Monthly Archives: November 2019

Is it him or is it me? Accuracy, disciplinary expectations and Borrell II

University and College Union pickets dispersing at the Parkinson Building, University of Leeds, 29th November 2019

University and College Union pickets dispersing at the Parkinson Building, University of Leeds, 29th November 2019

I know I’ve made this point by now, but because I, like many other UK academics, am still on strike today, you can have another blog post, because if I were working I could not do this and would have to squeeze time out of Sunday to blog instead. This is another thing I first wrote in mid-2016, when I still had time to read, and as you will see it promises further instalments. In fact, I never wrote those, because the experience I describe below did not improve, but I think it still raises some questions that are worth thinking about, not least, “what should I have been reading instead?” Anyway, here it is, in the unaltered voice of 2016.

Cover of Eugene Mendonsa, Scripting Domination in Medieval Catalonia: an anthropological view (Durham NC 2008)

Cover of Eugene Mendonsa, Scripting Domination in Medieval Catalonia: an anthropological view (Durham NC 2008)

I have read pretty much what there is to read on Count Borrell II of Barcelona by now, as anyone who has hung around this blog for a while would expect, but I have been trying while writing the story of his life to patch any gaps even so. Into this window of opportunity has wandered a book I first heard of when it must have been very new, The Scripting of Domination in Medieval Catalonia: an anthropological view, by Eugene L. Mendonsa.1 The preface to this was free on the web in 2009 or so, and I showed it to my anthropologist of resort to ask whether it seemed sensible to them. After all, I repeatedly talk down medieval historians for using outdated anthropology and ignoring newer stuff; if an anthropologist has written a book about exactly my study area and period, I should not be ignoring it! My referee thought that from what she could tell it seemed OK, and so eventually I found a copy at a price I didn’t mind, bought it and started reading it. This post was occasioned, as it will seem by the time it gets through the backlog to go up, by my reaction to the first substantive chapter.

It would be mean to say that the first chapter makes me wish I’d not spent the money, but it is surprising to me in a number of ways that are probably justifiable without being mean. The book sets out in the preface explicitly to use anthropological thinking to understand how élites in medieval Catalonia kept themselves that way by the social and symbolic structures they created to impose and to justify domination. You can see why this sounds exactly like something I need in my toolkit. However, to go about this the author does a really extensive recapitulation of the political and social history of the area of Catalonia, skimming the Roman, Visigothic and Carolingian periods and getting down to detail in the comital era and proceeding on to the civil wars of the fifteenth century, in three lengthy chapters. In the first chapter at least, no anthropology is cited at all, and while there is analysis along with the narrative it’s derived fairly straightforwardly from historians’ work. I can’t see from a quick skip ahead that this changes much in the subsequent two chapters either, and these three historical ones are together 165 pages of a 226-page book, all in.

So in some sense this is exactly what I wish people would now do, which is use the medieval period as material for new historical anthropology. On another level, however, it is not how we normally do history at all. Some of that is a matter of presentation. There are no footnotes or endnotes, for example, just a list of references at the end of each chapter. That might be OK, and all the things I’d expect to see there in English are there although far far fewer in Catalan or Castilian. However, the text is peppered with quotations, and there’s no way to link these quotations to the works in the reference lists. I’m pretty sure that’s not standard academic practice in any discipline.

Also, lots of it is just factually wrong. Some of that is by virtue of not knowing the disciplinary conventions, I admit, and some of it is because our author likes to come up with snappy phrases for things that might make handy shorthands to a lay audience while looking very odd to medievalists; he refers to ‘Sword Power’ a lot to mean rule by force, for example, which is dramatic to the point of oddness but not wrong in a factual sense. But there is factual error too. The bit that made me choke most was to see the phrase, “Charlemagne’s other son, Bernard of Septimania”; I have no idea what you have to read to get that impression but I very much doubt it was in any of the works in the reference list.2 But when he gets to the sack of 985, our author disappears into a fog of error:

The disaster hit during the reign of Count Ramon Borrell (948-992). Most of the inhabitants were either killed or enslaved. The count fled into the Pyrenees.

The failure of the Francian kings to help the count of Barcelona fight off the advance on the Marca Hispanica of Emir Al-Mansur caused the count to turn to the powerful Cluny Monastery for political support and then to become a vassal of the Holy See.

Al-Mansur died in 1002 and the threat passed. Nevertheless, ties to the Franks had been effectively severed and Count Borrell looked more to Rome during the remainder of his reign…”3

I’ll just knock these out:

  • Ramon Borrell ruled 990-1018.
  • We now think that casualties at Barcelona were serious but far from total, and that parts of the city defences were not even taken, but I’m not sure it’s fair to expect Professor Mendonsa to know that even if it was first suggested in 1982.4
  • Borrell II (945-993), who actually met this attack, did not as far as we know flee to the Pyrenees, though any record about what he did is some years later and only says that he fought al-Mansur’s army, lost and failed to defend the city.5
  • Al-Mansur was not an emir.
  • Neither Borrell nor Ramon Borrell his son had any contact with Cluny, but when the counts of Barcelona did it did not bring them political support in any material fashion.6
  • I’m pretty sure no count of Barcelona was ever a vassal of the Holy See; was that even a thing that happened before Gregory VII?7
  • Borrell did go to Rome, but in 970, well before the attack of 985; that actually seems to have put him personally back in touch with the kings of the Franks.8

The real pedant in me also wants to point out that Borrell II ruled from 945 to 993, but that might again be unfair; most books you could find that even mention him don’t realise that the date of his death has been corrected in local scholarship, and fewer still date from his documented first use of the comital title rather than the death of his father.9 However, since Professor Mendonsa also gives his dates as as 954-992 later on, when he talks of him issuing the first known charter in Catalonia (he means franchise charter, which is almost OK) and then has him in a genealogical table as “Ramon Borrell II, 966-992”, the date apparently because of his brother Miró dying in 966 but the rest hard to explain, it’s really not just lack of currency with local scholarship that’s the problem here.10 The big question is going to be: can an argument emerge, in the twenty-seven pages of the book dedicated so to doing, that still works when the historical foundation it’s set upon is so full of holes? How much about events does one have to know to be able correctly to diagnose social processes? If Professor Mendonsa does in fact have insights that seem good to me, will they be in any way safe to use, given not least that a historian going back to this book from my citation will likely be just as horrified by these errors as I am? These are questions which I suppose I can only answer by finishing the book, and I will, but I’m not sure, all the same, that this is a fair reflection of what anthropological approaches could do with this material…

1. Eugene L. Mendonsa, The Scripting of Domination in Medieval Catalonia: an anthropological view (Durham NC 2008).

2. Ibid. p. 9.

3. Ibid. pp. 10-11.

4. Gaspar Feliu, “Al-Mansur, Barcelona i Sant Cugat” in Acta Historica et Archaeologica Mediaevalia Vol. 3 (Barcelona 1982), pp. 49–54, online here; more broadly, Feliu, La presa de Barcelona per Almansor: història i mitificació. Discurs de recepció de Gaspar Feliu i Montfort com a membre numerari de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica, llegit el dia 12 de desembre de 2007 (Barcelona 2007).

5. Feliu, Presa, pp. 18-19.

6. The obvious place to go when Professor Mendonsa was researching this might still have been the various papers on Cluny in Spain collected in Charles Julian Bishko, Spanish and Portuguese monastic history, 600 – 1300 (London 1984) or even, if one were inclined to look at local literature first, Anscari M. Mundó, “Moissac, Cluny et les mouvements monastiques de l’est des Pyrénées du Xe au XIIe siècle” in Annales du Midi Vol. 63 (Toulouse 1963), pp. 551-573, online here, but given recent comments on the blog I can hardly fail also to mention Lucy K. Pick, “Rethinking Cluny in Spain” in Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies Vol. 5 (Abingdon 2013), pp. 1–17, DOI: 10.1080/17546559.2012.758443 or indeed Karen Stöber, “Cluny in Catalonia”, ibid. Vol. 9 (2017), pp. 241–260, DOI: 10.1080/17546559.2017.1292426. Professor Mendonsa, of course, couldn’t have used these latter two.

7. Ian S. Robinson, “Gregory VII and the Soldiers of Christ”, History Vol. 58 (London 1973), pp. 169-192.

8. Jonathan Jarrett, “Caliph, King, or Grandfather: Strategies of Legitimization on the Spanish March in the Reign of Lothar III” in The Mediaeval Journal Vol. 1 no. 2 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 1–22, DOI: 10.1484/J.TMJ.1.102535, again obviously not available when Professor Mendonsa wrote, but it’s not as if I was using unknown evidence.

