Monthly Archives: December 2015

Lost in translation III: transmission of sources for China and Aragón

I have mentioned recently that at something like this time last year I was for the first time teaching early medieval China to a number of unsuspecting first-years at Birmingham. We were approaching the topic via a primary set-text, which was the Records of the Western Regions by the Buddhist pilgrim traveller Xuanzang, active in the early seventh century.1 The setting and circumstance of the text is fascinating: driven by political circumstances into which the text does not go, although a later biographer of its author does, our man Xuanzang headed east from the T’ang Empire, determined to reach India and bathe in the metaphorical springs of pure untranslated (and thus textually correct) Buddhism.2 What now looks like the simplest route, south-westwards through what is now (again) Burma, did not make sense to him (and anyone who’s read war memoirs from Burma may be inclined to agree—even without people trying to stop you, something of which he probably wasn’t entirely free, the environment and its various predatory and parasitical lifeforms might manage it3) and instead he went the long way round, across the northern foothills of the Himalayas and then down through what are now Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Map of the travels of the seventh-century Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang

A handy map by someone else; I’m out to make a point, but if you are just interested by the story, click through this for a more balanced view…

The text we have records each leg of the journey, often making it clear that what we easily call the Silk Routes were sometimes no kinds of route at all; once the only hints they have that they’re on the right general lines are the dry skeletons by the wayside, and avalanche or hostile weather caused, our writer explains, by malevolent dragons, offended by red clothes (among other things), is a perpetual danger in the early stages of the journey.4 Once beyond the routes southwards up into Tibet, however, there were more cities and communities and things calm somewhat; the fact that our fugitive must by then have been beyond the reach of the Chinese government may also have helped…

A fourteenth-century Japanese depiction of seventh-century Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang

A fourteenth-century Japanese depiction of our featured pilgrim, apparently: “Xuanzang w“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

At this point the text becomes considerably less dramatic and, depending on your perspective, either more or less interesting. For each little city-state it gives the distance and direction from the previous one, some idea of its population size, what its system of government is, what family its native language is from and a sort of statistical count of the state of Buddhism there in terms of how many monasteries and stupas there are there, how many are active, how many people serve them, and whether any particular stories adhere either to the city or the shrines.5 And then we move on. It’s a kind of religious Domesday of the western Silk Routes, or perhaps more like the supposed Carolingian survey of the Holy Land.6 So the interest level depends on whether you like having that kind of data recorded in something like a steady format or whether that bores you. You can guess that my students and I divided pretty neatly on this! But we did get quite a lot out of other issues, largely using the matrix for text analysis that was published on Dead Voles a long time ago, but also hitting at one big issue that is the actual subject of this post, which is that this whole text is not what Xuanzang wrote.

The Chahabil stupa in Nepal

I’m not sure this is one of the stupas Xuanzang saw, partly because my notes on the text aren’t good enough but also because it seems to have been many times rebuilt since its alleged third-century BC origins, but it’s much too cool not to include; it is the Chahabil stupa in Nepal. “Chabahil.stupa” by User:China_CrisisOwn work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons.

This is true at several levels, and they’re mostly self-evident which is why it is strange that I found it so often ignored in the scholarship we were using (which is, admittedly, basically either about Buddhism in China or the Silk Routes and therefore data-mining, but even in data-mining the context matters).6 To work back from the very first step: obviously, we were not reading this in Chinese but in a nineteenth-century English translation, which led to complications in two directions, firstly things that the translator Samuel Beal didn’t think needed translation (such as units for distance—a li seems to be about one-sixth of a mile, I worked out); and secondly things that he did, but which it might have been useful to be able to check (like, for example, ‘king’ or ‘stupa’—always the same word, or was he smoothing out what could have been significant variation?). Secondly, we are dealing here with a write-up of his travels that Xuanzang apparently wrote up in 646 on the request of the T’ang Emperor Taizong, but it was edited by his disciple Bianji and opens with a prologue by one Zhang Yue, declaring to Taizong how worthy Xuanzang is as a source of information, so it had been through one and maybe two careful if friendly editors before it got to the ruler (and of course, we don’t know whether it was then censored before being allowed out into circulation).7

Illustration by Yen Li-Pen of Emperor Taizong granting an audience to Ludongzan the ambassador of Tibet in 641

Here he is again, Emperor Taizong giving an audience to Ludongzan the ambassador of Tibet in 641. Yen Li-pen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

What this means is that editing and selection may have been going on at many stages: between approval by the emperor’s court and the creation of any of the actual manuscripts (leaving aside their own individual copying histories), before presentation to the emperor by Bianji and by Xuanzang as he compiled a final text of his notes from twenty years before, when he had apparently been fleeing Taizong’s officers; no wonder that the text as we have it says nothing deep about his reasons for travelling! We therefore don’t know whether Xuanzang’s notes and memories, and his interests, went beyond this methodical cataloguing of Buddhist survival, although in his doing of that an apocalyptic framework of overall decline does become sufficiently apparent that I believe that was one of the things on his mind, the imminent Destruction of the Law.8 But thirdly and perhaps most importantly, Bianji also tells us that Xuanzang had translated this text. From what? I presume that, since he was a Buddhist pilgrim travelling internationally, he was probably actually writing in Sanskrit, but in that case there’s another set of difficulties at that end of the writing process too! So it really is a very long and tangly set of steps from what a much younger Xuangzang had seen on his travels to what we have, as follows:

  1. from what he saw to what he, a foreigner, understood of it;
  2. from what he understood to what he thought worth writing down, probably in Sanskrit;
  3. from his earlier records, reviewed twenty years later, to what he could still read, understand or remember, and thought worth presenting to the Emperor;
  4. from that selection to what could be clearly expressed in Chinese, perhaps only a thin filter but there;
  5. from what Xuanzang then sent or had left to Bianji to what Bianji thought could be usefully presented to the emperor;
  6. from what Bianji then sent to Zhang Yue;
  7. what went to Emperor Taizong after Zhang Yue had seen it;
  8. what was considered worthy of keeping on official record thereafter;
  9. and then an uncountable number of steps from that archetype to the manuscripts we now have, followed by, for me
  10. the final filter of Beal’s translation.

Enough to slow us down before drawing hasty conclusions!

Map of the Upper March of Muslim Spain as laid out in the Ornament of Records of al-'Udrī

Map of the Upper March of Muslim Spain as laid out in the Ornament of Records of al-‘Udrī

Now, all of this struck particular chords with me because I had met something very much like it in my actual research quite shortly before as I finally got to grips with one of the principal Arabic sources for my corner of Europe, the Tarsi al-ajbar wa-tanwi al-atar wa-l-bustan, or Ornament of Records of Abu al-Abbas Ahmad ibn ‘Umar al-‘Udrī, an eleventh-century geographer and scholar of Almeria.

There are fewer issues here, but some obvious ones immediately recur: firstly, I don’t read Arabic, so was accessing this through a Castilian translation of the parts of the text that referred to the March of Zaragoza, exactly what I needed but not much of a clue either to al-‘Udrī’s technical terminology or to his larger purpose in assembling the text as a whole.9 There is in fact no full manuscript of this text and until 1965 it was unknown even in the parts we have except where quoted by other historians; the manuscript we do have, now in Egypt, has been claimed as an autograph second edition of the initial version of the text but is apparently incomplete even so, and details are hard to get, for me, because the edition of that fragment is in Arabic, and none of the Castilian authors who have used it say much about the manuscript preservation.10 Also, of course, it’s derivative; sometimes the author tells us he’s quoting the earlier work of Ahmad al-Rāzī, and sometimes it’s other authors, not always flagged as quotes. He probably does add more of his own but given the state of preservation of any of these texts it’s hard to be sure!

The Monasterio de San Benito de Talavera

One part of the Upper March that al-‘Udrī might have recognised, albeit with horror, the tenth-century castle at Talavera de la Reina with the later monastery of San Benito built pretty thorougly onto it. By Dixflips (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

More importantly, however, there seems to be with this as with Xuanzang a further step away from our original that is so immediate and obvious that none of the historiography stops to consider it. I’m conscious that here I can only work from Fernando de la Granja’s translation, and he himself was working from a photocopy of the manuscript made for him by its editor long before that edition had come out, none of this perfect for textual transmission, but the very first words of the translated text as de la Granja gives it are: “Dijo Ahmad ibn ‘Umar: …”, “Ahmad ibn ‘Umar said: …” In other words, unless our author talks about himself in the third person and the past, what we have here is already a report, a write-up and possibly even a summary of what al-‘Udri actually wrote; if that manuscript is (or was) an autograph, it was not al-‘Udri’s autograph but that of someone working with his text. In which case, what we have is surely only a selection, quite possibly added to by our anonymous editor working with who knows what other material and potentially using al-‘Udri’s name to add to the plausibility of what might be quite a different work with a very different agenda. We’ve no way of knowing, other than maybe lexical analysis of this text against other known works of his. But no-one’s done that, or even raised the issue, as far as I have yet found.11 I certainly can’t do anything about it myself, but I need to use this text so I do wish that someone else already had! I feel as if I shouldn’t need to be trying to lead scholarship through the same elementary hoops of text transmission that I was setting before my first-year students last year… Am I missing something out there, does anyone know?


1. Xuanzang, Da Tang Xiyu Ki, transl. Samuel Beal as Si-yu-ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, translated from the Chinese of Hiuen Tsiang (A.D. 629) (London 1884), 2 vols, online here and here, last modified 20th December 2011 as of 8th November 2014.

2. The biography is Hiuli, Da Tang Ci’en si sanzang fashi zhuan, which doesn’t seem to be in English translation but is summarised by various secondary works, including most obviously Sally Hovey Wriggins, The Silk Road journey with Xuanzang, 2nd edn. (Boulder PA 2004), on whose and others perspectives see now Max Deeg, ‘”Show Me the Land Where the Buddha Dwelled”: Xuanzang’s “Record of the Western Regions” (Xiyu ji): A Misunderstood Text?’ in China Report Vol. 48 (Los Angeles 2012), pp. 89-113, DOI: 10.1177/000944551104800205. On the Silk Routes more generally there are a wealth of books and I would cautiously recommend Valerie Hanson, The Silk Road: a new history (Oxford 2012) as the most scholarly I’ve met, while still reserving the right to be sceptical about the whole concept, even more so after reading Xuanzang indeed!

