article in an issue entitled Georges Duby, which was a collective reassessment of Duby’s work on medieval agriculture in which the man himself took part and which I must therefore read before sending off the attack on that I currently have in draft… Oh well, better to find it before than after! And for the reference I owe thanks to M. le Prof. Devroey.


1. J.-P. Devroey, Économie rurale et société dans l’Europe franque (VIe-IXe siècles), Tome 1. Fondements matériels, échanges et lien social (Paris 2003).

2. Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université Toulouse-le-Mirail 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, I pp. 472-478.

3. E. g. Georges Duby, L’économie rurale et la vie des campagnes dans l’Occident médiéval (Paris 1962), transl. Cynthia Postan as Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West (London 1968), pp. 17-22 of the translation.

4. L. H. White Jr, Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford 1962).

5. These are my notes based on Devroey, Économie rurale I, pp. 124-130, and may not represent an accurate summary of that text. The references they include are to these works, none of which I’ve yet read: Pascal Reigniez, L’outil agricole en France au Moyen Âge (Paris 2002); Joëlle Le Roux, “La métallurgie : les bas fourneaux et la forge : l’outillage en fer” in Jean Culsenier & Rémy Gaudagnin (edd.), Un village au temps de Charlemagne : moines et paysans de l’abbaye de Saint-Denis du 7e siècle à l’an mil. Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires, 29 novembre 1988 – 30 Avril 1989 (Paris 1988), pp. 291-300; Emile Lesne, “L’économie domestique d’un monastère au IXe siècle, d’après les statuts d’Adalhard, abbé de Corbie” in Mélanges d’histoire offerts à Ferdinand Lot (Paris 1925), pp. 385-420; Michael McCormick, The Origins of the European Economy (Cambridge 2002); Joseph Decaëns, “Un nouveau cimetière du haut Moyen Âge en Normandie, Hérouvillette (Calvados)” in Archéologie Médiévale Vol. 1 (Paris 1971), pp. 1-125; & Georges Comet, “L’équipement technique des campagnes” in Georges Duby, Études rurales nos 145-146 (Paris 1997), pp. 103-112.

6. I haven’t really done this in print, rather than in a classroom, but the germ of the idea is in J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 171-173.

Seminar CLXVII: what about the women of post-Roman Britain?

Still running just about fourteen months behind, I find myself looking at some notes on when Professor Robin Fleming of Boston College came to Oxford on 4th March 2013 to give a lecture entitled, “Women, Material Culture and the History of Post-Roman Britain”. This was a combination meeting of the Medieval Archaeology, Medieval History and Late Antique and Byzantine Seminars and it was quite a busy occasion. I’m in marking jail right now so I shouldn’t be writing about it, probably, but the thing is that though the point was powerful it was also quite simple, so I’ll have a try at that thing I never manage, brevity.

The treasure from the female burial at Street House Farm, Cleveland, found 2011

The treasure from the female burial at Street House Farm, Cleveland, found 2011

Professor Fleming’s basic position was that although as is more than well-known our texts serve us poorly for the history and experience of women in early medieval Britain, and indeed the lack of attention to women in the texts could be taken to suggest that they were basically excluded from all importance, as recent DNA work has also tended to argue, the archæology gives a different impression: women were buried with much more wealth than men usually were while furnished burial continued, to the extent that women’s possessions now underpin our basic archæological chronology.1 Isotope analysis is also now showing up the extent to which women moved, meaning that we can no longer sustain an image of migration into England as a male-only operation. Of course, with greater knowledge come greater complications: not all the women moving are from where we’d expect them to be (and I’m sure the same could be said of the men, while I have heard some disparaging comments about the interpretations of the isotopic analyses from West Heslerton which formed Professor Fleming’s main example here, but I expect the point could be made in other places too).2 The other thing she was stressing to good effect was the great variation in rite, goods, origins and circumstances that the burial evidence shows us when it’s analysed for its lack of patterns rather than only the evidence that can be used to show correlations: this is a bigger point that we could almost always use considering.3

The Byzantine-style hanging bowl from the Sutton Hoo treasure

The Byzantine-style hanging bowl from the Sutton Hoo treasure, that is, an Eastern Roman object probably acquired from Western Britain to contain the remains of a person or an animal associated with the ruler of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom whose mourners seem to have wanted to stress his Scandinavian origins. Ethnic me that…

The other shibboleth that came in for a pasting here was that old target, ethnicity. As Professor Fleming has emphasised, the fifth and sixth centuries were a period principally of change in Britain: probably nobody knew who they were in the kind of national or population terms we use, perceived little enough kinship with their neighbours and would have defined and understood themselves in individualised ways that we just can’t reconstruct, though we can note the outward signs of some of those differences. The fact that there might be a way that people around here (or people from back home) did things that their neighbours or descendants imitated doesn’t mean that those people thought that by doing those things they demonstrated the same identity: a complex of symptoms of what we read as ethnicity was probably actually slightly different from person to person. In the terms of Bourdieu, every old habitus was now unsustainable and new ideas of who did what how were open for formation. And, as Professor Fleming concluded, “The work of building the new world was in the household”, where women took as large if not a large part than the men with whom they lived. In questions, this even reached the next world, because of course where was a burial organised? So all in all Professor Fleming delivered a powerful call for the appreciation of women’s agency in this formative period.

