Monthly Archives: January 2018

All That Glitters, Experiment 3

A problem with finally picking up this blog a bit is that some of the old stories in it have been sitting idle for really quite some time. Does anyone remember, for example, that while I was working at the Barber Institute we got a small amount of money to zap gold coins with x-rays? If you do, you may remember that I’d already reported on the first two experiments we did in that project when everything here ground to a halt in 2016. Well, now I resume, with a brief account of the third experiment we did, and before long who knows, we may be through the rest!

Bruker S8 TIGER XRF analyser open for business

The S8TIGER WD-XRF spectrometer in the Department of Chemistry, University of Birmingham, with five sample cups waiting and one under analysis

A brief recap may be in order first of all, though. The very short version of the project’s purpose was: we had all seen an increasing amount of work using X-ray fluorescence spectrometry to analyse the fineness of precious-metal coins and sometimes even assign origins to its metal based on the trace elements therein. We had our doubts about this, but the manufacturers of some of the best machinery involved wanted to quell our doubts about this and offered us quite a lot of help with it, so we came up with a plan and, somewhat to our surprise, got both permission from the Henry Barber Trust to muck around with their coins and funding from the Royal Numismatic Society to do it, and so set about it. We began this in December 2014, with two experiments. The first was designed to test the viability of hand-held, portable, energy-dispersive machinery that could be brought to the coins; the second did comparator analyses using a fixed-location wavelength-dispersive spectrometer to which we had to bring the coins. This showed us that to detect anything at all of trace elements we would need the big machine, but also that it was picking up a whole load of stuff that seemed very likely to be extraneous material on the surface of the coins, probably from the soil in which they had long ago been found, rather than the stuff of which they were actually made. And that is about where we come in!

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini struck at Constantinople 785-797, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4599

The coin whose results (and details) are given in the first table below, set up for the test in which it did so

So, the third experiment was very simple. Using the same set of coins as we had previously run, I got hold of some conservation-quality acetone and a toothbrush, took them and the coins down to a workroom in the depths of the Barber and gave them all a careful but thorough scrubbing and let them dry, all except one that we left uncleaned as a check. Then I packed them up again and we bore them off to the Department of Chemistry on 22nd July 2015. There we ran them again, on the shorter of the big machine’s two cycles, and this gave us some results both before and after cleaning.

Unfortunately, if anything, the post-cleaning results showed more extraneous grot. That ‘if anything’ will tell you, though, that consistency was hard to observe. The variation wasn’t vast amounts, you understand, between half and one-and-a-half per cent, but cumulatively certainly enough to push our figures for the actual gold content up or down by two or three per cent, which would for some people be enough on which to found a theory about debasement… Here are the top ten elemental results from just one side of one coin by way of example:

Coin 170 (obverse)1 Percentage observed first time Percentage observed second time
Gold 86.51% 84.49%
Silicon 3.44% 4.63%
Silver 1.61% 1.43%
Aluminium 1.27% 1.19%
Potassium 0.80% 0.63%
Sodium 0.74%
Copper 0.44% 0.34%
Calcium 0.32% 1.96%
Sulphur 0.28% 0.48%
Iron 0.27% 0.50%
Total percentage of coin observed 96.38% 96.70%

Down by two per cent gold, and that mostly gone to silicon and calcium, even though some other small elements had dropped in the readings as well. Also, what this arrangement doesn’t show, the second time small but possible readings showed up for chlorine, magnesium and, way down the scale, platinum, all absent the first time through. Surely cleaning with acetone couldn’t have added calcium to the coin? But each coin we ran had its own little tale of additional mess to tell, even (and this should have told us something) the uncleaned check. Here are its top-ten figures for the obverse:

Coin 21 (obverse)2 Percentage observed first time Percentage observed second time
Gold 82.57% 87.43%
Silicon 1.82% 1.61%
Aluminium 1.01% 0.81%
Silver 0.74% 1.10%
Sodium 0.65%
Potassium 0.47%
Chlorine 0.45%
Calcium 0.44% 1.78%
Iron 0.31% 0.31%
Copper 0.24% 0.26%
Total percentage of coin observed 89.12% 93.80%

Some things are beguilingly similar, yes—iron and copper levels stay about the same—but others are not. The first test picked up sodium, potassium and chlorine but none of those turned up second time even though we’d actually got better readings with more of the sample observed (possibly because we gave it a flatter bit to look at). Were we just looking at a different bit? If so, that bit apparently had less silicon in it, but a whole whack more calcium in it. What can you do with these sorts of data?