3. I get my perspective here from the excellent if grim George MacDonald Fraser, Quartered Safe Out Here: A Recollection of the War in Burma (London 1993).

4. Xuanzang, Xiyu Ki, transl. Beal, I, pp. 25 for hostile weather caused by dragons & 32 for the bones in the waste.

5. For example, a short one, the place that is now Aksu (ibid., I p. 24):

“The kingdom of Poh-luh-kia is about 600 li from east to west, and 300 li or so from north to south. The chief town is 5 or 6 li in circuit. With regard to the soil, climate, character of the people, the customs, and laws of [literary] composition, these are the same as in the country of K’iu-chi. The [spoken] language differs however a little. It produces a fine sort of cotton and hair-cloth, which are highly valued by bordering countries. There are some ten sanghârâmas here; the number of priests and followers is about one thousand. These follow the teaching of the ‘Little Vehicle,’ and belong to the school of the Sarvâstivâdas (Shwo-yih-tsai-yu-po).”

6. The former well-known to you I guess, the latter most recently treated in Michael McCormick, Charlemagne’s Survey of the Holy Land: wealth, personnel, and buildings of a Mediterranean Church between Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Washington DC 2011).

6bis. Examples I actually read of this: Stanley Weinstein, “Imperial patronage in the formation of T’ang Buddhism”, in Arthur F. Wright & Denis Twitchett (edd.), Perspectives on the T’ang (New Haven 1973), pp. 265-306; Erik Zürcher, “Buddhism and education in T’ang times” in W. Theodore de Bary & John W. Chaffee (edd.), Neo-Confucian education: the formative stage (Berkeley 1989), pp. 19-56; and of course, Jerry Bentley, Old World Encounters: cross-cultural contacts and exchanges in pre-modern times (Oxford 1993), pp. 29-66.

7. See n. 2 above.

8. E. g. Xuanzang, Xiyu Ki, transl. Beale, I, p. 53:

“Sanakavâsa was the disciple of Ananda. In a former existence he had given the priests garments made of the Sanaka plant, on the conclusion of the rainy season. By the force of this meritorious action during 500 successive births he wore only this (kind of) garment, and at his last birth he was born with it. As his body increased so his robe grew larger, until the time when he was converted by Ananda and left his home (i. e., became an ascetic). Then his robe changed into a religious garment; and when he was fully ordained it again changed into a Sanghâti, composed of nine pieces. When he was about to arrive at Nirvana he entered into the condition of Samâdhi, bordering on complete extinction, and by the force of his vow in attaining wisdom (he arrived at the knowledge) that this kashâya garment would last till the bequeathed law (testament) of Sâkya (was established), and after the destruction of this law then his garment also would perish. At the present time it is a little fading, for faith also is small at this time!”

9. Fernando de la Granja (transl.), “La marca superior en la obra de al-‘Udrī” in Estudios de la Edad Media de la Corona de Aragón Vol. 8 (Zaragoza 1967), pp. 447-545, online here.

10. My limited detail here comes from the equally limited detail of Luis Molina García, “Los dos versiones de la Geografía de al-‘Udrī” in al-Qantara Vol. 3 (Madrid 1982), pp. 249-260 at p. 250.

11. Molina, ibid., certainly cites the text as if it’s actually al-‘Udrī’s words throughout, using just the same phrase as does de la Granja’s translation for it!

Seminar CCXXI: underlings of the harvest

An experience that I have now and again with the number of seminars and conferences to which I go is that I find somebody speaking or present whom I know from reading lists and bibliographies but had no idea was still active in research. This happened to me on 9th December 2014 when the speaker at the Medieval Seminar of Birmingham’s Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages was none other than Jean Birrell. I knew her name primarily because of her rôle as a translator of various important French works on peasantry and agriculture, not least Pierre Bonnassie’s selected papers, and she was able to give me some personal impression of those people in questions afterwards, but her own research (still very much active) is more homegrown, and her title was “‘And he shall stand there all day with a rod’: peasant farmers and their farm-workers in thirteenth-century England”.1

Colchester, Essex County Records Office, D/DBw Q1

A document like some of the sources behind this paper, a slightly more modern manor custumal in the form of Colchester, Essex County Records Office, D/DBw Q1, presenting some unusually direct problems of handling source information!

The quote comes from the custumal of Burton Abbey, a lengthy document seeking to record for definite the obligations of the abbey’s peasant tenants to provide labour on the abbey’s estates. Working with a number of these documents, Dr Birrell was looking at how that kind of labour was managed across the English high Middle Ages.2 It could be split into two categories, week-work, due throughout the year on an days-per-week basis, and boon-work, when something sufficiently big needed doing that all able bodies (and their families in support) were called to muster, for harvests, shearing of sheep or similar, sometimes with free ale and meals laid on if the institution in question was generous enough. All this I sort of knew, very vaguely, but I hadn’t gathered how much this relied on a hierarchy of managers within the peasantry.

Illustration of peasants threshing

Illustration of peasants threshing, again I suspect rather more modern than we’re talking about but there’s no source specified and the technology is basically the same…

On the occasions when everyone was called in, such work (which was fairly unwilling, as all these householders had their own plots to harvest or sheep to shear too) was often watched over by overseers from the lowest levels of the nobility, and that was fairly straightforwardly coercive, but as the title shows the peasants themselves could be relied on to an extent to drive their fellows, or rather their immediate lessers, by force too. A hierarchy in which ‘yardlanders’, tenants with lands and dependants of their own, or ‘sokemen’ in the areas where a different law had once held sway, organised working parties of those with less or no land, even perhaps setting up the food but if not then probably getting more and better of it from those who did, and kept discipline among those parties. A few were even given very minor judicial rights so that they could if necessary hold a ‘field court’ to punish bad workers, and even more detailed orders of precedence were visible in seating arrangements at the meals on the occasions where the custumals specify them (and it shows you something that anyone had thought that needed to be fixed in writing to prevent disputes).

The title heading of the 1275 survey of the manor of Ingatestone, Essex, for Barking Abbey, Colchester, Essex County Records Office, D/DP M150

Something a bit more contemporary, the title heading of the 1275 survey of the manor of Ingatestone, Essex, for Barking Abbey, Colchester, Essex County Records Office, D/DP M150.

A Marxist perspective might see kulaks or similar here, the régime’s stooges co-opted by insignificant crumbs of status that left the lords safely above the hurly-burly of massed labour, and I’m not sure that would be wholly wrong, but the deceptive element of that perspective seems to be missing a point to me. Firstly, the mere existence of these custumals shows that the peasants were under no illusions about who the big boss was; they may well have negotiated with the yardlanders too but the abbey was the guarantor and more-or-less grudging grantor of all their rights, greater and lesser. That seems to me to leave space to appeal against or demand reduction of over-mighty intermediaries. Instead I wonder if the operative concern here wasn’t the democratic concern for the general good that our modern perspectives sometimes assume in such cases and more the early parliamentary thinking whereby one wanted one’s representative to be as influential as possible, so better that he be of high status (and it would be a he, usually though some of Dr Birrell’s boss peasants were in fact women). Look if you like at the different rôles played by Wat Tyler and Sir John Newton in the Peasants’ Revolt as reported by Froissart; Tyler got ignored as soon as he wasn’t a present threat, because of being too uncourtly to be taken seriously, whereas Sir John, while very unwilling to be involved, was still compelled to speak for the rebels, carried out his promise more or less honourably and was heard as a man of honour too.3 Obviously that is Froissart’s report and his perspective was not a peasant one; but this kind of sensitivity to status was, I think, a realistic one rather than one addled by the opiate of small amounts of power. Probably terribly naïve and some Rodney Hilton would doubtless disabuse me but nonetheless these were the thoughts I got from this paper, and I quite like them.


1. The works I knew her name from were, specifically, Pierre Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. Jean Birrell (Cambridge 1991); Guy Bois, La mutation de l’an mil (Paris 1989), transl. Jean Birrell as The Transformation of the Year 1000: the village of Lournand from Antiquity to feudalism (Manchester 1992); Domninique Barthélemy, “Debate: the feudal revolution. I”, transl. Jean Birrell, in Past and Present no. 152 (Oxford 1996), pp. 196-205; Georges Duby, Dames du XIIe siècle, I : Héloïse, Aliénor, Iseut et quelques autres (Paris 1995), transl. Jean Birrell as Women of the Twelfth Century volume one: Eleanor of Aquitaine and six others (Cambridge 1997); and Jean-Pierre Devroey, “Men and Women in Early Medieval Serfdom: the ninth-century Frankish evidence”, transl. Jean Birrell, in Past and Present no. 166 (Oxford 2000), pp. 3-30; but a quick Regesta Imperii search shows that much more could be added.

2. She had, indeed, at this point just published what must be related work, “Manorial Custumals Reconsidered” in Past and Present no. 224 (Oxford 2014), pp. 3-37, DOI: 10.1093/pastj/gtu007, so if the material here intrigues you that’s where to go to look for more!

3. Working here from the quick and easy resource of Froissart, Chronicles, transl. Geoffrey Brereton (Harmondsworth 1968), pp. 211-230 esp. pp. 214-216 (Sir John’s embassy) and pp. 224-229 (the fate of Tyler).

The power of coincidence

[This post was written on 18th November 2014 and queued; I’m finally up to it in the queue and have updated very slightly for my current situation.]

Chinese pottery at the top of the yet-to-be-excavated Belitung shipwreck in 1998

Chinese pottery at the top of the yet-to-be-excavated Belitung shipwreck in 1998

Humans are pattern-spotting animals, of course, and a great many false findings rest on our attempting to find reproducibility and significance in patterns that are effectively random. As we know, if someone is asking you in print, “Is it a coincidence that… ?” then the answer is probably yes. All the same, sometimes you cannot help but wonder. Four days before writing the first draft of this post I was at a paper where I met the word ‘keelson‘ for the first time (it’s a stiffener one puts inside a boat’s hull to support the keel on the outside, as the speaker explained).1 On the day I wrote the post I then met it for the second time, with no explanation, in the article from my to-read directory of PDFs that I have been assembling since 2008, but of course now I knew what it meant.

