Monthly Archives: April 2022

Scribes who knew more

Moving forward definitively at last into 2019 in my backlog, in February of that year I was mainly reading Wendy Davies‘s then relatively new book Windows on Justice in Northern Iberia 800–1000. I got two posts out of this, but it turns out on reviewing the drafts now that the first one I had kind of already written in two places. Therefore, here is just the second one, on the second part of the book, which is substantially about scribes and what they knew, especially in terms of formulae. It is great, obviously, because Wendy Davies. But there is one conclusion she has that stuck out at me and now that I look at it I have objections, but I also have examples that may mean I have to swallow those objections. Tricky, huh? So I invite you to read on…

Cover of Wendy Davies's Windows on Justice in Northern Iberia, 800-1000

Cover of Wendy Davies, Windows on Justice in Northern Iberia, 800-1000 (London 2016)

Wendy starts by categorising her documentary sample, and while I suspect she goes too far with this—I always suspect this with efforts of categorisation, I guess—there is a distinctive category she sets apart, which is big documents that narrate a judicial dispute and then have the outcome confirmed by important people.1 This is, she thinks, basically a monastic habit (um, as it were; I don’t appear to have meant the pun when I drafted this) and with her favourite example it’s clear firstly that other documents from earlier in the process were used (and reported slightly differently each time they were used), and secondly that there were several distinct episodes of confirmation some years apart, as if San Vicente de Oviedo‘s monks had a ceremony every now and then when the king was hosted at their place and got him to sign things (or, I suppose, when they solemnly trooped to the palace chanting and got him to do so, or whatever).2 There are a few documents in my sample with extra, later, confirmations on so I can imagine that happening in my world too.3

However, the bit that I baulked at was towards the end where she suggests that these documents required special knowledge to write, and that unlike the average sale or dispute document, whose structures the local priest of wherever knew and could write you more or less as per standard—and Wendy’s sense of the variations in that standard is acute and fascinating4—these ones have language in that would have been the preserve of only a few highly-educated clerics.5 Something socialist in me doesn’t like that; I think a number of local priests came from cathedral chapters and might have been as highly trained as the next man, but they didn’t get to write one of these big things every day, or possibly at all unless they happened to work for a monastery. The hearing over the abbacy of Sant Benet de Bages that I wrote about years ago might even be an example of someone we otherwise think was a local priest finding himself in that context and having to step up to the formulaic plate.6 But then I thought back and remembered my best example of such a document from Catalonia, which is of course the Sant Joan de Ripoll hearing of 913.7

Low-quality facsimile of the charter of the Vall de Sant Joan hearing

Low-quality facsimile of the charter of the Vall de Sant Joan hearing, Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 32

Now I’ve written a lot about this document here and elsewhere and I won’t trouble you with it all again, but thre are several things about this huge hearing that gel with Wendy’s analysis here. Firstly, it’s a substantially fictive narrative designed to represent only one side of a dispute.8 Secondly, it is confirmed or at least witnessed anew on two occasions at least, though not by anyone much as far as I could discern; Sant Joan seems quickly to have lacked powerful supporters in its area.9 But thirdly, I have repeatedly observed that its scribe, one Garsies, is not attested anywhere else ever. I have in the past suggested that that was because he was needed to mobilise or silence the otherwise scarcely visible community of old settlers who predated Sant Joan’s tenure of the area under dispute.10 I sort of picture him as being in charge of some crumbling church from long before far out in the wilds, or possibly I suppose even at Santa Leocàdia in Vic, the once-and-by-then-replaced cathedral, in general being an older authority not necessarily well integrated into the new church structure, and that because of this he was who was needed to write this document, as a person everybody could accept would be trustworthy.11 The other possibility I’ve never been able to rule out, of course, is that he was a scribe of Count Sunyer who came along for the day, but I’ll ignore that for now. Wendy now opens up a third possibility, which is that he was just called upon because he had some sense how this should be done that other less experienced or learned priests might not have had. We don’t have another such document, at least not for twenty years or so not very close by, so we don’t see Garsies again. She could be right. In which case I don’t have as many frontiersmen, but I wonder where on earth he would have learnt this stuff? Santa Leocàdia might just still be the answer, but I will have to rethink…12

1. Wendy Davies, Windows on Justice in Northern Iberia, 800-1000 (Abingdon 2016), pp. 35-39.

2. Her specific worked example, of many, is Pedro Floriano Llorente (ed.), Colección diplomática del monasterio de San Vicente de Oviedo (años 781-1200): Estudio y transcripción (Oviedo 1968), doc. no. 26, discussed Davies, Windows on Justice, pp. 1-5 & 146-147, with text pp. 60-3 and photo p. 2.

3. Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic: segles IX-X, Documents 1 (Vic 1980-1996), 5 fascs, doc. no. 594, also printed as Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia Volum IV: Els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica 53 (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 1712, actually tells us that this happened to it, which is nice but of course raises questions of which bits were written when. In some ways more interesting is Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 995A, because there are two copies, the former of which was already witnessed by Count Borrell II but the later of which us confirmed additionally by Viscount Guadall II of Osona. More would not be hard to find.

