Anglo-Saxon England and the European Union

It is a time of weighty decisions in this part of the world right now. I don’t just mean in the Academy, although today and tomorrow much of the UK one is on strike because of pay that has not kept pace with inflation for some years and personally I am in the middle of quite a lot of marking, some of which will affect people’s fates in ways I can’t foresee but can still worry about. No, I mean that on June 23rd the UK will be turning out to express its opinion about whether it should be in the European Union any longer, even on the rather specialised terms we currently enjoy. As with every political issue these days this has become a matter of men in suits insulting each other and making up random stuff to frighten their electorates, and in some cases other people’s electorates: the President of the USA and the Prime Minister of Canada have both weighed in effectively to threaten Britain, apparently not realising how much of the ‘Leave’ campaign is being driven exactly by a resentment at other countries seemingly intervening in Britain’s decisions. Perhaps they’re actually trying to make sure the ‘Leave’ vote wins. In any case, it all has me wondering what perspective a historian can take on it all. Sheffield’s excellent History Matters blog has a Brexit category but so far only one post under it, and I feel as if more can be said.

Map of the Carolingian Empire under Charlemagne

Map of the Carolingian Empire under Charlemagne

It seems to me that this is one of the rare episodes where the most relevant parallels are from the early Middle Ages, because there is really only one point prior to the twentieth century when Europe could be considered a single political entity and, importantly, its ruler had not declared an intent to add the British Isles to that (as in the times of Carausius, Napoleon or the guy with the moustache and the painting qualification). That time is the period of the Carolingian Empire, albeit with some pre-echoes under the Carolingians’ Merovingian predecessors, and actually there are some thought-provoking parallels. There’s nothing really new in what follows except its application to now, but I still think that’s worth doing.1

A silver penny of King Offa

Obverse of a silver penny of King Offa of Mercia, struck in London by Ethelwald around 785

For a start, we can look at English-European relations in a time of breakdown here and see what happened. In around 796 Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Lombards and Patrician of the Romans, had a letter sent to King Offa of Mercia.2 At this point in time Offa was pretty much number one king in England; not only did his Midland kingdom stretch from the Welsh border and the Hwicce (around Gloucestershire) to Lindsey (modern Lincolnshire) but he also held control over Essex, East Anglia (just about), the south-eastern Home Counties and the city of London and had marriage alliances with both King Beorhtric of Wessex and King Æthelred of Northumbria.3 This put him in charge of quite a chunk of the Channel coast and its ports, and whether either side liked it or not that put him in contact with Charlemagne.

A Mayen quernstone

A Mayen quernstone, of the sort that Charlemagne probably refers to in his letter to Offa

In that letter Charlemagne was responding to one of Offa’s that we no longer have, and had a number of queries to answer. The letter is thus very revealing about the kind of things that kings dealt with in this era: the free movement of pilgrims from England through Francia, and how to distinguish them from merchants who disguised themselves as pilgrims to escape paying toll; the proper treatment of merchants who admitted as much, and should be protected by the Frankish king according to an old agreement; a renegade priest whom Offa feared had come to Charlemagne to spread accusations about Offa at the Frankish court, but whom Charlemagne had sent on to the pope at Rome; and black quernstones which had until recently been imported into England and which would now be again, as long as Offa would make sure that those exporting English wool cloaks to Francia made them at the old, full length rather than a new shorter one that the Franks didn’t like.4 Charlemagne also sent ceremonial clothing to both Offa and Æthelred with which their churchmen could hold memorial services for the recently-deceased Pope Hadrian I, whose death had, we know, grieved Charlemagne deeply.5

Charlemagne's epitaph for Pope Hadrian I, on display in San Pietro di Roma

More black stone, Charlemagne’s epitaph for Pope Hadrian I, still on display in San Pietro di Roma

A lot of this doesn’t seem too far from the modern day, suggesting that some issues keep coming up: we have a kind of Schengen Agreement for certain kinds of travellers, but not those with goods to declare; a certain sort of acceptance of responsibility for foreign nationals; some controversy over appeals to the European court system (here manifest as the king and the pope, but still); and fine-detailed specifications of goods with which, just like the fabled EU regulations on the curvature of certain vegetables, one is surprised and even dismayed to see the European world’s top legislators wasting their time when warfare, migrants and agricultural crisis all needed dealing with.6 We know from other letters that Offa and Charlemagne had at one point been sufficiently at odds for Charlemagne actually to close the Frankish Channel ports to traders from Offa’s territories, which will hopefully remain unparalleled whatever happens but reminds us that access is not guaranteed, and Offa was also persistently bothered about Charlemagne playing host to powerful exiles from England, either from Kent or from Northumbria (where King Æthelred would be killed later in 796, making Charlemagne extremely cross with the Northumbrians).7 Offa himself would die later that year, indeed, which reminds us that the people who make such treaties tend not to last as long as the consequences, but if you remember the furore about Julian Assange taking refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London you can probably understand that people being protected from vengeance by foreign powers is not a phenomenon that’s stopped nowadays.

Map of England in the time of Offa's rule, c. 795

Map of England in the time of Offa’s rule, c. 795; I think we could argue about Sussex, but it gives you the idea…

There are also plenty of things that damage the comparison, of course. One of the other things that Offa and Charlemagne seem to have argued about was a possible marriage pact between their children, in which the problem was which side got the other’s daughter for their son.8 The UK still has its royalty, of course, but if one of them married into a European royal line (if they could find one with whom they aren’t already consanguineous) it would no longer make a massive difference to the UK’s relations with Europe. That should serve to remind us that whatever the things the early medieval situation shares with the current one, democracy was not one of them; not only would Offa and Charlemagne both have been bewildered by the concept of a referendum, but once you’d explained it they would have thought it subversive and dangerous, and maybe even illegal, and there the modern parallel is really elsewhere in Europe. There’s also important differences in the scale of trade revenue involved, which for our kings might have been significant but was still only a tiny part of their kingdoms’ economy.9 And finally, of course, among many other objections that could be raised, the England of Offa was a patchwork of uncomfortably allied rival kingdoms of varying size and strength, all of whom could negotiate with the Franks separately as our letters show, and so is almost more like the European Union of now in structure than like the unified, monarchic and hardly-devolved kingdom of Charlemagne, despite the rough territorial match.

So does the parallel I’ve set up actually tell us anything about the current situation? I think that it does, at least, bring some particular aspects of the situation out that are perhaps not as obvious as they should be. The first of these has already been mentioned, that whatever the outcome is on June 23rd it’s hard to believe the arrangement it sets up will last for long before being modified; all the people who made it will be out of power before very long, and the new lot will have a choice about how much continuity they want. The UK has tinkered with its relationship to Europe every few years for as long as I can remember, after all. The second thing we might take from all this is the reminder that even if the UK does leave the EU, relations with Europe will not just stop dead; the migrant crisis, the continuing importance of NATO, and the simple fact of Europe’s being right there and linked to the UK by a tunnel and high-speed rail link all mean that some kind of relationship between the UK and most of the Continental European states must continue. The referendum will help decide what kind of relationship that will be, but it won’t end it any more than Charlemagne closing the Channel ports ended trade relations between the two powers. That did, however, apparently make quernstones impossible to get for a few years and some parallel to that is very easy to imagine. What European foods do you currently eat you’d be sorry to go without?

