Monthly Archives: August 2019

Interdisciplinary Conversation VI: the use of medievalists as per Lévi-Strauss

I described a few posts ago the long long path that led to the publication of my recent article “Outgrowing the Dark Ages”; this is a post about something I found on the way. It became clear early on with that piece that the problem with the general understanding of agriculture in the early Middle Ages had become Georges Duby; he didn’t originate a lot of the ideas that he popularised, but his work is now where most people find them and he integrated them into an overall progress narrative that everyone but early medievalists finds very useful, so it’s hard to shake people’s convictions even now that the early Middle Ages must have been the agrarian Dark Ages.1 But of course Duby’s key works were published in the late sixties and early seventies and he lived until 1996, so it became important to be sure he’d not modified his own views since, because of the incessant reprinting of those old works, it would have been possible that no-one much noticed.2

Georges Duby

The late Georges Duby. I no longer have any idea where I found this image in 2008, alas, so I hope it’s copyright-free

Now, the short answer is that he didn’t, despite some wavering, but in the course of trying to find that out I came across an issue of a journal with which he’d long been concerned, Études rurales, celebrating his career and including a number of pieces by him, which I therefore knew I had to seek out.3 I think I found this out maybe three separate times, and downloaded all the articles at least twice (finding the second time that I’d already done so years before and forgotten), over the long time it took me to revise the article, but in 2016 I was at last actually reading them, and it was interesting. None of the Duby pieces were in fact new, all being reprints of classic or rare work from long before, but several people were updating his findings or, in some cases, just praising them, and one of the latter was no-one less than Claude Lévi-Strauss. When I set to writing this post I had to wonder if such a meeting of minds was possible anywhere else in this era than Paris; I went through my bibliographies and decided that if Clifford Geertz had written something saying how cool David Herlihy‘s stuff was, or maybe for the UK if Mary Douglas had about—well, who? Richard Southern‘s?—it might be of the same order, but those things didn’t happen, and I couldn’t think of other parallel grand academic personalities of such broad social scope. Anyway, in Paris in 1996 it did happen and Lévi-Strauss wrote a short laudatory piece, the basic point of which is that anthropologists should read lots of medieval history because it’s really good to think with.4

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Claude Lévi-Strauss, from “Le Structuralisme de Lévi-Strauss”, La-Philo, online here, and far too cool an image not to use even though not really very much what he looked like for most of his long life, it seems

Now, since (as indeed he says and I have often lamented) the general tendency of medievalists is to borrow their theory from anthropologists (and not, as Sean Manning has just been pointing out in comments, usually the currently-active ones), this could be said to be swimming against the tide. Lévi-Strauss explained himself by saying that the vast scope of the Middle Ages, with its diversity of social hierarchy and structures, belief systems and economic foundations, provides the laboratory of alternatives that one never has studying a concrete population who are what they are whether you understand it or not. It offers the counter-factuals which allow you, the anthropologist, to say, well, my study group didn’t have to turn out this way, other things have happened; what makes the difference here? “C’est cette fluidité… qui fait du Moyen Áge un vaste laboratoire où l’ethnologue et l’historien peuvent mettre á l’épreuve leurs hypothèses théoriques.”5 And he gave a few examples from Duby’s work, as the occasion required.

Now, when I read that the first time, my thought was, well, are these accolades that medievalists would want? Is what we provide only a databank against which others can better evaluate the Great Us and Where We Are Now? Is our function to illuminate the present, rather than to make visible the past? But since then, of course, I have raised a small amount of money and hope, indeed, to do so more in order to do exactly the kind of work that le grand prof. was praising here, pointing out that the Middle Ages offer models based in complexity and fluidity that serve better to illuminate quite a lot of modern situations than a constitutional perspective founded in the naturality of the nation-state. So I might be moving towards a qualified presentism as part of our rôle in a way I would once have rejected as unfair to the lives, dilemmas, choices and actions of the people who actually populated the world we study. I think, on reflection, that Lévi-Strauss here managed to bridge the gap I have occasionally pointed out between presentism and the people whose actions and situations did not lead directly to modern Western national constitutions and social structures, by finding a way for, “toutes sortes d’expériences sociales… dont la plupart resteront abortives,” still to inform us.6 Sometimes these old guys were pretty clever, I guess!

1. Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28 at pp. 5-10.

2. The two most relevant works here being the much-reprinted (and still in print) Georges Duby, Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West, transl. Cynthia Postan (London 1968) and Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: warriors and peasants from the seventh to the twelfth century, transl. Howard B. Clarke (Ithaca NY 1974), translations of French works from 1966 and 1973 respectively.

3 Philippe Braunstein (ed.), Georges Duby, Études rurales nos 145-146 (Paris 1997), online here. Duby wavered about some of his conclusions about agriculture in Georges Duby, L’histoire continue (Paris 1991), p. 97, but while he admitted he might be wrong he made no suggestion about what would be more right.

4. Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Remise de l’épée à Georges Duby” in Braunstein, Duby, pp. 21–23, online here.

5. Ibid., p. 22, meaning (for those without French), “It’s this fluidity… that makes the Middle Ages into a laboratory where the ethnologist or historian can put their hypothetical theories to the test.”

6. Ibid., p. 22, meaning, “all sorts of social experiences… of which the greater part would remain abortive”.


Dudley Priory

This gallery contains 8 photos.

Towards the end of March 2016, for reasons I don’t now recall, I was back down in the West Midlands for a short trip. This is relevant to the blog because while I was there, it was determined by two … Continue reading

One ruler, one mint, one type (keep moving)

Apparently I was mainly thinking about coins in late spring of 2016, as I seem to have stubbed a lot of posts in a row about numismatics. This is the third and last of them for a little while, which was occasioned by teaching the rise of Islam for my first-year module Empire and Aftermath at Leeds. I like to do this using the coinage as the key primary evidence, because I can and because, as has been observed by greater scholars than me, basically all the Islamic textual evidence for the actual seventh-century spread and conquest is post facto, written deep in hindsight, while the limited contemporary evidence we have is either largely written by outsiders and deeply hostile or written by non-Islamic insiders whose perspectives were unhelpfully local.1 Getting a picture of what was going on over, say, all of Syria, Palestine and Iraq between about 650 and 700 beyond the rough succession of caliphs and some key battles, is therefore very difficult, and even that can be tricky; consider, after all, that this is the period during which Shi’a Islam separated from the Sunni branch and each side’s historiography has a quite different view, not just about which caliphs were legitimate, but even about when they ruled and whose relations they were.2 The coins don’t settle those questions (though they open up others about faction and segmentation3) but they are at least directly contemporary sources from inside the territories newly run by Islam. That is, assuming that we can correctly date and attribute them. And that’s where the fun starts, of course!

'Derivative Arab-Byzantine coin of uncertain mint and date

Derivative Arab-Byzantine coin of uncertain mint and date (636×695 to be safe?), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

The biggest problem here is that at first, the new authorities of Islam basically imitated the coinage they found in the areas they took over, by way of maintaining tax systems and basic economic exchange. It wasn’t until the 690s that Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (of whom we have heard before here) unified the various disparate post-Byzantine and post-Persian coinages he now had in his realms. Up to that point, his territories ran a pseudo-Byzantine gold coinage, a pseudo-Persian silver one and a whole scatter of pseudo-Byzantine and some pseudo-Persian copper-alloy ones.4 Most of the copper-alloy, at least, carry little or no identifying information. It is generally assumed that there was a transition from things more or less like their originals, through things less like them with Greek rather than Latin legends to things even less like with Arabic text on them to the so-called Standing Caliph coinage and then unity, but actually, despite painstaking analyses of what was being restruck onto what, what is found with what and how weights might have changed down an utterly hypothetical declining scale, as I’ve said here before, we still can’t honestly say that all of those different sorts of coin and a whole set of ‘imitative’ issues weren’t being struck alongside each other, by issuers ranging from the state through town councils to local blacksmiths.5 The closer one gets to the latter picture, the more informative the coins seem about how the process of Islamic takeover might have looked on the ground, which is to say, more or less like a prolonged vacation by state authority, saving occasional visitations, and then some episodes of suddenly-tightening regulation, maybe only in some places.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Constans II struck perhaps in Constantinople in 643-644, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3959

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Constans II struck perhaps in Constantinople in 643-644, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3959