9. Cebrià Baraut, “La data i el lloc de la mort del comte Borrell II de Barcelona-Urgell” in Urgellia Vol. 10 (Montserrat 1990), pp. 469–472.

10. Mendonsa, Scripting of Domination, pp. 15 & 21.

Will the real Charles the Great please hide a moment?

The Leeds incarnation of the Universities and Colleges Union strike is beginning to look a bit like Occupy – remember that? – on its fourth day, and as I’ve mentioned I’ll be taking part in the UCU teach-outs today at the Quaker Meeting House on Woodhouse Lane, schedule here, in case anyone local is reading. But before then there is just about time for a short post about Charlemagne. Unless it’s not Charlemagne…

Universities and Colleges Union gazebo at the Parkinson Building, University of Leeds

Universities and Colleges Union gazebo at the Parkinson Building, University of Leeds

What do I mean and why am I in doubt? Well, one of the very last acts of the Carolingian dynasty of Frankish kings on their notional Spanish March that is now more or less Old Catalonia was a charter issued by King Lothar III to the monastery of Sant Cugat del Vallès in 985.1 It was by now long past the point where the Carolingians had land or rights in their control that they could grant out, and all the charter does is confirm the land and rights that Sant Cugat claimed already to have. This raises at least two questions, of course, one being whether they really held all of those lands and rights or whether getting royal confirmation that you did was just a first step towards acquiring them—how easily could Lothar have checked, and why would he have cared?—and the second being why royal confirmation should actually have made any kind of difference that meant it was worthwhile sending one of your monks all the way from Vallès to Compiègne, once he had found out that that was where he needed to be, and then back, given that the king couldn’t actually enforce any of the charter from where he was except through the people who were already there. These are good questions and I’ve looked at them in print, but today I want to look at a smaller question, which is where some of these lands and rights had supposedly come from.2

Page from the Cartulary of Sant Cugat del Vallès

I wanted to show you the actual document here, but it turns out that it itself only survives in a later copy in the monastery’s twelfth-century cartulary, which is very sparesely photographed. This is the only page from it I can find on the web whose copyright doesn’t preclude its reproduction, and it’s not the right page, but it is at least the right book, and is the best I can do! Arxiu de la Corona de Aragó, Cartoral de Sant Cugat, fo. 243v, image from the Museu Virtual del Centre d’Estudis Santjustencs, no. 353, whereas we want fo. 2v, because of course, their royal charter was the first document in the volume!

You see, the thing that had driven Sant Cugat’s ambassador northwards on this occasion was the sack of Barcelona by Muslim armies in 985, in which Sant Cugat seems also to have suffered, though we’re not sure how much.3 This apparently cost them some of their documents, as indeed they apparently explained to Lothar, because he said in the charter:

“If, by restoring something of the properties of the saints in places destroyed by the tyranny of pagans we demonstrate the firmness of our benevolence in those gifts, we do not doubt at all that it redounds to the benefit of our soul. On account of which, let the industry of all our faithful men of the holy Church of God both present and future know that a certain Odo, abbot of the monastery of Sant Cugat, coming before the presence of our dignity, humbly besought our clemency that we would deign to confirm the collected properties of the monastery of Sant Cugat, eight miles distant from the city of Barcelona, conceded in the past or to be conceded in the future, with a decree of our royalty, the which we have done. We therefore concede to the aforesaid monastery all the things which [were contained] in the precepts of our predecessors, namely Charles the Great or Louis, our father, or by other scriptures of the faithful of Christ which we understand were burnt by the infestation of the pagans…”

I’m afraid this is roughly how the Carolingians rolled with their charters; trust me, it’s even harder to follow in the Latin. But behold, there he is, Charles the Great. But wait. The first notice we have of even a church at Sant Cugat is from 878, when it belonged to the cathedral of Barcelona. There may have been an abbot there by 895, and its own archive only starts in 904. But Charlemagne died in 814. For this reason Ramon d’Abadal, when editing this document, preferred to see in this a reference to a charter of King Charles the Bald (840-877), who finished up as Emperor (875-877), and might possibly have been thought of as ‘great’, at least compared to Charles the Simple (898-923), the only other contendor, and therefore his edition contains an entry for the notional precept of Charles the Bald that had been lost here.4 Still, if that is a reference to Charles the Bald, it’s the only one I know of to call him ‘Great’, whereas people were calling Charlemagne that within years of his death, as we have seen here before. But with the other king mentioned clearly being Louis IV (936-954), Lothar’s own father, the historical memory here didn’t necessarily go very far back. Whom were they actually talking about here?

Equestrian statue of Charlemagne or Charles the Bald in the Musée du Louvre, Paris

Equestrian statue of Charlemagne or Charles the Bald in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, which it is famously impossible to attribute securely to one or the other. I’m no longer sure where this image came from, I’m afraid!

I can’t solve this question, but there are three possibilities. Firstly, Sant Cugat, which later claimed to be a reactivation of a Visigothic monastery and does have a little archaeology going that far back, even if not necessarily monastic archaeology, may actually have been operating under Charlemagne and had a charter from him; we wouldn’t necessarily have the documentation, especially given the 985 sack.5 Secondly, it is possible that they did, as Abadal guessed, have a charter from Charles the Bald as emperor, which a century later they hopefully understood to be one of Charlemagne, given how much more famously he had been emperor and how much cooler that would be; it would have fitted with their own sense of antiquity from the then more-obvious ruins of the older occupation and it may have been a perfectly genuine mistake. Thirdly, of course, they may have been making the whole thing up, and possibly didn’t even have a charter of Louis IV; they would not by any means have been the only people who wound up claiming more after the sack of 985 than we suspect they lost in it.6

So, we could distinguish these possibilities as truth, error and fraud, but the thing is that from King Lothar’s point of view it really didn’t matter. Someone had come a very long way to get his royal approval of something; he was hardly going to refuse this chance to act in an area of his supposed kingdom where, despite some effort on his part, he had very little means of action.7 If it was all good, then he got his name into local commemorations and people hopefully became aware that the king could and would make such grants on request; but actually, it was probably better for him if the abbot was being disingenuous, because the only thing anyone aggrieved could do about that was, really, to come north in their turn and protest to the king, giving him further means of intervening on the March and reinforcing to his immediate courtly audience that places as far away as Catalonia looked to him for justice and authority. Really, it was a win-win for him and the one thing he wasn’t incentivised to do was cut Sant Cugat’s claims down. Furthermore, they were positively offering him a chance to renew the work of Charlemagne. Why would he ever refuse? And no-one, least of all King Lothar, needed to know whether Charlemagne had ever done such work in the first place. I would annoy King Lothar so much. But maybe that is sometimes the job of a historian! And maybe I’ll see you later while I annoy my employers by working for free! But that’ll do for today.

1. It’s edited in Ramon de Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia volum II: Els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, facsimile reprint, Mem&oagrave;ries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 75 (Barcelona 2007), 2 vols, Sant Cugat del Vallès III (I pp. 194-200).

2. My work in question being Jonathan Jarrett, “Caliph, King, or Grandfather: Strategies of Legitimization on the Spanish March in the Reign of Lothar III” in The Mediaeval Journal Vol. 1 no. 2 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 1–22, DOI: 10.1484/J.TMJ.1.102535.

3. See Gaspar Feliu, “Al-Mansur, Barcelona i Sant Cugat” in Acta Historica et Archaeologica Mediaevalia Vol. 3 (Barcelona 1982), pp. 49–54, online here.

4. Abadal, Catalunya Carolíngia II, I pp. 194-197, discusses the textual history and possibilities; his notice of the hypothetical earlier document is ibid. Sant Cugat del Vallès I (I p. 190).

5. For the best analysis of the sack and its documentary trail see Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, La presa de Barcelona per Almansor: història i mitificació. Discurs de recepció de Gaspar Feliu i Montfort com a membre numerari de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica, llegit el dia 12 de desembre de 2007 (Barcelona 2007).

6. Ibid..

7. Jarrett, “Caliph, King or Grandfather”.

This makes things more complicated

It’s day 3 of the UK academic staff strikes, and we are very much still on it. Let me remind you again of my presence in the teach-out at the Quaker Meeting House on Woodhouse Lane tomorrow, details here, and then pick up yet another post I meant to have time to finish years ago but only now have! This one is about Tarragona.