Opening page of a <i>c. </i>800 manuscript of Bede's Ecclesiastical History

Opening page of a c. 800 manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, the work of a man who would not have agreed with this post

I want a great deal of this to be right, which needs admitting, and I am pretty much prepared to follow her down the road as far as the idea that everyone was probably doing things differently and that ethnicity was not a real thing, but we have here this perpetual old problem that whenever we have them—which is admittedly not really for this period—our texts use such terms to try to understand these confused events. Ideas of genealogy and descent bringing significance in terms of what one could claim are self-evidently attempts to grab status thereby, then as now, but they do seem to be ideas that people had. If they were revived out of a period where people did not have them, that was a pretty speedy resurrection of the apparatus of oppression. I should make it clear that one thing that, as far as my notes and memory can guide me, Professor Fleming was not saying was that women were treated or thought of any better in this period than before or after, although the investment in their burial (at least, the burial of some of them) does have that kind of implication even if it could equally be about who their male kindred had been. All the same, this statement of a case feels now as if it should be vulnerable to the idea of the patriarchal equilibrium. Did women actually have more agency in this time of change than usual, or just more than we have supposed? Were these processes of building culture in the household not also going on at most other times, albeit possibly with more top-down direction? As I think about this now, it seems to me that there’s an important difference between agency and opportunity involved here, considering the which might get us a bit closer to the earlier gloomier view than I would wish, did I not gloomily suspect it’s probably accurate.


1. This was, I take it, a reference to the new typological chronology then very lately published in John Hines, Alex Bayliss, Karen Høilund Nielsen, Gerry McCormac & Christopher Scull, Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: a chronological framework (York 2013).

2. Here I guess that the work referred to was J. Montgomery, J. Evans, D. Powlesland & C. A. Roberts, ‘Continuity or colonization in Anglo-Saxon England? Isotope evidence for mobility, subsistence practice, and status at West Heslerton’ in American Journal of Physical Anthropology Vol. 126 (Hoboken 2005), pp. 123-138. Other sites invoked in making this point included Vera I. Evison, An Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Great Chesterford, Essex, Council of British Archaeology Research Report 91 (York 1994) and Martin O. H. Carver, Catherine Hills & Jonathan Scheschkewitz, Wasperton: a Roman, British and Anglo-Saxon community in central England (Woodbridge 2009).

3. There are lots of good thinking tools for this kind of consideration in Howard Williams, Death and Memory in Early Medieval Britain (Cambridge 2006). Somewhere in these notes it also seems necessary to mention R. Fleming, Britain After Rome: the fall and rise 400 to 1070 (London 2010), of which pp. 30-88 cover the period with these issues in it and do not by any means miss out the women.

Feudal Transformations XVIII: who wants that third field?

My academic endeavours seem to come round in cycles. I spent a good chunk of later 2012 working my way through Jean-Pierre Devroey’s book L’Économie rurale et société en l’Europe franque I in pursuit of the latest learnings about crop yields in order to finish writing up my paper on crop yields.1 Now that I am finally doing that writing up, with the addition of Italian evidence about which you will in due course hear much more, I find that I have now reached in the queue the posts I stubbed to write up later while reading it, and so even though I left this stuff to sit idle fifteen months ago it’s now topical again just as I come back to it! Hallelujah! or something. Anyway, what I want to talk about here was just a throwaway to Devroey, so much so that it’s not even actually in my notes on the book, and not really new with him, and yet it has quite big implications I think, and this topic is the possible reasons why we seem to see a switch from two-field to three-field agriculture between the eighth and tenth centuries in Europe.

Cover of Jean-Pierre Devroey, Économie rurale et société dans l'Europe franque

Cover of Jean-Pierre Devroey’s book just mentioned

You may remember that I’ve written about this before, and back then it was because of a piece written by one Helmut Hildebrand who argued that the pressure to shift from a system in which one grew crops in half your land and let the other half lie fallow in any given year to one in which you divided your land in three, grew a winter crop like wheat in one, a spring crop like rye in another and left only the third to lie fallow, thus doing important things to your overall yield, was mainly down to demographic pressure.2 I then suggested, largely because of Chris Wickham but also, I now realise, to Peter Reynolds and Christine Shaw, that pressure from lords to render more was probably also a factor, and to my relative delight this turns out to be the position that Devroey also takes, turning the shift in systems back into something that might be a causal driver rather than an effect of a change we have to explain by other means, that is, the apparent rise in European population from c. 900 onwards.3

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

All the same, this cannot just be accepted, because every bit of any explanation that might bear on the changes and growth in European society that we see over the tenth and eleventh centuries which have come to be characterised as the ‘feudal transformation’ need attaching to the scheme of change at both ends. If, in fact, lords were causing this shift in production methods, why? Such things are usually put down to lords’ essential interest in getting as much revenue as possible from their estates, but this is actually a very twentieth-century concern, a capitalist think-back to people whose priorities were really otherwise constructed. Someone like Chris Wickham, for example, is very sceptical that most lords would have been this involved in the details of agriculture, rather than just demanding a non-specific more that the peasants had somehow to come up with.4 This allows us to leave at least some initiative with the peasants, but when it comes down to second crops, it’s hard immediately to see how that could work out: if what an average lord is mostly concerned with was maintaining himself and his family in the style to which they were accustomed, turning up with rye instead of the wheat that was demanded is unlikely to have cut the mustard, I’d say. Peter Reynolds would have said that the peasants were growing something else to eat themselves, relinquishing all hope of holding onto a wheat crop that was fundamentally grown for their lords, but cases like big monastic estates that wanted ‘poor’ bread as well as good stuff to meet the demand they faced from workers and the poor suggest that that is either insufficiently or excessively cynical: the lords probably wanted the rough stuff too.5