Gold solidus of Emperor Anastasius I struck at Constantinople 491-518, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0006, in an WD-XRF sample cup

The uncleaned check likewise set up for the results above, though I have to say it’s not like it looks dirty

So this was somewhat daunting, especially as we had four solid days of testing booked in for the following week and now somewhat less certainty that it would produce anything. At the time, my best guess was that the acetone had removed only handling patina, thus exposing the actual surface of the coin and everything that had adhered to or reacted into it while it was in the ground. Actually, looking back, I think we were already seeing here the conclusion that the final experiment would necessarily lead us to. But that would be getting ahead of the story, and even though this story is so very far behind, I have hopes of telling it as I wanted to anyway. So, till next post but, er, two, if I have my plans right (and no-one else dies—did you see Mark E. Smith has left us for the bar of the great and final WMC since the last post?), I shall leave the question hanging…


1. We used randomly-allocated running numbers throughout these experiments, so that we couldn’t try and guess what the results should be according to where the coins fitted in Byzantine history (or the previous curves laid down by work like Cécile Morrisson, Jean-Nöel Barrandon and Jean Poirier, “La monnaie d’or byzantine à Constantinople : purification et modes d’altérations (491-1354)” in Morrisson, Claude Brenot, Barrandon, Poirier and Robert Halleux (edd.), L’or monnayé I : purification et altérations de Rome à Byzance, Cahiers Ernest Babelon 2 (Paris: C. N. R. S. 1985), pp. 113–187. This one was actually Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4599, a solidus of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini struck at Constantinople between 785 and 797, online here. I’m actually almost loath to identify the coins here, though, lest it be thought I’m actually publishing figures for their metal content. As is probably clear, though, that’s something I’m sure we weren’t reliably getting.

2. And this one was Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0006, a solidus of Emperor Anastasius I struck at Constantinople between 491 and 518, online here, with the same reservations as in the previous note.

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In memoriam Ted Buttrey (1929-2018)

2017-2018 has been a rough transition, like 2010-2011’s second instalment but with the deaths closer to me this time. I would have liked the last post but one to be enough for one winter but the toll has continued to ring and ring hard. I already failed to mention Professor Peter Spufford, whom I didn’t know well but should have recorded here after he died on 18 November 2017; I can’t point to a good obituary just yet but there must be one coming, probably indeed in the upcoming Numismatic Chronicle. I likewise would have wished to say something about John Casey, whom I only met a couple of times but was fun both to read and to talk to. But I cannot fail to mention Professor Theodore Vern Buttrey, Junior, because he was one of my favourite people in Cambridge and while his death, on 9 January, was not unexpected as he’d been fighting prostate cancer, more or less in secrecy (I found out last October) for some time, and also he was eighty-nine, still his praises must be sung because he was a fantastic guy. Also, he would be terribly embarrassed by my saying as much on the web, and so if I’m to commit such a sin at all, I must do it so thoroughly that he would feel obliged to step up to the role of his own personality. So Ted, this is your stage.

Professor Ted Buttrey in a seminar in Vienna

“Seriously, you’re gonna do this?” Ted, I am gonna; I owe you no less.

I’m not sure Ted was ever off a stage, if he was where people could see him; he actually did act, indeed one of the first conversations we had where I realised what an strong character he was was when he came into the Department of Coins and Medals announcing that he had been selected as one of the extras for Elizabeth: The Golden Age, which was then filming in Ely. He had thought it best to lie about his age so as not to risk crossing their insurance thresholds, and accordingly, apparently, his legs can be seen in one scene and his top half in another, amid a crowd of bearded Spanish grandees tutting in the background of Philip II’s court. I don’t know how many septuaganarians would do that; by the time I left the Department, however, I knew that Ted was one of them. He also quoted Shakespeare rather a lot, with great and stagey disappointment in the younger generation if it wasn’t recognised, but was as likely to throw out bits of Sophocles, on whom he wrote what is as far as I know his last book; with numismatists it’s always possible there’s another draft that someone is going to finish off, and while I don’t know of one he was always trying to get something else finished before it was too late, so I bet there’s at least one.1 He will also probably still have shipments of numismatic sale catalogues, of which he had amassed the world’s largest collection at the Fitzwilliam, inbound, which is going to be a touch day for the crew who remain there when they arrive, emotionally as well as physically. I remember celebrating the 35,000th catalogue’s accession and the Department’s new mobile shelving with an afternoon of tea, cake, Latin acclamations and sung rounds, accompanied by one of my colleagues on “the Giant Wurlitzer”, a very small Casio keyboard that she discreetly played behind a bookshelf so as not to dispel the illusion. Ted had, of course, written all the words himself, including apologies from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Queen and the Chancellor of the University none of whom, sadly, were able to be present, and I hope I still have the Order of Ceremonies somewhere. Again, who else would do such a thing, and do it over mobile shelving and auction catalogues?