University and College Union pickets on the steps of the Parkinson Building, University of Leeds

University and College Union pickets on the steps of the Parkinson Building, University of Leeds, this very day

If you fly into Catalonia nowadays, Tarragona’s airport (Reus) is one of your three options. I’ve never yet used it, because it’s further away from the bits of Catalonia I work on than the other two by some way, and that may itself tell you that in the ninth to eleventh centuries it wasn’t really part of the world I study. Even though it had been a metropolitan bishopric and the centre of a frequently restless province during the time of the Visigoths, we know very little about the city after the Muslim invasion of 711, and the general best guess has been that it was more or less deserted. I’m sure that there is more to know, and Lawrence McCrank has made it his life’s study to know it and may any day publish work that means what I say below is just wrong, but as far as I know our data for early medieval Tarragona after Islam are more or less these:1

  • At some point between 804 and 806 the city was besieged and briefly taken by the Frankish armies of King Louis the Pious of Aquitaine, but then abandoned again, presumably because it either wasn’t strategically useful or because it was indefensible.2
  • In 941/42 ‘Frankish’ forces recaptured the city, which must have been the work of Marquis Sunyer of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, very busy on the frontier around this time.3
  • In 956 Abbot Cesari of Montserrat, at the prompting of ‘his princes’, went to León and was consecrated Archbishop of Tarragona, but found that his theoretical suffragan bishops wouldn’t respect his appointment when he returned. He carried on using the title till the end of his life in 981, but with no chance ever of being recognised in it, especially after…4
  • In 966, after an attack on the frontier by the forces of the relatively new Caliph al-Hakam II of Córdoba, Count-Marquises Borrell and Miró of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, returned a number of frontier fortresses to Muslim control, which seem to have included Tarragona.5
  • In 970, while on an embassy to Rome, Borrell II tried to get the metropolitan dignity of Tarragona transferred to a city he actually did control, Vic, prompting an epistolary howl of protest from Abbot, I mean Archbishop, Cesari.6
  • After that, we know basically nothing until serious attempts started being made in the 1090s to raise troops for a campaign to recapture the city, which finally succeeded in 1117, with its archbishopric having been optimistically restored some years before. After that it was just about held onto for some time until reaching greater security in the late twelfth century.7

But, unless I’ve missed something, that’s about what we know. I have assumed a good few things about it in my mental picture of my counts’ world: that it was effectively ruinous, making it hard to defend without massive clearance; that it was effectively deserted; that anyone holding land out there did so without reference to Barcelona; and that, despite probably not having any actual governor or anything, it was notionally Islamic at least 720-809, 809-941 and 966-1117. I have tended to explain the apparent Muslim inconsistency over whether it was worth defending through matters of local control: for much of the 950s the Upper March of the Caliphate was in the control of the Tujībid lineage based in Zaragoza, who had replaced the infamous Bānu Qāsī as local warlords a few years before, and the Tujībids were in rebellion for much of that time too, so I’ve always assumed that the Frankish conquests initially looked like good news in Córdoba, deligitimising and weakening the rebel lords, until such time as Córdoba itself ruled there again, which is why Barcelona then caught the caliphal attention in the 960s and had to withdraw.8 Tarragona itself, however, doesn’t seem to have been the prize for the Muslims. Wikipedia currently says “It was an important border city of the Caliphate of Córdoba between 750 and 1013”, but I have never thought we have any basis to say that. But then I came across this, and things became more complicated…

Alabaster arch with Arabic ornament and inscriptions, Tarragona, Museu Diocesà, Col·lecció àrabe, no. 1

Alabaster arch with Arabic ornament and inscriptions, Tarragona, Museu Diocesà, Col·lecció àrabe, no. 1

I learnt of this from a rather good little blog post by one Marcelo del Campo, but I really should have known about it already, as I had in fact read about it a long time before and, evidently, forgotten.9 The reason this arch is a big deal, despite being quite small, is that its inscription proclaims it to have been commissioned by ‘Abd al-Rahmān III al-Nāsir, the first Caliph in al-Andalus, in the year 960. The implication of that would be that actually, the counts of Barcelona did not control Tarragona in the 950s as I have thought, or else that they were chased out earlier than I thought, and also that the city was important enough to have some really fancy stonework from the Caliph himself. All of that would be quite a change, but it’s harder evidence than my guesswork and so I would have to accept it. But thankfully for my peace of mind, there’s a way out.

Gate of Ya'far at the palace of Madinat al-Zahra', near Córdoba

Gate of Ja’far at the palace of Madinat al-Zahra’, near Córdoba, image by Wwal – Own work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Note that Ja’far, one of al-Hakam II’s ministers, is also named on the Tarragona arch.

You see, as Señor del Campo rightly points out, there’s no way to know that this arch was actually in Tarragona when it was first put up. We just know that it was incorporated into the cloister of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century cathedral. It would be the only sign of ‘Abd al-Rahmān III being interested in places this far out, especially after he stopped campaigning in person in 939, and it seems a lot more like the kind of architecture that survives from his palace outside Córdoba at Madinat al-Zahrā’, such as you see above, than anything else we have from Tarragona.10 And, not to put too fine a point on it, the Catalans helped sack Córdoba in 1010, with several bishops being present, and plenty of stuff remained for later bishops to nick later on too, including the archbishops of Tarragona once there finally were some of those again. And now that I look, the Diocesan Museum itself now attributes this piece to Madinat al-Zahrā’. So thankfully for me, my story of Tarragona probably remains intact, until Professor McCrank’s book comes out, at least. But it had me worried for a moment! And so you have today’s blog post.

1. There is probably also more information than this in Emilio Morera Llauradó, Tarragona Cristiana: Historia del Arzobispado de Tarragona y del territorio de su provincia (Cataluña la Nueva) (Tarragona 1897-1899), 2 vols, but I didn’t spend as much time with the only copy I’ve ever seen as I should have done, sorry…

2. Astronomer, Life of Emperor Louis, printed as ‘Vita Hludowici Imperatoris’ in Ernst Tremp (ed.), Thegan, Die Taten Kaser Ludwigs (Gesta Hludowici Imperatoris). Astronomus, Das Leben Kaiser Ludwigs (Vita Hludowici Imperatoris) (Hannover 1995), pp. 279–555, online here, cap. 29 (pp. 320-323).

3. Al-Mas’Ūdī, The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems, translated into Catalan in Dolors Bramon (ed.), De quan érem o no musulmans: textos del 713 al 1010. Continuació de l’obra de J. M. Millàs i Vallicrosa, Biblioteca Jaume Caresmar 13 (Vic 2000), §411 (pp. 305-306).

4. Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic: segles IX-X, Documents 1 (Vic 1980-1996), no. 404, on the chronology of which see Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “L’abat Cesari, fundador de Santa Cecília de Montserrat i pretès arquebisbe de Tarragona. La falsa buttla de Santa Cecília” in idem, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i Documents 13-14 (Barcelona 1969), 2 vols, II, pp. 25–55.

5. Ibn Khaldūn, History of the Berbers, transl. in Bramon, Érem o no musulmans, §424 (pp. 316-317).

6. Junyent, Diplomatari de Vic, doc. no. 405, with Cesari’s howl being no. 404; on this episode, see Jonathan Jarrett, “Archbishop Ató of Osona: False Metropolitans on the Marca Hispanica” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 56 (M¨nchen 2010), pp. 1–42.

7. See Paul Freedman, The Diocese of Vic: tradition and regeneration in medieval Catalonia (New Brunswick N.J. 1983), online here, pp. 29-37, or Lawrence J. McCrank, “Medieval Tarragona: reconquest and restoration” in Butlleti Arqueològic de la Reial Societat Arqueològica Tarraconense Vol. 19/20 (Tarragona 1997/98), pp. 219-230.

8. On these events, hard to reconstruct, see Hugh Kennedy, Muslim Spain and Portugal: a political history of al-Andalus (London 1996), pp. 92-94 & 102.

9. It is described, and indeed translated and painstakingly drawn on a fold-out plate, in Prospero de Bofarull y Mascaró, Los condes de Barcelona vindicados, y cronología y genealogía de los reyes de España considerados como soberanos independientes de su marca (Barcelona 1836-1838), 2 vols, I (online here), pp. 171-175, which I would have said I’ve read.

10. See Maribel Fierro, ʿAbd al-Rahman III: the first Cordoban caliph (Oxford 2005), pp. 53-78, for context, with pp. 109-116 on Madinat al-Zahrā. On Ja’far, see Kennedy, Muslim Spain and Portugal, pp. 101-102.