Buffalo mozzarella cheese

My personal candidate: looks horrible, tastes magnificent. By Luigi VersaggiFlickr, CC BY-SA 2.0,

But the last thing we might not think of without this prompt is the rôle of Northumbria. Obviously, now that’s part of England, but Scotland is not, and while in Charlemagne’s time the Picts were a whole separate quantity (albeit also in contact with the Continent) now we might be reminded by Offa’s rival kings that Scotland may yet be in a position to reach its own agreements with Europe, when the current alliance falls apart as did that between Mercia and Northumbria and the campaign for secession heats up again.10 What would that mean? When Scotland looked like devolving properly last time many people talked about moving there to benefit from various more friendly aspects of its fiscal system and so on; if the UK left the EU and then a subsequently separated Scotland rejoined, I think a lot of businesses might look to relocate, and Scotland’s economic case for devolution start to look a lot more survivable. I can’t quite imagine it doing to England what Wessex eventually did to Mercia, but this, and the other points above, might all serve to remind the uncertain voter that there are more voices in this dispute than just UK voters and Brussels.11 Whatever your own priorities are, it might be worth thinking before you vote about Offa, Charlemagne, pilgrims, exiles and even quernstones, and considering just which bits of history we’re about to repeat.

1. There are two obvious books that cover this theme, Wilhelm Levison, England and the Continent in the Eighth Century: the Ford Lectures, 1943 (Oxford 1946) and Joanna Story, Carolingian Connections: Anglo-Saxon England and Carolingian Francia, c. 750-870 (Aldershot 2003); both of them offer much more context for all of what follows than I can give here.

2. The letter was probably written by the Northumbrian cleric and teacher Alcuin, since it survives in collections of his other letters, but it went out in Charlemagne’s name. It is printed in Ernst Dümmler (ed.), “Alcuini sive Albini Epistolae” in Dümmler (ed.), Epistolae Ævi Karolini II, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Epistolae in quarto) IV (Berlin 1895, repr. Hannover 1994), online here, pp. 1-481 at no. 100, and translated in Steven Allott (transl.), Alcuin of York, c. A. D. 732 to 804: his life and letters (York 1974), ep. 100, and in Dorothy Whitelock (transl.), English Historical Documents, vol. 1: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), doc. no. 197.

3. For background on Offa see most quickly Simon Keynes, “The kingdom of the Mercians in the eighth century” in David Hill & Margaret Worthington (edd.), Aethelbald and Offa: two eighth-century kings of Mercia. Papers from a conference held in Manchester in 2000, Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon studies, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 383 (Oxford 2005), pp. 1-26.

4. On the black stones, see Meinrad Pohl, “Quern-Stones and Tuff as Indicators of Medieval European Trade Patterns” in Papers from the Institute of Archaeology Vol. 20 (London 2010), pp. 148-153, DOI: 10.5334/pia.348, whence the illustration (fig. 1).

5. Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard tells us of the king’s grief at this event in his Vita Karoli, ed. Oswald Holder-Egger as Einhardi Vita Karoli Magni, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores Rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum separatim editi) XXV (Hannover 1911, repr. 1965), online here, trans. David Ganz in idem (ed.), Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (London 2009), pp. 17-44, III.19. I’m not sure where the memorial is edited, but it is translated in Paul Edward Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, 2nd edn. (Peterborough ON 2005), no. 9.4.

6. Admittedly, the obvious migrants, the Vikings, hadn’t really started migrating as yet, though as we have seen here they were a danger; as to the agricultural crisis, 792 and 793 had been famine years in the Carolingian Empire, as is recorded in the Royal Frankish Annals, printed as Friedrich Kurze (ed.), Annales regni Francorum inde ab a. 741 usque ad a. 829, qui dicuntur Annales Laurissenses maiores et Einhardi, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores Rerum Germanicum) VI (Hannover 1895; repr. 1950), online here, transl. in Bernard Scholz & Barbara Rogers (transl.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories (Michigan 1972), online here, pp. 35-125, with commentary pp. 2-21, s. aa 792 & 793.

7. In addition to the works in n. 1 above see here Janet L. Nelson, “Carolingian Contacts” in Michelle P. Brown and Carol Ann Farr (edd.), Mercia: an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Europe (London 2001), pp. 126-143.

8. The source here is the Gesta Abbatum Fontellanensium, printed as Fernand Lohier & Jean Laporte (edd.), Gesta sanctorum patrum Fontanellensis coenobii (Rouen 1936), but I don’t have a detailed cite, only the knowledge that the relevant extract is translated in Whitelock, English Historical Documents doc. no. 20.

9. Opinions differ here, of course: see Chris Wickham, “Overview: production, distribution and demand” in Inge Lyse Hansen & Wickham (edd.), The Long Eighth Century: production, distribution and demand, The Transformation of the Roman World 11 (Leiden 2000), pp. 345-377.

10. On Scotland’s connections to Europe in this era see Patrick Wormald, “The emergence of the ‘Regnum Scottorum’: a Carolingian hegemony?” in Barbara Crawford (ed.), Scotland in Dark Age Britain: the proceedings of a day conference held on 18 February 1995, St John’s House Papers 5 (St Andrews 1996), pp. 131-160; Edward James, “The Continental Context” in Sally M. Foster (ed.), The St. Andrews sarcophagus: a Pictish masterpiece and its international connections (Dublin 1998), pp. 240-249.

11. Simon Keynes, “Mercia and Wessex in the ninth century” in Brown & Farr, Mercia, pp. 310-328.

68 responses to “Anglo-Saxon England and the European Union

  1. Pingback: In Marca Hispanica XXXIII: parts of Vic previously unreached | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  2. “When Scotland looked like devolving properly last time many people talked about moving there”: two of my Scottish friends have declared that they are going to retire to England, so offensive do they find the SNP regime and the antics of its supporters. Behaviour during the referendum campaign was the last straw.

  3. Interesting article: must read it again at least twice.

    Brexit’s in the blood, I suspect: Britain exited the Roman empire allegedly by expelling its Imperial governors. Brittany left around the same time.

    In the period of the article, Brittany would soon forcefully Brexit from the Carolingian empire. Incidentally, if the disparate sources can be trusted, it’s possible to trace the movement of Charles the Bald’s army in those fateful weeks of 851: he entered Brittany in the north, headed for Rennes but was forced south along the road from Corseul by a series of hit and run attacks. He was harried out along the road that runs east into Mayenne and was pinned down at Jengland (not its current name). In the dark of the night before dawn of the third day there, Charles fled his camp and went due south to Angers, where Erispoe, victorious, met him and terms were made.

    • Britannia only expelled its imperial governors after I think four attempts (the Gallic Empire, Carausius, Magnus Maximus, Constantine III?) to set up its own emperor over the rest or part of the rest, though, so if it became disenchanted with the imperial ideal it happened quite suddenly! Could one try to insist that Britain has tried to take over the EU and failed? Or that the EU conquered it by force first? That’s why I settled on Offa and Charlemagne rather than Carausius and Diocletian, which would be an altogether more ominous comparison….

      • Geoffrey Tobin

        Sharp observation about the “British” emperors. One, of course, was wildly successful: Constantine I. If the later contenders “from Britain” had been as successful, I imagine Europe would be complaining of British hegemony.