This particular file wound up in that directory in 2009 but I came to it only now, in November 2014, without any selection except that of when I put the file there and my ignoring a section of a thesis on Girona cathedral which I’m not sure why I wanted. So there was no reason at all for the article at the top of the heap either to mention keelsons or to be about Persian and Indian contact with T’ang China, which I was then teaching, but nonetheless it was, even though I’d grabbed the file to read five years before, when I was still working at the Fitzwilliam Museum and never expected to teach China and the Silk Routes at all.2 Don’t you also find that this kind of thing happens quite a lot? This is why I try not to mess with my routines for working through undirected reading; it often turns out to have a direction I never expected after all…


1. Rebecca Ingram, “Making it Last: the construction and repair of a 7th-century ship from Constantinople’s Theodosian harbour”, paper presented to the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, University of Birmingham, 13th November 2014.

2. Michael Flecker, “A ninth-century AD Arab or Indian shipwreck in Indonesia: first evidence for direct trade with China” in World Archaeology 32 (London 2001), pp. 335-354, DOI: 10.1080/00438240120048662.

Seminar CCXX: rôles for superfluous imperial women

The day after the seminar I last reported on I was at yet another, back in Birmingham to hear Professor Jill Harries presenting to the General Seminar of the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies. Her paper was entitled “Mother vs maiden: Helena, Pulcheria and the formulation of imperial dynasty in late antiquity”, and it was fun; I haven’t seen someone presenting who enjoyed their topic so visibly for quite a while. Some interesting points came out of it, too, so I shall try and give a decent report even though the period is not my usual one; after all, these days, teaching requires that it become more familiar… Professor Harries’s paper set out to assess just how much freedom women of the late Roman imperial family actually had to decide their own fates. It doesn’t seem like too much of a spoiler to say straight away that the answer was ‘hardly any’, although I thought that more could be teased out of the material and I’ll say more about that below. But basically, the imperial women were policy tools for the emperors, and so the meat of the paper was in the changes visible in the ways in and the extent to which emperors did that.

Bronze follis of Empress Helena, paired with a personification of the Security of the State, struck at Arles in 327, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R

Bronze follis of Empress Helena, paired with a personification of the Security of the State, struck at Arles in 327, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R3141; all coins pictures given at maximum size, not to scale

Gold solidus of Empress Ælia Pulcheria, paired with a personification of imperial Victory, struck at Constantinople between 450 and 453

Gold solidus of Empress Ælia Pulcheria, paired with a personification of imperial Victory, struck at Constantinople between 450 and 453. “Pulcheria Coin” by Asybaris01http://www.romancoins.info/Wives3.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

There were four phases implicit in the paper, and two explicit ones, those two represented by these two ladies, Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine I (306-337), finder of the True Cross and eventual saint, and Pulcheria, daughter of the Emperor Arcadius (395-408) and thus sister of and something like religious consultant to Emperor Theodosius II (408-450), before finally becoming the wife of the Emperor Marcian (450-457) as which she died. Outwith that, however, there were implicit before and after phases, before Christianization and after the breakdown of Roman rule in the West. The latter of these was basically a point of fissure; after it, what Professor Harries observed was no longer so observable, so I won’t discuss it here. In the pre-Christian phase it is basically rare to see imperial women having had any rôle at all; in the very earliest empire Livia was arguably a serious power-broker and in the third century a small raft of women called Julia (and especially Julia Mæsa) were very important in the appointment of emperors, but these both seem to be those difficult combinations of exceptional times and exceptional women that make generalisation about such things so very hard. (I do wonder how far this is an artefact of the focus of our written sources, I have to say. One of the things that working closely with the Barber Institute’s coins made clear is that an awful lot of empresses got coin series. Again, I will say more about this below, but I feel as if the coins may be telling us that empresses had more of a rôle as faces of the state than our various chroniclers were interested in reporting, and that subsequent developments as described here might therefore look less weird.1)

Silver antoninianus of Empress Julia Mæsa struck at Rome 223-226

Silver antoninianus of Empress Julia Mæsa, paired with the mother-goddess Juno, struck at Rome 223-226

In any case, these women were exceptional in some sense at least, but this changed in the reign of Constantine. Not straight away: Helena was Constantine’s father’s first wife of two and when Constantine recalled her to the palace in 312 it was after she had endured some years of political occlusion. Professor Harries showed us that Helena had something of a rôle in Rome as Constantine’s representative, though she was not alone of the family there, and as I already knew, after a short test run in Alexandria she was featured on coins right across the Empire from 324 to 326. The thing is that she was not alone in that; not only had Constantine’s sons had their own coinages for a few years by this time, but in 324 they were joined not just by their grandmother but by their mother, Constantine’s wife, Fausta, and indeed for a very short time at Rome only, Constantine’s sister Constantia.2 His younger sons were called Constantine, Constantius (after granddad) and Constans, by the way; Constantine understood brands… His eldest son, however, was called Crispus and was murdered in 326 for reasons that have become legend to such an extent that the reality will never be known, and perhaps as part of this Fausta was also dead by the end of that year and those coinages stop.3 Showing that money isn’t everything, it was at this point that Helena suddenly became a really public figure by visiting the Holy Land and there supposedly finding the True Cross on which Jesus had been crucified, of which Constantinopolitan rulers would be handing out fragments for nine centuries thereafter. There was some kind of exercise of moral repair going on here in which Helena’s Christianity suddenly became a way out of whatever trouble Constantine’s family was in, suggested Professor Harries, and it’s as good an explanation of the changes in Constantine’s somewhat ambivalent attitude to Christianity as any I’ve heard at least.4

Bulgarian icon of Saints Constantine and Helena with a patriarchal cross

That ambivalence, of course, is a feature of modern Western scholarship which the Orthodox church, considering both son and mother saints, would dismiss or even condemn. Here is a later Bulgarian icon of them both serenely untroubled by such concerns, which the Bulgarian National Commission for UNESCO have not seen fit to attribute

There isn’t, in this, really any suggestion that the by-now-septuagenarian empress had a lot of choice in her elevation to imperial Christian patroness; her religion was convenient, her status unaffected by whatever had befallen, and Constantine had need of her. Nonetheless, argued, Professor Harries, Christianity opened up new ways for emperors to put their women to work, ways that remained options even if, as in subsequent years was usual, they were not used and imperial women were largely either hidden or married off to generals or Cæsars. Pulcheria is arguably the first flicker we get of Christianity as chosen imperial career path, and even her dedication to virginity in 413 didn’t prevent her being named Augusta in 414 (or from getting a coin series). The Church historian Sozomen, who seems to have liked to use powerful women to make points about failings of emperors as we’ve seen before, tells us a lot about her influence on Theodosius, and she seems to have lent the court a cladding of sanctity that was useful to Theodosius but which would, in time of need at his death, be dispensed with in the cause of a peaceful succession when she married Marcian after a few months as effective ruler in her own right. She was too old to continue the family by then, but it gave Marcian some kind of link to the previous régime. Interestingly, Marcian’s successor Majorian was to legislate against this kind of parking of women in religious status until convenient, and significantly increased their rights to leave. For Professor Harries, Pulcheria didn’t have such a choice; although she may have been inclined to and even happy with her intermediate status between the worlds of withdrawal and policy, it was part of the emperor’s presentation of his court, not her modification thereof.

Copy of an ivory plaque showing Emperor Theodosius II and Empress Pulcheria overseeing a relic translation in Constantinople, this copy in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum Mainz, the original in Trier

Copy of an ivory plaque supposedly showing Emperor Theodosius II and Empress Pulcheria overseeing a relic translation in Constantinople, although I’m sure I’ve seen them identified as Constantine VI and Eirini before now; this copy is in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum Mainz, the original in Trier

That is of course a reasonable default position and Sozomen is really not the source one would want for this job, since his interest was so very far from straightforward political narrative. Nonetheless, it did seem to me that some of what he apparently says had implications of something different. Professor Harries had stressed that Theodosius didn’t necessarily pay much attention to Pulcheria, as often her requests in the name of patronage could be refused. But consider that a moment: what it implies is that Theodosius didn’t necessarily approve of her requests, which in turn makes it very unlikely that he put her up to them. In which case, what we are surely seeing there is her initiative, at least in so far as she was choosing whom to try to promote. If all her requests had been granted, we might justly suspect that Theodosius had for some reason set her up as a perfect intercessor whose requests would thus doubtless have been very carefully chosen, but because she couldn’t always get her way I think we actually have some reason to believe that ‘her way’ was something that existed. This has the rather paradoxical implication that we only have good basis to believe in agency’s existence when we see it being thwarted, which feels wrong in a number of ways but might still be worth thinking with, not least as it resembles the more widely-accepted idea that we tend only to see identity being defined when it is under threat and therefore weak.5 You can already see from the above, which is based almost entirely on information Professor Harries provided in the paper (and in a ten-minute addendum during discussion), how rich a paper this was and how many little avenues of interest could have been pursued; for me, however, that extra step of thinking is the big thing this paper gave me.

