Monthly Archives: October 2015

Seminar CCXII: scribal dialects explored digitally

Some of the sticky posts are unstuck and the seminar report backlog is back under a year again, this all seems like progress. For lo, we now reach Armistice Day 2014, on which day Birmingham’s Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages had its Seminar addressed by Birmingham’s own Wendy Scase, with the title “The Simeon Manuscript and its Scribes”.

London, British Library Additional MS 22283, here showing the lower part of fo. 142v

End and beginning of two of the texts in the Simeon Manuscript, otherwise known as London, British Library Additional MS 22283, here showing the lower part of fo. 142v

This was the early part of an enquiry that had begun with a different manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Eng. poet a.1, otherwise known as the Vernon Manuscript, of which you can find details here. This is a huge, 700-page and 22 kilo, compilation of Middle English literature, totalling 370 texts including things familiar from many an English syllabus like The Prik of Conscience, The Ancrene Riwle and Piers Plowman as well as, obviously, quite a lot more, and lavishly decorated to boot. But it is not alone: the Simeon manuscript is, or rather was since apparently many of its illustrations have gone and it’s probably only about fifty per cent present now, another one like it, not quite as lavishly decorated but not far off and sharing one (we thought, till this paper) of the same scribes. (Its details are here.) Both of these manuscripts seem, from what can be said about palæography and provenance as well as about scribal language, to be West Midlands productions and so of what you might call local concern.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Eng. poet. a.1, fo. 265r

A page of the Vernon Manuscript in the Bodleian’s online exhibition about it, to wit fo. 265r

But scribal dialect was where Professor Scase had got interested, because it raises many kinds of question about copying. If a text is not in local dialect, but the scribe speaks it, does he translate, adapt or ignore the pressures of his own normal language? If it is in local dialect, do they usually translate out of it into something more like a standardised written English? How local is local anyway? Do we have several written Englishes with their own local variation? Do individual scribes change their ways of writing over their careers, and if so towards or away from the local vernacular? And most immediately for Professor Scase, what happens when several scribes collaborate: are they distinguishable by dialect even where they might not be by script?

London, British Library, Additional MS 22283, fo. 130v

The start of another text in the Simeon Manuscript, complete with fancy initials, this time at fo. 130v

The answer to this last, at least, would seem to be yes. It is, I learned, now possible to plot these things to an implausible level of precision using two big databases online, the Linguistic Atlas of Early Mediaeval English and the Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English, which among other things did allow Professor Scase to justify her suspicion that the hand known as Scribe A in this manuscript, which is also present in the Vernon one, was in fact two people, only one of whom wrote with dialectical symptoms, which we can sometimes be sure he was introducing because of being able to identify the exemplar from which he and the other scribe were copying. But his dialect is more pronounced in the Vernon Manuscript, some spellings from which he doesn’t repeat in the Simeon (‘w3uch’ for ‘which’, for example), so what’s going on? Either he had driven this habit out between the two, which their apparent closeness of date makes unlikely, or as Professor Scase suggested, he was aiming not so much for an outside standard of language as consistency within the manuscript. And there will probably—may by now already—be other such details that emerge as the study progresses. I, as long-term readers will probably know, really love these little windows into how someone centuries ago went about a complex task that detailed manuscript work can give you. These two are fairly lovely manuscripts, in terms of pure colour and artifice, but it’s great to be able to see through them to the sweat and thought that went into their making.

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Seminar CCXI: two medievalist myth-makers

As you may have noticed, things have calmed down enough that I am beginning to have time to blog again, but I am nonetheless currently a year and two days behind still. I’m not apologising, so much as explaining that I still have a certain amount of Birmingham stuff to report on that still seems worthwhile, and the first of them is last year’s Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages Public Lecture, which was given by Dr Carl Phelpstead with the title, “Geoffrey of Monmouth and J. R. R. Tolkien: myth-making and national identity in the twelfth and twentieth centuries”.