Peasants at work with a light plough, from a manuscript image in the Biblioteca de l'Escorial

Not necessarily Catalan peasants, but at least from a manuscript in the Escorial in Madrid, rather than the usual French or English ones

Well, Devroey is more or less ready for this, as he suggests specifically that the driver of change might be the need of an increasingly equestrian nobility to feed its newly-numerous horses, leading to them requiring oats in a new way from a peasantry who would not previously have grown them. This, I think, he largely gets from Pierre Bonnassie, who concluded similarly for Catalonia after noting a rise in oats being rendered at about the same time as a boom in the mention of horses in the eleventh-century charters, not unreasonably supposing that these were associated.6 This gets us a bit further on, because it expresses lordly demand in terms that aren’t purely economic. The problem with the profit motive, you see, is that it should be a universal, were everyone in history a rational economic actor anyway. Lords in the seventh century should really have been just as interested in making themselves more wealthy as lords in the eleventh, so if we only see the latter doing it there’s something here about the difference between the two societies that still needs explaining. For Bonnassie that difference was the new possibility of military endeavour against Muslim Spain, leading to a new demand for horses to participate in the endeavours of the aristocracy and consequently a new demand for their feed from the peasantry those aristocrats controlled. But how could this have worked out in an area such as those in which Devroey is interested where there was no gold-rich open frontier?

A battle scene from the Biblia de Ripoll

For want of a render of oats a horse was lost, for want a horse the rider was lost…

I suppose that the answer must be that in the earlier period, competition between aristocrats for importance and influence must have been waged in different areas. The obvious one of these, and one which I get very much from the work of Jinty Nelson and Stuart Airlie, is the Carolingian court.7 As long as that functioned and had a decent range of appeal, an ambitious member of the aristocracy could make himself (or herself) far more important more quickly by obtaining office or honores from the king than he could by becoming slightly richer than his local rivals, in a game which they could obviously play too. Access to that royal patronage was the thing worth competing for that could decide such contests for status. But once the king ceased to be able to control his far-flung properties or to afford to grant his nearby ones, anyone outside the core was forced back into the local game.8 Without the ability to leverage a court connection to get someone a leg-up into the privileged classes or get (or deliver) royal officers’ intervention in a local matter, such a person’s wealth and how readily they spent it could be the reason men commended themselves to them, rather than to the castellan down the road who’d just put new solars in at his main residence and was gunning to have his son made the next bishop, for example. Magistra and I have debated here before how this newly-constrained competition for status might have made the overall increase in agricultural productivity of the period hard either to perceive or to enjoy for its appropriators, but if Devroey should happen to be right and this sequence of development be how we might explain it, then that competition might be more cause than effect, and the continuing importance of a court and its patronage explain the much less obvious existence of such phenomena in Ottonian Germany, for example.9 Theo Riches has observed in comments here before now that the ‘feudal transformation’ is essentially a post-Carolingian phenomenon, which is uncomfortably true, but this refocussing of aristocrats on the land might be why.


1. J.-P. Devroey, Économie rurale et société dans l’Europe franque (VIe-IXe siècles), Tome 1. Fondements matériels, échanges et lien social (Paris 2003).

2. H. Hildebrandt, “Systems of Agriculture in Central Europe up to the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 275-290.

3. C. Wickham, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226; idem “Sul mutamento sociale e economico di lungo periodo in Occidente (400-800)” in Storica Vol. 23 (Roma 2002), pp. 7-28, repr. as “Per uno studio del mutamento di lungo termine in Occidente durante i secoli V-VIII” in Quaderni del Dipartimento di Paleografia e Medievistica Vol. 1 (Bologna 2003), pp. 3-22, transl. Igor Santos Salazar & rev. Iñaki Martín Visó as “Sobre la mutación socioeconómica de larga duración en Occidente durante los siglos V-VIII: on the long-term socio-economic change in the West from fifth to eighth centuries” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol 22 (Salamanca 2004), pp. 17-32; P. Reynolds & C. E. Shaw, “The third harvest of the first millennium A. D. in the Plana de Vic” in Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 339-351. Devroey’s analysis is in Économie et société, I pp. 108-111.

4. Wickham, The Framing of the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 268-272.

5. Reynolds & Shaw, “Third Harvest”, but cf. the different grades of bread being demanded in the Statutes of Adalhard of Corbie, for example, ed. Léon Levillain as “Les statuts d’Adalhard pour l’abbaye de Corbie” in Le Moyen Âge Vol. 13 (Bruxelles 1900), pp. 233-386, repr. separatim (Paris 1900), relevant parts translated as “Of Bread and Provisions in the Statutes of Adalhard of Corbie” in Paul Edward Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, 2nd edn. as Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures Series 1 (Peterborough 2005), no. 32, or the huge variety of grains in which the estates of Santa Giulia di Brescia rendered to the monastery in their polyptych of c. 906, Gianfranco Pasquali (ed.), “S. Giulia di Brescia” in Andrea Castagnetti, Michele Luzzati, Pasquali & Augusto Vasina (edd.), Inventari altomedievali di terre, coloni e redditi, Fonti per la Storia d’Italia 104 (Roma 1979), pp. 41-94, also printed in Ezio Barbieri, Irene Rapisarda & Gianmarco Cossandi (edd.), Le carte del monastero di S. Giulia di Brescia (Pavia 2008), I no. 46 whence online here.

6. Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université Toulouse-le-Mirail 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, I pp. 470-471.