Silver denarius of Empress Faustina I struck in Rome 139-141, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R1180

Silver denarius of Empress Faustina I, paired with the mother goddess Juno, struck in Rome 139-141, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R1180

Copper-alloy sestertius of Empress Faustina II, paired with a personification of public happiness, struck at Rome 145-146, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R1220

Copper-alloy sestertius of Empress Faustina II, paired with a personification of Happiness, struck at Rome 145-146, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R1220

Writing this up now, however, I find an urge to append my own little extra bit in the form of the promised extra point about the pre-Christian phase. The women above were also empresses, in the family of another emperor who put as many of his relations on the coins as he could, that being Antoninus Pius, still of course alive and blogging up until a few years ago. Antoninus was also, as his name suggests, something of a one for the public display of piety; but what of the empresses? Did they form part of that strategy of presentation, did they sit at court being pious in a pre-Christian Roman fashion or go out and dedicate buildings and help the poor as did Helena? Well, we just don’t know because our main source, the Historia Augusta, is not concerned with them in the way that Sozomen was with Helena and Pulcheria, though it does tell us that Antoninus established funds for destitute women in his wife’s name after her death, which of course tells us that she had not, even if he thought it a fitting tribute. But basically we don’t know, and yet we see many of the same things going on with coins here, in terms of the association of the imperial women with particular virtues, as we see with the women of Constantine, to which can be added the imperial promotion possibilities inherent in their deification, which was duly recognised after both their deaths in ceremony and on the coinage. I’m not sure I’m saying that this makes what Constantine was doing with his women any less unusual, but it might tell us where the idea was coming from, and if it did, it would most likely be telling us that it actually came from the coins…

Copper-alloy as in the name of the deified Empress Faustina I struck at Rome 141-161, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R1217

Copper-alloy as in the name of the deified Empress Faustina I struck at Rome 141-161, Barber Institute of Fine Arts R1217


1. For example, just listing those empresses represented in the Barber Institute’s collection gives one Livia, Antonia, Agrippina, Julia, Julia Titi, Domitia, Plotina, Marciana, Matidia, Sabina, Faustina I, Faustina II, Lucilla, Crispina, Manlia, Didia Clara, Julia Domna, Plautilla, Julia Paula, Aquilia Severa, Julia Sœmias, Julia Mæsa, Orbiana, Julia Mamæa, Paulina, Sabina Tranquillana, Otacilia Severa, Herennia Etruscilla, Mariniana, Salonina, Severina, Magna Urbica, Galeria Valeria, Helena, Fausta, Theodora I, Flaccilla, Eudoxia, Eudocia, Galla Placidia, Licinia Eudoxia, Pulcheria and Verina, which is not that far off every known emperor’s wife and a few who were not even wives. I think we would be safe to consider putting the empress on coins a usual thing to do.

2. I have become familiar with the images Helena and Fausta just because of seeing them on the Barber’s coins, not least in getting them out for Professor Harries the day after this paper but Constantia is less well-known and I know of her issue only from Harold Mattingly, C. H. V. Sutherland, R. A. G. Carson, J. P. C. Kent & Andrew Burnett (edd.), The Roman Imperial Coinage, volume 7: Constantine and Licinius A. D. 313-337, ed. Patrick M. Bruun (London 1966), from which I can’t give a detailed reference right now; she’s in one or two of the indices. On empresses on coins more generally in this period, however, see Leslie Brubaker & Helen Tobler, “The gender of money: Byzantine empresses on coins (324-802)” in Gender and History Vol. 12 (Oxford 2000), pp. 572-594, repr. in Pauline Stafford & Anneke Mulder-Bakke (edd.), Gendering the Middle Ages (Oxford 2001), pp. 42-64.

3. It is tempting to suggest that the reason was that he wouldn’t change his name to fit, but the basic problem is that contemporary sources obviously knew it was unwise to discuss this affair in writing, later sources therefore don’t know what happened and then it gets wrapped into the Legend of Constantine as the reason for the curse of leprosy of which Pope Sylvester supposedly cured the emperor and after that no possibility of factual report remains…

4. The obvious rival candidate is Timothy Barnes, author of Constantine: Dynasty, Religion and Power in the Later Roman Empire (Oxford 2011), who came in for a good deal of good-natured criticism in this paper. Prof. Harries’s own views are evident in her Imperial Rome AD 284 to 363: The New Empire (Edinburgh 2012) but this paper was part of a more focused study on Constantine that we can only await eagerly! As for Pulcheria, there there is Ada B. Teetgen, The Life and Times of the Empress Pulcheria A. D. 399-452 (London 1907) and now all over the web, and there must be more recent stuff too but I don’t know it, sorry.

5. This is perhaps the single most powerful critical insight I got from my undergraduate study of history. Of course, it is in some ways just the carrying into discourse of the Shakespearian formulation about protesting too much, and I’m certainly not claiming I thought of it—I’m pretty sure, instead, that I got it from Matthew Innes‘s teaching—but it is still worth having as a tool. If a source is all up about something being natural, traditional, well-established, old or usual, it’s often because they’ve met people who think it’s not…

Problems of comparative global history

[This post was basically written in November 2014 and queued, and is presented here with a light dusting of updated relevance but basically from the position I was in then, not now, hopefully still worthwhile.]

As recent posts will probably have made clear, I am something of a novice at thinking about global history as a field. As with a lot of things I didn’t cover at undergraduate level, I have had to work to see what is worthwhile about it; my initial feeling, not entirely dispelled, was that a lot of what is called global history would be better described as “explaining a place to Occidental Anglophones that is outside their cultural tradition”. I would now admit that a lot of people identifying as global historians are actually striving to do something more meaningful than that, and the things that they attempt are potentially pretty major.

World map drawn by Gerard van Schagen in Amsterdam in 1689

World map drawn by Gerard van Schagen, quite the name and quite the artist, in Amsterdam in 1689, and now the masthead for a great many global history courses and the Toynbee Prize, none of whom seem to bother attributing it! A full version of it is available on Wikimedia Commons, linked through.

Of course, they must by nature be big. Something’s not a global phenomenon if it only happens in one place, and as we’ve previously discussed it also needs to be connected not just to be coincidence, a particular problem for the low-connectivity scenario of the early Middle Ages. It seems to me that evaluating whether something is ‘global’ thus ineluctably means comparison; even if this thing looks like that other thing, are the causes the same, do the different backgrounds invalidate the resemblance, and so on? (Think if you like, of the attempts to match up European seigneurial lordship and the society of the fifteenth-century samurai under the banner of ‘feudalism’.1) It also probably needs to be big in time, simply because short of meteorite impact or volcanic action on a huge scale, very little can affect the whole globe at once without being very slow and therefore necessarily long-lasting if it’s to have that effect. The different contexts in which these changes must play out to be comparable also seem to me to dictate fairly high levels of abstraction, so that small-detail phenomena will be much harder to match as well as less observable. You also have to look at things that your comparanda actually have to compare, which since most cultural factors didn’t resemble each other very exactly before globalisation, leaves you choosing things that can be described vaguely enough to match up.2 So I think that most would-be global comparison must be longue durée. At this rate it becomes hard to say much that has a lot more grip on its metaphorical tyres than “agriculture starts or changes” or “a technology diffuses now”.

Drawing of Don Quixote charging at a windmill

A medievalising reference to two new forms of technology at once, the couched lance and the mechanical windmill! Thankyou Cervantes for such a relevant commentary…

This post, like the last one on such issues, was occasioned by reading S. A. M. Adshead’s T’ang China: the rise of the East in world history, and it must be said that he strives for a good deal more complexity than this in his explicitly comparative scheme.3 The book, having spent a chapter tearing apart his opponent’s schema, then does four chapters which each take a particular sphere of social development, describe the T’ang version of that sphere in detail and then compare to India, Byzantium, the world of Islam and the Latin West at about the same time (which is to say 500-1000 CE). The four spheres are politics, by which he seems basically to mean development and efficiency of the apparatus of state (or states), economy (meaning standard of living, economic activity, both production and distribution, and the extent of purely financial operation), society (by which he mainly means family structures and marriage, graded more or less according to the extent of initiative and space of action left to women) and intellect (by which he means both scientific and philosophical innovation and sophistication). These are, arguably, all things that one can at least attempt to assess in all these societies or groups of societies, so that seems like a model worth abstracting. My essential question here is whether the uses of the model, both as designed and applied, preset its results so much as to remove its value as an empirical framework of comparison.

Diagram of grid-group cultural analysis

A grid-group diagram, just for reference, linked to a really enthusiastic but clear write-up by Dustin Stotz

The terms of Adshead’s assessment are at least always explicit, and they are rarely as simple as being a single analogue scale. Instead, he rather favours something quite like grid-group analysis, with two axes of comparison allowing one to place a society in one of four quadrants or move between them over time. Here is an example:

“[China’s intellectual development under the T’ang] may be assessed by reference to a grid composed of two axes, one horizontal from paradigmatic to syntagmatic, the other vertical from categorical to critical. The grid provides four registers of intellectual activity: paradigmatic-categorical, categorical-syntagmatic, syntagmatic-critical, critical-paradigmatic. The contrast paradigmatic/syntagmatic is between, on the one hand, intransitive, self-referent, declaratory thinking such as mathematics, myth, music or other art forms and linguistic syntax; and on the other hand, transitive, other-referent descriptive thinking in theories and hypotheses, as may be found in science, scholarship, theology and metaphysics. The contrast categorical/critical is between prior, first-order thinking, whether about paradigms or syntagmata, and posterior, second-order thinking, whether in the intransitive arts or in the transitive sciences. The degree of complexity, or intellectual depth, may be measured by the number of registers in which intellectual activity is taking place, while the degree of pluralism may be measured by the number of alternatives within each register.”4

This nicely exemplifies the problem Adshead’s book gives me. I don’t feel that this structure is anywhere near justified by its references: mathematics would jump categories the minute one applied it, music that was meant to make money or was written to excite patriotism also doesn’t fit, scholarship surely exists in all these modes, and in any case is this really enough to contain the full range of human intellectual endeavour? But even if the answer is, ‘almost certainly not’, that doesn’t necessarily stop this being a framework that one can, with a certain amount of forcing, fit over most societies. So does that actually do any good? If one could somehow patch the terms of reference, would it be better, or do we just run up against the fact that outside categories don’t always work when drawn into a foreign context? Does it help, for example, to say that the British Empire in the nineteenth century had a much more active land market per capita than the Maori of New Zealand when in-depth work suggests that that Maori did not consider land to be alienable, and so disposed of it on utterly different terms?5 One can certainly make the comparison, but is it not effectively to penalise the Maori in the balance for not playing the Western game?