Cover of Lewis Thorpe's translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae

Cover of Lewis Thorpe’s translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae

Covers of the first edition of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings

Covers of the first edition of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

You may well look at that and wonder where the comparison could lie between these two figures, I mean, apart from being internationally-famous writers of fantasy literature that was translated into many languages who were born outside England but finished up with jobs in Oxford obviously.1 And indeed I steal that hook straight from Dr Phelpstead’s lecture but there is, he was arguing, more to the comparison even than that, in that they were both at some level out to create a new national myth that was like, but not ultimately based in, history. The comparison only goes so far in this direction, of course, since as far as we clearly understand what Geoffrey of Monmouth was up to it was to reinsert Britonnic heroes and the past of his Welsh nation into the longer history of the kingdom that was now England, and he seems to have done this cleverly enough to be liked and read in equal measure by those who identified against the English and those like King Henry II who wanted it to be clear how the perhaps-separate histories of the British and English nations were now united, indissolubly, under one obedience, namely to him.2 Tolkien, on the other hand, was apparently dubious about the meaning of Britain as a construct, identified fairly firmly as English and when pushed as Mercian, and reportedly told his son in a letter that if he was anything he was Hwiccian, a marginal identity par excellence but not one with a great deal of meaning attached outside Anglo-Saxonist circles perhaps.3 In this light, it is notable (said Dr Phelpstead, but it seems to be right to me) that except when there is a war afoot, admittedly for most of the Lord of the Rings cycle, the various races of Middle Earth normally leave each other alone and certainly have no shared or overruling government.

Obviously, we have a lot more material from which to gauge Tolkien’s intentions than we do for Geoffrey’s, and the most interesting thing about this lecture for me was those snippets of the author before The Lord of the Rings became the thing for which he was mostly known, indeed before it existed. These suggest that what he was after to provide a missing English epic, something to make up for the fact that England (definitely England) has no sagas, no equivalent to the Kalevala and so on. Like those, it would not need to be historical, but it would need to be in keeping, and for Tolkien at least, express what he called, “a certain truth” about the nation whose culture he aimed thus to supplement. For Dr Phelpstead this was also a point of junction between the two authors: Geoffrey’s ‘certain truth’ was that the history of the island was really that of its older inhabitants, for Tolkien it was more about the quality of heroism and determination in the cause of peace, but the aim to put across a deeper message in their stories was there. Of course, Tolkien knew Geoffrey’s work but precisely because of its British agenda it wouldn’t serve as a basis for his own. In the event, of course, neither did England, and in fact neither did Britain for Geoffrey; both epics escape national confines fairly dramatically and transcend into something that appealed to readers of a great many more nationalities than the target ones, in ways neither author could easily have foreseen.

Pages from an illuminated edition of Tolkien's Silmarilion

Of course, of course someone has done this, this being a hand-illuminated edition of Tolkien’s Silmarilion. There is an interview with the artist, Benjamin Harff, here.

I’m not sure, going back over this, that the comparison here actually yields new insights about either Geoffrey or Tolkien; I learnt a lot about Tolkien and something about Geoffrey from this paper, but more separately than together. The curmudgeon in me wants to cite Chris Wickham’s demand that historical comparison must have a meaningful object to be worth doing, but a public lecture can perhaps be allowed to be entertainment for the brain rather than world-changing insight, and of course I’m not a literature scholar and every now and then I get reminded that things are different over that fence.4 The important thing about this lecture was therefore probably that I enjoyed it and learnt things, and it tided well for the seminar programme ahead.


1. It has subsequently become clear to me that I have, for the last few years, been proceeding around Tolkien’s career itinerary in the wrong order: he grew up in Birmingham, studied and got his first job in Oxford, went from there to a Readership at Leeds and then returned to Oxford as a professor. I’m now slightly worried lest I have to balance all this out by dying in South Africa, where he was born.

2. In so far as I didn’t learn all this from the Internet and seminar papers by John Gillingham, I think that I have it from David Dumville, “An early text of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and the circulation of some Latin histories in twelfth-century Normandy” in Arthurian Literature Vol. 4 (Cambridge 1985), pp. 1-36, repr. with addenda in Dumville, Histories and Pseudo-Histories of the Insular Middle Ages, Collected Studies 316 (Aldershot 1990), XIV, and Nicholas Higham, “Historical Narratives as Cultural Politics: Rome, ‘British-ness’ and ‘English-ness'” in idem (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies 7 (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 68-79. But mainly John and the Internet are to blame.

.3. Tolkien’s letters are partly published as Humphrey Carpenter & Christopher Tolkien (edd.), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien: a selection (London 1981), whence this kind of information was largely drawn.

4. But it would be curmudgeonly, so I won’t.

This post was written with the aid of Moon Healing Activation by Das Ludicroix, and jolly effective it was too.