Professor Ted Buttrey with a cartload of numismatic sale catalogues in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

None but Ted! Here pictured with a fresh shipment and a very fake smile in the Grierson Room of the Department

But as the fact that a great numismatist’s last book would be on Classical drama should tell you, Ted was more than a numismatist, and indeed he sometimes described himself as a philologist first and foremost, and this was probably fair if you just take it etymologically (as of course such a person would), in as much he really loved words. It was from Ted I learnt to play Boggle, and while I got to the point where he didn’t often beat me, the real point of the game was not who won but the lengthy arguments over whether the particular combination of letters he’d found on the grid was in fact a real word or not; we haggled for long enough over ‘sawdusts’ that another then-member of the department subsequently got me a mug made with the word on it. To his delight, because my father had been (indeed, when I started there, still was) much of an age with him and had had an American wife, I knew quite a lot of Ted’s backdated Americana references, like Pogo, another huge sink of wordplay for the player with words, and could spar back at him with them. Lunches in the Department were made the more splendid for Ted appearing dramatically in the doorway with a Boggle set and proclaiming, “The hour cometh, and now is!” There was less Boggle after I left and still less after the mug-making colleague did, so I very much hope there’s someone willing to play wherever Ted’s spirit now roams.

Jonathan Jarrett, Ted Buttrey and Vladimir Nastich in the McClean Room, Coins & Medals, Fitzwilliam Museum

Myself, Professor Ted Buttrey and Professor Vladimir Nastich in the McClean Room, Coins & Medals; my beard is more sensible now

What else should be said of Ted? There are many stories to tell, most of which maybe don’t belong here like when I made his life dramatically easier at a stroke by showing him the double-click; Ted had determinedly learnt computers as an early adopter and then carried on using that computer in retirement from 1991 to about 2003, with no-one to tell him about some of the major changes his post-2003 machine embodied. But one cannot speak of Ted as a whole without also including his role as a fraud-busting detective. Not only did he catch two coin thieves at the Department during his tenure as Keeper, one of whom he quite deliberately set up with an opportunity he couldn’t miss, but, much more famously, exposed a traffic in early Mexican and American gold bars which he held to be fakes, including pointing a finger at the traffickers; they then sued him for libel, but the suit was dismissed and since no legal verdict was reached against Ted’s accused either I’ll leave it there, but it made the papers.2 Such was the man.

Cover of Buttrey and Hubbard, Guidebook of Mexican Coins

Cover of Buttrey and Hubbard, Guidebook of Mexican Coins

Obviously I have to mention his scholarship, as well, and it would be too seductively easy to pick out stuff like his work on Domitian’s rhinoceros, on spintriae (careful with that link, probably NSFW unless your work is Roman numismatics or history) or his three excellent and finely-written articles decrying attempts to put numbers on the production of ancient coins which I have praised here before, in general the quirky, funny or destructive (though always scholarly), if only because it would be so hard to pick a small number of the more important publications like the coins from the excavations at Sardis, with the late Ian Carradice the new standard catalogue of the coins of the Flavian emperors, or what is still the go-to book on Mexican coins though his first book of all…3 I mean, there is loads. The American Numismatic Society’s library catalogue contains 116 items under his name and they must be selling him short. Though, weirdly, as he told me once, he’d never actually found a coin in context himself, there were very few coins about which he didn’t know something; though I discovered later that it was not original to him, he was not wrong once to say, “I am a numismatist, and nothing numismatic is foreign to me.”4 And he will be missed for that, and for the work he might still have completed if he’d lived on further, but I don’t often cross with his actual fields of interest, and I personally will miss the Boggle, the elevated drama of his conversation, and the endless fund of stories he could tell—he had crossed the Atlantic by sea more than once, for example—and the fact that when next I go to the Fitzwilliam there will no-one with whom to “savage the reluctant scone” as I would have if Ted were still there. Ladies and gentlemen, I invite you to applaud; the show must end for us all but few of us will deserve reviews as glowing as Ted’s should be.