Illustration by Yen Li-Pen of Emperor Taizong granting an audience to Ludongzan the ambassador of Tibet in 641

T’ang China in its international, but still intracontinental, aspect: Emperor Taizong gives an audience to Ludongzan the ambassador of Tibet in 641. Yen Li-pen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

In Adshead’s case, of course, the aim is to show T’ang China ahead in all scales, and so the terms of reference are ones in which it excels: indirect taxes, bureaucracy, management of resources, variety of marriage forms, religious and cosmological plurality and philosophical competition. I suspect that one could, if one did not accept these terms, come up with a set that favoured Byzantium or Islam just as heavily and that could just as easily be assumed to be good—citizen military involvement, governmental centralisation, religious unity and coherence of intellectual culture, for example—and thus find China seriously wrongheaded in its priorities. India tends to lose out on all Adshead’s scales of achievement, and that reminds me of an Internet conversation I saw once in which one westerner was being horrified at poverty in India: they said something like, “India’s population has multiplied by five in the last fifty years and the percentage of people in poverty hasn’t changed a bit!” To which, someone else said, “So they’ve multiplied the number of people using their resources five-fold and still managed to maintain the level of wealth in the economy? Sounds like a success story to me!” The figures may be basically fictional but the terms of the assessment really do matter, you see… I think that Adshead’s initial attempt to compare T’ang China to the USA of 2004 shows where his categories are coming from, but that only increases the likelihood that some of the parties in this comparison would have rejected them. That rejection of a value set would still be historical, but if the conclusion is that T’ang China being better at these things made it the most significant world power of the early Middle Ages, quite apart from the difficulty already pointed out of whether or not anywhere was a world power in so weakly-connected a world, since they did not really affect each other, we really have slid very smoothly from data to value judgement without clearly justifying the values (except by their use in showing Frank’s rival book wrong).

Again, however, there lurks within this the possibility still that a comparative exercise done like this, with maybe different terms of reference and maybe even three-axis comparisons in some spheres, might actually enable truly global comparison. It’s quite hard to tell with Adshead’s attempt what the potential of the method really us, however, because the data he uses outside China is so shaky. His range of references for the Latin West is quite broad, but with Islam there is a great deal of early Patricia Crone in the very occasional references, including some stuff that I think she might now modify, and the only cite for India is John Keay’s India: a history, and that only for the political section; for the others there is just nothing to show whence the dismissal of India’s success comes from.6 (I have no particular interest in championing India here, I should say, it’s just very clearly got the worst of Adshead’s attention.) The Latin West is pretty well favoured; there’s a range of serious and detailed works, often quite modern, in several languages, and while I personally cringe somewhat at seeing Richard Fletcher’s book on Anglo-Saxon feud used as a cite for information on the size of York in the year 1000, at least he had read it. One might expect at least that much attention to all the areas compared, though!

The Pancha Rathas at the shore temple site of Mahabalipuram, said to be seventh-century

Actually as we have said before now quite a lot was plainly going on in India, especially in the South, in our Middle Ages but it’s awfully hard to date precisely. Here the Pancha Rathas at the shore temple site of Mahabalipuram, said to be seventh-century and so T’ang-contemporary, but on what basis I have no idea… “Mamallaratham” by ThiagupillaiOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

The treatment of Byzantium gives me a mean suspicion of what might be going in both here and in the far-better-covered China, however. The political cite of reference for the Byzantine Empire is that very old chestnut, Dimitri Obolensky’s The Byzantine Commonwealth, which will make some readers groan I know; why doesn’t Adshead at least use a more up-to-date textbook like Treadgold’s A Concise History of Byzantium or something more analytical like a Cambridge History or two? (The ones for China do turn up.) And the answer is that elsewhere he does, Treadgold at least, but not for the politics, where he has a particular view about the stasis of Byzantine political theory, of course compared unfavourably to a supposed Chinese reconception of government in new circumstances, that Treadgold would not allow him to support.7 The same thing is probably going on with the cites of Crone’s old work, I guess; times may have moved on but that would ruin the argument… And this is all very well for the power of the argument but of course in historical terms, or rather computing ones, it’s garbage in, garbage out; the comparison can’t be valid if it’s founded on information selected especially to make the comparison work, rather than an earnest attempt to find out the scholarly consensus on an issue.

So at the end of this I am very undecided about this book. I am certain that I don’t want to accept the premise that T’ang China was briefly a leading world power, in any of these measures, but I don’t know whether to accept the assessment of it by those measures; I am also certain that the comparison has not been fairly managed, but feel that a comparison by means like this could still be a way of making global-scale comnparison actually dig into something of meaning. Could we use these tools to build something better? I wonder…


1. The most developed example of this I know is Joseph R. Strayer, “The Tokugawa Period and Japanese Feudalism” in John W. Hall and Marius Jansen (edd.), Studies in the Institutional History of Modern Japan (Princeton 1968), pp. 3-14, repr. in Strayer, Medieval Statecraft and the Perspectives of History (Princeton 1971), pp. 63-89, to which cf. Elizabeth A. R. Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe” in American Historical Review Vol. 79 (Washington DC 1974), pp. 1063-1088, online here, repr. in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (edd.), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 148-169, and indeed Susan Reynolds, “The Use of Feudalism in Comparative History” in Benjamin Z. Kedar (ed.), Explorations in Comparative History (Jerusalem 2009), pp. 191-219, repr. in Reynolds, The Middle Ages without feudalism: essays in criticism and comparison on the Medieval West, Variorum Collected Studies 1019 (Farnham 2012), VI.

2. As ever my go-to statement of the requirements that comparative history must meet is Chris 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, DOI: 10.2307/3679106, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226.

3. S. A. M. Adshead, T’ang China: the rise of the East in world history (London 2004).

4. Ibid. p. 131. His note references Claude Lévi-Strauss, L’Homme Nu, Mythologies IV (Paris 1971), pp. 575-586, which is perhaps where I should really be looking for his tools…

5. The place I actually read all this, apart from the great old internet of course, is Claudia Orange, The Treaty of Waitangi (Wellington 1987), so I hope it’s credible.

6. John Keay, India: a History (London 2000), cit. Adshead, T’ang China p. 55 n. 14. There is simply nothing else cited for India in the later comparative sections, and no other works relating to it visible to me in the Bibliography.

7. D. Obolensky, The Byzantine commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 500-1453 (New York City 1971), cited Adshead, T’ang China, p. 60 n. 22, vs W. T. Treadgold, A Concise History of Byzantium (London 2001), published by Adshead’s own publishers and cited Adshead, T’ang China, p. 96 n. 37. I suppose it’s only fair to admit that the Cambridge History of Byzantium did not actually yet exist when Adshead wrote; it is now Jonathan Shepard (ed.), The Cambridge History of Byzantium (Cambridge 2007) and is really useful. But the field had not stood still until its emergence!

Seminar CCXIX: before the canon of canon law

Finally leaving November 2014 but not yet catching up to the all-important line of a full year behind, my backlogged reporting now brings me back into the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, where on 3rd December 2014 Dr Danica Summerlin was speaking with the title, “The Afterlife of the ‘Old Law’: rethinking the role of pre-Gratian texts in later twelfth-century canonical collections”. I’ve been in occasional contact with Danica since early in her Ph. D. and so was there at least partly out of loyalty, to her and the seminar both; this is not my topic, and I have consequently little contribution to make in a blog post, but it seems to me that her big point is worth blogging anyway.

Sixteenth-century fresco depiction of the First Council of Nicæa, A. D. 325, in the church of Ayios Sozomenos in Galata, Cyprus

A sixteenth-century depiction of canon law in creation in the form of the First Council of Nicæa, A. D. 325, in the church of Ayios Sozomenos in Galata, Cyprus

If you’ve read about canon law at a textbook level you may have a picture that runs roughly like this: once we’re out of the era of great Church councils to which the West pays attention (because I feel it’s worth remembering that none of these concepts make any sense outside the Latin world), canon law is a disjointed area of knowledge in which the general opinion is so disparate that people can easily make stuff up and be taken seriously; come the eleventh century, when as we know ‘from nothing’ civilisation suddenly shakes off the supposed Dark Ages and gets with the Europeanizing program, people like Burchard of Worms start producing more systematic compilations of rulings of Church councils; but really, none of this counts as much as the work of Gratian, whose Harmonisation of Discordant Canons, usually known to us as the Decretum from the papal legal judgements it also compiles, which puts everything worth including in a sensible order and is then (after about 1150) made the basis for high-level education in canon law and so propagates across the Latin West in short order, job done, civilisation achieved.1

A page from a glossed fourteenth-century of the Decretum, Cesena, Biblioteca Malatestiana, Pluteo II sin. cod. 1, fol. 2r.

A page from a glossed fourteenth-century of the Decretum, Cesena, Biblioteca Malatestiana, Pluteo II sin. cod. 1, fol. 2r.

Inevitably—and above at least deliberately—this is over-simplistic, but it also, argued Danica, very much misrepresents what the first users of Gratian’s work wanted it for. It is not as simple as that Gratian provided them with an authoritative source of ‘old law’, because the compilations into which his early work was copied often included extra stuff from older texts, and in some cases the older texts were preferred precisely because of their antiquity. Many texts were copied with his work which a modern classification would not even call canons (or decretals). They often take only a small sample of Gratian and then edit it together with stuff from Burchard, or similar, and sometimes the extra material is then copied separately, by people who presumably had Gratian but thought that they needed this extra stuff which he had, in the modern view, supplanted. As Danica spoke it became clear that she could show, as many times as we liked, that this replacement was not total and that it was very slow, still incomplete by 1250 or even later when these variant texts were still being copied. More importantly, what shouldn’t have been surprising but still is, I guess because something like Gratian looks like a centralised set of rules to which all the Church might have been expected to subscribe, is the scale of variation between the texts. Everyone who made a compilation from or copied part of the Decretum had their own particular purpose. Well thankyou Captain Obvious, you may well say, but it has not been obvious; what has supposedly been obvious is this idea of the Decretum as the almost-immediately-definitive version of Western canon law, and what Danica made obvious was that that was not obvious to its initial audience and users, and that what should be obvious to us instead is the variation of their responses to it.


1. E. g. the one I keep around partly for its list of rulers but partly as a source of evidence for the textbook clichés I like to lampoon, Jo Ann Moran Cruz & Richard Gerberding, Medieval Worlds: an introduction to European history 300-1492 (Boston MA 2004), pp. 408-409: “… these courts rested on a body of ecclesiastical law called canon law. This church law had been effectively pulled together by lawyers and administrators in the wake of the Gregorian reform, and particularly in the 1140s by Gratian, a law teacher at Bologna, in his Decretum, an authoritative concordance of canon law (see Chapters 11 and 14)”. And… that’s it. Even in those other chapters it doesn’t give any clue what the sources of canon law actually were or anything that might dispel the impression here given that these lawyers and administrators and Gratian actually originated the law which they published. Here as in the various webpages I’ve linked, the story we’re able to tell starts with Gratian making it all much simpler. Well, a different story could be told.