4. Davies, Windows on Justice, pp. 95-120, which is kind of a kingdom-wide application of my technique in Jonathan Jarrett, “Comparing the Earliest Documentary Culture in Carolingian Catalonia” in Jarrett and Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout 2013), pp. 89–126, DOI:10.1484/M.IMR-EB.1.101679, which is rather flattering.

5. Davies, Windows on Justice, pp. 141-143.

6. Jaime Villanueva, Viage literario a las Iglesias de España, tomo VII: Viage á la Iglesia de Vique, año 1806 (Valencia 1821), online here, ap. XIII.

7. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 119.

8. Jonathan Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2003), pp. 229–258 at pp. 241-248 and Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 35-42.

9. Ibid., pp. 46-49.

10. Ibid., pp. 42-46.

11. The identification is argued in Ramon Ordeig i Mata, “Santa Eulàlia i Santa Leocàdia, una església altmedieval de Vic” in Ausa Vol. 25 no. 168 (Vic 2011), pp. 323–332. .

12. It is arguable, of course, that I should have maybe done that rethinking in the three years since writing this post. One thing that should have occurred to me then but didn’t, and does now, is that the possible link to Santa Leocàdia has the additional strength that by 913 the church was actually held by Sant Joan de Ripoll, having been granted to them in Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya carol&iacutelngia volum II: Els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 2 & 3 (Barcelona 1926-1952), repr. in facsimile as Memòries… 75 (Barcelona 2007), Sant Joan de les Abadesses I. So I might still think that the most plausible answer. An outside possibility might be that Garsies had come from some Andalusi intellectual centre such as Toledo which might be thought to have given him special knowledge of charters and the like; but if that were the case, I’d expect him to have been widely sought out as scribe, and in any case Toledo diplomatic wouldn’t necessarily have been what was wanted in Osona (see my “Comparing the Earliest Documentary Culture” as in n. 8 above). Maybe he just refused any lesser client than two counts, a viscount and an abbess, but still, I think more or less on-site but normally disregarded is a more plausible and interesting possibility…


Hildegard of Carlisle

This gallery contains 6 photos.

Something lighter for the holiday weekend, after so depressing a previous post, the implications of which will need to be long considered. Not so this, but it has been fairly long considered anyway, because it was in October 2018 that … Continue reading

(Why) Universities Are Not… Giving Way to their Staff

I initially wrote this in the middle of ten more days of industrial action over pensions, pay and terms of work in the English university sector, those following ten days last month and three days at the end of last year, and plenty more in previous years. Then I thought it’d better wait till people weren’t actually on the picket lines (though there are still some places where, for different reasons, they are.) But there have never before been such serious strikes in UK higher education. It’s been quite a long time since I got to deliver one of my own modules without losing classes. Obviously my pay and savings have taken a dent, and I’m one of the fortunate ones in still being basically OK. But it has got us nothing; not only have there been no concessions but the employers’ bodies have simply refused to negotiate, as if a 17% gender pay gap wasn’t just a basic ethical concern as well as a financial problem. What response we have seen is moves to run around the unions by promising to address the problems by new schemes and initiatives in which the unions are not consulted. Of course, where a union is recognised that’s illegal, but P & O Ferries have just shown us how the accounting maths works out on that score.

All the same, just because the university managements probably can ignore the unions doesn’t straight away explain why they want to – why staff goodwill is worth so little, why staff welfare is of so little concern and why this much disruption is worth just weathering out. In my previous posts on these issues I accordingly set out some plausible reasons why at least some of the problems we’re fighting about, specifically pay rises and causalisation, are actually hard for the employers to address, and how their resolution would tend to result in fewer jobs in the sector overall. The short version of those reasons would be because university income in the UK is actually zero-sum, so if you reallocate any of it there have to be losses somewhere else. Nonetheless, the Universities and Colleges Union is not wrong that many universities are stacking away considerable profit and surpluses at the moment, even if they ignore that some others are running in persistent deficit and may soon go to the wall. So one might argue that at least some employers could reallocate the sums needed out of their own bank accounts. But it seems that they won’t, despite the best we can do by way of argument.

Now, emotionally I will happily accept the idea that the whole sector’s management just don’t care, and that their only strategies are to pretend to act via working groups and consultations while actually progressively removing any mechanisms of contact or feedback between them and the people to whom they give orders so as to make not caring easier. It certainly feels like that from here! But you might hope that there was at least some reason why everyone above a certain level of authority is willing to look that way to the public and their staff, despite what it means for the effective functioning of their institutions. In this post, therefore, I want to do two things: firstly I want to acknowledge and include some points my original thinking missed, which I found during the work on my posts on the disputes and which help explain a few more things. Then secondly I want to explain why I think we’re losing and what would have to happen to change that.

Points I missed

In the first place comes a change of direction that I partly managed to make in the original posts, because my starting hypothesis didn’t seem to be justified by the figures. It still doesn’t; to my surprise, it doesn’t seem as if the global pandemic has actually made terribly much difference to international student recruitment in the UK. The detail of the ebb and flow from place to place differs quite widely, and there was definitely a thin patch in early 2020 with lots of people understandably deferring their places, but between online teaching and then eased restrictions it seems that a lot of that revenue has been rescued. That meant that there was a period of panic and the great digital pivot and so on, and everywhere reset their budgets on the basis of panic. Then the disaster didn’t come and the part of the university sector that wasn’t already in trouble has found that it can more or less carry on like this now, for a while at least. And, for reasons we’ll come to under the final heading, ‘for a while at least’ is all anyone is thinking about right now. So the revenue crisis is now not so imminent as to make change necessary, but still remains potential enough to make change look very dangerous. It’s not the biggest brake on change – as I say, I’ll come to that – but it’s probably a significant one and I had it facing the wrong way round in the metaphorical circuitry of my analysis.