From the Sources XI: wets and measures

This is a leftover from my reading of the Wendy Davies lecture that I already blogged about while just about still in Birmingham, but I felt it was worth a post of its own, because it is (as so often in this series) about something I thought was a really interesting charter. Without further ado, I’ll give you the translation (Latin is in the reference footnote) and then try and explain why I think so, if I haven’t already convinced you!

“In the name of the Lord. This is a charter of recognition that was written and corroborated by the order of the most serene lord Prince Ramiro and of all the bishops and the crowd of catholic persons about to corroborate below, so that it should have binding character throughout the ages. Therefore: a quarrel arose between Abbot Baldered and his brothers and men of the tithing of Saint John in Vega, Gondemar and his heirs, about the aqueduct whence the mills of the brothers were powered and which they were holding in lordship. And afterwards, downstream from their mills, they were holding lordship over the water for the mills belonging to the selfsame Gondemar and his heirs, as per what they were holding as heredity from long ago, since their grandfathers and great-grandfathers had taken over that stream and held lordship over it; and their milling mills a flood of the rivers Bernesga and Torio together removed, and they built other mills further down that stream, next to the aforesaid river. When they had completed that work, maliciously, the same Abbot Baldered and his brothers rose up against them. Wherefore, with both parties laying claims in our presence and that of the bishops and judges, we sent faithful men from our council, they being: Recemir Decembriz, Abbot Vidal, the priest Pelagio and the priest Apsidio and many others who were there. And they orderd collectors to be set up in the flow of that water to measure the height of it, and below they broke down that construction which the brothers said was impeding their mills and starving them of water. And afterwards, the water flowed until the ninth hour, standing at just the same level, so showed the markers, just as they had been set up, the same amount of water and not diminished a bit, wherefore we ordered Gundemar and his heirs to have those mills and that water as they were holding it previously. Truly, another year, the brothers again raised a plea against those men, maliciously, wherefore we again sent the following faithful men so that they might determine whether they were presenting any impediment to the mills of the brothers: the judges Abaiub, Leander, Maurello and many others. And the already-said faithful men found, just as on the first occasion, that the brothers were acting maliciously against those men, and that nothing was presenting an impediment to them. Now, in the third year in which this quarrel has arisen between those people, we, with all the gathering corroborated below, have assigned to Gundemar, with his heirs, the selfsame water from the mills of the brothers as far as their mills. Thus, when the brothers shall warn them about their restoration of that upper construction or their direction of the water, they may avoid it without any excuse of a survey; and let them together have that water, for their use, without any molestation. For if now or from now on anyone shall raise any quarrel or attempt to bring any accusation, just so much shall he pay to the royal purse 500 solidi, just as he shall lose his right and property in the selfsame water.
“Recorded on the 7th day of the Kalends of July, in the era 976 [25th June 938 A. D.]
“Under Christ’s name, Quixila, by the Grace of God bishop. Under Christ’s name, Bishop Frunimio. Under Christ’s name, Ovecco, by the Grace of God bishop. Recemir Decembriz.
“Abaiub, judge, confirms; Maurello, judge, confirms; Leander, judge, confirms. Monio Nuniz confirms; Vermudo Nuniz confirms; Diaz, archdeacon, confirms; Gundisalvo, deacon, confirms. Assur, deacon, confirms; Piloto, Abbot, confirms; Fredenando confirms; Olemundo confirms.
“Fortis, scribe, recorded. ()

This is a fairly tangly story, so it may be worth breaking it down a bit. If I read it right, these are the stages:

  1. In the distant past, Gundemaro’s ancestors cleared the land around a stretch of the river Bernesga in Vega and thus laid claim to the use of the water there, and set up mills on it.
  2. Either previously or later, the monastery of Valdevimbre (as it happens, the text doesn’t identify it) acquired rights to the water higher up the river and had mills of their own up there.2
  3. Next, a flood of the Bernesga and its tributary the Torio wiped out Gundemaro’s family’s mills, so they built more in a safer place downstream of the monastery’s mills, and put in an aqueduct that diverted water from the river to their mills.
  4. The monastery didn’t like this, and Abbot Baldered and his monks raised a suit against Gundemaro and family claiming that the new construction was interfering with the monastery’s mills, apparently despite the fact that those were above it on the river.
  5. So King Ramiro sent a team of enquiry who set up markers in the river, presumably near the monastery’s mills, and gauged the water level before and after destroying Gundemaro’s family’s new aqueduct, and they found that it changed not at all, as one might have expected, whereupon King Ramiro found in favour of Gundemaro and said that he and his heirs could carry on as before.
  6. So one assumes that they rebuilt, whereupon the monastery raised suit again, and another team, this time of judges, went out to Vega again and found that there was still no interference going on with the monastery’s mills and told them to shut up.
  7. The document we have dates from the third year in which the monastery had raised this claim, and this time King Ramiro has had enough, and says that there will be no further survey, that Gundemaro and co. are to have the river between the monastery’s mills and their own without any possibility of further dispute and that anyone who raises such a dispute will pay a 500-solidi fine and lose any claim they may have to the river.

There’s loads to interest me here, from the purely diplomatic to the deeply personal. In the former category, I like the way that the scribe Fortis makes the document refer to what will be written on it later; if that’s straightforward, it implies that he was drafting it at the gathering in response to the royal verdict, but it seems to have been a full formal document anyway; we only have it through Valdevimbre’s cartulary, now in the Archivo de la Catedral de León, but the fact that the witnesses are roughly, but not perfectly, divided into columns by category even in the copy implies that some such arrangement was also present in the original, otherwise I’d expect the first column to have four and the last three, not the other way around. I also note, just in passing, that one of the judges has an Arabic name, and that we know that another witness, Recemir Decembriz, was son of another such person, December iben Abolfeta, even though his own name is unfaultably Gothic.3 Read me an ethnicity from those if you dare!

The monastery of Valdevimbre's buildings seem to be long gone, but for orientation, I think we're here, not at the main confluence of the rivers but slightly further up the Bernesga where the artificial channels cross the fields from the Presa to drain into it. People are still doing the same thing here...

More interesting, perhaps, but less resolvable: why did the monastery keep raising this spurious suit? It seems clear that they thought that Gundemaro was a problem for their water rights, and in most of the medieval Iberian peninsula—not Catalonia so much, which is a lot wetter than the rest of the peninsula, Galicia excepted—rights to the use of water and irrigation are a big deal so this is understandable in principle.4 But even if there was initially some reason to believe that Gundemaro and co. were dipping into water in the monastery’s stretch of the river, they choose a stupid way to contest this, saying that their mills are affected by a structure that must, surely, have been below those mills in the river and so tapping only water that the monastery’s mills had already spent. But they manage to get this checked twice, and try again, so presumably they thought there was some chance that the royal inquest might find in their favour, despite the first one having used Science! to prove them wrong. (Because that is, is it not, testing of a hypothesis by experiment.) I don’t understand why.

But to me, given my habitual concerns, the most interesting question of all is: why do we have this document? The monastery lost, repeatedly. What good did preserving that fact in their archive, and indeed copying it up for the cartulary a few centuries later, do them? If they had ever produced this in court it could only have gone badly for them. The only thing I can think of is that they were genuinely concerned that Gundemaro’s family would start tapping the monastery’s water, protected by their apparent good standing with the royal court, and that even this document, which not only set but seemingly shrank the rights they could claim in the river, was better than having no record of their rights at all. In which case, where did they get those rights in the first place, and why was this a better document than nothing? The only answers to these questions I can think of all suggest that the monastery was in fact at a disadvantage here, that despite our usual assumption that he who keeps the record has the power and that the Church always held the whip hand in disputes, Valdevimbre was up against some fairly immovable local bigwigs here and was hoping, somehow, to get the court to stand up for them against their opponents. They seem to have picked a stupid way to do it, but maybe it was the only way they had. In short, though this looks like a rare case in which we have a record of a greedy and assertive ecclesiastical institution being defeated in court, I suspect that the way we have the record may actually imply that they were not the aggressors…


1. Emilio Sáez (ed.), Colección Documental del Archivo de la Catedral de León (775-1230): I (775-952), Fuentes de la Historia Leonesa 41 (León 1987), doc. no. 128:

KARTULA AGNICIONIS QUOD FECIT RANIMIRI PRINCIPIS DE PLACITUM QUOD ABUIT BALDEREDUS ABBA ET SUOS HEREDES
In nomine Domini. Hec est kartula agnicionis quam iussu serenissma domni Ranimiri principis uel omnium episcoporum ac cetu catholicorum, subter roboraturis, conscripta ac roborata est, ut tenorem iugi abeat per secula. Igitur orta fuit intencio inter Balderedus abba et suis fratribus et homines de collacione Sancti Ihoannis, in Uega, Gondemaro cum suos heredes, propter aqueductum unde molendina fratrum molebant et dominata tenebant. Et post, sub ab eorum molendina, dominabant ipsa aqua ad suos molinis ipso Gondemaro cum suos heredes, secundum eam quam abebant hereditariam ab antiquo, ut abprehenderant eam aquam et dominauerunt eam suis auis et trysauis; et suos molinos molentes, amouit eos inundacio fluminis Uernesga cum Torio mixto, et super ipsam aquam edificauerunt alios molinos subtus, secus flumen predictum. Quum factum hac completum illum abuissent, maliciose, insurrexerunt aduersus eos idem Balderedus abba et sui fratres. Unde, in nostra presencia uel episcoporum et iudicum, asserentes utraque partes, misimus ex concilio fideles, hii sunt: Recemirus Decembri, Uitalis abba, Pelagius presbiter hac Aspidius presbiter et aliorum multorum que interfuerunt. Que preuiderunt in decursione ipsa aqua fieri papillos et metire ipsa altitudinis aqua ac ruperunt subtus illa presa que dicebant quia inpediebat et inaquabat molina fratrum; et postquam, decursa est aqua usque in oram nonam, stantem in ipsa mensura equaliter, sic apparuerunt ipsas stacas, sicut eas perxerant, equale aqua nec in modico minuante, unde iussimus abere ad ipso Gundemaro et suos heredes suos molinos et ipsa aqua ut primitus abebant. Equidem et in altero anno, iterum supposuerunt uocem contra eos homines fratres, maliciose, unde et alios fideles misimus que probarent si eis aliquid inpediebant ad molina fratrum: iudices Abaiub, Leander, Maurellus cum alios multos. Et inuenerunt, sicut et primi, iam dicti fideles, quia maliciosa agebant fratres aduersus eos homines, et nullum eis inferebant inpedimentum. Ad uero, nos, cum omni cetu subter roboratis, anno tercio ex quo orta fuerat inter ipsos ipsa intencio, ordinauimus abere ad ipso Gundemaro, cum suos heredes, ipsa aqua de molina fratrum usque ad suos molinos. Ita quando eos admonuerint fratres pro ipsa superiora presa restaurare uel aquam domare, sine aliqua excusacione mense auertant; et abeant cunctos ipsa aqua, pro sua utilitate, sine ulla molestia. Quod siquis amodo uel deinceps uocem subposuerit aut aliquam calumpniam temptauerit inferre, quomodo pariet post partem regis solidos D, velud kareat uocem et suam proprietatem in illa aqua.
Notum die VII kalendas iulii, era DCCCCa LXXa VIa.
Sub Christi nomine, Cixila Dei gratia episcopus-. Sub Christi nomine, Frunimius episcopus-. Sub Christi nomine, Ouecco, Dei gratia episcopo. Recemirus December.
Abaiub iudex conf. Monio Nuniz conf. Assuri diaconus conf.
Maurellus iudex conf. Vermudo Nuniz conf. Piloti abba conf.
Leander iudex conf. Didacus archidiaconus conf. Fredenandus conf.
Gundisaluus diaconus conf. Olemundus conf.
Fortis scriba NOTUIT (signum).

2. On Valdevimbre you can see César Álvarez Álvarez, “El monasterio de Valdevimbre (siglos IX-XII)” in Manuel Cecilio Díaz y Díaz, Mercedes Díaz de Bustamante & Manuela Domínguez García (edd.), Escritos dedicados a José María Fernández Catón (León 2004), 2 vols, I, pp. 41-64.

3. The December family are tracked in Victor Aguilar Sebastián & Francisco Rodríguez Mediano, “Antroponimia de origen árabe en la documentación leonesa (siglos VIII-XIII)” in Manuel Lucas Álvarez (ed.), El Reino de León en la Alta Edad Media VI, Fuentes de la Historia Leonesa 53 (León 1994), pp. 497-633.