(I live in hope of being able finally to deliver the new shape of the blog that I have now repeatedly promised. But seriously, people just need to stop dying…5)


1. I actually can’t find any trace of the Sophocles book now that I look, so it may be that it is still in press and it actually will be his last book. I’m fairly sure he told me it had gone off to a press…

2. Of course, it’s a mark against the guy that he would say ‘who’ where he meant ‘whom’. In the words of Doc Owl from Pogo which Ted would sometimes quote, “Whom? Moom?”

3. T. V. Buttrey, “Domitian, the Rhinoceros, and the Date of Martial’s Liber De Spectaculis” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 97 (London 2007), pp. 101-112, online here; idem, “The Spintriae as a Historical Source” in The Numismatic Chronicle 7th Series Vol. 13 (London 1973), pp. 52-63; idem, “Calculating Ancient Coin Production: facts and fantasies”, ibid. Vol. 153 (1993), pp. 335–351; idem, “Calcuating Ancient Coin Production, II: why it cannot be done”, ibid. Vol. 154 (1994), pp. 341–352; S. E. Buttrey and T. V. Buttrey, “Calculating Ancient Coin Production, Again’ in American Journal of Numismatics Vol. 9 (Washington DC 1997), pp. 113–135; T. V. Buttrey, A. Johnston, K. M. Mackenzie & M. L. Bates, Greek, Roman and Islamic Coins from Sardis (Cambridge MA 1982); T. V. Buttrey and I. A. Carradice, The Roman Imperial Coinage, vol. 2 part 1 (revised edition): From AD 69 to AD 96 – Vespasian to Domitian (London 2007); T. V. Buttrey and Clyde Hubbard, Guidebook of Mexican Coins, 1822 to Date, 6th edn. ed. by Thomas Michael (Fort Collins CO 1992).

4. An earlier instance somewhere in P. J. Casey (him again) and Richard reece (edd.), Coins and the Archaeologist, 2nd edn (London 1988), but drat it, I haven’t written down where, sorry.

5. The 2010 post I mentioned was also weighed down by the death of many important musicians, at least important to me, and sadly this is no different. Not only have I taken this long to find out about the death of Walter Becker, bassist-and-more of Steely Dan, in September, but “Fast” Eddie Clarke, once of Motörhead of course, also didn’t make it through this killing winter. The classic line-up of Motörhead is now hopefully reunited, though if so Lemmy will have some serious retractions to make… Anyway, it needs to stop now please, this has just been too many figures of renown to lose in a month.

Society for the Medieval Mediterranean 2015 (in Lincoln), parts 2 & 3

[Context: this post was half-written before I ground to a complete halt in hiatus last year. It’s clear that I can’t continue this scale of write-up, but because it was part-done, and because it involves the recently-lamented Simon Barton, I want to do this last one as it was meant to be done. I am, however, combining what would originally have been two posts, because this is an indulgence I can’t go on permitting myself. After this, we can talk about what happens next but I am hoping, hoping that this is the cough of the blogger’s virtual throat being cleared before saying something in a more regular fashion. We’ll see, but I have hopes and reasons to do it and that’s a powerful combination. This post’s still a composite hodge-podge, though, so I’ve added headings to show where its layers separate.]

The Voice of October 2016

This is, as grimly predicted, the busiest term ever in my life so far, and at some point in it I’m moving house! Yay! Before that point, I can at least crunch out a few more posts, though, I hope [Edit: ha!], and the next in the queue is a report on the second day of the conference of the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean, which as you will recall was in Lincoln in mid-July 2015. This post deals with the papers and so on from the 14th July, and then we’ll talk about something completely different before returning for the third and final day. [Edit: no we won’t, it’s all happening here.]

Brayford Campus of the University of Lincoln

The Brayford Campus of Lincoln University, just for context

There were up to five parallel sessions running at all times except during the keynotes in this conference and so there was always plenty to choose from, including plenty of early medieval. As it happens, I underestimated the time it would take me to get from my (rather good) bed and breakfast to the university and so missed the first paper I’d chosen to see, which was a shame but at least, as its presenter told me, it was substantially the paper I’d seen him give in Leeds. Nonetheless, the questions seemed to reach to different things and I was sorry I hadn’t seen this version. The session as it happened, even where I didn’t see, was like this.