But seriously, pensions

Secondly, however, and more revelatory, the thing I have found hardest to understand in these disputes is why the employers won’t take easy wins when they appear. The one of these that was confusing me most was the pensions situation. I don’t want to run through the whole thing in detail here, but you have to understand what the problem initially was to understand what I mean. The problem initially was that, largely because of new rules set up by England’s Pensions Regulator, a valuation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme in 2017 or 2018, I now forget, came out showing a worrying deficit against future liabilities. It wasn’t losing money or anything: it was just unable right then and there to make all the payments that would be due if every single member university in the country suddenly went bust. Counter-arguments from the Universities and College Union included the one that this was utterly unlikely, but it was the eventuality against which the Pensions Regulator now required the scheme to be secure. There were also questions about whether this deficit would exist were the scheme not also trying to ‘derisk’ by moving its investments progressively into low-yield, but predictable, bonds, rather than the more profitable but less reliable funds that generated most of its current revenue. UCU also had arguments with the methodology used to do the valuation, however, arguments about necessary ‘levels of prudence’, and on that basis the only thing, really, that the first serious round of national strike action in 2019 won was an agreement to wait until USS had done a new valuation to decide on next steps, which everyone was going to agree on first.

Unfortunately, the new valuation occurred during the high point of panic over Covid-19. The figures came out much worse, of course, and the fund went unilaterally into carefully-managed emergency measures, triggered automatically by its charter and raising contributions across the board from both employees and employers. Unsurprisingly, therefore, new proposals rapidly emerged from the employers’ side about how to cut pay-outs and contributions to a level that they and the scheme found sustainable, and it’s these proposals that have now been pushed through in the teeth of our strikes. But the thing is, at the same time not only has every university in the country not simultaneously closed; the fund’s investments have also been doing far, far better than their gloomy maximum-prudence predictions during 2020 forecast. By all the calculations anyone outside can do with the available figures, two years of big investment return have probably actually wiped out the scheme’s deficit. There’s no longer any immediate financial need to make these cuts, and there’s another valuation due in 2023 anyway. So why not, to end these strikes, just give UCU what it wants, revert the cuts, let things simmer down and then start again in 2023? Why not now just let the staff have their hope of a reasonable retirement by changing nothing? In most other respects changing nothing appears to be what the managements want, so it seems like an easy concession to buy space to do whatever other worsenings they have planned. But no.

I couldn’t understand this until, in the course of writing the previous posts and looking for cites on managerialism in the university, I found an excellent blog post from 2019 by Lee Jones of Queen Mary University of London, for which institution I once worked and who have now earned themselves the ignominious honour of being the first university to try to dock pay from staff for not rescheduling classes lost due to strikes, i. e. fining them twice for not doing work once.1 Whether this is legal remains to be seen – the rest of the sector, having threatened it, is now waiting with bated breath to see if QMUL get away with it – but in any case, I digress. Dr Jones ends his post with a call for a full-on end to free-market economics as the only solution, which I can’t see coming, but his analysis of the actual economics of the situation seems to me very sharp indeed, and includes something I didn’t think of, universities’ increasing reliance on borrowing to finance their competition with each other. There, he says this (with all his links gratefully copied):

“The turn to capital markets happened very quickly after 2011. During 2015 alone, universities issued $1.39bn in private bonds, typically at around 3% interest over a long time period: 50 or even 100 years. From 2013–18, university bond issues totalled £4.4bn. Oxford has borrowed £750m over 100 years at 2.5%; Cardiff, £300m at 3.1% over 50 years; Cambridge, £300m at an inflation-linked rate and £300m at 2.35% over 60 years; even Portsmouth has raised £100m through issuing bonds.

“Raising private finance depends on assuring investors that the institution is financially sound and their money will be returned with the stated rate of return. To keep the ratings agencies sweet (yes, Standard and Poor, Moodys, et al. now rate universities, just as they rate governments), universities must show financial probity. That involves two things: first, they must demonstrate that revenue (i.e. students) will continue to flow to the institution, which requires a solid competitive positioning in the market place. Portsmouth’s investment prospectus, for example, makes direct reference to its league table position to reassure bond-purchasers. This reinforces the managerialist turn to gaming the league tables and degrading higher education, as described above. Secondly, universities must show a determination to suppress costs, to show that they can generate the required surplus to repay the bond when it matures. That entails bearing down on staff pay and especially ‘pensions liabilities’, which are always a concern for private investors. The desire to shrink these liabilities was a key factor behind employers’ attempt last year to cut USS pensions a third time [since] 2011, which drove staff out on strike en masse.”