Some day I hope to write about this, as I’ve said, but today I just want to write about coins like the one above. You see, one of the exceptionally problematic aspects of the coin evidence for a normal tale of military conquest and take-over is that, to all appearances, imperial small change continued to arrive in the ‘conquered’ territories for some years after their ‘loss’ by the Empire. This is really obvious, because the issuing emperor changed at about the right point; the supposedly-crucial Battle of Yarmuk that effectively debarred the Byzantines from Syria took place in 636, as near as we can be certain, Emperor Heraclius died in 641 and after some confusion his grandson Constans II succeeded, and Constans’s copper-alloy coins are frequent finds in Syria, arriving, it seems, up till about 655 (though dating Constans’s coins relies on those guesses about weight that I myself don’t trust).6 So why was the Empire still shipping in or selling to its supposed enemies? Part of an answer may lie in these coins, which are found very frequently in Syria and nearly as often in Cyprus, but don’t really occur elsewhere in the Empire.7 They look very much as if they were being struck in Cyprus for use in the now-Islamic provinces; it has been argued instead that they were being made in Syria and exported, but if so they occur more than any other sort of probably Syro-Palestinian issue in the island.8 By the 670s the Byzantine Empire and the Caliphate had even agreed that neither of them could effectively take Cyprus off the other, and so there was established a condominium in which their two sets of representatives shared the island’s taxes; one wonders how many other areas might early on have had some such fuzzy arrangement in which the Empire grudgingly recognised the conquerors as new quasi-independent governors but still demanded recognition of its dominion in the form of tax, and then that situation got wiped out of potential record by changes in the 670s to 690s.9 If such areas had made a pact with the Caliphate, both sides might have quite happily claimed them as their own without either really having much control over them until they made an effort to assert it.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Heraclius struck in Cyprus 626-627, image from Numista

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Heraclius struck in Cyprus 626-627, image from Numista where credited to Classical Numismatic Group

But there is a numismatic problem with such a hypothesis! And that problem is, these coins do not bear a mint-mark indicating Cyprus like the authentically-Cypriot one above (KVP or KVPR for Kypros), but carry the unhelpfully unspecific legends of the regular issues of Constantinople. And yet they do not look like the contemporary metropolitan coins of Constans II. Furthermore, just to confuse matters, coins that did carry the Cyprus mint-mark were almost certainly being made in Syria, imitating the earlier issues of Heraclius and Constans II!10 So, a number of options open up, one being that these sort-of-regular coins are actually somehow imitative or unofficial (whatever those words really mean in a situation like this), perhaps because there was a mint on Cyprus, potentially running under Islamic control and making what those authorities thought real coin looked like, or otherwise, that Constantinople was making an export-standard copper-alloy issue that was then being shipped to Cyprus for distribution into Syria.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Constans II struck at Constantinople in 643-644, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3952

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Constans II struck at Constantinople in 643-644, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3952

I’m not sure which of these hypotheses I find less likely, to be honest: the former requires effective forgers who nonetheless didn’t fully understand the system into which they were passing coin, and who made their coin larger and neater than the regular issues they were imitating, in which case what was the profit? and the latter seems like an administrative headache with no clear gain except keeping Cyprus slightly further from fiscal independence. But the latter also incurs numismatic disdain because numismatists really try to avoid hypotheses in which a single mint is issuing distinct sorts of coin of the same standard at the same time. They will even mount hypotheses on the basis that that couldn’t happen.11 Now, I’ve disproved a couple of these already in my small way, but in this instance I’m not so sure it needs doing; although we as a discipline don’t usually admit it, it’s very unclear as to why the Empire put mint-marks on its copper-alloy coinage. It’s often assumed that it was for accounting and authentication purposes, either knowing how much a mint was making or being able to track dud coins back to their issuing mint, but in the former case the only place you could do that was surely at the mint itself, before dispersal into currency, in which case why bother marking them? and in the second, it’s very peculiar that it was done on the effectively worthless metal of the small change but not on the highly-protected gold of the solidus, and no-one ever tries to explain that.12 Whatever the reason was, though, it’s not hard to imagine the mid-seventh century involving circumstances in which that just didn’t apply. Either way, the coins are telling us something about what’s going on here that a purely textual approach will never disclose; but numismatics also has to shed an assumption or two before we can do the kind of work with it that opportunities like this make possible…

1. Compare Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: the Islamic Near East from the sixth to the eleventh century, 2nd edn (Harlow 2004), Robert G. Hoyland, Seeing Islam As Others Saw It: A Survey And Evaluation Of Christian Jewish And Zoroastrian Writings On Early Islam (Princeton 1997), online here, and now James Howard-Johnston, Witnesses to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century (Oxford 2010), DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199208593.001.0001/acprof-9780199208593.