Law in the Post-Roman West

  • Graham Barrett, “Legislation and Codification after Rome”
  • Michael Kelly, “Transhistoricality in Early Medieval Hispania: Law as Narrative and Cultural Episteme”
  • Thomas Gobbitt, “Framing the Laws: prologues, epilogues and peritext. The Liber Leges Langobardorum in the Eleventh and Twelfth Century”
  • So as said, I missed Graham pronouncing his wisdom, but it got a better hearing here than it had at the slightly odd session in which it had been aired at Leeds, and his paper dominated discussion, so it’s worth reprising its central point, that law after the end of Empire in the West was probably mostly used in small bits, which were occasionally recombined into codes but used quite differently in the field (or in court). Questions focused on issues of formality of, well, issue, and the audiences for the different sorts of law people were detecting bundled into codes like the Salic Law, and this discussion also included Graham asking what the difference is between a ‘capitulary’ and a ‘novel’, a question that could only matter to a legal historian you’d think but has everything to do with our confused relationship with the Roman Empire, both imitative and successive.

    I didn’t really understand Michael Kelly’s paper, I will confess. It may, from my notes, have been intended to argue that all our sources were constructed by their authors to convey a particular version of the past, not reality, and that our sources therefore are really only sources for their context, the Visigothic Law being no exception and very full of contemporary bias that belies its deliberate impression of antiquity, in which case OK, but phrases like, “transhistoricality must be a purely discursive phenomenon,” meant that I’m not sure.

    Lastly Dr Gobbitt gave us a spirited run-through of the survival of Lombard laws in the eleventh century in the form of a text known as the Liber leges langobardorum [sic], which gathered up the Edict of Rothari and various other bits of genuinely Lombardic legislation along with some laws of Charlemagne and a reasonable salting of historical material (much of it already travelling with Rothari), apparently all for study at or around Pavia in a kind of pre-Bologna legal college. He too emphasised variation: no two of the seven eleventh-century manuscripts gather quite the same materials or lay them out in the same way. This stuff was of interest to a range of people but their purposes were not all the same. Quite what those purposes were was work still to be done but the evidence base seemed well established.

Justice and Judicial Practices in Early Medieval North-Western Iberia (II): punishment and justice in Castile and León

  • Julio Escalona, “Follow the Money? Justice and Authority in the Sanction Clauses of Tenth-Century Castilian Charters”
  • Álvaro Carvajal Castro, “Authority and Liability in Ninth- and Tenth-Century North-Western Iberia: the evidence from the sanction clauses”
  • Igor Santos Salazar, “Rule Through Courts: the settlement of disputes in Castile and Tuscany during the tenth-century”
  • It would probably be hard to pick three Iberian-peninsula scholars who have worked harder to link up with other areas and fields, and especially the English-speaking world, than these three, but because of the occasion they had a substantially Iberian-peninsula audience too and this was probably as close as I shall get to attending a seminar in Spain until I can take a year out to improve my spoken languages or something, which is to say, valuable. Not least, of course, because this was effectively a charters session! Julio’s was illuminating: doing more or less the exercise I had done the previous year with Vic’s charters by going through the clauses in which they lay down what will happen to those who infringe the charter’s provisions, he noted that alongside the threats of excommunication, less common in sales than in donations as I too had found, there are many fines, levied largely in the name of the king. This being tenth-century Castile, however, the king was far away, and the count doesn’t turn up as much as you’d expect and was not clearly a royal delegate for these purposes. Instead, the money seems to have gone to local lords whom we otherwise struggle to identify, those much-vaunted ‘local élites’, domini, whom Julio argued should be the focus of our questions about community formation in these areas rather than the traditional village grouping of the alfoz. This paper had some seriously subversive connotations bubbling up out of those sanction clauses.