        Correct if I’m wrong, but decades ago I heard that some of the impetus for the Common Market came from Britain, but De Gaulle (the ungrateful wr*tch) resented British influence, so he opposed British participation. By the time De Gaulle had passed on and Britain was admitted, power was so concentrated in Continental centres that (as we Antipodeans can confirm) the terms were very unfavourable to the Commonwealth. I gather from Boris’s rhetoric that this is a bone of contention in the (not-so-) United Kingdom also.

        The obvious solution is to invite Australia, NZ and Canada to join the EU, with more anglophone nations (the USA) to follow. The British Isles would surely approve, but it seems that Brussels ain’t so keen. Why, oh why don’t they believe in grand western solidarity?

        • Constantine I, 50-odd of whose coins I was cataloguing only today, is indeed one of those people who reminds us of the unspoken maxim: “If you don’t want to be remembered as a usurper, succeed.”

          I had no idea you were in the other half of the globe! That makes the depth of your Breton detail all the more startling, really, it must have been harder to acquire. But as to your question, that is not an area of history in which I have enough grounding; I should ask a colleague…

  4. It seems to me that there are previous examples, ie: Belgian influence in the start of christian aera, but the most curious part to me is how insularity shapes ethnogenetical dinamics!

    • Not by enough to get everybody on the island into the same ethnicity, that’s for sure!

      • I guess size (of societies vs territory), matters, after all… :)
        But on a more serious tone, is curious how alterity works in semi-isolated contexts. The dynamics that defines what external influences become ‘local’ and included in the definition of ‘self’, or not, does not seems to work the same as on fully connected geographies. Curiously enough it seems that a quantitatively minor number of external inputs, results in a stronger qualitatively appreciation/influence.

        • I’m not sure I’ve ever tried to extract the system rules from the British Isles’ internal politics. Typical British exceptionalism! If I were to play along, however, I wonder how much of it is down to the effective closure that insular territories can practice over the subsistence economy. When everything above a certain level has to be shipped in, and shipping is rare or expensive or both, the domination of the areas of plenty (in the UK, the lowland south-east) over the more marginal areas will be hard to surmount. So those areas will always draw people and resources away and leave the marginal areas’ inhabitants feeling as if they have less than they rightfully should, but there will be no external balance by which they can contest the system. Of course, shipping and production becoming cheap only raises this level to the point where the whole island feels that way about its external competitors… How does that sound?

          • Reasonable indeed, but I have doubs on the linearlity of scale change implied in your last sentece, after all, geography sets the playing field. Economics are part of the ‘equation’, that’s for sure, but so are also ethnics (read ‘social identificactions’) and that’s were things go wild I suppouse. For example, continental societies can always resort to the fallacy of ‘being here from the beginning’ to explain his origins, while insular ones have to incorporate to some degree an ‘alienness’ factor (at least on societies were men did not grow from soil or plants…), yet in spite of this, insularity seems to increase the self-perceived uniqueness of those societies.

            • In my experience with the stranger edges of work on the Picts, the contest only shifts from ‘here from the beginning’ to ‘here first‘, which adds a kind of pioneer right of conquest to the complex of feelings about it all, especially if the English (or even the Irish) then came along and took it all over… See also my long-ago post on the first settlement in New Zealand!

              • Logical, aprisio at large, heremo use to mean ‘void of someone like us’ :)
                But in time, locality develops the identificaction of insular societies with his ‘new own’ land, yet it has to retain the fact that they were newcomers. I guess this dicothomy exacerbates the need to erase previous ethnicities. In continental contexts the external contacs are usually multiple and sustained in time, so this emic/etic dialectic is less pronounced…

                • That sounds about right to me. Some traditions are less about erasure and more about aggressive assimilation, but still, in general the new arrivals only come from one or two directions…

                • “void of someone like us” sounds ominously like the “Terra Nullius” pretext for the (technically illegal) British occupation of Australia that I have benefitted from.

                  • Oh yes indeed! See either of my two Early Medieval Europe articles for similar doctrines on the Catalan frontier. Short version: if you can make suitable terms with local Christians after a while no-one objects much if your children start telling a story in which all previous tenure in the area was Muslim and broken by conquest… But also the idea of ruptura, that there was a break in occupation and that you are taking up land that no-one was using, that’s crucial to these areas’ construction under government.

  5. Nearly forgot: the map with “Al-Andalus” gives the mustaken impression that the Moors had conquered Galicia. As far as I’m aware, they tried but were defeated, which is how the real Reconquista began: not due to Carolingian military aspirations but by the relentless efforts of the Spaniards themselves.

    • Hot topic! Many Asturians and Galicians would agree with you, and a certain brand of Asturian would tell you that the Visigoths and the Romans never managed it either. Galicia might have a better claim; the Muslims had a governor in Gijon, even if the legendary rebellion of Pelayo is supposed to have thrown him out. We Hispanists have a much larger quarrel with the word Reconquista, though, and that formulation makes it obvious; if the North was never conquered, then the Northerners conquering the south is no kind of re-conquest, is it? They were never there before…

      • By that token, Wessex never liberated the rest of England from Norse rule.

        • Well, no, it conquered free self-governing Mercia and Northumbria, I thought everyone from north of the Thames who knows any Anglo-Saxon history was already clear on that :-)

          • There’s the thing you see: my paternal grandfather was born in Marylebone, lived in Poplar, worked on the London docks, and only later went to South Shields, but returned to London to sail to Sydney as a “spinner”. His ancestors spent most of their time either in London or in Cork, so that’s their perspective.

            My mother’s father’s family originated in Cornwall. His wife’s was from Cambridgeshire (and Essex and Suffolk) back to the 1400s at least, so you’d think they’d have some appreciation of free, self-governing East Anglia and whoever ruled Cambridge in the early middle ages, but no, they identified with the Welsh. That may have something to do with all those Wal- towns.

            • The Welsh do have a better heroic literature in which to ground yourself than the East Angles, it must be said. There can really only be one king at Sutton Hoo (well, no, but you know what I mean) but there’s many many knights or maidens in the Matter of Britain. As to the question of Cambridge’s earliest medieval rulers, this is actually something that has come up here in the past

      • Alfred the Great: liberator or invader?

        • There are those who argue for Ceolwulf II being more than a ‘silly king’s thegn’, not least as he and Alfred issued a joint coinage, and for Æthelred Lord of Mercia as being the unsung equal partner in victory over the Vikings, at the very least, and who point out that London somehow never got returned to Mercia when Alfred reoccupied it…

  6. If you find yourself missing Italian dairy products, Australia has over 1 million Italians and a largish dairy industry that needs more global market share.

  7. Steve Joyce

    and those Galicians themselves were as proudly ‘British’ as the Bretons?

    • Diocese of Britonia.

      • Which was not all of Galicia, but roughly the modern bishopric of Mondoñedo, as I understand it, where the letters of St Fructuosus of Braga allow us to see that the population of migrant Britons was sufficient that they were allowed their own bishop, who turns up at councils with the other Galician bishops here and there. So I think of them as being a very early expat community…

        • Magnus Maximus was born on Count Theodosius’s estate in Galicia. Coincidence?