Musing on connectivity and world systems apropos of T’ang China

[This post is one of two I wrote in November 2014 and then queued, expecting to be cutting down my backlog sooner than I actually have. I still think they’re worth posting, but they have ‘legacy issues’. I’ve gone through to try and update the references to what was then my current work and teaching but may have missed a few. Try to read it in the past!]

Birmingham, as you already know by now, is very keen on its global history. Even its medievalist historians are as many or more non-European in focus than European, so that while I was there I was essentially the only pre-900 European teaching cover outside of English, Drama and American and Canadian Studies and Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology, where the Late Antique and Byzantine people hang out. What this means, apart from anything else, is that the medieval outline courses have quite a spread, and thus it was that in November and December I found myself teaching China and the Silk Roads for the first time. As you can imagine this took a bit of a run-up, and in that run-up I was reading, among other things, Samuel Adshead’s T’ang China: the rise of the East in world history. Now this is a book that would make many a historian fairly sceptical about world history, although it was apparently written as a riposte to another book even more of that kind.1 It is also, however, very clever, and it made me think.

Cover of Samuel Adshead's T'ang China: the rise of the East in World History (London 2004)

Cover of Samuel Adshead’s T’ang China: the rise of the East in World History (London 2004)

First the scepticism, just to get that out of the way. Using what seems to be a quite old-fashioned narrative of political coups and the successes and failures of the succession of Chinese rulers with achieving peace or reform,2 the book attempts to make the case that T’ang China was the leading world power in its day, and it is deliberately and extensively comparative (including, in the introduction, to the modern USA). The terms of this assessment are unapologetically Whiggish: the ultimate goal is a developed state apparatus and national consciousness and this is assumed good for so much of the book that it makes my hippy protestor personality quite cross; the whole thing is an assessment of various states against an unquestioned standard of patriotic liberal bureaucracy and commendation of their progress towards that or condemnation for their inability to do so. And yet even within this the cleverness: why is that the good? Because it enabled peace, Adshead at one point implies as if it’s self-evident, and to maintain that peace required a well-resourced and flexible state.3 Well, we could argue about that, but it’s a case, and he doesn’t require this state to be unified: as he sees it some decentralised configurations of both China and the comparators worked better.4 His criteria for comparison are very carefully chosen, though possibly also too broad to be useful and much narrower ones seem mainly to be deployed for most of the detailed analysis. I will write more about this, but just now it’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to question the idea of a world system on which the whole thing rests.

Map of the 8th-century world from Wikimedia Commons

The world we’re considering as a system, in a not-too-bad map of the 8th-century situation from Wikimedia Commons; click through to their big version. The Maori probably shouldn’t be in New Zealand yet, everything in Africa or the Caucasus really massively overstates our knowledge, but it gets the general idea across. Mostly, note how far even this expanded China is from everything else…

Again, this is certainly something Adshead has thought about; in fact, the whole first chapter is a point-by-point takedown of the idea of world system as propounded by his opponent and its substitution with a subtler, better-featured one that accommodates more variety and different causal factors. But it still rests on the idea that everywhere was connected; otherwise, we are just holding these various powers up to an artificial standard, since how can their competition be historical if the competitors knew nothing about each other? To get round this, Adshead firstly makes great use of the power of coincidence, rises and falls and ideas whose time comes in two or more places in roughly the same era, and indeed invokes Kondratieff-like ideas of cyclical social development without ever explicitly identifying his thoughts with them (and indeed lampooning his opponent for doing so too much).5 But he also ramps up every possible mention of contact and connection, often to a quite improbable degree: whether or not the various Christian communities that left the Byzantine Empire eastwards after Chalcedon can all be classed as Nestorian (hint: they cannot) they can only really have constituted a persistent cultural network if they remained connected, which there is no hint that they did. And so on. (I don’t honestly see why Adshead uses the term ‘Nestorian’ at all, except that it is widely done; he would get as much mileage and more accuracy just from ‘Christian’.)

The famous 'Nestorian Stele', a Christian monument of 781 found in the seventeenth century at Daqin

For example, here is the famous ‘Nestorian Stele’, a Christian monument of A. D. 781 found in the sixteenth century at Daqin. Christian it plainly is, albeit customised to be understandable in Buddhist or Taoist and even Manichæan terms; but what makes it Nestorian? It doesn’t actually mention, you know, Nestorius, and the Trinity is not discussed in the kind of detail that would let one assign its author to a Christological position. It is obviously linked to Syria: not only does it say that’s where its ‘Illustrious Religion’ came from (though excitingly it references Xuanzang for details of what and where Syria actually was, quite fantastic) but it is also lettered down the sides in Syriac. But it’s not like Nestorians was the only Christians ever to leave Syria…

Adshead is far from alone in this, of course; it’s the core assumption of global history that there is a world in the first place, rather than many different areas joined only by mostly-uncrossed oceans, and it’s one of the problems in conceptualising a Global Middle Ages, as we’ve seen, that the Middle Ages doesn’t easily fit that requirement. But the problem of exaggerating contact goes on at a smaller level: it is for example the core of the argument between scholars like Michael McCormick, arguing that the early medieval economy was articulated by long-distance trade and its development, and Chris Wickham arguing that long-distance trade was always economically marginal and that long-range connections are not historically causative in the early Middle Ages.6 McCormick arguably ignores agriculture, Chris arguably downplays plague to non-existence, but the problem is still at the point of quantifying connection, because arguably we can’t.

The sixth-century sarcophagus of Yu Hong from Jinyuan in Shanxi province

An example of connection which many would find inarguable, the sixth-century sarcophagus of Yu Hong from Jinyuan in Shanxi province, evidence because of how extremely Persian its hunting scenes look. But we’ve seen that somewhere else, no? And so what is the connection, what was moving? People, carpets, metalwork? And how far, and over how long? Had anyone involved in this actually been to Persia? It is not established

When I find myself in these arguments, which given my collaboration with Rebecca Darley I tend to, I am mostly ready to accept the minimalist point of view, though I will sometimes attempt the saving argument that long-distance trade may have been marginal but it really mattered to those in political charge.7 The trouble with that is that it only works where those rulers are very small-scale, otherwise landed revenue and the proceeds of office far escape whatever political leverage the monopoly on shiny things from abroad can give such people, and it’s telling that I mainly instance sixth-century Western Britain because nothing larger would work.8 But occasionally I remember an argument that Mark Blackburn, may he rest kindly, used to use about tenth-century England and Scandinavia.

Anglo-Saxon coins on display in Stockholm Royal Armouries Museum

Anglo-Saxon coins on display in Stockholm Royal Armouries Museum, including a really lovely Æthelred II ‘Lamb of God’ type, but I digress, dear reader, I digress…

You may know that there are vast amounts of Anglo-Saxon coin of the reigns of Æthelred the Unready and Cnut in Scandinavia, which is traditionally associated with the fantastic amount of Danegeld paid to Viking seamen during those reigns.9 You may also know that by that time the English coinage was periodically renewed, so that we have quite a tight chronology for its various issues. That means that we ought to expect that the preservation in Scandinavia would privilege the issues in circulation when the Danegelds were taken but actually they don’t, there is no difference in those years’ coins’ presence in the hoards. Mark saw no other explanation than that there was enough other traffic of coin across the North Sea, despite the political climate, that the huge Danegelds, which it used to be argued must have stretched the country’s resources to its limit, don’t even register in the greater flood.10 And presumably it wasn’t either one-way or just Scandinavia, but anywhere else that Anglo-Saxon coins wound up coming into kingdoms, they would have been melted down and restruck as local issues so we just don’t see it. And sometimes I wonder how true that could be in other spheres, with perishable or consumable goods, labour rather than goods travelling, and so on.

Map of the various Silk Routes

The trouble with mapping disconnection is that it looks so much like connection until you realise how few people if any we can show ever went the full length of that long red line

For my immediate purposes, however, the question is probably one of scale. (Isn’t everything?11) England to Denmark is not very far. Byzantium to China was. If lots travelled the short distance, it does not magically make those long distances shorter. Given that we now pluralise Silk Roads precisely because what was once seen as an arterial routeway is now seen as a mostly-contiguous series of shorter-range connections along the whole of which almost no-one probably ever travelled, this seems a very germane concern. But it does great damage to the idea of a world system (or, in Adshead’s initially preferred terminology, a world order) if contact over that distance was attenuated. You can go and say things like:

“Though ongoing world institutions, and with them world history, only began in the thirteenth century, they were preceded by temporary, non-enduring world institutions whose coexistence created world orders… One such institution was T’ang cosmopolitanism: the intense interest in things and people foreign exhibited by the court at Chang’an, which, along with the attractions of China, brought an unprecedented influx of non-Chinese to the Middle Kingdom, both from other parts of East Asia and from Western Eurasia…. It was rooted in the intellectual register but it had repercussions in politics, economics and society. It was accompanied by military interventions by Chinese forces in territories beyond East Asia: in northern India, Persia, Transoxiana, the Himalayan interface, and parts of Southeast Asia still more Indianized than Sinified. Chinese consumer goods, notably ceramics, reached the eastern coast of Black Africa [sic!]. Chinese accidental voyagers may have travelled along the Kurosiwo current via the Aleutians and the north Pacific drift to the pre-Columbian America, though no Chinese Columbus returned to report on the Inside Passage from Juneau to Seattle. T’ang cosmopolitanism reached out to the world to an extent only paralleled in Chinese history by what has been happening in post-Maoist China….”12

… it does mean that the critical historian is entitled to ask, “Maybe, but what difference did it make?” I am already getting the idea here that China being outward-looking was quite a big deal when viewed with Sinological hindsight, not least because of the implication that if the centre could cross its own national borders then, like al-Andalus, it was probably in good enough shape to actually exert itself there for once, but because so much of its subsequent history has been seen as a defence of Chineseness against any suggestion that anything foreign could be as good or beneficial, an assumption which when challenged by the colonial powers finally brought down much of what such historians recognise as China.13 But really, if all but a tiny fraction of populations in any of the polities involved did not know that these other places and peoples existed, had never seen goods or people from them and would certainly never go there, then the places that they had heard of and did know from such travel of persons or objects must be a whole order of magnitude more likely to have any impact upon them. Adshead’s claim for the T’ang, once explored, is no more than that, for a very short time during their wider ascendancy, they pushed Chinese influence out far enough to actually touch several parts of the rest of the world. I don’t dispute (all of) the contacts, but those contacts were nonetheless very weak, surely too weak to bear the weight of a world order in which what any one part did might affect some or all of the others. What Adshead seems to mean by world order is actually precedence, but again, although this may be European isolation from the East speaking, the implied competition seems like one that the competitors hardly knew existed, let alone put any interest into.