I Found This Coin, 2: Byzantine small-change weirdnesses

It is day two of the UK higher education strikes, 2019 edition, so I suddenly have a gap in my to-do lists such as has not existed for many a month, and consequently you get another blog post!

University and College Union strike pickets at the University of Leeds, 2019

Strangely familiar… The entrance to the Parkinson Building at Leeds yesterday. Already forecasting more photos like this for 2020!

So, if we go back to May 2016, before all this blew up, I still then had time occasionally to volunteer in Special Collections at my beloved university, working through their mostly-uncatalogued cabinets of coins. As in the previous one of these posts, sometimes I’d find something cool. In May 2016 I was mainly doing Byzantine small change, it seems, and in there were two especially interesting pieces. The first one I have shown here before:

Probable coin of the Persian occupation of Syria in the reign of the Emperor Phocas (602-610), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

Hastily-constructed composite image of a copper-alloy follis of an uncertain mint struck perhaps in the Middle East in 613-28, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/BYZ/TH/302

It deserves more explanation than it’s had, however. In aspect this is a fairly normal-looking follis of Emperor Phocas, pictured enthroned alongside his empress Leoncia. The reverse has the ‘M’ that indicates 40 in Greek, telling you how many nummi the coin is worth, and below that the mint-mark… And there’s the problem, because that is no mint-mark that the Byzantine Empire used. Sort of nearly NIK or NIC for Nicomedia, modern-day Iznik, but obviously not, and an imperial, literate, die-cutter should have known. So what’s going on here? Well, between 602 and 629, the Byzantine Empire was embroiled in a fight for its life with its neighbouring empire, Sasanian Persia (or as the Sasanians thought of it, Iran). At the high point of this, for the Persians, they controlled most of the Middle East and Egypt, and in Syria and Palestine that situation lasted a decade. Now, this is not the only coin like this, whose designer seems to have known what a Byzantine coin looked like but not understood why, and Clive Foss is not the only scholar to suggest that these might be the small change of the Persian administration, keeping things running but with no real need to care about the traditional pedantries of Byzantine money. This is one of the types he mentions as a possible case of it, and I don’t have a better explanation!1 So this may be a Persian occupation coin, which would be pretty cool, and if it’s not, it’s an enigma, which is also cool.

Obverse of copper-alloy 40-nummi of Heraclius overstruck at Nicomedia on one of Phocas in 613-14, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/BY/318

Obverse of copper-alloy 40-nummi of Heraclius overstruck at Nicomedia on one of Phocas in 613-14, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/BY/318

Reverse of copper-alloy 40-nummi of Heraclius overstruck at Nicomedia on one of Phocas in 613-14, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/BY/318

Reverse of the same coin

It was the Byzantines who eventually won the war, however, by dint of continuous and heroic efforts by both the home administration in Constantinople in raising tax and of the Emperor Heraclius in spending it in fast-moving and devastating field campaigns, often deep in enemy territory without contact with home. The whole story is quite exciting, but a big part of it was the desperate raising of money to pay troops.2 In the course of this all kinds of corners seem to have been cut to make money quicker, and this is particularly true of the small change, effctively valueless in and of itself and so of no actual need to make nicely. Rather than melt down old coins, therefore, the mints often just struck new designs straight on top of them, and as here, the old designs often remained partially visible. Now, Heraclius had risen to power by toppling and indeed executing Phocas, whose own coming to power had precipitated the war with Persia, and it is one of Phocas’s coins that was the victim of overstriking here; you can see on the face side, around the bottom left, the letters dN FOCAS that began that coin’s old legend, for ‘Our Lord Phocas’. But the actual emperor has been obliterated by Heraclius and his eldest son Constantine. That could be a powerful act of symbolism, and might just explain why, apparently, looking at its impression the new die was square. Was it actually designed to leave the old text visible to make it clear what had happened here? Well, almost any other coin of this period suggests that no such subtleties were being administered, and that these things were just overstruck on anything any old how, including after a while on Heraclius’s own old coins. What the point of this was, no-one has really figured out, and I have fun debating it in class every year now, but this particular example remains, at least, a poignantly expressive coincidence (and I still don’t know why the die was square).3

1. See 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), pp. 11-12, for the argument.

2. Probably the best account, for all that I would not recommend it methodologically, is James Howard-Johnston, “Heraclius’ Persian Campaigns and the Revival of the Eastern Roman Empire, 622–630” in War in History Vol. 6 (Abingdon 1999), pp. 1–45, reprinted in Howard-Johnston, East Rome, Sasanian Persia and the End of Antiquity: Historiographical and Historical Studies, Variorum Collected Studies 848 (Aldershot 2006), chapter VIII.

3. Compare Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 45 & 92, with Michael F. Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985), p. 288; neither really had good explanations for the phenomenon.

Really, I expect better of these guys

There was no blog post yesterday because I was largely on the road back from seeing Hawkwind’s 50th anniversary tour, which practically counts as medieval history itself. Today, however, like quite a lot of the UK academy, I am on strike, and so I have time to make up for that omission. Indeed, if I do it right, I should have time to do some serious blog catch-up work, though if you are in the Leeds area, you may be interested to know that, with my colleague Dr Francesca Petrizzo, I am participating in the local University and College Union’s teach-out at the Quaker Meeting House on Woodhouse Lane on the 28th November, at 14:00-15:00, and that is open to the public, so you could come along and learn from us about ‘The Medieval Mediterranean: Race and Religion’. Maybe see you there! But if not, here is a blog post of a more normal kind, and more will hopefully follow.

UCU pickets during the 2018 strikes at Leeds

UCU pickets during the 2018 strikes at Leeds

So this post got stubbed while I was redrafting the article which became ‘Outgrowing the Dark Ages’ back in May 2016.1 I have written here before about the footnote that you have slaved over, that has grown far too big because it is really a tangent from the article or chapter and, in the final redraft, even as you edit it you know will, in the end, have to be cut. This is one of those. In the end, it did survive in a form, but much truncated.2 The problem of the article, as you may already have seen, is that people have generally misapplied the few numbers we have for agricultural productivity in the early Middle Ages, and that the person who did this with most success, in as much as he has been replicated all over the place, was Georges Duby. But he was not alone in doing bad maths with agricultural figures, and that’s where we come in… (The footnotes I have added; I don’t go quite as far as having footnotes in my footnotes. Not yet.)

“Of course, not everything that has been badly calculated about early medieval crop yields can be placed at the door of Georges Duby. Just as there is good reason to doubt his figures on the basis of experiments in Catalonia, so also there are Catalan attempts at such arithmetic that likewise fail to be justifiable.3 In a study of the ninth-century foundation and refoundation of the Pyrenean monastery of Sant Andreu d’Eixalada and then Sant Miquel de Cuixà, Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals noticed in the will of the monastery’s major patron, Protasi, a bequest of all the cereals in the monastery compound, enumerated as 365 modios.4 Courageously, he assumed that this was close to or actually the yield from the probably-recent harvest, and then combined these figures with an earlier donation of an estate by Protasi where annual renders are given, ‘4 houses and a courtyard and 6 orchards and 12 vineyards, and the 30 quinales of wine that go out from there and there are 8 tonnae and 30 modii of corn’. Using this to establish a basic render figure of 7.5 modii of corn per house, Abadal then used the monastery total figure to estimate the house’s total landed endowment. This ingenious operation involved not just the assumption about proximity to the harvest and a myriad of other assumptions, some silent and some supplied in a lengthy footnote, about how much grain was needed to sow a modiata of land and the yield a modiata should produce, all supplied by late nineteenth-century figures from the same area based on a modern calculation of the area of a modiata (‘a little less than half a hectare’). Even if one cared to accept all these assumptions and patches, the essential uselessness of the figures thus obtained should have been apparent to Abadal’s readers when he explained, halfway through the sums, ‘Since we must think, however, that an important part of the harvest relating to these 365 modios of wheat should have corresponded to the direct cultivation of the monastery and not to that of its tenants, if we compute that part at a half…’ For this guess, immediately halving Abadal’s result, there is not even an anonymous nineteenth-century basis and it shows us, again, quite how much needs to be known, when performing such arithmetic, but is not.