4. See classically Thomas F. Glick, Irrigation and Society in Medieval Valencia (Cambridge MA 1970), still in print.

Seminar CCX: reading backwards into Frankish brooches

I have to start with the now-usual apology for lapse in posting; quite a lot is being required of me right now and mostly there is no time for blogging. In fact, like a proper obsessive compulsive I have a 12-step triage list for getting through the day without any of the spinning plates dropping, in which the blog is only no. 10 and in which on an ordinary day I’m rarely reaching no. 5… but we struggle on. In particular, I struggle on with the first seminar I went to in the Autumn term of 2014, and you can tell I was a bit busy then because that wasn’t till the 15th October. But on that date, Professor Guy Halsall, no less, was giving the David Wilson Lecture at the Institute of Archaeology in University College London, so obviously I was going to go. His title was “The Space Between: the ‘undead’ Roman Empire and the aesthetics of Salin’s Style I’.

A bronze clasp from Gotland

One of Salin’s own illustrations, a bronze clasp from Gotland busy with animal bits. Originally from Berhard Salin, Die altgermanische Tierornametik (Stockholm 1904).

For those that don’t know, Salin was a nineteenth-century archaeologist who worked on the artefacts of the period of the end of the Roman Empire in the West, particularly of the Franks, and he distinguished two styles of carving and ornament among their metalwork, which we still know as Style I and Style II.1 Style I is characterised by intertwined animal-form creatures (zoomorphs, is the rather splendid technical term) and disconnected animal or bird heads, in sometimes quite complex conjunction as you see above. Salin thought, and since he wrote many others have thought, that this was characteristic of the art of the barbarian peoples invading the Roman Empire, and could indeed be used as a proxy for their presence or at least influence.

Silver Style I bracteate with suspension loop

Silver Style I bracteate with suspension loop, a clearer but more abstract example of the style

With this, Guy began by arguing, and arguing that Style I is not, and was never, characteristically Germanic, not least because it only appears in the fifth century, so was obviously being generated within the Empire and could hardly therefore be barbarians’ imported ancestral custom, and still less the shared ancestral custom of a whole range of previously-unconnected groups. With that out of the way, and entirely in keeping with his other writing on the subject, he proceeded to what on earth this style of carving may have meant.

A sixth-century Anglo-Saxon square-headed brooch from Chessell Down, now British Museum 1867,0729.5

A good example case, a sixth-century Anglo-Saxon square-headed brooch from Chessell Down, now British Museum 1867,0729.5, with many significant-looking bearded heads to focus in on as this decoder page on the British Museum blog shows.

It’s not that no-one’s tried doing this, of course: people have seen in this art archetypes of Germanic folk heroes and gods and apotropaic serpents and so on, but as Guy pointed out such information can only be drawn from much later Norse sources, written after Christianization, which is thus in several ways the wrong direction to make these artefacts face; those traditions and that worldview not only come from later than the objects, but might have been partly formed by those objects or objects like them.2 Rather than being anachronistic like this, therefore, Guy opted to be ‘achronic’, and employ the work of the modern theorist Derrida to try and understand how these signifiers did their signifying.3

The Roman general Stilicho portrayed in the dress of a citizen with wife and child, though also with weapons, in Monza Cathedral

The master signifier made manifest, a supposed barbarian—none other than the Roman general Stilicho—portrayed in the dress of a citizen with wife and child, though also with weapons, in Monza Cathedral

The question here seems to me to be a good one, and perhaps it could not have been asked like that without the use of such modern work, but it still seems to me that this is not achronism but witting anachronism. That might not be bad, though, depending on what it gets you. What it got Guy was a development of his argument that Roman identity is idealised as the civil self-governed male, and that from the third century onwards that identity was challenged to the point of destruction by peripheral and destructive identifications, for Guy more or less what being ‘barbarian’ meant, the powerful other whom it became increasingly cool to be like. For Guy this only works because of the core referent, the old Roman identity against which this was expressed, a periphery set against a centre which comes to be the new defining cultural identification.4

Late Roman fourth-century military belt buckle

Late Roman fourth-century military belt buckle, with animal heads confined to its ends

So on this occasion Guy tried to fit Style I into this framework, as an artform in which the periphery takes over, the beasts and interlace erasing the geometric centres common in late Roman ornamental metalwork. He argued that this was a deliberate artistic expression of uncertainty, in which it is no accident that we can’t tell,that contemporaries could not have told, how many animals there actually are on the brooch. It was born ‘out of disturbance’, that disturbance presumably being the breakdown of the Roman West with all its concomitant changes in social and economic organisation and prosperities. The areas worst hit by all this are not where Style I seems to have originated, Guy admitted, but it spread into them very quickly. The signification of the Empire was now uncertain, indeterminate and ‘undead’, in the sense that no-one could be sure it wouldn’t yet rise again, as it had done before.5 And the art that best captured that mood was Style I.