That is a piece of the puzzle I did not have and which now fits all too well. Of course, the cutting of pensions is a long-term plan, or at least, has been happening over the long-term, and this helps explain why. Rather than the employers choosing change of plan over stability, what the concession I suggested above would mean in this light is the abandonment of a much longer-running plan to which the pandemic gave unexpected opportunity, under that old and disgraceful banner, used by more than one vice-chancellor in 2020, “never let a crisis go to waste“.2 And so I now hope for rather less success for the university workers in this area than the figures suggest should be possible.

A Private-Sector Problem

But the other reason my hopes have shrunk badly since this round of industrial action began is that there has been almost no action from the government. You might well say that this is an industrial relations problem, not a national problem, and why should the government be expected to act? But my earlier posts made the argument that when the government controls more than half the university sector’s income, between tuition fees and the mysterious QR funding, and imposes upon the sector a massive regulatory burden in order to be allowed to receive it, and then also imposes hard limits on what that income can be, it is actually the government that creates the framework within which these problems cannot be resolved.

Neither is it just that because of this level of state control, university finances are statically constrained. We exist as a sector under an ongoing and semi-permanent threat of defunding. Until just last month, the shape of this Sword of Damocles was the Augar Review, which began in early 2018, reported in the very last days of Teresa May’s premiership in 2019, and has only now received a proper government response. I’ll come to that response in a minute – because I literally only found out about it while writing the post – but since Augar initially recommended cuts to tuition fees, in order to reduce the growing liability on state finance created by their 40%+ non-repayment, it created a panic in the sector which in some places saw people literally being fired that month to save money. Then nothing happened, and a global pandemic set other priorities for all parties, plus which Augar himself no longer thinks cutting fees would be a good idea.3 Still, it was only a few weeks ago that any assurance came to the university sector that they were not, in fact, facing a crippling cut to their majority source of income which might come at any time, when the government announced that the current cap on tuition fees would be frozen for a further two years. And even that, of course, only gives two years’ security, and that in the form of a source of revenue which has been shrinking against inflation ever since 2012 when the current cap was set. Since other revenue in the sector is also very hard to increase, and with the upheaval caused by the pandemic to cope with as well, it is understandable that anyone who sees their principal job in a university as, not even to maximise profit, but just to keep the whole thing financially afloat, has been stockpiling income, trying to cut spending as much as possible and getting ready to borrow huge amounts if necessary.

As it is, from what I can see on the basis of a report on the response to the review – not having had time and probably not having the will to read the actual thing – the response does not remove this problem. Instead, it mainly does two things, one being to make repayment thresholds for the students who have loans lower, so as to decrease that massive non-repayment figure, and the other being to open up lifelong access to loans so as to encourage reskilling and retraining. This is kind of patching one hole while opening up another: it may get more loan money back into the Student Loans Company’s bank accounts, but will be pouring more money out at the same time, and to people who will not have as long to pay it back or salaries as high from which to do so. Those loans will have to be unpleasant to have if they’re to escape becoming a new version of the exact same problem the current ones face. The response also freezes current tuition fees for two years, but makes no promises about them after that. Meanwhile, it demands that universities make their ‘graduate premium’ more public by advertising employment rates for graduates from their courses, another reporting requirement which universities will learn how to game; and it threatens the future defunding of courses which don’t reach a certain, unspecified, level on that score, as well as potentially courses that don’t serve the national interest as much as others. To me this mainly looks like a win for the Further Education sector, and goodness knows it needs one, but this can also fit with my earlier forecast that universities will use their greater size and capacity to start taking over the vocational and FE sector and pushing smaller dedicated providers out of it – expect lots of mergers of local colleges with their local big universities and an end to non-degree-level teaching at them. What this does not do is give universities any basis on which they can securely plan their finances for more than two years ahead. That is made worse because, even this long after Augar actually reported, a great many things in the response seem to be kicked down the road for later consideration or, typically for the Cameron-and-post-Cameronian administration, left as threats that may or may not be carried out, depending on unspecified things. This kind of failure to make policy is exactly why for the last ten years or so no-one in the sector has dared plan anything but capital projects intended to secure more certain revenue.

For this reason, while I didn’t then know that it was being said on the basis of this response being about to appear, it was when I saw the above that I knew these strikes weren’t going to get us anywhere. Bim Afolami may be right, and UCU may be right, that the universities do, currently, in most cases, have the spare money to address some of their staff’s grievances and, as I say above, the pensions situation has eased to the point where it needn’t even cost them very much to address. But there is no reassurance that things will stay that way, and while as a result they are still the prisoners of the wavering international student market for any kind of ongoing financial security, they’re not going to start spending out reserves they could well need very badly just a couple of years down the line.