Map of the estate of Sant Miquel de Cuixà in 1812

Map of the estate of Sant Miquel de Cuixà in 1812, probably closer to the situation that Abadal described than the ninth-century one. Image by ClaudefàTreball propi, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

“Abadal, however, did not use these numbers to achieve a crop yield ratio: how could he have, when he had already supplied that part of the sum from his unnamed nineteenth-century source? This did not, however, stop Manuel Riu i Riu, in an article about metrology and terms for units, referring to this study as if it contained ninth-century figures for both seed sown and crop yielded.5 The former he based on the equation between the land unit modiata and the modius supposedly required to sow it; the latter he got from Abadal’s own figures, not apparently noticing that these were modern patches for the data lacking in the documents. As it happens, the figures that he gave provide a healthy yield figure of 6.25:1, but they are, of course, founded on absolutely nothing of meaning.”

Now, this is not the first time that we have caught Manuel Riu, superb archaeologist and excellent builder of the scholarly community of medievalists in Catalonia but not always quite as critical in his reading of texts as he needed to be, in a slip, but he was famous for his quantitative work and study of medieval units and measures, and he knew Abadal well, and I’d have hoped that he would read him more carefully; but then I’d also have hoped that Abadal wouldn’t have been quite so creative in his invention of his own data. The whole thing is further proof that if you invent numbers in historiography, people will quote them whatever they rest upon, even when they really shouldn’t. I don’t hope to change that as a whole trend, but it would be nice if I could make people more careful about it in this specific area…

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.

2. Ibid., pp. 20-21 n. 77.

3. For the Catalan reasons to doubt Duby, see my older blog post or indeed Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages”, pp. 22-25.

4. Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “Com neix i creix un gran monestir pirinenc abans de l’any mil: Eixalada-Cuixà” in Analecta Montserratensia Vol. 8 (Montserrat 1954), pp. 125–337 at pp. 160-161, is the relevant source; the reprint in Abadal, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i documents 13-14 (Barcelona 1969), 2 vols, I, pp. 377–484, doesn’t have the documentary appendix so lacks this bit.

5. Manuel Riu, “Pesos, mides i mesures a la Catalunya del segle XIII: Aportació al seu estudi” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 26 (Barcelona 1996), pp. 825–37, reprinted in Immaculada Ollich, Montserrat Rocafiguera and Maria Ocaña (edd.), Experimentació arqueològica sobre conreus medievals a l’Esquerda, 1991-1994: arqueològia experimental. Aplicació a l’agricultura medieval mediterrània (DGICYT PB90-0430) (Barcelona 1998), pp. 77–82.


This week’s is a very short post, with some surprising news. That news is: on 25th November this year, on the Smithsonian Channel, at 8 pm (the site says ‘All times ET/PT’, and I admit I don’t understand how it … Continue reading

The extent of eighth-century geographical knowledge in the West

Today there is no time to do more than point you at a cool thing I found out about, as tomorrow I am teaching all day then going to Gatwick to get on an early-morning flight to China. Please forgive a post with very minimal research behind it, therefore, but I hope you’ll agree it is cool. I know about it only by the thinnest of margins anyway; I stubbed this post in May 2016 after having done some minimal web-searching after processing notes that I still had waiting for filing from a paper of Ildar Garipzanov’s in 2010, which I even blogged about here.1 Apparently, when I was recalling that paper fresh, I did not remember that I had that day learned about the existence of the Albi mappa mundi, but I had, and my notes reminded me, so now so can you.

The Albi Mappa Mundi, Albi, Médiathèque Pierre Amalric, MS 29, fo. 57v

The Albi Mappa Mundi, Albi, Médiathèque Pierre Amalric, MS 29, fo. 57v, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

It turns out that it’s been long enough that not only has the site I originally meant to link you to disappeared, but in the interim the manuscript’s owners have apparently had an exhibition about it, which is already over, but from which I can also give you a somewhat over-dramatised video. They apparently wouldn’t show the actual manuscript, because of fears of light damage, and given how dulled it seems to be that’s probably fair enough, but still doesn’t justify the whole ‘secrets of Tutankhamun’ vibe they’re trying to give their archive here. But hey; I’m sure I’d do the same in their position, and it looks informative.

For those of you who don’t have that kind of French or prefer not to watch videos or both, though, let me briefly talk you round this thing. It is an apparently-eighth-century map of the world, which exists in the back of a miscellany of geographic, historical and theological texts, almost all excerpts from larger works, a few pages each literally removed from various different original manuscripts in a riot of Visigothic and late Merovingian hands; there was knowledge collection going on somewhere, but someone collected this from several different collection efforts. This I know because the whole manuscript is digitised, with a really good viewer, so you can have a proper search, although there’s almost no metadata so you have to be willing to figure out the contents from first sight. I don’t know enough about these scripts, but if we assume that the people who catalogued this knew them better than I do, the codex was being assembled at least no earlier than the late eighth century, and as far as I can see this map doesn’t belong to any of its texts but was drawn on the back of a spare leaf and then bound in between a bit of a pentitential and a geographically-organised list of river names, none of which, I might add, are in the volume’s early modern contents list. So I think there is a lot more work to do on how this manuscript got together.

Despite that, here is a map of the world, and that world is mainly the Mediterranean. You’re looking from west to east in the book’s orientation, with Straits of Gibraltar nearest you, Gaul on the left and something that ought to be Britain but whose label I can’t read left of that. Beyond Britain is ‘Gotia‘, which I suppose is Germany and Scandinavia, while on the inner coast we pass round to Italy and then Thrace. Beyond Thrace and Gothia it’s just barbari, then Armenia, for some reason written upside down vis-à-vis everything else, and finally at the outside edge, India. Around from there we have the Euphrates and the Tigris, the land of the Medes (which is not Persia, because that’s still coming), Babylonia, Persia, and then closer into the known, Antioch and Judæa with Arabia lying outside them, the Ganges for some reason running from the Red Sea into Ethiopia, and meanwhile on through Egypt and back up the southern Mediterranenan to Mauretania and the Straits.

Detail of Albi mappamundi, Albi, Médiathèque Pierre Amalric, MS 29, fo. 57v

A bonus puzzle point for anyone who wants, something I can’t figure out: this is the Arabian desert, clear enough from the captions, so what is this Christmas-Tree-like shape in the middle of it with a label that might say Gina or Giua?

What catches my imagination about this is firstly what’s missing—the political units, mainly, so much that we have no Romania for the Byzantine Empire or any mention of the Islamic world as an entity. There is presumably some older model behind this, but I haven’t had time to go find out what.2 Then, secondly, it’s where it gives up: not only is there nothing beyond India, which if it’s real at all is just about Afghanistan and Bactria, or beyond Babylonia, or indeed Ethiopia, but there’s no sense that those places all border on the same sea, so are somehow linked. These were the edges of the artist’s knowledge, and that was so thorough a stop that he or she could just draw them in as coastlines, rather than places with their own geography.3

There are probably a dozen more things to say about this image, which maybe someone who knows it will be able to contribute in comments, but this is all I have time for today. It’s about as early a picture of the world that shows any sense of geographical, rather than religious, layout as I know about, and it’s from my meridional patch, so I feel as if I should have known anyway, but now I do, a bit, and so therefore can you. Enjoy!

1. Ildar Garipzanov, “Graphicacy and Authority in Early Medieval Europe: graphic signs of power and faith”, paper presented at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, London, 6th October 2010.

2. My local expert has recommended me to the work of Maja Kominko, and specifically her “The Map of Cosmas, the Albi Map, and the Tradition of Ancient Geography” in Mediterranean Historical Review Vol. 20 (London 2005), pp. 163-185 at pp. 170-174, though she seems not to have been using the actual manuscript, but in any case she doesn’t address any of my questions here. A seminar was held on the map in 2016, whose comptes rendus are online here, and although only one or two people there seem to have been looking at the whole manuscript one of them, Marc Smith, does conclude that the hand here is probably also behind quite a lot of the rest of the manuscript, so it was presumably all done together. He also doesn’t dispute the date, though he emphasises how hard it is to date such scripts. Still…

3. Obviously influential on me here is Rebecca Darley, “Eating the Edge of the World in Book Eleven of the Christian Topography“, paper presented in session ‘Rethinking Medieval Maps’, 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies, West Michigan University, Kalamazoo, 16th May 2015, which I blogged about here, but those of you not present there will soon be able to consult eadem, “Seen from across the sea: India in the Byzantine worldview” in Leslie Brubaker, Darley and Daniel Reynolds (edd.), Global Byzantium: Proceedings of the 50th Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies (London forthcoming), which apparently presents some of the same ideas.