1. S. A. M. Adshead, T’ang China: the rise of the East in world history (London 2004), written mostly vs. Andre Gunder Frank, Re-Orient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley 1998).

2. My first reading for this course was Bodo Wiethoff, Introduction to Chinese History: from ancient times to the Revolution of 1912, transl. Mary Whittall (London 1975), because I happened to have bought it on sight in 2008 because of suspecting I might some day have to teach China and now that day had come, and although obviously since Adshead has more detail since he is covering in a book what Wiethoff covered in part of a chapter, the basic narrative of rise, contacts, barbarian pressure and civil disconnection, fall and coups is not substantially different. I don’t know if a newer story is told by anyone else, however.

3. Adshead, T’ang China, p. 51:

“Ennin portrays a well-ordered bureaucratic state: permits and permissions were required, but officials were reasonable and courteous if hidebound by red tape. China was definitely one country, though the northeast enjoyed devolution. There was little endemic social violence from bandits or local bosses and, until the transient persecution of Buddhism and foreign religions in 845, no state-induced totalitarian violence… China was still a superpower. All in all, by the middle of the ninth century the political system had reached a new equilibrium. Contracted in space but expanded in sophistication, it still provided the most advanced government in the world.”

4. Ibid., pp. 52-55, culminating in p. 55:

“Here, though the comparison is with China, it is not thereby assumed that the Chinese ideal of a single, bureaucratic imperial state is the criterion of political progress in all circumstances. More pluralistic paths of development may be more in accordance with the propensities of other milieus or with the imperatives of modernity.”

5. Ibid., p. 19: “Here, it may be observed that Frank goes beyond the views of Kondratieff himself….”

6. Michael McCormick, The Origins of the European Economy: communications and commerce AD 300-900; Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005).

7. This is a very Western materialist perspective of course, basing kingship’s power on its ability to control a flow of shiny things to its followers, but better scholars than me have used it, including Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), pp. 311-319 & 357-368 or Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monographs (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 83-93.

8. Tintagel is the key here: huge by sub-Roman British standards, with connections stretched over hundreds of miles, and about the size and importance of any ruinous caravanserai in Arabia or hillfort in Eastern Europe. Still cool though; see Charles Thomas, Tintagel, Arthur and Archaeology (London 1993) and now Rachel C. Barrowman, Colleen E. Batey & Christopher Morris, Excavations at Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, 1990-1999 (London 2007).

9. See D. M. Metcalf, “Large Danegelds in Relation to War and Kingship: their implications for monetary history, and some numismatic evidence” in Sonia Chadwick Hawkes (ed.), Weapons and Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 1989), pp. 179-189.

10. Annoyingly, I don’t think Mark actually published this, but some hints towards it can be found in D. M. Metcalf, “The Fall and Rise of the Danelaw Connection, the Export of English Coins to the Northern Lands, and the Tributes of 991 and 994” in Kenneth Jonsson and Britta Malmer (edd.), Sigtuna Papers (Stockholm 1990), pp. 213–223.

11. Julio Escalona, “The Early Middle Ages: a scale-based approach” in idem & Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Scale and Scale Change in the Early Middle Ages: exploring landscape, local society, and the world beyond, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 9-29.

12. Adshead, T’ang China, p. xiii.

13. I get my perspective on al-Andalus here from Eduardo Manzano Moreno, La frontera de al-Andalus en época de los Omeyas, Biblioteca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991); for China I’m still working with Wiethoff, Introduction to Chinese History, esp. pp. 71-167.

Seminar CCXVIII: Byzantine frontier badboys

I was obviously going to quite a lot of things last November, for which reason blogging it is taking me many posts. Perhaps this seminar was catching the wrong end of that; the paper apparently began twenty-five minutes late and the first thing the speaker told us was that she’d already given a version of it somewhere else, and that I noted these things at all suggests I was in a bad mood. It’s probably to the speaker’s credit, therefore, that my notes have a number of the asterisks in the margin that tell me there were things here I’d want to remember, but I think that my particular interests in what she was saying were things that she would have been surprised I didn’t already know, rather than her key argument. So my write-up is difficult to do; please bear in mind that I apparently wasn’t listening like a knowledgeable or fair audience. The unfortunate recipient of my attention was speaking at the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies in Birmingham, she was Caterina Galatariotou and her title was “Byzantine Adolescence”.

Painting of Digenes Akritis fighting the dragon on a twelfth-century dish now in the Agora Museum at Athens

One candidate for Byzantine adolescence, locked in battle with a dragon as all of us have been, really, haven’t we? It’s just a human universal… This is Digenes Akritis, on whom see below, on a twelfth-century dish now in the Agora Museum at Athens. “3335 – Athens – Stoà of Attalus Museum – Byzantine plate – Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto, Nov 9 2009” by Giovanni Dall’Orto. – Own work. Licensed under Attribution via Wikimedia Commons.

The very title, of course, presupposed that Byzantine culture had such a category, and the paper therefore began with a long excursus of what Freud said about adolescence and how anthropologists have found it or found it absent in their various explorations, as usual for medievalists the relevant anthropologists all having been dead for the lifetimes of much of the audience.1 This all set ‘adolescence’ up, for the paper’s purposes, as the undefined space between childhood and adulthood in which the subject is no longer a child but has not yet been admitted to adulthood, usually a period of destructive behaviour and struggle, to put it mildly. Of course this still needed applying, and where I tuned in was when Dr Galatariotou started to ground the category in a medieval Greek epic poem called Digenes Akrites.2 I had dimly heard of this before but had not realised that its hero is a young frontiersman. He breaks away from his family and spends most of his years between ages 12 and 25 tearing around with a band of similar-aged warriors on the border between Byzantine and Muslim territory in Cappadocia, in modern Turkey. I was now prompted to wonder how Digenes might compare to the famous literary border lord closer to my home interests, el Cid. This has been done, but largely in literary-structural terms, perhaps because el Cid existed and Digenes did not (although the el Cid of the Cantar de mio Cid is not very much more real than Digenes and it’s that text that has been used in such comparisons), but since almost everything else we can say about Byzantine frontiers is either very top-down or architectural, a perspective of any kind on how people like the Akritai, ‘border-lords’ more or less, actually lived their lives and how they related to the centres between which they stood could be useful to me.3

Athens, National Library, MS 1074, showing the beginning of the poem Digenes Akritas

Manuscript of the poem in the National Library of Athens, apparently (Jeffreys, p. xxii; see notes below) their seventeenth-century MS 1074. “Digenis Akritas Athens“, photo by Pitichinaccioel:Εικόνα:Digenis akritas.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

My enquiry was not Dr Galatariotou’s, however, and fair enough. Instead, she went about a Freudian reading of the poem looking for the trauma of post-childhood rebellion and reintegration, and the material seems to be there: there is rape, abduction of a child bride, solo hunting of dangerous beasts, fighting serpents, dramatic changes of clothes to indicate levelling up in society and even the struggle to grow a beard. Every couple that forms in the course of the poem does so having run away from home, although the women then prevail upon their tearaway young men to calm down, settle, make reconciliation and reconnect with wider society. The many quotes that salted this platter of literary psychoanalysis did at least seem to speak to familiar concerns of the sort that Freud identified, with much more correspondence than I might have expected. Of course this is literature, so more probably the working out of what people sometimes wished could happen than things that actually did, and perhaps quite a formulaic and anachronistic working out at that as questions revealed, particularly since Dr Galatariotou seemed adamant that despite the text’s ready use of rape and sexual imagery, no-one in Byzantine society ever would actually have risked the opprobrium of sex before marriage, so that in that single respect she would consider the text fantastic whereas otherwise it can be read as psychological realism.4 Despite this, I came out of the paper more intrigued about the text than before and in retrospect I probably should have heard it with a more open mind. I still would have rather had ten minutes less on Freud, though…


1. It’s not by any means just Dr Galatariotou who does this, of course, I lament for the field. I don’t read any more up to date anthropologists, after all, and have defended the reading of the old ones. Still: we should at least know what developments we reject before trying this kind of analysis. In the frame on this occasion were Mary Douglas (Purity and Danger: an analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo (London 1966)), Margaret Mead (Coming of Age in Samoa: a psychological study of primitive youth for Western civilization (New York City 1928)) and Victor Turner (not cited but probably his “Betwixt and Between: the liminal period in rites de passage” in June Helm (ed.), Proceedings of the 1964 Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society (Seattle 1969), pp. 4-20, repr. before its actual printing in Turner, The Forest of Symbols: aspects of Ndembu ritual (Ithaca 1967) and subsequently in William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt (edd.), Reader in Comparative Religion: an anthropological approach 4th edn. (Evanston 1979), pp. 234-243, whence online here and here, and in Louise Carus Mahdi, Steven Foster and Meredith Little (edd.), Betwixt and Between: patterns of masculine and feminine initiation (La Salle 1987, many reprints), pp. 3-19. That last was all surprisingly difficult to search out! Anthropologists don’t seem to take page numbers into the field…)

2. The standard edition and translation seems to be Elizabeth Jeffreys (ed./transl.), Digenis Akritis: the Grottaferrata and Escorial versions (Cambridge 1998), but you may find Denison B. Hull (transl.), Digenis Akritas: Two-Blood Border Lord. The Grottaferra version (Columbus 1986) easier to get hold of and maybe even more fun! There is also J. Mavrogordato (ed./transl.), Digenes Akrites, edited with an introduction, translation, and commentary (Oxford 1956).