So what needs to happen if this is ever to get better? Well, I think it’s nothing less than a team from Universities UK, a team from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association and one from the Universities and Colleges Union sitting down with the three, no less, ministers of government who currently have responsibilities in the sector (the Secretary of State for Education, the Minister for Universities and the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills) for a couple of days and arguing out what it is they collectively think universities should do, for whom. Then, and only then, they should concoct a way to tap the money made by those things that would establish a steady ongoing foundation for them which can continue without need of further interference. Then we might be able to look to a future. We’ve seen that there probably are ways that funding could be arranged, and possibly even with less of a burden on the state than there is now – on which basis at least one former Universities Minister might want to be in the room too, since he already thinks he knows how to do this – so it’s not impossible that this would produce a mutually satisfactory outcome.4 Since UCU tends to get outvoted in such meetings, however, it’s also possible that this would just produce an acceleration of the current direction of travel towards vocational, marketised, industry-facing training and research-only-with-development. But since I dare not hope that that meeting will ever happen, maybe, in the words of Gil Scott Heron, “Unfortunately, the world is just going to drag on and on.”5 Two questions then seem to remain: one is whether we, the actual workers of knowledge, are going to be able to drag it in any particular direction, even back towards the past, or will in the end be dragged by it. And the other, I suppose, is whether it’s worth remaining knowledge workers so as to see.

1. Lee Jones, “The Seven Deadly Sins of Marketisation in British Higher Education” in Medium, 28th November 2019, online here. I should also mention Luke Martell, “The marketisation of our universities: Economic criteria get precedence over what’s good in human terms”, in British Politics and Policy at LSE, 23 November 2013, online here, as making some of the same points more briefly and presciently six years previously, although not the one I’m running with here.

2. I can’t name the ones I actually heard of saying it, as I suspect that would get me and others into trouble, but Peter D. Burdon, ‘Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste’: The Impact of COVID-19 on Legal Education, SSRN Scholarly Paper, Social Science Research Network ID 3938681 (Rochester NY 2021), online here, is kind of a metastudy. It should be noted that the phrase is seen positively by many ed-tech evangelists, who are presumably not interested in the reasons why the resistance to change which the use of the phrase bespeaks exists: witness Wayne Camara, “Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste: Large-Scale Assessment and the Response to COVID-19” in Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice Vol. 39 (Chichester 2020), pp. 10–18, DOI: 10.1111/emip.12358, and Jeffrey Lancaster, “Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste” in EduCause Review, January 11 2021, online here.

3. A lot of my details in this paragraph, including that last one, come from Nick Hillman, “In the years of waiting for a full response, it’s become clear the Augar review is a smörgåsbord not a prix fixe. But while policymakers have been deliberating, universities have been delivering” in HEPI, 1 February 2022, online here, though I can’t but think Dr Hillman must have been quite annoyed when the response followed on his heels by only a month. On that response I have mainly relied on James Higgins, “Augar review: government reveals student finance shake up” in University Business, 24th February 2022, online here.

4. See David Willetts, Boosting higher education while cutting public spending, HEPI Report 142 (London 2021), and indeed David Willetts, A university education (Oxford 2017).

5. Gil Scott Heron, “Brother”, on A New Black Poet: Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (RCA 1970).

Murder of a factoid about Mallorca

My backlogged blog chronology is getting a bit out of step here, as I find this in my drafts folder from November 2018 referring to an unusual luxury I’d been able to permit myself that summer, which was a trip to Cambridge University Library. I was privileged enough to do most of my undergraduate and doctoral work out of that library (even though my doctorate’s from London) and there are still times when it’s invaluable to get there, for the simple reason that unlike most big research libraries a good proportion of its stock is on open shelves. The speed factor this adds to checking references is hard to exaggerate; when ordinarily you might have to wait an hour or two for your books to arrive, being able to go straight to not just the things you already knew you needed, but also then the things which they reveal you also need to check, which otherwise might normally mean a second trip at some future point, is invaluable. I was at that point up against a tight deadline to finish my article “Nests of Pirates” and, among other things, I was able to check the thing I want to tell you about now, and because of the open shelves track it to its root rather than just the next layer down. It’s about the Islamic conquest of Mallorca, I think by the definition offered some time ago by frequent commentator dearieme it counts as a ‘factoid’, and I think I killed it.1

The Balearic Islands had a rough Late Antiquity.2 Taking part fairly fully, as far as patchy archaeological evidence and a few textual anecdata can so far reveal, in both the third-century crisis (during which Mallorca’s then-capital, Pollentia, burned down) and then the general shrinkage of economy and settlement suffered by the western half of the Roman Empire over the fifth century, they fell in the course of that century into the maritime empire of the Vandal kings of Carthage, where they remained until returned to imperial control during the Byzantine conquest of that kingdom. They then remained under at least some kind of Byzantine obedience into the eighth century, to judge by seals found at the hilltop fort of Santueri in Mallorca, and perhaps even later, but that’s where the trouble begins, because the terminus post quem non is of course Islamic conquest, and we don’t really know when that happened.3

Wall of the castle site at Santueri, Mallorca

Wall of the castle site at Santueri, Mallorca

Now, first of all some important preconditions. There are five major islands in the Balearic archipelago, as you see above, in descending order of size Mallorca, Minorca, Ibiza, Formentera and Cabrera, of which Ibiza and Formentera sit apart as part of a separate group called the Pityuses, all over an area of about 150 square miles. There is much more evidence about what happened to Mallorca than any of the others; indeed, archaeologically and documentarily, we don’t actually have any proof so far identified that Cabrera, Formentara, Ibiza or even Menorca were actually occupied between the seventh (or for Menorca, eighth) and tenth centuries (mid-ninth for Menorca, as we’ll see), though it’s probably more likely that they were than they weren’t.4 Nonetheless, people who write about this area always seem to do so as if what happened in one island can be generalised to all the others, apparently believing that because they are governed as a unit now, and have been since, well, mumble mumble mumble, they must always have behaved as one. But it ain’t necessarily so.