    Álvaro had meanwhile done something similar with charters from further west, in Asturias-León, and found a judicial system anchored in the same ideas but based very much on guarantee and surety, whether explicit or implicit; instructions on who was to pay if something went wrong show no particular regularity over whether actor or recipient, or either of their families, was expected to be liable. Instead, we have to assume that these situations were being judged, negotiated and arranged according to how people felt the various options which the traditional legal library gave them were best deployed in each case. Igor, meanwhile, lacking a precisely comparable charter base in Tuscany, looked instead at the actual trials there and in Castile, which was valuable because unlike in Julio’s documents, the counts of Castile rarely appear in actual court cases; instead, again, their roles were delegated down to locals, this presumably being one way in which the counts attached themselves to such communities via the local headmen whose station they thus enhanced.

I am absolutely fine with this, but what was interesting was the comparison with Italy, where Igor saw the same trick being played with a different deck of cards, a working system of public courts becoming less effective in the face of decentralising power and being met with a recentralisation via an overhaul of that system that linked local ‘judges’ to the kingship. There is here a bigger dynamic about what failing states do to regain traction in their localities, I think, and it’s one we could probably do with taking out and showing people. The role of the king was quite different in the two cases, being distant in Asturias and active in Tuscany, but then, the kings in Italy were already a local response to detachment from the bigger system of the Carolingian Empire to which, in its Ottonian form, attachment would soon resume… I think it works! And I’m also not sure I realised this at the time… That may of course have been because I had other things on my mind right then, not just lunch though that did indeed come next, but my own paper, because I was in fact up next, in this august company.

Medieval Iberia

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Ceremonies of Property Transfer in Carolingian Catalonia: a model of documented transaction”
  • James d’Emilio, “The Formulaic Clauses of Charters: tradition, variation and originality”
  • Laura Cayrol Bernando, “« Hermana del emperador »: (re)constructing the memory of the Infanta Sancha Raimundez (d. 1159)”

The voice of January 2018 now takes up the story…

    Predictably, my own paper in this session is the hardest for me to remember because I wasn’t making notes, but I’ve just re-read it and gosh-darn if it isn’t actually one of my better ones and I should probably send it out. What I was doing was something I’ve stabbed at here already, gathering up all the various testimonies I know from Catalan documents to the phenomenon specialists call reparatio scripturae, the replacement of documents that had been lost, and arguing that there is here evidence that not just churches but lay people went to some effort to get their friends and neighbours to remember not just the existence of charters but their actual textual content, and wondering what those efforts might have looked like. Josep María Salrach has already thrown a sentence or two away on this, but in the words of the late Captain Beefheart, “there’s more.” As I say, I should do something with this. Any suggestions?

    Monastery of San Julián de Samos

    It’s hard to think of images for a lot of these papers, given how much they were about concepts, but Professor D’Emilio’s one was at least partly located here at the monastery of San Julián de Samos, so here’s a picture! By José Antonio Gil Martínez from Vigo, GaliciaFlickr, CC BY 2.0, Link

    As to the other two speakers, James D’Emilio was on similar turf, but much later and in Castile; I was concerned about the apparent use of written formulae in my texts, but he can place some of his, from the Bible and Isidore of Seville. As that implies, his texts usually had grander aspirations and participants than mine, kings and bishops, but it’s still something to watch out for: who says charter formulae have to start in charters? Then Laura Cayrol Bernando looked at a different kind of creation of memory, using the vexed question of just what the infantado that royal heiresses in high medieval Castile held was, to expose quite late medieval processes of sanctification of female royal donors by their commemorating churches that have, basically, created the problems with that question. In the process, however, it showed how some family ties were remembered much longer than others because things like this hung upon them and so had active memorialisers. Because I was facing them, I don’t have much of a record of the questions from this session, and so without further ado I move on, as did we, to the second keynote address of the conference.

Keynote 2

Andrew Marsham, “Rituals of Accession in Early Islam: a comparative perspective”
With us all gathered in the same room again, Simon, may he rest well, introduced Andrew Marsham, who somewhat cautiously introduced his own attempt to imitate Jinty Nelson‘s early work on rituals of royal inauguration.1 Resting explicitly on that, he set out to try and compare her early medieval West to both Byzantium and Islam, using the moments at which a king, emperor or caliph assumed power to expose what people thought was most important about that office. He argued that all three political zones shared the Judæo-Christian inheritance of a conviction that power ultimately came from God, making the ruler in some way the representative of God on earth. In the West, this became a link that was mediated through the Church, by coronation and unction, even to the point where without the cooperation of churchmen kings could not in fact assume power sometimes; the same struggles do occur in Byzantium but the Church was never so clearly separate from the ruler’s control, and in Islam of course there is no Church, no liturgy as such, making other rituals like handclasping and popular acceptance much more significant, though they did operate in other areas too. Dr Marsham argued that what the caliphs lost, or saved themselves from, by not having that apparatus of religion to serve or obstruct them they however compensated for somewhat by also being the heirs of the Sasanian Persian monarchy, from which they could draw the representations of higher and divine power without which their office might have struggled to be free of direct interference from the ‘umma. I make this sound less tentative than I remember it being, but I didn’t think there was much wrong with it; Dr Marsham had been careful in stepping outside his own area and it was a thought-provoking lecture.