3. Every time I search for this stuff there seems to be more, and there may be more in Greek that I can’t find. Most of this is in Spanish, less odd than it seems because one of the oldest manuscripts of Digenes Akrites lives in the Escorial library in Madrid. The starting point, not least because he is always so clear, is probably David Hook, “Digenes Akrites and the Old Spanish epics” in Roderick Beaton & David Hicks (edd.), Digenes Akrites: new approaches to Byzantine heroic poetry, Publications of the Centre for Hellenic Studies, Kings College London, 2 (London 1993), pp. 73-85, but then there is at least: Pedro Bádenas de la Peña, “La épica española y la épica de Diyenís” in Bádenas & Eusebi Ayensa (edd.), Èpica europea de frontera. Ressons èpics en les literatures i el folclore hispánic: El eco de la épica en las literaturas y el folclore hisp´nico. Actas del encuentro científico organizado por el Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona, 26 de junio de 2003 (Barcelona 2004), pp. 41-52; Miguel Castillo Didier, “El Cid y Diyenís: ¿Héroes de novela o de epopeya?” in Byzantion Nea Hellás Vol. 28 (Santiago de Chile 2009), pp. 167-183, DOI: 10.4067/S0718-84712009000100008; Alfonso Boix Jovani & Ioannis Kioridis, “Los ríos en el Cantar de Mio Cid y el Digenis Akritis” in Natalia Fernández Rodríguez & María Fernández Ferreiro (edd.), Literatura medieval y renacentista en España: líneas y pautas (Oviedo 2012), pp. 397-407; and oh lord, just clicking a link tells me of three more publications by Kioridis so I guess it’s a live field… All of those I’ve actually seen are comparing Digenes to the Cantar, however, and for why that’s not telling you the full story see Richard Fletcher, The Quest for El Cid (London 1989).

4. There are apparently Hellenistic novels of similar style, you see, though I have no references for them. On the difference between literature and reality in this text see Paul Magdalino, “Digenes Akrites and Byzantine literature: the twelfth-century background to the Grottaferrata version” in Beaton & Hicks, Digenes Akrites, pp. 1-14, cited by Dr Galatariotou; on sex, marriage and consent see Angeliki Laiou, “Sex, Consent, and Coercion in Byzantium” in Laiou (ed.), Consent and Coercion to Sex and Marriage in Ancient and Medieval Societies (Washington DC 1993), pp. 109-222, not so much.

Link

“They have chosen ignorance”

I found this a year or so ago, but you might still want to look at it. It’s an open letter by a number of scientists protesting about the defunding of research in higher education contexts, with a number of significant institutions (especially Spanish ones, perhaps not surprisingly) supporting them, and they are (still) looking for signatures.

http://openletter.euroscience.org/open-letter/

With a year’s perspective on this (and the all-important transition into an established post, no doubt) I find my views on this slightly less similar to theirs. I am still horrified at some inner level about the continuing pressure to cut and cut, but I understand where it’s coming from; we in the UK have been in an era where politicians see declaring actual policy as exposing vulnerability since about 1997, and since Blair at least that’s been not least, I think, because they know they don’t actually have any joined-up policy scheme. Making budgets balance, however, they understand as an aim (if not a skill) and believe the electorate will understand as well. In any case, no-one for ages has had a solution for where the money comes from for higher education that isn’t one way or another raising taxes, which no politician now has the courage to admit they need to do, so if it is solved it will be solved by stealth anyway. In recent months we seem at last to be moving into a position for UK higher education at least where the relevant bits of the state actually have something like an idea what they’d like to see, and I don’t like all of it but it’s not quite what the letter above is seeing. We’re still supposed to achieve excellence without money, of course, but the person in charge (an ex-historian, which I’d love to think helps) seems to understand that some kind of underlying structure is necessary to support that, even if it apparently has to run on less resource.* But there isn’t much less it can run on without losing either quantity or quality, given the decreasing rewards for students in terms of a graduate premium in salary, which means that making the voice of that letter louder may still do some good even if its detail doesn’t fit our particular case as well as it did when they wrote it and I saw it.


* I really would like sloganeers to look up the word ‘excellence’ at some point and realise that semantically it cannot apply to a majority. To excel is to be distinguished by quality; if everyone’s quality levels up, there is no distinction and therefore no excellence. This sounds like bad word choice, but I think it’s worse, it’s the hope that despite a general expressed wish to raise standards there will still be élite institutions, like those to which policy-makers largely go, that will remain worth more in social and career terms. You can aim for excellence, in other words, but their very use of the word shows that they hope most don’t attain it…

Seminar CCXVII: medieval Paris graduates in faraway places

The backlog advances but does not yet catch up the year; I now reach 25th November 2014, when I was still in Birmingham. Birmingham’s School of History and Cultures has a considerable number of postgraduate reading groups and seminars, organised by the postgraduates themselves, and occasionally these cross with the staff seminar series. Such was this occasion, when a sudden gap in the schedule of the Seminar of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages almost coincided with a meeting of the Rosetta Forum and as a result two of the local doctoral students stepped into the breach to deliver short papers about their ongoing work. I sometimes don’t blog postgraduate presentations, but these two are both old hands, one has featured here before and they were after all presenting in a public forum, and anyway why shouldn’t they have the publicity? The lucky recipients of this dubious honour, therefore, are Ryder Patzuk-Russell, presenting with the title, “The Development of Grammatica in Medieval Iceland: the teaching and study of languages and literature in the eleventh through fourteenth centuries”, and Jeffrey Brubaker, speaking to, “Nuncios or Legati: what makes a papal representative in 1234?”. About the only link between the papers other than period was the presence of scholars trained at Paris in both, and somehow both involved in translation. I’m not sure this was intended, but it was a nice coincidence.

Illustration from a manuscript of Icelandic sagas

This image from a manuscript of sagas really has nothing to do with Ryder’s research except country of origin, but it’s obviously too good a picture not to use anyway

Ryder warned us straight away that he had no conclusions yet, but he has set himself up an interesting question: how did people in Iceland, almost the furthest outpost of Latin Christianity from its sources, learn Latin, when they did at all? There are very few manuscripts to go on but what there is either in that form or recorded in booklists suggest that they did so largely in the vernacular; almost everything is translated and there is much more evidence for vernacular literacy, literature, poetry and even theology than there is for Latin, even though much of what they were using must have arrived from, typically, the archbishopric of Nidaros or, yes, the University of Paris, in that language. The translation may have been going on at the cathedral schools which by the early twelfth century existed at Skálholt and Hólar, but that’s very much the opposite way round to most non-Latinate European cultures, which usually acquired literacy in Latin first, and raises questions about why into which Ryder is even now looking.1 Some reasons might be the pre-existence and continuing use of runes, which were even used for Latin as late as the high Middle Ages here, and the obvious necessity of beginning instruction in the vernacular, though that also applied in other places. The two languages interplayed in many more ways than one might expect, it seems, and what Ryder comes up with may have something to tell us about how vernaculars met and interacted with Latin elsewhere too.

Gold hyperperon of John III Doukas Vatatzes struck at Magnesia between 1222 and 1254, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6091

Contemporary Byzantine theology of a fairly basic but important kind: Jesus has Emperor John III Doukas Vatatzes’s back and Mary holds his crown, so watch it. Gold hyperperon of John III Doukas Vatatzes struck at Magnesia between 1222 and 1254, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6091

Jeff, meanwhile, was dealing again with a particularly messy diplomatic episode in the history of the relations of Byzantium with the West. Religiously divided by a set of issues which had taken until the thirteenth century even to be delimited, the two halves of northern Mediterranean civilisation were forced into interaction at that period because of the ‘success’ of the Fourth Crusade in capturing Constantinople and then their progress failure to hold onto the captured territory in the face of the resurgent Byzantine power at Nicæa. This made a council at that city in 1234 at which union between the two churches was discussed especially heavily loaded, and the fact that union between the churches was not only achieved then but not at any point thereafter either has, Jeff reported, made most historiography teleologically assume that it could not be achieved, that all participants knew this and that the whole affair was therefore only a show, which ended not in union but in mutual condemnation of either side as heretics. It seems a lot of effort for such an outcome, however, and there were obvious upsides to union if it could be pulled off (which is why it was repeatedly contemplated and sought after at many other points in the period, after all).

The Lefke Kapisi gate at Iznik, Byzantine Nicæa

A symbol of Nicene obduracy, the Lefke Kapisi gate at modern-day Iznik. “Lefke Kapisi Iznik 932a” by QuartierLatin1968Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Resolving this question of whether the council was meant to fail might be answered, suggested Jeff, if we could be exact about the status of the Western envoys, a team of English and French friars trained at Paris but also given some brief preparatory research time at Constantinople. Could they in fact negotiate and bind their master, Pope Gregory IX, to their concessions? In other words, did they hold a legatine commission or were they there only as nuntii, glossed by one text as ‘a speaking letter’, only able to report a papal position and not to change it?2 If the latter, obviously, we could assume that the pope wasn’t holding out much hope for the council. Unfortunately, as Jeff showed, the texts (substantially the Greek statement of their position and the friars’ post facto translation of it, about which we’ve heard here before) are not specific; the friars did call themselves simplices nuntii at one point and denied any legatine commission, but on the other hand claimed that their decisions would be ratified; the Greek text, meanwhile, which might have used the word legaton, in fact uses apokrisarios, which is much less specific. Jeff argued that the status of the envoys was in fact genuinely ambiguous, which may have been one of their problems but rapidly became a place into which to retreat as negotiations deteriorated. It would be nice to solve this one, but I have to confess that I can’t see how we can. That is at least something like the position in which the friars (and indeed the Greek clergy also trying) found themselves, I guess!


1. I have this from Vivien Law, “The Study of Grammar” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), Carolingian Culture: emulation and innovation (Cambridge 1994), pp. 88-110, but Ryder cited the big version, Law, Grammar and Grammarians in the Early Middle Ages (London 1997), which I’ve never dared tackle.

2. For details of the distinctions here see (as cited by Jeff) Donald E. Queller, “Thirteenth-Century Diplomatic Envoys: ‘nuncii’ and ‘procuratores'” in Speculum Vol. 35 (Cambridge MA 1960), pp. 196-213, online here, repr. in Queller, Medieval Diplomacy and the Fourth Crusade, Collected Studies 114 (London 1980), II.