7. Combining Janet L. Nelson, “Kingship and Royal Government” and Stuart Airlie, “The Aristocracy”, both in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History, II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 338-430 and 431-450 respectively.

8. Here I am sort of nostalgically pleased to see that I am still following Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: the middle Rhine valley 400-1000, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 47 (Cambridge 2000), pp. 223-234.

9. See Timothy Reuter, “Debate: the ‘Feudal Revolution’. III” in Past and Present no. 155 (Oxford 1997), pp. 177-195 at pp. 188-193.

Seminar CLXVI: debating with John Blair

The next seminar in my backlog pile is not about Anglo-Saxon England, it being when Marie Legendre spoke to the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminar on 27th February 2013 with the title, “Neither Byzantine nor Islamic? The Dukes of the Thebaïd and the Formation of the Umayyad State”, and that was really interesting, but the thing is, I’m fourteen months behind with these posts and Magistra et Mater already covered that one. So I thoroughly recommend you go and look at that, and meanwhile I will write some more about John Blair’s Ford Lectures. But what? I hear you say. You dealt with the last one only four posts ago! True, but there is, it transpires, also a Ford Lecturer’s Seminar, in which the year’s lecturer is invited to discuss his findings with his audience, and that happened on 1st March 2013 with the same title as the lecture series, “Building the Anglo-Saxon Landscape”, and I was there.

Poster for John Blair's Ford Lectures, 2013

Poster for John Blair’s Ford Lectures, 2013

The format this took is that John had distributed a handout that gave a seven- or eight-point summary of each lecture and then after a very short introduction simply took questions for an hour, and whatever discussion kicked off out of them was followed as far as it led. There were certainly lots of people with questions to ask, but the biggest focus of interest was on the organisation and planning of settlements for which John was arguing in the Anglo-Saxon world. In particular there was discussion about the shift of paradigm that he had proposed from central places to central zones: I wondered how much the concentration of sites in such zones differed from that outside them, to which John said that the important thing might not be concentration so much as the links between the sites, and Mark Whittow wondered if the burh in these complexes of sites wasn’t still the centre, to which John countered that as far as he could see the different elements in these complexes were as important as each other in as much as none of them shared functions, so were all indispensable to the whole. As Mark said, there’s a model here that could work in a number of other places where someone was organising the landscape to this much effect.1

Scalpecliffe Hill, Stapenhill

Scalpecliffe Hill, Stapenhill, supposed site of the hermitage of St Modwenna and certainly site of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, just across the River Trent from Burton-on-Trent

That leads us onto the other question that really had people going, which was that of who was organising these landscapes and how. John had argued, as part of his section on the grid-planning he had detected in many Anglo-Saxon settlements, that the key knowledge involved here was probably preserved and transmitted through monasteries, but of course monasteries were themselves large landowners so it was hardly locked away, and their links to the nobility and to kings were such that their knowledge would have been available for most of the people we can imagine planning sites. Nonetheless, we see little if any such sign of organised planning in the early trading ports or wics that have long been seen as the lynchpins of economic development in middle Saxon England and whose organisation is usually attributed to the kings.2 John pointed out that some of Hamwic, the site of this type across the River Itchen from modern Southampton, was in fact gridded, but reckoned that this was probably a monastery within the town.

Reconstruction drawing of Anglo-Saxon Hamwic

Reconstruction drawing of Anglo-Saxon Hamwic

This bit of the discussion didn’t really reach a conclusion that my notes record but John was again keen to emphasise chronology in what he saw, in as much as while settlement gridding was for him a phenomenon of the eighth and late-tenth-to-eleventh centuries, and often very short-lived indeed, to the extent that he thought it might have been more symbolic than functional (very interesting), the basic organisation of settlements as dispersed houses each with their infield for cereals and outfield for animals goes on throughout and doesn’t change until well after the various things that are supposed to kick off economic take-off in the tenth century. That take-off thus precedes the things that English historians have tended to blame for England’s medieval economic miracle, open-field settlements and three-field crop rotation, but the change in settlement pattern does coincide with that, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries primarily.3

Reconstruction drawing of ninth-century Stafford

Reconstruction drawing of ninth-century Stafford; note the shape of the enclosure. I think someone involved may have been present at these lectures…

There were also smaller issues raised: Lesley Abrams wondered about the spread of the ‘egg-shaped’ fortified sites John had detected in the later part of his study period and their relation to the villages of which they were part, to which John responded that so far they were all in the East Midlands (though we know that Allan McKinley thinks others could be found further west…) but that their relationship to villages differed a great deal, being built on top of them, within them or outside them; this may be a matter of their functions, which are not yet clear. There were also a number of questions about minsters as centres of organisation which didn’t really add anything to what John has already written on the subject.4

A reconstructed Anglo-Saxon house at East Firsby, Lincolnshire

A reconstructed Anglo-Saxon house at East Firsby, Lincolnshire, of a typical type that may be one of the few things that seems to have transmitted from British to Anglo-Saxons; image from Wikimedia Commons

The other question, that might in some ways be the biggest one, was that of the West. Most of what John had discovered in the archæology was at its most evident in what he had termed the Wash Catchment; this is good in as much as our texts favour the South and the North and not the Midlands, but the West Midlands, the North-West and anywhere British had still been very much missing from these lectures, and that basically because material culture remains have been far less frequently discovered there. To some extent, this is a matter of lowland versus highland with the economic intensification possible in the one leading to scales of wealth and structure not visible in the other, but since John had been at pains to stress that much of Anglo-Saxon wealth was expressed in portable and transient forms, and the British West was no stranger to such goods, there’s still some mysterious gaps to account for. John’s work and that of others have already taken some steps to guess what’s in those gaps, but gaps they remain, and yet as you know if you’re a long-term reader I feel that these zones, where British met English and held them off for quite some time in some cases, must be an important part of the story of how the one became the other and I wish more would come out of them to make that story possible to tell.5