I Found this Coin, I: Maxentius and his Temple

There was no post the week before last and only one last week, and the post I wanted to put up next is stalled for lack of information, plus which, I’ve decided not to do two of the ones I promised in my last ‘Chronicle’ post because I reviewed my notes and found that the things in question weren’t quite as exciting as I’d remembered. So instead I shall do what I so often do when at a blog-loss and show you a coin. I spent a decent number of Friday afternoons in the academic year 2015/16 inventorying Byzantine and late Roman coins in the University of Leeds’s Special Collections and every now and then something came up about which a story could be told. This post is about one of them.

Copy of a bust of the Emperor Maxetius now in the Pushkin Museum, from Wikimedia Commons

Plaster cast in the Pushkin Museum of a bust of the emperor Maxentius (307-12) in Dresden, photograph by shakko – Own work, CC BY 3.0, Link

The Emperor Maxentius is one of the unlucky figures of Roman history, partly just because of events and partly because he had the misfortune to be up against one of history’s winners, Emperor Constantine I (306-37).1 Constantine was raised to the purple by the soldiers of his father, Constantius I (293-305), when Constantius died, and he handled it relatively well, communicating his submission to the other three reigning emperors and being grudgingly accepted as a new junior colleague. This, however, angered young Maxentius, the son of the now-retired emperor Maximianus I (285-305, 307-308 and 310), who had very much not been allowed to succeed when his father retired. Now that another emperor’s son had, he rebelled, at first rolling his father out of retirement to set up with him at Rome and then, finding him more of a problem than a help, carried on alone. Somewhere in there he had a son, whom he gave the portentuous name Romulus, but who quickly died; this is what I mean about bad luck, really. Eventually, it was Constantine I in 312, who now, as one of only two other emperors, closed Maxentius down in Rome, defeated him in the field at the Milvian Bridge, with God very clearly on Constantine’s side as he later told it, and Maxentius drowned in the River Tiber in the retreat.2

The Temple of Romulus, in the Roman Forum

The Temple of Romulus, in the Roman Forum, photo by your author

Maxentius thus tends to get a fairly pitiful write-up in the scholarship, but if you stop and look at that, you’ll notice it means that he was in control of the Empire’s notional capital for half a decade, and more than that, he was also in charge of and even suppressed a rebellion in Carthage, shipping point for Rome’s North African grain supply. In fact, he held a decent slice of the middle of the Empire and, apparently, a warfleet, without any real opposition from the other emperors until 312 (a brief and ultimately fatal coup by his father in 310 aside). Furthermore, he built in the city on a serious scale; his ceremonial basilica was not finished at his death, and was indeed finished by Constantine, but its ruins still stand and you can see the scale of the thing. He did finish a smaller but still impressive temple for his dead son, which you can still see in the Forum (and above). He was evidently not a nobody or a do-nothing. He just had bad luck and a very dangerous third opponent. It’s a pity we don’t know more about him, but the winners get to write the history and Constantine really did a number of that. Still, we have some of his coins.

Obverse of billon nummus of Emperor Maxentius struck at Pavia in 307-308, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/916

Obverse of billon nummus of Emperor Maxentius struck at Pavia in 307-308, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/916

Reverse of billon nummus of Emperor Maxentius struck at Pavia in 307-308, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/916

Reverse of the same coin

This coin in particular brings out the ambiguity of our understanding of Maxentius’s reign.3 It was evidently cut fairly carelessly from the sheet, or else the blank was poorly made and no-one cared. The dies were neatly done but not very well applied, and you could plausibly argue that whoever was making them was under pressure to produce quickly. In terms of design, however, it shows Maxentius’s aspirations pretty clearly. Firstly, the portrayal is almost exactly like that of the other emperors of the time, down to beard and dress; he was aiming to join the college and was here showing himself as one of them, and is accordingly entitled AVG(ustus) like them. On the other hand, he had something they did not have, possession of the signal city of the Empire, and he signalled this with the reverse, which shows not any temple of his own building but the temple of the city deity put up by Augustus himself, the very first emperor and origin of their imperial title, Maxentius here identifying himself with the very seat of Empire in several ways at once.4 Of course, we don’t know that Maxentius himself chose that design, rather than telling someone off at the mint to make him some suitable coins, but whoever did decide on it knew what they were doing. Were it not such a rush job, it would look like the work of a successful and self-aware administration. Alas, it was not to be, and at the end of all this I still don’t really know what to think of Maxentius except how different several sorts of history might have been if the elder emperors in 307 had just accepted him as they had Constantine. Probably Constantine would have eliminated him as he did all his other rivals, in time, but it’s still hard to see why it was so easy for him when he in fact did so.

1. I’ve taught this stuff so often now I couldn’t tell you exactly where it’s coming from, but at least one source will be Alan K. Bowman, “Diocletian and the First Tetrarchy, A. D. 284‒305”, Averil Cameron, “The Reign of Constantine, A. D. 306‒337”, and Elio Lo Cascio, “The New State of Diocletian and Constantine: from the Tetrarchy to the Reunification of the Empire”, all in Bowman, Peter Garnsey and Cameron (edd.), The Cambridge Ancient History volume XII: The Crisis of Empire, A.D. 193‒337, 2nd edn. (Cambridge 2005), pp. 67‒89, 90‒109 and 170‒83 respectively.

2. On the tangly question of what Constantine saw in the sky and what stories were told about it, try Charles M. Odahl, Constantine and the Christian Empire, 2nd edn. (London 2010), pp. 84-105.

3. I reckon it one of C. H. V Sutherland and R. A. G. Carson, The Roman Imperial Coinage, volume 6: From Diocletian’s Reform (A. D. 294) to the Death of Maximus (A. D. 313) (London 1966), Ticinum 91.

4. He wasn’t the first to put this temple on coins, either; that seems to have been Caracalla (198-217), though the exact type originates with Philip I (244-248). And, of course, he wasn’t the last either, though it went through some changes

Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy, including X-rays

Since 2014 or 2015 there has been a large project running at Princeton University in the USA called Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy (acronymised to FLAME, rather than the more accurate but less sexy FLAEME). Its aim has been to put the study of the late antique and early medieval economy onto a firmer quantitative footing than has ever before been possible, by reasoning that coinage is the best proxy evidence for it and assembling an absolutely massive database of coin types and finds from all available data, published and where possible unpublished, in order that really large-scale conclusions can be drawn from it. In this respect, the project is either a rival of or a complement to Chris Wickham’s huge book Framing the Early Middle Ages, whose title of course the project is riffing off and which argued that ceramics were the best proxy evidence, though he does observe that it would be fantastic to do a parallel project with coinage.1 Well, this is that project, and it has reached substantial proportions; checking in on their website today tells me that they have 233,816 coins in the database from 2,806 finds, and I think that more are still being added.

Now, wherever a database is made questions arise about methodology, because data generated by actual live humans living their real lives tends not to fit analytical categories perfectly. When I first heard of this project, one of the concerns the people I discussed it with was that, by uncritically dumping every publication they could find into a database unchecked—because how could they possibly check them all, given available time and the difficulty of identifying and recruiting suitable expertise for some of the weird bits?—the project would just multiply errors of attribution and interpretation by completely unknowable amounts, leading to the kind of bad numismatic maths we have decried on this blog before now and doubtless will again. This turned out to be something they were thinking about at Princeton, but nonetheless, the temptation to make a snazzy visual can still outweigh such cautions: the animation above is based on several questionable assumptions, most of all steady output at the mints concerned throughout the possible period of issue of each coinage, averaged down to a yearly output. In short, you’re probably seeing most dots on that map for much longer than they would have been there, and of course a massive number of mints doesn’t mean a massive output of coinage; the Merovingian Franks ran 80+ mints at once at times, and for much of imperial history the Romans only struck at Rome, but it’s no difficulty guessing who was making more coin… But the video does at least illustrate where minting was happening and roughly when and shows what could be done with such data by people who know what they’re doing. And FLAME is or was full of people who do know what they’re doing, so there’s hope.

Now, that is roughly where things stood with my thinking when, in late 2015, while I was winding up my post at the Barber Institute, FLAME got in touch with me to announce that they were having their first project conference in April 2016 and asking if I would like to talk there about the All that Glitters project. I did, I admit, wonder why they had asked me rather than any of the people on our team who actually work on the late antique or early medieval economy; maybe the Barber job looked like seniority to them, in which case it’s ironic that by the time I went I no longer had it. But go I did, and this is my very very late report on the conference.