The Old Palace Hotel, Lincoln

The Old Palace Hotel, Lincoln

With that complete, we then wandered at varying length to the Old Palace, where a rather splendid dinner was set before us. I can remember thinking at point of registration that the cost of the dinner was fairly high, but the setting alone quickly explained why, and the food didn’t fall short either; looking back, I think that was probably money well spent. There were two sessions the next morning before we all dispersed, with hard choices to make about what to go to, but you’ll quickly see why I chose as I did. First up!

Justice and Judicial Practices in Early Medieval North-Western Iberia

  • Iñaki Martín Viso, “Authority and Justice in the Shaping of Asturleonese Monarchy”
  • Robert Portass, “Levels of Justice in Tenth-Century Northern Spain”
  • Fernando Luis-Corral & María Pérez Rodríguez, “Local Communities and the Uses of Justice in the Kingdom of León”
  • These are, as you can tell, my kind of questions and being asked of my period in a neighbouring area by some of the hot names in the field, so my choice was clear. Iñaki was looking at Asturias in its ninth-century expansion, and observing that while the kings are a big part of that so are counts and other nobles; he saw a difference between them in that the kings were always the highest court of judicial appeal, and managed often to claim overall hegemony in areas of new settlement even if they didn’t orchestrate it, but that even out there there were still areas where the kings held and could grant no lands because a count or a bishop had got there first; he pointed at Astorga and Coimbra for this. The following, and interesting, process, would thus be the one by which the various non-royal officers of justice in these areas were brought to recognise the king as their superior… Rob then brought out the judicial hearings from his pet area of Liébana, and argued that although office-holders like counts were visible in them they were often not the ones holding the court, which could be done by various individuals who had no ‘official’ right we can recognise except that they owned a lot of the local land; the local monastery was only one of these. Categories like ‘public’ and ‘private’ are really no use here, therefore. The paper involved a guy called Bagauda about whom I’ve written here before; I then thought that the obvious explanation of his position was that he owned the land the victims lived on, but Rob says that ain’t necessarily so. I need to read his book!2 And the last paper was a study of the enigmatic figures known as ‘worthy men’, boni homines, in the Iberian Peninsula’s charters, asking whether they were the tools of local communities or the means by which aristocrats asserted power over those communities. They concluded the latter, but without much attention to who the people in question actually were and how their position was manifested, and I felt quietly that if the speaker and his co-author had read, well, me, they’d have a more useful way of approaching this question.3

But the real worth of this session was the discussion, which was lengthy and erudite. I started by raising the point that power in Rob’s area need not have been solely economic, which Rob answered with a reflection about what actually made power here, and whether the ability to coordinate process or the ability to defy it was more ‘powerful’. I don’t think question an answer linked but both were good points if I do say so myself. Igor Santos asked if the fact that the winners write history means that we can’t see the weak in these trials, only the strong, but Iñaki asked if the Church, which is our source of record, must always be the strong party, and here again (as you may know) I agree. There then followed a lengthy tangle over what constituted the ‘public sphere’ in this area in this period, and specifically how the written law fitted into this, which was certainly not everywhere, and whether there was one ‘public sphere’ or many local senses of public practice, both questions raised by Julio Escalona. I suggested, as had Graham Barrett earlier, that law and custom were not necessarily separate either; the written law could be invoked as custom. But especially, because at this point I was still tangling with the questions about how someone powerful on the outside manoeuvered themselves into a local position of power in the frontier zones here at which I wrote at such length here a few years ago, I was interested in who set the limits of public office, and here Iñaki made a useful differentiation between sorts of royal property and rights that got me thinking, which Julio followed with the idea that kings and counts together tended to limit the number of people who could claim comital status. In both cases, it seemed to me (and seems) the crucial operation is to get other people recognising the rights you claim in your office. Afterwards, over coffee, Julio, Rob and I all agreed that this can be seen as convincing people that the public sphere you claim is the same one that they recognise. This is what the Asturian kings, and also the counts of Barcelona, achieved in the ninth and tenth centuries and I still want to know how. Then, onwards to the last session!