        • Steve Joyce

          perhaps a bit more than an expat community. The Council of Toledo in 633 specifically targets the Galicians as having an aberrant, likely ‘celtic’, tonsure…

          • Aberrant, yes, but ‘likely Celtic’? Weasel words, Mr Joyce! The Latin is “comis in solo capitis apice modicum circulum tondunt”, which doesn’t sound to me specifically like a Celtic tonsure (by which, of course, we mean Irish, don’t we, since I don’t think we know how the Britons did theirs?); “in a partial circle only at the crown of the head”? Surely the whole forehead should be clear. My vote is for this being Galicia just being different again. Might as well call it a Suevic tonsure, really… :-)

            • Steve Joyce

              I don’t think anyone really knows what the ‘celtic’ tonsure was: the descriptions vary widely. This one, I believe, is targeting lectors. However, as part of a concerted campaign that specifically targeted the ‘Irish tradition’, this attack could be seen within that context? I’m sure the Sueves were only known for their ‘knots’ :)

              • It’s a good point, the phrase ‘Celtic tonsure’ itself has something of the weasel about it. But what scale of campaign are you envisaging here? The sixth-century Church didn’t really have the level of central direction that you’d need to have something happening in England and Galicia at the same time, and if not to the centre, where’s the connection?

                • Steve Joyce

                  I think things change in the 7th C, post Boniface IV. The clerical campaign against tonsural deviation (not a concern in the 6th C as far as I can tell) – as connected to the Easter issue – appears quite well-coordinated and swift. If we can place the Galician lectors within this, then it is, perhaps, more likely that they are seen to be ‘celtic’ (given Britonia etc), than simply regional/ethnic variations. It is possible that the ‘long hair’ is, perhaps, even more problematic than the ‘micro-circle’.

                  Looking forward to the possibility of seeing you. Are you up for a beer, or will you be impersonating the ‘white rabbit’ given your new role?

                  • Galicians and Gaels have long claimed to be the same people: ever since that legendary prince impossibly spied the enticing green fields of Ireland from the top of the Iron Age lighthouse near A Coruna, which the Romans redeveloped and named the Tower of Hercules. It is still in use, and its light allegedly has always faced out across the Bay of Biscay towards the British Isles.

                    When the Milesian Gaels arrived in fair Eire, it’s said that my paternal ethnic group, the Eireann, met them. Been squabbling ever since.

                    • PS: The Pharos of Rome, the site of which has recently been identified (on TV anyway), was built on a similar model to the Tower of Hercules.

                      In another surprising coincidence, Portus (the port of Rome) is shaped much like Morbihan Bay in Brittany, where Julius Caesar’s navy had their tussle with the leather-sailed, high-sided, ocean-going ships of the Veneti (perhaps among the ancestors of the beloved Tall Ships).

                      On a further tangent, do the supposed Neanderthal cave circles remind anyone else of Henges?

                  • Well, I know all about the social problems of long hair of course :-) The rest certainly needs a beer to settle. I am quite heavily committed for the IMC, as you guess, but apart from two round-tables (!) I should be free or freeish in the evenings. And you’re coming, are you? Well done sir, I hope your fine institution are paying… Beer is certainly possible. We should work out when! Have you got my e-mail?

  8. Pingback: Jonathan Jarrett’s England | personnelente

  9. Map of the Carolingian Empire under Charlemagne joke is not right

  10. Según el mapa la Marca Hispánica existe y el Reino Astur no existe. Algo asombroso.[RESUR]GIT EX PRECEPTIS DIVINIS
    QUI[N] // T[A]QUE

    Reinando Fáffila hijo de Pelayo 737-739 Me temo que ese mapa es como el de los reyes de Cataluña que sólo los conocemos en los naipes.

    • Well, I got the map from Microsoft Encarta long ago, so it’s Microsoft’s mistake, but I have to confess I’d never noticed it. I don’t think it’s a statement of non-existence so much as a lack of interest or information by the cartographer—Eastern Europe has suffered the same way—but it’s a good reason to choose a better map. My only defence is that for once, the Iberian Peninsula wasn’t part of my argument here because this post was specifically about the British Isles. But still, yes, fair point!

  11. thanks friend Jonathan Jarrett

  12. This blog post came up when I was investigating what is called here “a renegade priest” – perhaps shows how little is written on the guy on the http://www.?

    However – the point I wish to make is that the solution to the hard Brexit of c. 790 is surely very likely to be linked to the rival, and rather incommensurable, pennies that Offa and Charlemagne launched in 793. Further – that almost the entire history of European weight standards post 793 seems to be driven by the monetary decisions of that year.

    And thus my question is – why have these facts been written out of both medieval histories and modern academic research?

    Indeed – why do virtually no tenured academics even reply to my questions on this point?

    All very odd

    Rob Tye

    • I have, myself, often wondered why after a brief period of minting to apparently the same standards as the Carolingians Offa should have wished to break away, and in so far as I have an answer it is to suppose that direct exchangeability of pennies made it too easy for people to simply swap coin at points of entry, rather than having to have it reminted with the consequent payment to a moneyer. I would have thought, however, that the subsequent decline and reestablishment of the English currency during the Viking era made it pretty hard to track any consistent policy of weights thereafter, though I know that you are a much stronger believer in durable weight standards than I am so will probably disagree. As you have told me before, you think I should have listened to Grierson over Buttrey on such things and I don’t, not that I had the chance; Grierson was already in care when I started at the Fitzwilliam.

      It is tempting to suggest that the answer to your final question is that most historians avoid anything that looks like maths as if it were the plague, but what the answer might be beyond that, I couldn’t say.

  13. Thanks

    JJ > I have, myself, often wondered why after a brief period of minting to apparently the same standards as the Carolingians Offa should have wished to break away,

    I do not recognise what you describe – can you cite a source? Prior to 793 both seem to strike to 1.3g, which seems “1/3 of an Apothecaries drachm”, the latter perhaps kicking around Europe on and off since about 1500 BC.
    After 793 Offa seems to strike at sterling weight – theoretically 1.46g, (achieved c. 1.42g according to Naismith) and thus apparently exactly half ‘Abd al Malik’s 2.93g dirhem. Meanwhile Charlemagne struck at 1.7g, thus half an Imperial Roman denarius.

    JJ > as I have an answer it is to suppose that direct exchangeability of pennies made it too easy for people to simply swap coin at points of entry, rather than having to have it reminted with the consequent payment to a moneyer.

    I judge the Grierson paper of c. 1976 (?) gets the theory more or less correct. Bullion was 16oz, coin 15oz, gross tax take 1/16th. Seems to be a doctrine constructed by Sumair al-Yahudi for ‘Abd al Malik in 697-8, a recipe taken up by Offa and Charlie in 793

    JJ > I would have thought, however, that the subsequent decline and re-establishment of the English currency during the Viking era made it pretty hard to track any consistent policy of weights thereafter, though I know that you are a much stronger believer in durable weight standards than I am so will probably disagree.

    Ha! Told you it was a mistake to listen to Buttrey. Later Anglo-Saxon coins were surely fiat – Mark B. must have told you that (?) – so the weight of the coins is not a direct function of their value, and is thus irrelevant when bullion handling. Sterling comes back into direct use after William I, most likely because it (or Troy, which is part of the same system) were lurking in the background all along

    JJ > As you have told me before, you think I should have listened to Grierson over Buttrey on such things and I don’t, not that I had the chance; Grierson was already in care when I started at the Fitzwilliam.