1. Of course, one could argue that this model was already out there in the form of Glanville Jones’s concept of multiple estates, in his “The multiple estate: a model for tracing the interrelationships of society, economy, and habitat” in Kathleen Biddick (ed.), Archaeological approaches to medieval Europe (Kalamazoo 1984), pp. 9-41, and Rosamond Faith raised this; John’s counter here was that Jones argued essentially for the long-term survival of Roman settlement organisations with devolved functions, whereas John sees a wave of new creation of such sites from the eighth century onwards.

2. The basic integration of wics into a scheme of history is still that of Richard Hodges, Dark Age Economics: the origins of towns and trade A D. 600-1000 (London 1982, 2nd edn. 1989); cf. relatively current discussion in Tim Pestell & Katherine Ulmschneider (edd.), Markets in early medieval Europe: trading and ‘productive’ sites, 650-850 (Macclesfield 2003) or Mike Anderton (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Trading Centres: beyond the emporia (Glasgow 1999).

3. E. g. the unquestioning use of this paradigm in C. T. Bekar & C. G. Reed, “Open fields, risk, and land divisibility” in Explorations in Economic History Vol. 40 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 308-325, DOI: 10.1016/S0014-4983(03)00030-5; cf. the various international perspectives presented in La croissance agricole du haut moyen âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran Vol. 10 (Auch 1990).

4. In J. Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford 2005), more or less passim to be honest.

5. Christopher Snyder, An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons, A. D. 400-600 (Stroud 1998); Steven Bassett, “How the West Was Won: the Anglo-Saxon takeover of the West Midlands in Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History Vol. 11 (Oxford 2000), pp. 107-118; J. Blair, The British Culture of Anglo-Saxon Settlement, H. M. Chadwick Lecture 24 (Cambridge 2013); Chris Wickham’s vision of Britain in this period in Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 306-333 & 339-364, rather involves assuming that these zones did not impede access of English to British and this is one of the few places where I think that book’s ideas might need revision.

Picturing Abbess Emma’s associations

Really long-time readers of this blog will maybe remember a debate that got going on this blog in June 2008, apropos of a paper in the Journal of Neurocomputing that was using medieval charter information to showcase visualisation of social networks data.1 I was initially sceptical but talking to two of the authors got me much more interested and I subsequently talked one of them into delivering a paper in the final Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic session at Leeds, a paper that we did want to publish but which sadly in the end could not be included in the final publication.2 That’s still a shame as there was good stuff to think with there, but of course what any historian dealing with dense social data is going to want to know about such software and techniques is, ‘how will it help me with my stuff?’ And since answering that question usually involves a lot of data entry, it has tended to rest there.

"Representation of the medieval social network with force directed algorithm" from Boulet et al., "Batch kernel SOM and related Laplacian methods for social network analysis", fig. 1

There is also the question of how much a “Representation of the medieval social network with force directed algorithm” like this from Boulet et al., “Batch kernel SOM and related Laplacian methods for social network analysis”, fig. 1, can tell you by itself, which is why of course in that article they then spend a lot of time breaking it down

For my area of interest, this was changed in mid-2012 as the indefatigable Joan Vilaseca of the Cathalaunia website began to investigate applying such techniques to the database he maintains there, which includes quite a lot of the documents from which I ply my trade. Magistra et Mater, who was getting interested in the possibilities of these things around then too, wrote some initial thoughts about what Joan and others were doing at hers in December 2012, and I had already made a stub note to talk about it in October of that year but, well, it’s been queued ever since. There is still plenty to say, though!

The thing that particularly caught my interest was that Joan put up a post on his blog in which he produced a list of the best-connected people in his database, the ones who appear with the most other people, and once the kings who appear in dating clauses and their notaries were filtered out, pretty much top of the list was Abbess Emma of Sant Joan de Ripoll. Since there is perhaps no-one in the world who cares more about Abbess Emma than me,3 this seemed like a really good type-case with which to answer the quesion: does this kind of analysis actually tell us very much that we didn’t already know? And, weirdly, I think that my conclusion is that for me it’s perhaps most valuable for emphasising what we don’t.

Relationships of Abbess Emma in the Cathalaunia database coloured according to grade of connectivity

Relationships of Abbess Emma in the Cathalaunia database coloured according to grade of connectivity

To talk about this it’s necessary to get you the reader clear about exactly what Joan has actually done here, of course. As simply as I can put it, what we have above is a graph built in the following way. In Joan’s database Emma appears in 50 documents and in those 50 documents she occurs with an awful lot of people. Looking for only the most meaningful, Joan excluded from the count all persons with whom Emma turned up only once, which is a lot given that she orchestrated the Vall de Sant Joan hearing in which about 500 people swore testimony for her and then there’s still 48 more documents with her in. That still leaves 112 people with whom she is recorded associating more than once, in fact the total of associations still in the count is 1292. Many of these people also relate to each other and what you have above is a computer-aided display of all those links, with Emma at the centre and everyone else pulled out to where you can see the links. But you can already see from the way that some of the links are made with thicker bands of darker colour that some of these people dominate the sample much more than others. So, who are these people? Well, if you load up the SVG version of this graph on Joan’s blog you can just click straight through to his database records, which is marvellous, but in short the top five are two priests called Gentiles and Guisad, and then three laymen, namely Reinoard, Guimarà and Tudiscle.

Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 39

Archivo de la Corona d’Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 39 (reduced-quality version), with Gentiles’s signature lower left centre

This all sounds more or less sensible to me: though I think only Gentiles and Reinoard, maybe Tudiscle, would have been in a top five I’d guessed, I can see why they’re all here. Gentiles was something like the chief scribe of Sant Joan: he appears in Emma’s first appearance as an adult, he went on appearing some six to ten years after her death, and in that time an awful lot of the documents of the abbey carried his scribal signature, even though as Federico Udina pointed out when he edited these documents, they’re not all in the same hand. This presumably means that he had subordinates signing stuff off for him and that his name was important enough that it still had to be there.4 Guisad was another frequent scribe for the abbey, apparently older, and he also appeared on the panel of a couple of the hearings in which Emma pursused people for her rights over their land.5 Reinoard was headman of one of the settlements in the Vall de Sant Joan and worked as court enforcer for Emma once as well as appearing in court when she called them, he was a collaborator of hers whom I’ve discussed elsewhere.6 Tudiscle and Guimarà present a more interesting case: these are two of the landowners whom Emma took to court, but in both cases those episodes were part of a longer relationship with the abbey which had here broken down. I’ve written about these two as well precisely because I think that in Tudiscle’s case the hearing was part of mending that relationship, as his importance seems not to have suffered subsequently, whereas Guimarà seems subsequently not to have worked with the abbess and in fact seems to have managed to shift quite a lot of property once donated to the nunnery onto Emma’s little brother, Count-Marquis Sunyer of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, as part of Sunyer’s campaign to clip his sister’s independently-ruled abbey’s wings.7 But before that he had worked for Emma, and these people certainly make good people to study if you want to understand how Emma worked, which is of course why I did.

Relationships of Abbess Emma in the Cathalaunia database, sorted by modularity

The same relationships now displayed according to their modularity, that is, by the size of the groups internal to the data

So, the first answer to the great question about whether this tells me anything looks like ‘no’; I had already found these people by older methods. But I’m arguably not the target here: the thing is that those methods were very like what Joan’s programming all but automates. I went through the documents, made note of the names who recurred most, assembled profiles of their appearances and decided who were the people I could tell the story with. Joan’s database and graphing together mean that I could, if I was starting again, do in about ten minutes the same exercise that took me weeks when I actually did it. I could do (and may do) the same thing now with Count-Marquis Guifré II Borrell, Sunyer’s predecessor and brother, for whom I haven’t done the same kind of background data-crunching, with far less trouble than I was anticipating. So in terms of research facilitation for others, this is a huge step forward even if it doesn’t help me. I can in fact only tell how much use it is precisely because I’d done it already by another means! (Whether Joan had to put fewer hours in to make it happen than I did for my research is another question of course…)

All the same, as I said above, what it now makes me think is how imperfect our data sometimes is for the kind of questions we might like to ask. If, on first principles, we asked ourselves who the principal contacts of an early medieval abbess was, we would probably presume that the main ones were her nuns. So indeed they may have been here, but as I’ve observed in a supposedly-forthcoming paper, while Emma was in charge of Sant Joan we know the names of only two other nuns, and those are only seen as they join the nunnery, we’ve no idea what Emma’s relations with them were like.8 If we then allowed ourselves to remember that this abbess was a count’s daughter, we might then think about her family as an important second string. But Emma hardly shows up with her family, and when she does it needs very careful reading: I think she only occurs alive and in person with brother Sunyer in the Vall de Sant Joan hearing where she was in theory taking him to court, for example.9 (She also turns up as a neighbour of land he was transferring twice, but of course she wasn’t actually there for that, though it gives us another reason to suppose they had other dealings.10) Also on the defending end on that occasion was their probably-elder brother Miró, Count of Cerdanya, who in his will named Emma one of his executors and had her called ‘my most dear sister’; I think she occurs with him once otherwise.11 She got Radulf to consecrate a church with her once, I think that’s it though.12 We can more or less see from this that this set of siblings were close collaborators even if not always very willing ones but the quantity of occurrences doesn’t really reflect what we can guess the importance of those relationships would have been.

The memorial stone for Abbess Emma in the abbey church of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

Abbess Emma’s memorial in the medieval church of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

The information we get from this, therefore, is not wrong but it is partial. Emma probably did see Gentiles and talk with him most days of her adult life. It’s not clear whether Guisad was also a priest of the abbey but if so, he also would have been a regular feature of her days. She placed a lot of reliance on Reinoard, and that relationship was probably important to both of them in raising Reinoard above his fellows and showing those fellows how Emma could reward her collaborators. Tudiscle and Guimarà, at least at first, were more of that sort of person and even if the relationships probably didn’t mean as much to Emma as that with brother Miró did, for example, they’re historically very interesting and anyone working on Emma would be well served by being pointed towards them. But there is also quiet and missing data that must have made up a great deal more of her life, and that we can’t really reconstruct. It’s not by any means the fault of this technology that it can’t bring that to our notice: it obviously can’t give us back information we didn’t put in. But that also means that the technology is no more than one of the tools we have to use to understand that information in its context, some of which context is simply what isn’t there.13


1. Romain Boulet, Bertrand Jouse, Fabrice Rossi & Nathalie Villa, “Batch kernel SOM and related Laplacian methods for social network analysis” in Journal of Neurocomputing Vol. 71 (Amsterdam 2008), pp. 1579-1573.