The Sutton Hoo belt buckle now in the British Museum

I’m not sure if this is technically Style I, but it gets the point about indeterminacy over nicely… It is of course the Sutton Hoo belt buckle now in the British Museum. “Belt buckle” by Michel walOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

I like that this lays such emphasis on uptake of material culture by an audience, rather than requiring it to move with immigrants as per the nineteenth century narrative that likewise refuses to die. Nonetheless, I have reservations. One of these is chronology: it was very recently, for example, that the relative stylistic chronology of lots of Anglo-Saxon metalwork was pushed back by fifty years.6 Even that preserves a stylistic chronology where some of the directional links are assumption. My limited knowledge of the Frankish metalwork suggests to me that there are lots more of those assumed links, many of which Guy has contested. With them uncertain, however, a similar shift backwards of the dating of this stuff would possibly radically change its relationship to other styles of metalwork. I am just not sure that we know well enough what comes before what and whether people necessarily only used one of these styles at once to hang such large arguments about cultural change off them. Then secondly, of course this is an argument Guy has also made from other evidence. With the aid of Derrida he is now able to fit the metalwork into that theory comfortably too, and he might not even have needed the theorist. But it’s not a free reading of the evidence, if that were even possible.

And thirdly, of course, we cannot know what this stuff meant to people, not least because of a lot of it presumably being unconscious: how many people who wear black leather jackets have consciously thought “I want to look like a nineteen-fifties motorcyclist” rather than, “that’s cool?” How many people who wear Ramones t-shirts have actually heard any of the songs? And so on. “What were they thinking?” is one thing to ask; “what did they not realise they were thinking?” is a whole new order of superiority to take over our study subjects… So I am still fairly clear that what Guy was offering was, explicitly in fact, a theory brought from outside to bear upon dead people who can’t be questioned, and whatever it was that they thought about their dress accessories, they weren’t reading Derrida to do it. I don’t know that we can work out what this stuff meant to its users, but if we must try I would rather start with tools that they also had.7


1. The starting point for Salin style is of course Bernhard Salin, Die altgermanische Tierornamentik (Stockholm 1904), but an Anglophone introduction can be found in Günther Haseloff, “Salin’s Style I” in Medieval Archaeology 18 (Leeds 1974), pp. 1-18, online here.

2. An example of the kind of work Guy meant here, I guess, is Lotte Hedeager, “Myth and Art: a passport to political authority in Scandinavia during the Migration Period” in Tania Dickinson & David Griffiths (edd.), The Making of Kingdoms. Papers from the 47th Sachsensymposium, York, September 1996, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 10 (Oxford 1999), pp. 151-156.

3. I don’t know Derrida’s writings, but I guess from this webpage that the key text here is Jacques Derrida, L’écriture et la différence (Paris 1967), in which case I should probably think twice about calling it modern; that’s older than Geertz…

4. See most obviously G. Halsall, “Gender and the End of Empire” in Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies Vol. 34 (Durham NC 2004), pp. 17-40.

5. On this I thoroughly recommend Guy’s Barbarian Migrations and the End of the Roman West 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), which has become part of how I think about this period.

6. John Hines (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: a chronological framework, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 33 (London 2013). the primary text of reference for Merovingian stuff other than the work of Patrick Périn, which has its own problems, seems still to be Edward James, The Merovingian Archaeology of South-West Gaul, British Archaeological Reports (Supplementary Series) 25 (Oxford 1977), 2 vols, so some such reevaluation can’t be too far away! Guy’s Cemeteries and society in Merovingian Gaul: selected studies in history and archaeology, 1992-2009, On the Early Middle Ages 18 (Leiden 2009) starts this work but a systematic review will be necessary for a while yet.

7. I am aware in writing that that Guy posted on social media shortly after the lecture that he thought it was beyond the understanding of most of his audience. I may well have misunderstood it, given both that and that I’m reconstructing from year-old notes, but the text is online should you want to try it yourself, and I’m sure he will correct any misunderstandings too awful to be allowed to stand…