    His paper on ‘Abd al Malik and Charlemagne are still worth reading. On Buttery – see below

    JJ > It is tempting to suggest that the answer to your final question is that most historians avoid anything that looks like maths as if it were the plague, but what the answer might be beyond that, I couldn’t say.

    Interesting – a friend who is a physics prof thinks the same. I differ. Historians were often red hot on this maths from maybe 1640 to 1970. The question is really – what went wrong after that?

    Hmmm – what more so say, in writing? How about a little joke? The US economist Samuelson, who of course eventually got to the top of the greasy pole, mused in old age about his early struggles against McCarthyite prejudice. Amongst his comments is the idea that the most extreme and intransigent opposition came from the owners of chains of department stores…..


    • I do not recognise what you describe – can you cite a source?

      Do I need to? You go on to substantiate it yourself. First both at 1.3 g or thereabouts; thereafter one at 1.46 g and the other at 1.70 g. Whatever those weights may relate to, it’s not directly to each other in the same way as before. I think where we differ is in the dating of the reforms, where from what I have read we now believe Offa went first (Naismith 2010 and Williams 2001 if I remember rightly, and if I don’t my apologies to both authors).

      I did talk a lot with Mark Blackburn but oddly I don’t remember him ever expressing the view that late Anglo-Saxon coins were fiat currency. Although, if what you mean is that the exact amount of bullion in them didn’t matter much because a mint would always accept them at the same value, then I’ve no problem with that. However, it sounds as if you’re in agreement that there isn’t a significant pattern to the coin weights of that era.

      Our big disagreement here seems to be over that Grierson theory of bullion weight being counted differently from coin weight. We’re not going to resolve that one here, I fear…

      Historians were often red hot on this maths from maybe 1640 to 1970. The question is really – what went wrong after that?

      The wider slow death of cliometrics and economic history, I guess! We’re not alone in noticing that chronology: see Joel Mokyr, ‘On the Supposed Decline and Fall of Economic History’, Historically Speaking, 11.2 (2010), 23–25, DOI: 10.1353/hsp.0.0101.

  14. Thanks

    JJ > I think where we differ is in the dating of the reforms,

    Have a look at Garipzanov 2016 here:

    JJ > I don’t remember (Mark B.) ever expressing the view that late Anglo-Saxon coins were fiat currency.

    Yes – Mark was a big supporter of the Petersson model, without properly engaging with its weight standards implications. Meanwhile Buttrey was surely politically vehemently opposed to Petersson/Bolin. Stewart Lyon seems to have been Mark’s mentor – and Lyon seemed to have the better overview to me. He of course had the advantage of not relying on an academic salary. No personal slight intended – just a plain fact.

    I strongly agree with Mokyr on the importance of Francis Bacon, but Mokyr seems to me to be discussing a (genuine) intellectual decline, whilst being himself already half way down the slope.

    Bacon did not see himself as promoting a scientific “culture”. He was defending objectivity from the subjective and politically driven deceptions of such as Bellarmine. In Novum Organium he wrote:

    “words still manifestly force the understanding, throw everything into confusion, and lead mankind into vain and in numerable controversies and fallacies …………………. we must bring men to particulars and their regular series and order, and they must for awhile renounce their notions, and begin to form an acquaintance with things.”

    The same confrontation happened again in Britain in the 1920’s – between Russell and Keynes, but this time the political/subjectivist side – Keynes – was the winner. Largely through the ploy of Wittgenstein’s “language games” nonsense. (Wittgenstein was Keynes’ creature).

    If you wish – you can read Keynes’ ‘deathbed confession’ here: (My Early Beliefs)

    Weight is an objective physical fact, value a subjective political construction. Keynes scoffed at the notion of monetary weight standards.

    The post-1970’s world seems now trapped in the bubble Keynes & Co. constructed

  15. Ah, yes, I knew of that Garipzanov piece but hadn’t taken on board its implications in this respect. I suppose, by my earlier hypothesis, that both kings might have agreed that they were losing revenue from their coinages being interchangeable, and indeed, if they’d set them on the same standard by agreement one might hope that they’d undo that in agreement too. But then there’s that bit about Charlemagne closing the ports over the marriage issue. But it doesn’t have to coincide!

  16. Thanks

    JJ > But then there’s that bit about Charlemagne closing the ports over the marriage issue.

    Written by Charlemagne’s collector of import tax, Gervold – who claims to have been the one who fixed the problems.

    That just further strengthens the case I made, deriving from Grierson, that it is not merely about coins, but more fundemental matters of weight measurement itself, that in turn was tailored to mutually antagonistic financial interests.

    The strong evidence is that at metrification the two different and rather incommensurable English and Paris grains were still those chosen by Offa and Charlemagne in 793, a thousand years before. Points to weight measurement matters more enduring than just a bust up over a marriage.

    JJ > But it doesn’t have to coincide!

    Incorrect – according to all the sources: that these matters coincide is an objective fact.

    I guess what you are trying to say is that, subjectively, you are free to ignore the significance of the coincidences. True. But that is exactly my point. Why would you wish to ignore them?

    • No, I mean it doesn’t have to coincide in so far as we don’t have a date for the marriage bust-up, except in so far as it lay towards the end of the uncertain lifespan of Gervold and within that of Offa. Even if that came quite close to the coin reforms, we don’t know whether it was before or after them, which could make quite a difference to how we reconstruct the relations between the kings and thus the context in which the separation of standards occurred.

  17. OK – thanks for the clarification, but I see no strength in the suggestion.

    The Alcuin/Colcu letter of 790 and the Charles/Offa letter of 796 fix a “hard Brexit” arising and being solved in that time period, which fits very well with the coin reforms at 793 being part of the actual fix.

    If we detach the marriage matter from that we surely end up with postulating two “hard Brexit” events, with no hard evidence what so ever for a second one?

    Actually it seems to me that this focus upon the paltry amount of evidence from surviving (rather official) documents, whilst disregarding the vast amount of evidence from objects and mathematics, points to serious problems within modern scholarship. We have not really moved beyond that – which seemed to be an initial point of agreement

    I discussed elements of these matters constructively with many people, but the only one now alive is Harald Witthöft – aged 93. Hard not to see this failure of objectivity in an ‘Orwellian’ light. Wycliffe said much the same as Orwell, long before.

  18. “The Alcuin/Colcu letter of 790 and the Charles/Offa letter of 796 fix a ‘hard Brexit’ arising and being solved in that time period, which fits very well with the coin reforms at 793 being part of the actual fix.
    “If we detach the marriage matter from that we surely end up with postulating two ‘hard Brexit’ events, with no hard evidence what so ever for a second one?”

    It’s too long since I looked at this stuff, and I’d forgotten the date on Alcuin’s letter if I ever knew it. Thanks for the correction. I agree there’s only room for one breakdown of relations, really, though I’d submit that by itself that doesn’t tell us whether the changes of coin standards were part of the fix or part of the breakdown. Though I suppose if they were made in mutual hostility one might have expected them to be reverted when relations were restored.