2. What final publication, you ask? Why, Jonathan Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout 2013). You could buy it here if you wanted!

3. See J. Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2003), pp. 229-258; idem, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 23-72.

4. Ibid. pp. 29-30; see Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18/Publicaciones de le Sección de Barcelona 15 (Madrid 1951), p. 205 for the argument.

5. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, p. 59 n. 162.

6. Ibid. pp. 39, 41-42.

7. Ibid. pp. 52-53 (Tudiscle), 53-57 (Guimarà) & 64-65 (Sunyer’s pressure on the nunnery).

8. J. Jarrett, “Nuns, Signatures and Literacy in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, to appear in a Festschrift for Rosamond McKitterick first planned in 2010.

9. The hearing is best printed in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. nos 119 & 120, though the palæographic notes of Udina, Archivo Condal, doc. no. 38, are still very useful.

10. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 103, 105 & 155. There are a few other cases where she and Sunyer both turn up as neighbours, but not of the same properties, so I don’t think that really counts here.

11. The will is only printed in Prosper de Bofarull y Mascaró, Los condes de Barcelona vindicados, y cronología y genealogía de los reyes de España considerados como soberanos independientes de su marca (Barcelona 1836, repr. 1990), 2 vols. I pp. 88-90. In Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 57 Miró presided over a hearing where Emma was the plaintiff, but she was represented by a mandatory and not present herself.

12. Udina, Archivo Condal, doc. no. 73. The two also occur as common neighbours in Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 155 & 419, but again that only tells us that they probably met at some other point.

13. Cf. Jarrett, “Poor Tools to Think With: the human space in digital diplomatics” in Georg Vogeler & Antonella Ambrosiani (edd.), Digital Diplomatics 2011, Beihefte der Archiv für Diplomatik (München forthcoming), pp. 291-302.

Seminar CLXV: getting at the saints in medieval England

Juxtaposed thirteenth- and nineteenth-century stained-glass depictions of pilgrims at the shrine of St Thomas, Canterbury, from the cathedral there

Juxtaposed thirteenth- and nineteenth-century stained-glass depictions of pilgrims at the shrine of St Thomas, Canterbury, from the cathedral there; image from Wikimedia Commons

It’s not that there are no seminars about medieval matters in Oxford that don’t focus on England, you understand, and it’s not even that more specific seminars like the After Rome seminar or the Late Roman and Byzantine seminars draw away non-English content, it’s just that for some reason during Spring 2013 I seem only to have made it to English-focused papers. The next of these was at the Medieval History Seminar on 10th February 2013, and it was Anne Bailey of Harris Manchester College presenting with the title, “Reconsidering ‘The Medieval Experience at the Shrine’ in High-Medieval England”. This is out of my area of interest, you might think, and so it is to an extent, but it did two things I always appreciate, these being firstly to try and set out a sound basis for imagining medieval lives and actions in the kind of depth in which we can actually immerse ourselves, the real choreography of action in the medieval world, and secondly to use the ability to count to attack badly-founded generalisations that have nonetheless stood unchallenged for years. Since Miss Bailey had provided a sterling example of one of these at the start of her number-filled handout, I’ll quote it so as to identify the target:

“A modern visitor, magically transported to the darkened crypt of this ancient church, would probably be astonished, if not repelled, by the sight of wretched cripples writhing on the floor at Becket’s simple tomb, by the screams of fettered madmen straining at their bonds and the low moans of lepers and the blind, and by the characteristic odour of the Middle Ages, the stench of poverty and disease. The pious would pray nosily in the dancing shadows of the crypt or offer their hard-won pennies and home-made candles. An uncouth youth gesticulates wildly as he tries to explain his miraculous cure to the monk in charge of the tomb; he knows no Latin, no French, and his English dialect is scarcely comprehensible to the guardian-monk….”1

This is indubitably imaginative, but is its imagination well-founded? The fact that at the end of the paragraph of my notes in which this trope is introduced I find the mystic sigils, “O RLY!” will give you an early idea where Miss Bailey was going. In particular she was interested in testing the idea that people could actually get so close to saints’ tombs, and that contact with the relics was as important as it is usually taken to be. So, in order to test this she did the numbers: having painstakingly explained the differing contexts and backgrounds of the cults concerned, she counted up the miracles recorded for St Modwenna of Burton, St James’s Hand at Reading, St Aldhelm at Malmesbury, St John of Beverley, St Æbbe of Coldingham, St Swithun of Winchester, St Ivo of Ramsey, St Æthelthryth of Ely, St Anselm of Canterbury, St Gilbert of Sempringham and St William of Norwich.2 This is a pretty good range and has two particular assets worth mentioning: firstly, we have here both saints whose relics were in raised shrines and saints whose relics were in tombs, inaccessible in the ground, which ought to make a difference but (spoiler) doesn’t, and secondly it does not include St Thomas á Becket, the largest outlier, always safer.

The Hand of St James as once culted at Reading, back there briefly in 2012

The Hand of St James as once culted at Reading, back there briefly in 2012

In total, anyway, this gives one 173 stories, and Miss Bailey discovered that of those 173, as far as the hagiographers allow us to tell a mere 18 actually happened in proximity to the relics. 10 of those occurred on feast days when the relics were being processed, and several of the others involved someone who had obtained special permission to be near the shrine. Only in 1 case of the 173 did someone actually touch the reliquary, this being Aldhelm’s as it happened, and even then the outside of the reliquary is as close as they got. Furthermore, a number of the miracles are recorded at places where the saints weren’t: in both Æbbe’s and Ivo’s case there was a secondary site, evidently manned and even set up to receive visitors, at the place where the saints’ relics were found, and that place retained its attraction even once the body was taken elsewhere.