Ruins of the late antique Christian basilica in Illa del Rei, off Menorca

Ruins of the late antique Christian basilica in Illa del Rei, its own separate islet off Menorca, by Pytxyown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

So what we’re actually able to discuss is the Islamic conquest of Mallorca, not the Balearics, and we just have to live with that. Now, currently the archaeology can really only tell us that at some point people started using Islamic-style ceramics and burying like Muslims, not when or why.5 For when or why the answers must for now come from texts. The terminus ante quem this time is 933 CE, by which time there was an Andalusī (i e. from al-Andalus, Muslim Iberia) fleet using Mallorca as a base for raiding Christian Francia, according at least to the chronicler Ibn Ḥayyān, who had access to some of the caliphal archives of Córdoba somehow and thus had reason to know.6 So the conquest was before that, but when? Excitingly, there are four different dates recorded, all in different sources, none of which seem to know the others’ stories. For dramatic reasons it’s most fun for me to go through them from latest date to earliest, which means that the first entrant is fourteenth-century CE polymath, bureaucrat, lawyer and underrated sociologist, but questionable historian, Abū Zayd ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān ibn Muḥammad ibn Khaldūn.

Bust of Ibn Khaldun at Casbah de Bejaia, Algeria

Bust of Ibn Khaldun at Casbah de Bejaia, Algeria, image by Reda Kerbushown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Ibn Khaldūn, who had excellent sources for the most part, including Ibn Ḥayyān, but notoriously scrambled them in his own work, offers the latest date for the conquest, placing it in 902/903 and explaining it as the result of an Andalusī pilgrim to the East having been stranded in the islands for a while and having thus learned their weak spots, and then offering to lead a conquest of them for the Emir of Córdoba, which succeeded.7 Opinions vary among the people who know this report as to whether the islands could possibly still have been Byzantine at so late a stage, or had been assimilated into the Carolingian sphere after an appeal to Charlemagne for help against pirates in 798, which was answered.8 That appeal is documented in the Carolingian court chronicle, the Royal Frankish Annals, but only in its early version, not its revision of 829, as if by then it was no longer a working claim. So if the Balearics did swing Carolingian, it may not have lasted long.9 Nonetheless, after 903, says Ibn Khaldūn, they were Islamic territory.

Approach to Puig d'Alaró, Mallorca

Approach to Puig d’Alaró, Mallorca

But! The twelfth-century Granadan geographer Muḥammad ibn Abi Bakr al-Zuhri has a different story. According to him, the conquest took place in the reign of “Muḥammad, son of the fifth Emir of al-Andalus”, and although it was mostly successful, the “Rūm” held out in one particular fort, Ḥisn Alarūn, almost certainly modern Alaró seen above, for a further eight years and five months before finally running out of supplies and surrendering.10 So for him Mallorca was definitely still Byzantine territory, but when? Muḥammad I ruled 852-886 CE, but the trouble is that he was the fifth Emir, and his son was called al-Mundhir (r. 886-888 CE). Professor Juan Signes Codoñer has suggested that the peculiar way in which the ruler is identified might be explained if the name of Muhammad’s father ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II had dropped out, supposing a correct text saying “Muḥammad son of [‘Abd al-Raḥmān], the fifth Emir…” and that looks like a good solution to me, but it’s still a 30-year window.11 Also, al-Zuhri said that he had heard this story told, not that it was a matter of record, and while he was nearer in time to the events than was Ibn Khaldūn, that distance was still four hundred years, so it’s not the best evidence.

But! Maybe we need neither of these, because the somewhat later Marrakech historian Abū al-ʽAbbās Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn ʽIḏārī has a different report again. He, frustratingly, doesn’t tell us when the conquest actually was, but notes that in 848/849, none other than ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II sent a punitive naval expedition against Mallorca because its inhabitants had “broken their pact” and were harassing Islamic shipping in their waters. Some kind of blockade seems to have been imposed and next year Mallorca and Menorca both sent envoys begging for the renewal of the pact, though Ibn ʽIḏārī doesn’t say that they got it.12 Nonetheless, as far as he was concerned, subjection of the islands to Islam, even if not conquest by it, had happened by then.

Romantic modern depiction of Ibn al-Qutiya

Modern depiction of Ibn al-Qutiya

Now it’s possible to reconcile that with either, but not both, of the previous two, and maybe even the Royal Frankish Annals, by saying that the Balearics, or at least Mallorca, had maybe been under a pact to the Muslim rulers in the Peninsula for some time but not actually conquered by them – this was also the case with Basque Pamplona, so it wouldn’t be unprecedented – and had perhaps flirted with a Carolingian alternative before being brought back into line by ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II.13 But! Now we reach the meat. Our earliest source for the conquest also gives the earliest date, or at least so it seems. If you look in the work of Juan Signes which I already mentioned, or that of Josep Amengual i Batle on which it often rests, you will find a report there that the tenth-century Sevillano lawyer and historian Muḥammad Ibn ʿUmar Ibn al-Qūṭiyya dated the conquest of the islands to 707/708 CE, when ‘Abd al-Malik, son of the then-governor of Muslim North Africa, Mūsā bin Nuṣayr, mounted a naval raid on Mallorca and Menorca and captured the “kings” (mulūk) who ruled there and sent them off to Damascus.14 I grant you that’s not quite the same as actual conquest, and it might even have led to the kind of pact subsequently reported by Ibn ʽIḏārī, but it is still quite surprising, not least because it’s a full four years before the actual conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, which Mūsā carried out in 711-712 CE. Now, that may just be presentism talking and it might have made more sense, before their permanent attachment (so far) to governments in the Peninsula in the thirteenth century, to see the islands as prone to African dependency, as under the Vandals and Byzantines, and not Iberian rule. But, this is also our factoid.