    On the broader score, I’m not sure how much we agree about here. I think it is a crying shame and something of a disgrace to the profession how basically innumerate most historians of the Middle Ages seem to be, and I think we agree there, though not apparently about when it began; I think doing things with numbers in medieval history died when David Herlihy stopped doing it, myself, despite the huge potential of the computer emerging just then to make it quicker and easier, but you seem to think things have been bad for longer than that. But even if we agree about this much of the problem, I don’t think we see the same remedies! (But you may have the advantage of me there, for seeing one at all. For me the problems start in the schools and therefore, as with most things I hate about our intellectual world, with the government.)

  19. Thanks

    Quite a long mail this.

    A) My visits to Leeds Uni in recent years have been to meets with the Philosophy lot. I see a British 20th century intellectual collapse as rooted in the attack on Russell by Keynes and Wittgenstein around the time of universal franchise (1928). Geach subsequently made Leeds Phil. a kind of Wittgensteinian fortress, so for me – a kind of enemy territory. Note that Hayek and Russell teamed up (!) to promote Popper, and it was Geach himself who counter-attacked Popper as “a liar” in The Times – linked to that matter It was Watson (LSE) who then went after Geach in The Times. (As a nipper I one time drank 5 pints with Watson……) Anyhow, I found the retired Leeds profs that Geach had appointed (thus my “intellectual enemies”) never the less open and thoughtful. But the current profs (French and Co) just snubbed me. A sign of the times?

    B) What times are these? Well – looks to me we are living in something a bit like a re-run of 4th century Rome. Gibbon’s account of 4th/5th century Christianity seems rather like the current woke matter we have today, where virtue signalling replaces objectivity. Note that Gibbon was not a wholesale attack on Christianity – he praises Pelagius. But importantly – what we know – that Gibbon did not know – is that this ran hand in hand with a concurrent decline of the denarius from 1 : 6,000 to 1 : 45,000,000 against the solidus. QE meets woke = Fiduciary money meets fiduciary thought?

    C) An amateur guy in Germany (Ludwig Ramacher) just drew my attention to a paper by neil middleton on Academia, and trying to google and figure middleton out I came across your blog for 2008. What follows are a few notes on some major errors middleton and you make

    D) Middleton does not realise that (metrological) “grains” are mathematical entities. As soon as official standard weights began to appear, before 2000 BC, “grains” are no longer grains. If we guess the Babylonian mother weight as being a mina, then by definition their “grain” was 1/60 x 1/180 of that weight. Likewise the medieval English/Islamic “barley grain” was 4/3 of the English/Islamic “wheat grain” by definition. This has nothing to do with the seeds of any plant (see Skinner Weights and Measures 1967 p. 19 on that)

    E) Coins come to us worn; we never know how much weight they’ve lost. Even fine ones are not going to be their mint weight,

    Uncirculated coins retaining mint lustre will certainly be at their mint weight if they have not been clipped – and if they have – its hard to miss the shear marks on an uncirculated flan. Actually the consistency of weight of most coins above “Good Fine” shows them to be an excellent guide to mint weight. People like Grierson, Miles and Archibald took this for granted. Miskimin explicitly rejected it. Ha! Read what John Munro wrote about Miskimin and weep. (in his “Metrological Maze”). The pity is Munro waited until his PhD supervisor was dead before revealing some of the latter’s gross errors, and then promptly died himself just as he and I were starting to exchange ideas.

    F) so he rounds up, because those mediaevals, their weighing was a bit vague anyway, right?

    A bigger problem is the dishonesty of a whole variety of medieval people in a whole variety of ways. But I will set that aside and point out a major problem with modern thought – that we use decimal approximations, they did not. Take a crucial move in historical metrology – where taxes eventually become stacked one on the other, and taken by weight. So you have an old standard of Z and a derived standard of Z x 7/8 x 15/16. That is how they saw it mathematically. (Read Archimedes if you want to see how good some of those dead guys were at maths!)

    Today decimally we write this as Z x 0.8203125 – and you do have to pretty good at sums to spot that is 7/8 x 15/16. Worse still when such as Harald Witthöft simplify this to 0.8203 there is a chorus of people like you shouting – that is way too precise! No – in fact it is wrong – the meaning has been erased by decimalization and then rounding.

    PS WordPress stripped my italics……

    • A, B, and C don’t seem to be answers to any question I was posing to you, but thanks for the thoughts anyway.
      I have no reading in philosophy to speak of and couldn’t begin to comment on A. I’ve never had any contact with the philosophers currently at Leeds, my fault as much as theirs I guess.
      My doubts on the figures that generate the contention you make about the solidus are currently on their way into print, so I won’t try and answer B in that specific just now except to say that if the different figures for the value of the solidus over the fourth and fifth century were dealt with by mathematicians and statisticians with no stake in the outcome, firstly no line of best fit would be possible to plot and secondly nine tenths of those figures or more would have to be omitted as being derived only by untestable hypothesis about how to read the sources.
      I am not going to comment on B in its wider sense here at all; that’s a conversation for a pub, if ever. Having politics on the open web gets academics into trouble.
      I don’t know what the sources would be for D, but I’m sure you can tell me.
      E is exactly why I side with Buttrey about maths in numismatics; when you have to start with hypothesis to get usable figures at all, how can any calculation from them be considered more than a multiplication of errors? In that respect Middleton stood out to me only because his cavalier attitude to the figures, which I think you caricature accurately, was so much more pronounced than the usual standard that it should have been obvious to his audiences and peer reviewers.
      On F, however, we agree! Though it is possible that between writing the Middleton paper review and that post I’d actually had the conversation in which someone first pointed it out to me…

  20. Ludwig Ramacher

    MEC 1 p. 270 about Offas reform: “which may represent a theoretical weight of 22 1/2 gr (1,46 g).” Where do you both take the security from that the aim was 1,46 g/ 22 1/2 gr? The question would be for me independant of Rob’s idea that this is half a Dirhem, which I actually neither fully exclude nor would immediately take for granted. The fact that lateron the sterling of London and the Pfennig of Cologne was in the range of 1,46 g would not necessarily prove anything backwards, or is there any indication for an ounce in London of ca. 29,2 g at those times? According to German literature I have access to in Cologne at least no. Witthöft argues that this is from about 1200, not that I fully agree with him, as the mark of Cologne seems to have appeared earlier in a similar range than the 233,6 g far away.

    • I should say immediately, I take no such security. My unwillingness to accept the approximation involved to generate this highly precise kind of mathematics is exactly where I side with Buttrey over Grierson, to Mr Tye’s disdain. All I would claim is that after the reform Offa’s coinage and Charlemagne’s coinage were clearly not meant to be minted at the same weights, whereas before it they may have been. I set no stake on what those weights may have been meant to be.

  21. The earliest written account of the mark of Cologne outside of Cologne itself is by the way in the year 1100 in Sahagun. That was one starting point of my research how it could have reached so far south that early and why it got a different mass (possibly from the beginning on).

  22. Hello Ludwig

    LR > Where do you both take the security from that the aim was 1,46 g/ 22 1/2 gr?

    There is no “security” involved. That Offa aimed at 30 ‘troy wheat grains’ (c. 1.46g) is a hypothesis, and rather a lot of evidence points in that direction. The important question is this: do you have an alternative hypothesis that is better corroborated? Your search for such has been enormously productive, but thus far the answer is…… no.