Princeton University campus

Princeton University campus, from their own website

I had never been to Princeton before, and found it a surreal experience. Everyone was extremely nice, but the campus looks somewhat as if some mythical giant that was into modelling had acquired a lot of Hornby-type buildings from a giant Ancient Universities series and then, having arranged them nicely on its lawn, subsequently moved away, leaving it free for a passing university to occupy. It is weirdly like walking around a curated exhibit that happens to be teaching space. Nonetheless, the conference facilities were top-notch, so I adjusted. This was the running order for the first day:

Coins, Minting and the Economy in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, 29th April 2016

  • Alan M. Stahl, “An Introduction to FLAME”
  • Lee Mordechai, “The FLAME Project: Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy: An Overview”
  • Alan M. Stahl, “A Numismatic Introduction to FLAME”
  • Peter Sarris, “Coinage and Economic Romanitas in the Early Middle Ages (c. 330-720)”
  • Florin Curta, “Remarks on Coins, Forts, and Commercial Exchanges in the 6th- and Early 7th-Century Balkans”
  • Vivien Prigent, “A Dark Age ‘Success Story’: Byzantine Sicily’s Monetary Economy”
  • Marek Jankowiak, “The Invisible Part of the Iceberg: Early Medieval Imitative Coinages”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “The Marriage of Numismatics and X-Rays: Difficulties with the X-ray-fluorescence-based Study of the Early Medieval Mediterranean Economy”
  • Richard Hobbs, “Hoards of Gold and Silver in the Late Roman Empire”

As you can see a lot of this first day was dedicated to explaining the project to an audience not necessarily directly connected with it (including, mirabile dictu, Peter Brown, though he didn’t stay around for my paper…), which involved explaining that it was starting with minting and production (because you can use any coin that can be identified as data for that), and that a second phase (in which they are even now engaged) would deal with circulation, as measured by where the coins actually wound up after leaving their mints. The questions that this raised were about what material, space- and time-wise, was included, but also about what questions the project was intended to answer, and I would have to say that we really only got answers to the former.

Alan Stahl’s paper was basically a summary of coinage history across the period and raised questions of tinier detail, but to all those that were of the form, “why were they doing that?” he raised the factor of user demand, which is indeed something people don’t think about much; lots of stuff was apparently usable as coin we don’t think should have been, but it must be we who are wrong there.

Peter Sarris’s paper stressed how many small ways the Empire had to alter the value of its coinage, whether by changing its weight or by changing the rate at which it could be exchanged for precious metal, for all of which the money-changers charged. Peter could speak of this with authority because of being nearly finished translating Emperor Justinian I’s new laws, which are now out.2 I still wonder how many of the practises described there were occasional preventatives rather than regular operation, but of course I haven’t read the laws yet. Here again, though, came up the theme of change that was and wasn’t acceptable to those who actually used the coinage; it seemed to me hard to reconcile the power attributed to the emperor and state and that attributed to the people, or really, the market, in this vision of Byzantium, and I still have to think that one out.

Florin Curta’s paper also touched on this by thinking that we have evidence of army pay-packets of large-denomination copper coins in military sites in the Balkans, but that smaller-value coins also got up there somehow in smaller numbers, the state and the market meeting here again and creating a different pattern doing so here than anywhere else. Andrei Gândilà suggested that fourth-century Roman small change was still in use in many of these sites so that the dearth of small denominations might not have mattered much, which of course as a factor threatens to unseat any of the deductions that one might try to make only from what was being minted

Vivien Prigent’s paper included his debatable (as in, I’ve debated it) belief that the term mancus refers to low-fineness Sicilian solidi, but also helped explain how those coins, about which I was also talking, as well as the inarguably slipshod small change of the era, came to be by setting them in the context of the short-lived relocation of imperial government to Syracuse in the reign of the justifiably paranoid Emperor Constans II, and the much increased demand for coin in which to make payments that the increased state apparatus there must have involved. Of course, Syracuse was an active mint before and after that, so until you can get quantitative representation into the sample, that wouldn’t show up in the video above.

Obverse of a copper-alloy forty-nummi struck onto a cut section of an old coin at Constantinople in 635/6, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/BYZ/58

Obverse of a copper-alloy forty-nummi struck onto a cut section of an old coin at Constantinople in 635/6, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/BYZ/58

Reverse of a copper-alloy forty-nummi struck onto a cut section of an old coin at Constantinople in 635/6, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/BYZ/58

Reverse of the same coin. It’s not from Syracuse, but it makes the point!

Marek Jankowiak was there to represent the Oxford-based Dirhams for Slaves project, and was consequently talking about apparently-imitative Islamic coins that we get in the region once populated by the so-called Volga Bulgars, which exist either as isolated singletons in huge batches all struck from the same dies; he explained these through the slave trade, which I might doubt, but I had to agree that the best explanation of a find record like that is that local production of coinage had suddenly to be ramped up at very short notice now and then, and maybe the best explanation for that is a bunch of incoming people you have to pay at short notice… Still, slaves might not be the only reason for that. His general emphasis on counting the imitative coins as part of the sample is something I deeply agree with, however; but again, how could a project set up with FLAME’s premises (identifiable mints) do that? By being very vague about origin location, was one answer, but that means that the dots in that video above are sometimes artifical and sometimes historical, and to read it you have to know which…

Then there was me, and of course you know roughly what I was saying, which was, “we tried doing this analysis by XRF and it doesn’t work so don’t believe people who do that”, but I’m afraid the reactions it got were about equally split between “well yes, don’t do that then” (though the relevant person did then offer me use of a cyclotron if I could sort out the insurance…) and “man I gotta try that now”, so I’m not sure it really had the effect I was after!

All of this had been interesting to me but in some ways the last paper, by Richard Hobbs, was the most so, and not least because it showed again how small the difference can be in terms of results between the dedicated lone scholar with a personal project (and, admittedly, the British Museum behind him) and a massive well-funded team effort like FLAME. Hobbs had been assembling a database of Roman precious-metal hoards, coins included, which he was comparing substantially by bullion value, but in the course of doing so had noticed many weird things, such as:

  1. During the third-century crisis, unsurprisingly, there were hoards buried all over the Empire, especially on the frontiers, but during the period 395-411 it’s almost only the coasts of the English Channel that show them.
  2. Only Gaul really hoarded silver plate in the third century, and not many more places thereafter until a generalisation of the habit during the sixth century. Did coinage not work as well in Gaul as everywhere else, or something?
  3. Despite the numerous wars there, fifth-century Italy either didn’t hoard stuff or always recovered it (or we haven’t found it, but that seems unlikely; it’s not as if hoards from other period of Italian history are unknown)….

While a lot of this is down to detector bias, for sure, there is something here about variation of response to crisis (and to wealth!) across regions that we would struggle to see any way, but it’s still quite hard to interpret. One thing is that we are looking at non-recovery, not necessarily hoarding per se; we only have hoards whose owners didn’t come back for them, and that’s important. But still: what does it all mean? That is is often the result that assembling a lot of data gives us, isn’t it?

All of this was therefore good for getting conversations going, but it was made additionally surreal by the fact that one of the attendees, Stefan Heidemann, had been prevented from actually attending by a series of small disasters. Not deterred, he was therefore present by Skype from Germany, but not on the main projection screen as might normally have been done, but on a laptop that was placed where he could see the screen, or on a trolley so that his field of view could be changed between presenters and audience. The latter meant that his window on us had to be rolled about like a trolley, but this more or less worked, and the link somehow stayed up throughout. In the final discussion people were wandering up to Stefan’s wheeled avatar to say hi, and I couldn’t shake the idea that we were looking at the future here somehow, as if the gap between this and an entirely virtual presence of a digital-only academic was just a matter of degree. It made things odder…

Florin Curta delivering his paper at the FLAME Conference

This is Florin Curta presenting, but, if you look carefully, in the centre of the table in front of the screen is a laptop, face towards the screen. If you could somehow see that face, it would be Stefan Heidemann’s…

Anyway, all of this had meant that Stefan, who had been supposed to be speaking on the first day, actually led off the second, whose running order was thus:

FLAME, Phase 1: Minting, 30 April 2016

  • Stefan Heidemann, “The Apex of Late Antiquity—Changing Concepts of Monetarization in the Early Islamic Empire”
  • Lee Mordechai, “The FLAME Project: Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy. Details and Future”
  • Andrei Gândilà, “Legacy of Rome: Money in the Early Byzantine Balkans and Asia Minor”
  • Jane Sancinito, “The Mint at Antioch: Disruptions in the Fifth Century”
  • Luca Zavagno, “Coinage from the Eastern Mediterranean: an insular perspective (ca. 600–ca. 750 C. E.”
  • Tommi Lankila, “Coinage in the South Central Mediterranean in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages”
  • Paolo Tedesco, “The Political Economy of Accomodation and Monetary Circulation: the case of Gothic Italy”
  • Ruth Pliego and Alejandro G. Sinner, “Minting in the Iberian Peninsula 350–725”
  • Merle Eisenberg, “Money as Governance: The Burgundian Revolution of 500 C E.”
  • Jan Van Doren, “Merovingian Gold Coinage in the Low Countries”
  • Rory Naismith, “From Feast to Famine and Back Again: Mints and Money in Britain from Fourth to the Eighth Century”
  • Round Table chaired by Cécile Morrisson

As may be evident, this second day was much more about project participants presenting their data. Stefan, however, was again demonstrating how much a lone scholar could do with his own database, as well as a sharp knowledge of sharia law. He emphasised how devolved jurisdiction over Islamic coin could get: while gold was controlled centrally where possible, silver could be run at provincial level and types and identification of authorities vary there, and we are quite unclear about who issued copper-alloy coinage as sharia doesn’t consider non-precious-metal to really be coin, rather than, I suppose, tokens; imitative production to answer demand thus probably happened rather a lot, as indeed we have seen here with the Arab-Byzantine coinages of Syria and Palestine. Their circulation was very local, however, so for any long-range transaction small change was made by cutting up legitimate coin, to generate the fragments we have so many of from Scandinavian hoards, which were presumably counted by weight. Clearly Stefan could have gone on for longer—I think he was trying to summarise a book here—but even what he was allowed to say left me a lot clearer about the systems behind what I have seen in the material.

Once we got into the actual project members’ papers, however, it becomes easier to be economical in the reporting. Lee Mordechai helpfully emphasised many of the difficulties with the project I’ve raised above, but hoped that the second phase, when findspots and hoards were more fully integrated, would help clean things up a bit. He also emphasised that there was far more data out there than they were using in the form of the trade, whether just harvesting eBay (for which, of course, software once existed…) or trying to gather all auction catalogues (and eliminate duplicates?). So how selective is their data, one might ask?

Andrei, meanwhile, painted us a picture of circulation in the Balkans (despite the project not being onto that yet) that showed a tremendous mixture of coinages from different Roman and Byzantine eras being used together; how were their values calculated? If they were strictly face-value, why change the size of the coins? If they weren’t, why tariff coins against each other as Constantine IV was evidently doing when he issued new large ones?

Copper-alloy 20-nummi of Constantine IV struck at Constantinople in 664-685, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4304

Copper-alloy 20-nummi of Emperor Constantine IV struck at Constantinople in 664-685, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4304; note the small M, apparently indicating that this big 20-nummi coin was equivalent to an old small 40-nummi one like the cut-up bit above

This paper and the discussion after it provoked me to write one of my own I’m giving in China in a couple of weeks, so I’m grateful, but it was a sharply divided discussion. Peter Sarris believed strongly that coin was basically moving by weight, in which case it seems stupid for the Empire to have issued coins of the same face value in larger sizes than previously; but this it repeatedly did. I tend more to believing in face value, seeing the size increase as essentially a PR exercise, which Andrei also suggested, and as others pointed out big and small coins did get used together, whereas if their value was different you’d expect only the big ones to be hoarded, but I admit it’s not unproblematic. Andrei wondered if old coin was treated as being equivalent to the piece of current issue that it weighed most like, and that seems murderously complicated, but it might be possible.3 Jane Sancinito was a Parthian specialist temporarily employed on sorting out the coins in the archive of excavations from Antioch that Princeton happens to have, which is what she told us about.4 Luca did roughly the same job for the Eastern Mediterranean island zone, as you’d expect, but again was able to emphasise how long-lived even the most basic small change could be, with Syracuse issues lasting a century or more in Crete and so on, and the overlap between supposedly conquered zones and still-imperial spaces in the wake of Islam, as has been said here, potentially telling us something quite important, but hard to specify. Paolo Tedesco was trying to link coin use patterns to the question of how ‘barbarian’ soldiers were settled in Italy that has generated so much scholarship, but it turns out that the coin finds don’t help, or at least suggest that very little money moved from the capitals to the south, as if everything there was sorted out locally.5 The two Hispanists summarised Visigothic gold coinage but noted that there was at least some silver and copper coinage too, which is still contentious among Spanish numismatists for some reason; this wasn’t news to me but I expect it was to others.6 Eisenberg was mounting an attempt to link the few Burgundian coins we can identify to known events that might let us date them, but wasn’t helped by the fact that the Burgundian laws refer to several sorts of coin we either haven’t got or can’t identify, and as Helmut Reimitz pointed out, were not even necessarily issued for the kings! The paper did provoke the useful announcement from Cécile Morrisson that all the Bibliothèque Nationale de France’s collection of Merovingian coinage is now online, however, which may be very useful to some people. Van Doren reminded us how much coinage the late antique Low Countries produced, almost all apparently for North Sea trade since it barely turns up in France. Lastly Rory Naismith did much the same exercise for Britain, but this involved calling into question the whole concept of mint as more than the identity carved onto a pair of coin dies, and in most British cases we don’t even have that, so how can these coins be attributed as a project like FLAME would want? The British record is however massively distorted by the huge volume of fourth-to-fifth-century Roman hoards; at a later point in the conference Alan Stahl revealed that they now had that data in FLAME, but its effect was simply to drown out everything that wasn’t British in whatever query one ran, so they’d had to exclude it again! What do you do when your evidence prevents you using your evidence? The round table addressed a lot of these questions, but it would be hard to say that it solved any of them…

Many of the same questions came up again in a final workshop the next day, along with many suggestions for how to get truer or more realistically qualified results out of the database. I think that this probably was useful to the project team, and maybe was the big point of bringing us all there; there as much can’t-do as can-do in their responses, but the discussion as a whole left me much happier than I had been going in that all this data would probably be more useful to have than not, and could answer many questions if flagged and curated with suitable cautions and references. (And indeed, work has continued and many useful things that were talked about at this meeting seem to have happened.) The labour still seemed immense, however, and it is perhaps not surprising that, although at this stage there was talk of publishing this conference, a journal issue, and many other things, in the end I’m not sure that anything has come of it except the still-developing database, which remains on closed access. The project director has moved on and now works on late antique environmental history; none of his publications seem to have come from the project, and I can’t find any signs that others have. Even the site’s blog is now inaccessible in full. One wonders how long the website itself will survive, and then what all this money and time will have been spent on. I suppose the message is: data is great, and could potentially change everything, but while they were right in these discussions to say that this dataset could answer a great many research questions, it may have turned out that having no questions has sadly doomed them to having produced no answers. Maybe this post can be an encouragement to others who do have questions to see if the FLAME database can answer them! But you will have to ask them first!

1. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), p. 702 & n. 16.

2. Peter Sarris (ed.) & David Miller (transl.), The Novels of Justinian: a complete annotated English translation (Cambridge 2018), 2 vols.

3. It was because of this discussion, and the following conversation with me, him and Peter in the bar, that I wrote in my “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (London 2018 for 2017), pp. 514–535, at p. 515 n. 4, that I think Andrei is going to solve this question for us. I was then thinking of Andrei Gândilă, “Heavy Money, Weightier Problems: the Justinianic reform of 538 and its economic consequences” in Revue numismatique Vol. 168 (Paris 2012), pp. 363–402, online here, but now there is also Andrei Gandila [sic], Cultural Encounters on Byzantium’s Northern Frontier, c. AD 500-700: coins, artifacts and history (Cambridge 2018), so I’d better read it and find out if he has!

4. For those of you watching closely, yes, that does mean the only female speaker on the whole programme didn’t get to present on her own work. I didn’t organise, I merely report, but I also note that among the people on the All That Glitters project for whom this would have been closer to their research area than it is to mine, two are women, so more women certainly could have been invited.

5. See for the debate S. J. B. Barnish, “Taxation, Land and Barbarian Settlement in the Western Empire” in Papers of the British School at Rome Vol. 54 (Rome 1986), pp. 170–195.

6. If it is to you, the new data can be met with in Ruth Pliego, “The Circulation of Copper Coins in the Iberian Peninsula during the Visigothic Period: new approaches” in Journal of Archaeological Numismatics Vol. 5/6 (Bruxelles 2015), pp. 125–160 and Miquel de Crusafont, Jaume Benages and Jaume Noguera, “Silver Visigothic Coinage” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 176 (2017 for 2016), pp. 241–260.