You see, when I first saw this report, in Signes I think, I was immediately struck by two things. One was how early it was, as I just said; but the other was that I really ought to have known about it because I own an English translation of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya’s History of the Conquest of al-Andalus.15 I’m not saying I’ve ever sat down and read it all through and made notes, but I have gone into it quite a lot for gobbets for my Special Subject at Leeds, and if I’d seen this bit I would have grabbed it because of what it implies about the conquest of the Peninsula following on naval raiding rather than being a spontaneous event.16 So I went and got my copy off the shelf, and this bit isn’t there.

Well, how odd, I thought. It seemed unlikely that Professor Signes had just made this up, so I looked up his reference, which was as I might have expected to the old Castilian translation of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya by Julián Ribera. And that was online then, so it was pretty easy to check that too and find that it’s not there either.17 But he gave a reference also to Josep Amengual’s two-volume history of the late Antique Balearics, and it was that which I arrived in Cambridge needing to check. And from that it became clear that the reference in question is in the Ribera volume after all.18 So for a moment it looked as if either David James had missed it out of his English translation, or it wasn’t in the manuscript of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya that he’d used. BUT! Not so! There are actually two texts translated in that volume of Ribera’s, Ibn al-Qūṭiyya and a similar history under the name of Abū Muhammad Abd-Allāh ibn Muslim ibn Qutayba, and our factoid is in the latter, not the former. Well, at least I now had the source. And in some ways it should be a better source, because although based in Iraq, Ibn Qutayba was writing even earlier than Ibn al-Qūṭiyya and brings the gap between source and event, otherwise so large in this saga, down to a mere 150-odd years.


Shamefully, I knew nothing about this Ibn Qutayba, so I did some rapid research. That told me that Reinhart Dozy had written about this very text in the 1880s.19 And this is the great virtue of the Cambridge UL: having found this out, within ten minutes I could sit down again with Dozy’s work before me, and it gave me pause. Dozy had spent some time with this Ahādith al-Imāma wa’l-siyāsa of Ibn Qutayba and in the end concluded that it was actually nothing of the kind, partly because no such work seemed to be attributed to that author by medieval biographers, partly because it claims to have had the Mallorca report from eye-witnesses but it had supposedly happened 134 years before, and mainly because there is a reference in it to Maroc, a city not founded until 1062 CE, difficult for a ninth-century CE author to have added. Dozy’s conclusion was that the whole thing is an Andalusī “romancing” of the work of Abū Marwān ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Ḥabīb, with some extra Iberian material from who knows where, and that its unique content – of which the notice with which we’re concerned is part – is late eleventh-century at the earliest and probably without earlier basis. So, let’s stack all this up.

  1. Some time after 1062 CE, someone decided to write a history of Muslim Iberia, which they based on an earlier work but to which they added some of their own material, including our notice about a 707/708 Muslim attack on Mallorca, and put the whole thing out under a respectable, plausible, but false name. Well, goodness knows they weren’t the last to do that, but then what?
  2. In the 1870s, Reinhart Dozy, having got curious about this, went into it and discovered the forgery, and wrote the discovery up as one of about a dozen unconnected little studies in one of his less well-known works. Not many people seem to have noticed.
  3. Juan Ribera had noticed, but for reasons that aren’t entirely clear thought that an earlier thought of Pascual de Gayangos that maybe this was more of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya still deserved to be taken seriously enough that the known text of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya and this one should be translated together, and so he did that.
  4. Several people, including Josep Amengual, presumably searching quite rapidly for all references to Mallorca they could find, then found this one, but apparently did not realise that it was not actually within Ibn al-Qūṭiyya’s text.
  5. Signes then presumably got the cite from Amengual, and repeated it even though he doesn’t seem to have been able to find it himself. And that paper, unlike Amengual’s book, went online and thus other people started to ‘know’ this thing as well. But unfortunately, it’s a dud…

Now, of course, this does not leave us with any kind of definitive answer. As I said in my article, you can even just about have it all: it could be that there was a 707/708 raid which sent the poor Mallorcan mulūk off to Syria, possibly even resulting in a pact to the then-governor of Ifrīqiya, which the islands then, finding that not keeping them safe, repudiated in favour of an approach to the Carolingians that didn’t last long, then went independent and possibly piratical for a bit before being reigned back in by ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II, but were not finally conquered till either the 850s-880s or 902/903.20 Or maybe those two dates are even for different islands in the archipelago and both true! It would be a bit weird that not one of our writers seems to have known other stories if they were all true, but they’re not actually incompatible, and even if the 707/708 story is from three hundred years later, that’s still closer to the supposed facts than Ibn Khaldūn or Ibn ʽIḏārī. But what that story is not is the work of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya. And that is a dead factoid, thankyou very much.