    LR > the earliest written account of the mark of Cologne outside of Cologne itself is by the way in the year 1100 in Sahagun.

    Regarding eras when documents are almost all from officials, restricting ourselves to documentary evidence has obvious draw backs. You will recall we looked at physical Cologne pennies right back to Otto, and there are rather strong pointers to 1.46g (that was the mode). Again – what explanation of that fact do you have?

    • Hello Rob,

      the 1,46 g for Cologne was Phillip von Heinsberg, we would be at 1150 then.

      The masses of the coins before Phillip are much less clear:

      Otto I Hävernick 62 — 1,50 g as average of 12; 63 — 1,59 g; 64 — 1,38 g as average of 42

      Otto II 67 — 1,23 g as average of 27; 73 — 1,325 as average of 11

      Heinrich II 137 — 1,45 as average of 16; 147 — 1,29 as average of 11


  23. Hello Jonathan

    JJ > when you have to start with hypothesis to get usable figures at all,

    The inquiry starts with the observation of objects.

    Happened first around 1640, when it was observed that English Troy weights were very similar to Egyptian weights at that time, in a ramified way (both grains, penny, ounce, then in 1721, pound).

    How English Tower/Sterling was officially defined in terms of Troy only got written on paper at the abolition of Tower in the Tudor period, but its very obvious way before that – again – in the artifacts.

    Troy penny = 32 troy wheat grains, Sterling penny 30 troy wheat grains. Both the same system.

    Various forms of preconception, rather clearly rooted in versions of nationalistic prejudice, hampered the next vital step (Skinner 1967) – the observation of the fact that (pre c. 850) Umayyad and Abbasid dirhems regularly weigh between 2.90g and 2.95g with a clear mode and mean just below 2.93g. Coupled with text stating the standard was 60 grains.

    Thus we observe not one but several similarities between English and Islamic weight practices, in structure and standard.

    If we ignore the observed facts, and refuse to advance hypotheses to explain them, then we are no longer involved in a rational enterprise at all, according to my understanding of rationality.

    JJ > I side with Buttrey over Grierson

    I am puzzled by this. Did Buttrey ever specifically criticise Grierson? My recollection is that he rather relentlessly went after Andrew Burnett over die counting matters. I felt Buttrey brought more smoke than light to that matter – but that does not seem to have any connection to the sort of hypotheses
    about basic rather elementary metrological structures that I and Grierson discuss.

    For clarification, I am very critical indeed of some of the bullying that is going on with very tough maths by such as Sargent (big problem of small change). A very different matter. On that, well, my paper on Sargent went through open refereeing by Nick Mayhew and Joe Cribb…….I am certainly not isolated.

    • Where we have texts to say what the weight was meant to be, that is one thing, and it allows us to assess how closely that could be maintained as well. The error margins that makes clear should really make us shy of trying to reverse the maths and guess weight standards from coin samples when we don’t know the target. Of course, the temptation is to fill in with a target we think likely: here it’s Troy. Fine, it’s possible, but you can’t know it’s right.

      This is where Buttrey had the right of it, for me. You’re right that he never had any direct disagreement with Grierson that I know of – though in his 1975 Numismatics even Grierson expresses doubts about the kind of maths outlined above, despite his readiness to use it in 1960 – but Buttrey’s methodological objections over die statistics apply mutatis mutandis to the methods on use here as well. For me his significant quote about what to do when you don’t have the figures you need in the record is this:

      “What should we do? We should do nothing. Nothing can be done. There is no solution to this problem, beyond inventing new data to push the inquiry into the realm of the fanciful. This is uncomfortable but it is true. If we allow ourselves, in our frustration, to confect the missing data, we will to that extent have destroyed our own purpose. To create quantitative studies built of imaginary data, to force an answer by assuring ourselves and others that we know what we do not, and cannot, is to compromise everything that we hold important.”

      Of course, this puts me at the negative end of a spectrum within which most people are happy to be nearer the centre, if they deal with numbers at all, including especially Nick Mayhew, as you note and and even I venture there sometimes to make a point, but it is the position I take, and I spent enough time even in the article I just linked clearing away other people’s bad maths that I also take Ted to have been right when he wrote:

      “When we enter on these kinds of calculation, we can be confident of two things. First, the answer will be wrong. Whatever it is, it will be wrong, since it cannot be right—once you are guessing, the number of possible permutations is gigantic. Worse, where the errors lies, and how serious they are, cannot be determined… Secondly, we can be confident of something else: when we publish this sort of thing, no matter that it be all set about with caveats and qualifications, the very fact that we thought it worth publishing will give it credibility.”

      So, whether it’s a rounded or heaped modius, two different values for a pound or a mark which can be swapped as needed to make the arithmetic work, or whatever, when I see this done I suspect and avoid it. There are obviously very different degrees of rigour and accuracy to which it is done when it’s done, and the volume of knowledge you bring to your own attempts is something I shall never be able to equal, I imagine; but I’m not sure there is good enough it can be done to convince me.

      * The Buttrey quotes are both from Theodore V. Buttrey, “Calculating Ancient Coin Production: facts and fantasies”, The President’s Address in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 153 (London 1993), pp. 335-351, pp. 351 and pp. 349-350 respectively.

  24. Thanks Jonathan,

    Due to this 21st century academic context I try to keep discussion of politically driven philosophical positions to a minimum, but all the same – they seem to me crucial.

    JJ > Of course, the temptation is to fill in with a target we think likely: here it’s Troy. Fine, it’s possible, but you can’t know it’s right.

    That straw man again – suggesting “I know its right”- it seems to me a kind of disease of the modern intellect. A disease perhaps ‘lab created and deliberately spread’, so to speak.

    I repeat, my claims concern merely best guesses – some of which are highly corroborated.

    The evidence that Troy was very near static from the 20th century back to c. 1350 seems very strong indeed. That 16oz troy tracks back to Arab versions of the Persian mina, via Offa, seems also rather strong. I am open to criticism from those who have looked at the evidence. I am not willing to play word games about “certainty” – making “the best the enemy of the good”.

    TB > What should we do? We should do nothing.

    Who is this “we”? Ted was fully entitled to chose to do nothing himself. Actually – that sounds to me like a good plan :-)

    JJ > Where we have texts to say what the weight was meant to be, that is one thing, and it allows us to assess how closely that could be maintained as well.

    Unfortunately not correct. To semi-quote Francis Bacon – ‘ignore the words – look at the things’. Perhaps the most important primary official document on English metrology (the Tractatus) from the 13th century was described as “false” in the current (1987) official HMSO account of English historical metrology. I would prefer to describe it as deliberately misleading. Or lets look at the dreadful Roman situation:

    The Palazzo Massimo Museum in Rome displays a very prestigious bronze 10 lb weight – which indicates a pound of c. 359g. On my visit I approached the delightful young lady – on duty to assist visitors – (excellent English) and asked why it was so far from the well attested standard (my guess being perhaps 326.7g)

    She replied, ‘only the director can address such a difficult question.’

    I asked – ‘can I then meet the director to ask?’

    She replied – ‘he is far too busy’

    Catch 22 anybody?

    • I am open to criticism from those who have looked at the evidence.