‘Del tuerto al dretto’: bridging the gap between lawcodes and society in the medieval Mediterranean world

  • Jeffrey Bowman, “Women Administering Justice in the High Middle Ages: a divergence of rule and practice”
  • Rodrigo García-Velasco, “Municipal Law at the Iberian frontier: the evidence of the fueros and cartas de población during the Iberian Reconquista, c. 1050-c.&nbsp:1150″
  • Belen Vicens, “Infançones, franchos, and Wannabees: rethinking status and identity in late medieval Aragón”
  • Here, of course, I had to be because I have learnt a lot from one of the participants, taught another and knew nothing of the third, all good reasons and the more so once combined. Professor Bowman was pointing out an obvious but neglected thing, that though as far as most of the rules on the subject we have from the Middle Ages say that women could not sit in judgement over men, they did nevertheless sometimes do so in the persons of countesses and viscountesses and probably more. Sometimes people argued about this: a legal specialist dealing with Matilda of Canossa wisely decided that her office carried the jurisdiction but in a case involving Ermengarde of Narbonne it went all the way to the king of France, who used it as a way to claim Narbonne as part of the French crown! There was, basically, usually a way to make it work whatever the rules said and fighting it as illegitimate doesn’t usually seem to have worked, which is worth keeping around to think with.

    Cathedral of SS Just & Pastor, Narbonne

    I like this picture of Narbonne Cathedral so much that even this weak excuse will do to use it again. By Benh LIEU SONG (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

    Rodrigo was looking at the various concessions of rights and local jurisdiction by kings that we group as fueros, a term that has come simply to mean ‘laws’ so commonly were these issued, and asking where the balance of power lay between the locals whose rights were here asserted and the kings who apparently granted them. He argued, however, that the texts we have represent a step after the balance had been found and agreed, and that the real processes of power lay in the circumstances that had led to the text’s issue. Again, the question of how to convince a potential subject you and they shared a sphere of power arises, which is of course why I cite Rodrigo’s work sometimes, but there was argument in questions about whether the fueros were somehow a bridge between the two public spheres or just an incentive dangled before the ungoverned by those who would govern them.4 Then the last paper looked at an episode of 1248 in which a number of people claiming free status were reduced to serfdom by royal judgement; the speaker argued that this was an exercise of consolidation of definitions of freedom which had previously been vague, imposing rules which left some people on the wrong side, and that trying to read the rules back from such cases was a mistake. That was why there needed to be a hearing! Well, maybe, but it was a good place to end.

And since thereafter we all said our goodbyes and dispersed, me towards the rather splendid cathedral—possibly the most impressive in the UK, but I sadly without my camera—and then the railway station, it’s where I have to end too, closing an era of far-too-intensive reporting in the hope that you can see why I found it all worthwhile to do. Next post: the new régime!

West front of Lincoln Cathedral

Likewise this one! Lincoln Cathedral’s west front, by Anthony Shreeve public domain via Wikimedia Commons


1. Collected in Janet L. Nelson, Politics and Ritual in Early Medieval Europe (London 1986).

2. It being Robert Portass, The Village World of Early Medieval Northern Spain: local community and the land market, Royal Historical Society Studies in History: New Series (Woodbridge 2017). In fact, two different journals have asked me if I wanted to review this, and I said no, partly because I know Rob too well, partly because I didn’t have time and mainly because I had already got myself a copy when I finally got round to paying my first subscription to the Royal Historical Society, which published it. Of course that still doesn’t mean I’ve read it, but I do intend to!

3. Specifically, if they’d read Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Royal Historical Society Studies in History: New Series (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 35-36 & n. 55.

4. The work of Rodrigo’s that I cite is his “Legislation and Resistance: limitations of royal power on the Catalan and Aragonese frontiers, 986–1134”, M.St. dissertation (University of Oxford 2013), which I had the fun of supervising, but I think he would say that his thinking has moved on a bit now and I await the completion of his doctoral thesis keenly! No pressure, Rodrigo…