Kirkhill, St Abb's Head, Scotland, site of the <i>Urbs coludi</i> where StÆbbe's relics were supposedly found in 1118

Kirkhill, St Abb’s Head, Scotland, site of the Urbs coludi where St Æbbe’s relics were supposedly found in 1118, photo shamelessly borrowed from Tim Clarkson’s excellent post at Senchus about her cult. Not much to see now!

That last aspect opens up the question, much debated in discussion, of how far these centres were aimed at actually attracting pilgrims, something which we often assume but which was, for Miss Bailey at least, hard to see in these texts except in the ever-distorting case of Becket. It’s obviously not that people didn’t want to visit the saints; the way that they evidently went where they were allowed to, the invention shrines already mentioned, and that some attempt was made to provide hospitality there shows that there was both demand and supply, but for the most part the supply seems to have been fairly grudging: the monks and canons here were more interested in keeping pilgrims away from the shrines so that they could get on with their actual work of worship than in flogging them tokens and rolling in the sick and crippled so as to advertise their curing saint’s powers. This, arguably, would change, and it may even have been the runaway success of Becket’s cult that changed it. The fact that Catholic affective piety is now very strongly focused on contact with the bodies of the saints, as we saw in England when John Henry Newman was beatified a few years ago or as any visitor to a Greek or Italian shrine (like St Catherine’s in Siena for example) would see full force, and arguably has been since the sixteenth century, should not lead us to thinking that it was ever thus, and Miss Bailey would put the change after the period she was looking at.

Plan of the crypt of Hexham Abbey, with detail of reused Roman inscriptions in it

Plan of the crypt of Hexham Abbey, with detail of reused Roman inscription in it

At the time this made me think only one thing, which was that perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if a good number of miracles happened on saints’ feast days, simply because there would then have been more people at the church both to witness and to be the beneficiary of miracles. I’m less sure now than I was then that this matters very much: Miss Bailey’s point that this was when the saints might be brought out is surely more significant. What it now makes me think, though, is that we see in the St Gall Plan and in the archæological work done at Hexham Abbey, the latter implying similar cases in the Continental houses where Hexham’s founder St Wilfrid had trained, set-ups in which access to the crypt spaces was carefully channelled either from outside the actual church building or, at the imaginary version of St Gall, from outside the monks’ part of the church, into and out of the space occupied by the tomb.3 (The canonical plan of the Hexham crypt above notes one of the routes into the crypt as the pilgrims’ one and the other as the monks’ but the notes on the St Gall Plan make me think that a one-way system is more likely; at both St Gall and Hexham, after all, there was also access from the presbytery directly above.) That suggests to me an intention to supply the access to the relics that Bede, certainly, and perhaps Continental hagiographers too, make it clear that worshippers wanted, again without disturbing the usual monastic round too much. In that case we might have a change before Miss Bailey’s period too, and it would be interesting to pin down when. My guess would be the tenth century, but of course it would, wouldn’t it?4


1. Ronald Finucane, Miracles and Pilgrims: popular beliefs in medieval England (London 1977), pp. 9-10; the other target here was the more recent work evoked in the title, Ben Nilsson, “The Medieval Experience at the Shrine” in Jennie Stopford (ed.), Pilgrimage Explored (Woodbridge 1999), pp. 95-122.

2. The handout gives full edition details but that would be a long footnote even for me, as well as esentially publishing Miss Bailey’s references for her. I can provide details if people are interested, but it may settle some people’s minds to know that this total included both William Ketell’s collection of miracles of St John and another anonymous one and divided up the count for St William between his three shrines.

3. On the St Gall Plan the masterwork is Walter Horn, Ernest Born & Wolfgang Braunfels (edd.), The Plan of St. Gall: A Study of the Architecture and Economy and Life in a Paradigmatic Carolingian Monastery (Berkeley 1979), 3 vols, though one might start with the smaller Lorna Price, The Plan of St. Gall in Brief: An Overview Based on the Work by Walter Horn and Ernest Born (Berkeley 1982) or of course the excellent website already linked. For Hexham see Eric Cambridge & A. Williams, “Hexham Abbey: a review of recent work and its implications” in Archaeologia Aeliana 5th series Vol. 23 (Newcastle 1995), pp. 51-138. The reading of the St Gall Plan here, I should confess, I’m pulling largely from a Kalamazoo paper by Lynda Coon (reported on here) and reflected in her book, Dark Age Bodies: Gender and Monastic Practice in the Early Medieval West (Philadelphia 2011), which is not to say that I would necessarily accept everything she says there about the deeper meanings of the way space is laid out in the Plan. I don’t know anyone else who has put so much work into working out the traffic flows through the imaginary church, though.

4. I think of course of the Benedictine reform movement of the tenth century that would seek, among other goals, to exclude the laity more thoroughly from pure monastic practice: see Catherine Cubitt, ‘The Tenth-Century Benedictine Reform in England’ in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 6 (Oxford 1997), pp. 77–94, or Julia Barrow, “The Ideology of the Tenth-Century English Benedictine ‘Reform'” in Patricia Skinner (ed.), Challenging the Boundaries of Medieval History: the legacy of Timothy Reuter, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 22 (Turnhout 2009), pp. 141-154.