      But it seems that a criticism you won’t accept is that you can’t do this with that evidence… This was what Ted was saying “we” should not do, and he didn’t. But he had to deal with others who did and made impossible or bad deductions based on their hypotheses. In his case, the problem writer was Michael Crawford. Perhaps you think Crawford is a bad ambassador for the craft, though.

      Do you then go on to offer the lack of plausible evidence about weight standrds later on (or earlier) as a justification for continuing to try to work them out from that evidence? It seems that way to me but perhaps I am missing something.

  25. Hello Jonathan

    Rob is correct on this, in my opinion. Though I argue with him to some degree on the accuracy available on any coin set, the coins themselves are by far the most accurate indicator of actual weights used.

    Within any administrative system, true precious metal content might have been overlooked to varying degrees, but equally not (or not of pertinance to this, or the following, theme) , because of the tendency of “good money” to dissappear into private hands when any coin was not minted at open market metal value…whether worth less (in which case it was the replacing “bad money”) or more (because they would be melted or exported) i.e. whatever fiat value was imposed had little meaning in the broader context.

    That being so, and given that true and full value of any coinage would be that used in trade to outside of any administration (because foreign traders will insist on knowing the true metal value of any coin being offerred) no matter actual coin weight, that reference of true precious metal value will be the ultimate reference of what weight system is being used.

    Why ? Because either a true value/weight system is being used, or none is present at all. Even domestic administrative accounting could not escape such a fact, attempts at merging fiat debasement and true value only satisfied empty promises made by the issuer themselves, while society traded the coinage at true value and without qualm of off-loading the debased currency where possible or where demanded. The question of whether the increased quantity of new (debased money) available at any point affected its value vs whether the lack of content of precious metal did so, is moot. Trade is in value, but forced value is not trade, being only a schema no matter how detailed or officialised or documentarily imposed that might have been. In foreign trade it would also be near worthless, given that foreign traders were not interested in the administrative value within another kingdom.

    So, the weight system in use will be found in the precious metal content of the coins in use, because that was the understanding in international trade. No ruler would have been unaware of this reality, and society would have in all been wise to this as well.

    From there, the question of a coinciding or non coinciding (precious metal based) weight systems is open to interpretation. Some of the reasons for a difference, for example seigniorage, are mentioned above. To know if such were the case, we would also have to know if there was a form of legal tender at work. With what money could taxes or redemption be paid , as example. I am not versed in that detail so only mention it. Matters of status, of simple political differentiation might also come into play. Pragmatic physical choices, such as setting a coin weight at a value where quantity matched everyday values, might exist. Even the (honest?) deception of debasement by weight alone. Foreign allegiances, and trade schemes, the search for acceptance of coinage in a foreign market, all have their examples also. There are undoubtedly more.

    The interpretation therefore remains subjective to a degree, based on historical account of one kind or another. Verbal account means discussion and debate, and that means accepting all ideas until they can be discounted. For example, most of what historians write is just that, attempted deductions of past events made to fit to whatever (little) factual evidence does exist. Concensus is not factual.

    The math might only point in certain directions, and eliminate others, but it does so factually. Many historians do not much like this, at all. They are happy with vaguer details, and why not when those give room for choice of narrative ? There is a lot of narrative in existence, whole countries even are founded on certain narratives. Reputations, pay, geopolitics, social management and more are all reliant on painting certain pictures, on having them accepted by, if not enforced on, society

    All well and good, maybe, but the moment a fixed view, or exclusion of other views, stops people exploring, questioning and debating reality, be it past or present, that is then not acceptable, or helpful. It creates antagonism, confusion, and is oppressive to those who are sincere and open in their pursuits.

    Where you say the maths is not good enough, because of variability, in fact I think you should be saying.

    “Well, there ARE some material facts, but mind, the parameters of those facts are 0.2 g wide over the space of a century. How does that compare with….”

    As mentioned, further interpretation is then subjective to a degree, but the sense of direction offered by any fact whatsoever should be taken as guide, as opposed to the endless compilatiom of invention that makes up a lot of modern learning.

    The past cannot be invented, to attempt to would be a futile vanity. Interpretation of the past will always contain a subjective element, because of the transposition to modern understanding nescessary by the narrator. A historian I think should be fully aware and at ease with exactly what their position of narrative is, should know what that position is based upon and hopefully be as active at detecting own bias as of formulating possible historical scenarios to present to others. Easier said than done, because even without any weight of previous study, we still tend to approach themes from certain familiar perspectives, we are still inclined to draw assumption only from the little we are able to imagine.

    History is a social science, where the intent and motives of past society are deduced or guessed at, using the firmest evidence available, that being archaelogical and material, written and traditional sources, and mathematical verification. When the intent of a ruler or government is said to be “so” in written history, but the actions speak more of “tho”, and gossip has it that “no” , when a balance is applied that weighs profit it makes others say “oh!”. Who is right ? That is not the question, the question is who is now apparently wrong. From there attention might be given to avenues of understanding that appear more feasible.

    The little that we are able to imagine of it all might all the same be history and the past showing us ourselves, which is just possibly what attracts people to it in the first place.

    If we are not prepared though for what might be discovered openly, we are not studying history, only selectively applying our own preconceptions, whatever they may be and from wherever they were learned.

    It has taken a while to write the above, and it stands as a point of view open to criticism, but it stands by itself all the same. So I will not enter discussion, because I have no more to add, having no objection either to criticism being added. That is to say, take no offence that I do not continue in discussion.

    • No offence will be taken, but it’s a pity because I’d like to engage with some of the premises. For a start, the suggestion that the market set a ‘true’ value on a coin:

      true and full value of any coinage would be that used in trade to outside of any administration…
      society traded the coinage at true value

      But we have many laws, Roman and other, against people over- or under-valuing coinage, because availability of metal, coined and uncoined, was a factor in that valuation; poor supply raised prices. That is why bullion is one of the things that Diocletian tried to fix the price of. Therefore there is no ‘true’ value; the legislated value (which is never in the Romans’ laws, I might add, and is itself therefore perhaps our fiction) was one thing and the market value was intensely variable within whatever limits the state could actually enforce in any given place.

      However, if what we are actually seeking is not some ‘value’, but the precise weight of precious metal intended to be in a given coin type, one would think that was indeed more recoverable. But what the coinages show us is that wild inconsistency was possible in almost anything except the solidus and that target weights are our own deduction from a very messy mathematics of averaging. I would agree, from that, that a target weight was usually set, but either it wasn’t possible for most mints to strike consistently at weight, or it wasn’t important to do so. Whenever I consider these issues, an old article comes to mind, M. F. Hendy and J. A. Charles, ‘The Production Techniques, Silver Content and Circulation History of the Twelfth-Century Byzantine Silver Trachy’, Archaeometry, 12 (1970), 13–21, where they observe, among other things, “It is, incidentally, very difficult to pour such small weights as 3 to 4 gm into separate moulds.” Ever since then I have wondered: how when the weights were even smaller, such as these precious metal allotments? The answer was presumably to mix the alloy in a large batch and then measure it, in some way, into the correct amounts for blanks. But mixing could never have been 100% perfect, and I wonder how precise measurement could have been too, so no given coin would reliably contain the right amount of precious metal. And if the precision we seek is not physically present in the evidence, where does that leave us? And once again I stand with Ted Buttrey: better off not trying this impossible feat.

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