2. It’s actually quite hard to find a good reference for the history of this division, but Chase F. Robinson, “The Rise of Islam, 600‒705” in idem (ed.), The Formation of the Islamic World, Sixth to Eleventh Centuries, The New Cambridge History of Islam 1 (Cambridge 2010), pp. 171–225 at pp. 193-208, does the job OK.

3. Adam R. Gaiser, “What Do We Learn About the Early Khārijites and Ibāḍiyya from Their Coins?” in Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 130 (Washington DC 2010), pp. 167–187.

4. The best guide here is Stefan Heidemann, “The Merger of Two Currency Zones in Early Islam: the Byzantine and Sasanian impact on the circulation in Byzantine Syria and northern Mesopotamia” in Iran Vol. 36 (London 1998), pp. 95–112, online here.

5. I’m thinking here of Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications 12 (Washington D.C. 2008) as both guide and target of critique.

6. Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins, pp. 19-21, but see now Marcus Phillips, “The Import of Byzantine Coins to Syria Revisited” in Tony Goodwin (ed.), Arab-Byzantine Coins and History (London 2012), pp. 39–72, online here.

7. Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins, p. 21, and Phillips, “Import”, p. 42. Philip Grierson attributed these to Emperor Constantine III (641), despite that ruler not living long enough to reach the ‘anno III’ they indicate, but correctly noting that there is also a Sicilian variant of the issue: Philip Grierson, Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection, Volume Two: Phocas to Theodosius III 602–717 (Washington DC 1968, repr. 1993), 2 vols, II pp. 396-397 and 399 (DOC III.2 Heraclonas 5 & 9).

8. See n. 7 above; Foss argues for Syrian manufacture.

9. On which see now Luca Zavagno, Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (ca. 600-800): an island in transition, Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies 21 (London 2017), pp. 72-86, but with specific reference to numismatics also Zavagno, “Betwixt the Greeks and the Saracens: Coins and coinage in Cyprus in the seventh and the eighth century” in Byzantion Vol. 81 (Athens 2011), pp. 448–483, online here.

10. Regular coins of Constans II: Grierson, Dumbarton Oaks Catalogue III.2, pp. 445-446 (DOC III.2 Constans II 62), and Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins, pp. 20-21; the ‘Cyprus imitation’ issues are discussed ibid. pp. 22-24, emphasising the volume of the issue, and Zavagno, “Betwixt Greeks and Saracens”, pp. 466-467.

11. For example, one more relevant than the other, see Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, “La moneda barcelonina del segle X. Altres novetats comtals” in Acta numismàtica Vol. 38 (Sabadell 2008), pp. 91–121 at pp. 91-106, to which cf. Jonathan Jarrett, “Currency Change in Pre-Millennial Catalonia: Coinage, Counts and Economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2009), pp. 217–243, or Franz Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I in Constantinople 713–976: Structure of the Issues; Corpus of Coin Finds; Contribution to the Iconographic and Monetary History (Lancaster PA 2007), p. 45, to which cf. Jonathan Jarrett, “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (London 2017), pp. 514–535 at pp. 521-522. In both cases the authors themselves invalidate the assumption in the same work, Crusafont in “Moneda barcelonina”, pp. 106-121 and Füeg in Corpus, p. 39.

12. Thus for example Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 20-24 (inc. p. 21: “it was desirable, for administrative reasons and as a precaution against counterfeiting…”), or Cécile Morrisson, “Précis de numismatique byzantine” in eadem, Georg-D. Schaaf and Jean-Michel Spieser, Byzance et sa monnaie (IVe‒XVe siècle) : Précis de numismatique par Cécile Morrisson suivi du catalogue de la collection Lampart par Georg-D. Schaaf, Réalités Byzantines 15 (Paris 2015), pp. 7–104 at pp. 61-69 (simply no explanation).