1. What that means, of course, is that if you’ve read Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates? ‘Islandness’ in the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet” in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101, at pp. 199-209 and esp. 206-209, none of what follows is going to be new to you, sorry. But given firewalls and time, I’m betting that mostly you haven’t, and I can forgive you.

2. Covered ibid. pp. 198-212, but see also Luca Zavagno, “‘Going to the Extremes’: The Balearics and Cyprus in the Early Medieval Byzantine Insular System” in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 140–157, and Miguel Ángel Cau Ontiveros and Catalina Mas Florit, “The Early Byzantine Period in the Balearic Islands” in Demetrios Michaelides, Philippa Pergola and Enrico Zanini (eds), The Insular System of the Early Byzantine Mediterranean: Archaeology and History, British Archaeological Reports International Series 2523 (Oxford 2013), pp. 31–45.

3. On the Santueri seals see Juan Nadal Cañellas, “Las bulas de plomo bizantinas del Castillo de Santueri” in Bolletí de la Societat Arqueològica Lul·liana Vol. 72 (La Palma 2006), pp. 325–340; they are the only part of the evidence from an extensive archæological dig that has been made public.

4. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, pp. 199-204.

5. This is changing as radiocarbon dating begins to make a difference, as witness Miguel Ángel Cau Ontiveros, M. Van Strondyck, M. Boudin, C. Mas Florit, J. S. Mestres, F. Cardona, E. Chávez-Álvarez & M. Orfila, “Christians in a Muslim World? Radiocarbon dating of the cemetery overlaying the forum of Pollentia (Mallorca, Balearic Islands)” in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences Vol. 9 (Cham 2017), pp. 1529–1538, DOI: 10.1007/s12520-016-0325-0, but as the title notes they had found Christian burials, not Islamic ones. The real problem is non-differentiation of pre- and post-conquest coarse-ware ceramics, which absent Islamic fine-wares makes it very hard to tell when a site stopped being used. Once this changes, it will probably no longer be viable to hypothesize non-occupation of any of the islands.

6. Dolors Bramon (ed.), De quan érem o no musulmans: textos del 713 al 1010. Continuació de l’obra de J. M. Millàs i Vallicrosa, Jaume Caresmar 13 (Vic 2000), &section;374; Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 207.

7. Juan Signes Codoñer, “Bizancio y las Islas Baleares en los siglos VIII y IX” in Rafael Durán Tapia (ed.), Mallorca y Bizancio (Palma de Mallorca 2005), pp. 45–99 at pp. 84-85; Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, pp. 208-209. The opinion of Ibn Khaldūn is mine, not Signes’s!

8. Basically, the Byzantinists see it as Byzantine till the last possible moment (as witness Signes), the Islamicists see it conquered as early as possible, and the Catalans see it as taken over by the Carolingians and thus effectively gathered into the future Catalonia with some unfortunate Islamic interludes that however serve to justify Aragonese ‘reconquest’. There are, admittedly, exceptions to this in every group except the Byzantinists.

9. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, pp. 205-206; the text is in English in Bernhard Walter Scholz and Barbara Rogers (edd.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, Ann Arbor Paperback 186 (Ann Arbor 1972), online here, pp. 1-128, s a. 798.

10. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 208.

11. Signes, “Bizancio y las Islas Baleares”, p. 85.

12. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 208, accessible to me from Ibn Idari, Historias de al-Andalus, transl. Francisco Fernández González (n. p. n. d.), pp. 81-82.

13. On the situation of Pamplona see Juan José Larrea & Jesús Lorenzo, “Barbarians of Dâr al-Islâm: The Upper March of al-Andalus and the Pyrenees in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries” in Guido Vannini & Michele Nucciotti (edd.), La Transgiordania nei secoli XII-XIII e le ‘frontiere’ del Mediterraneo medievale. Trans-Jordan in the 12th and 13th Centuries and the ‘Frontiers’ of the Medieval Mediterranean, British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 2386 (Oxford 2012), pp. 277–288.

14. Signes, “Bizancio y las Islas Baleares”, pp. 46-54; Josep Amengual i Batle, Els orígens del cristianisme a les Balears i el seu desenvolupament fins a l’època musulmana, Els Trebals i els dies 36 & 37 (Palma de Mallorca 1991), 2 vols, vol. I pp. 441-453; there are other people I could cite, as well, but these notes are crowded enough and anyway I do at Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 207 n. 64.

15. Muḥammad ibn ʻUmar Ibn al-Qūṭīyah, Early Islamic Spain: the history of Ibn al-Qutiya, transl. David James (London 2011).

16. I have, in fact, sat down and read all of it, while in bed in Venice in fact, and it has many excellent stories in it one of which will be a future blog post; but I don’t have notes. Anyway, while I’m trailing future blog posts we might note that if this thing were in there it would not be the only evidence for early raiding preceding the invasion of Iberia, as I will later disclose, and that was why I didn’t initially think anything need be wrong with the idea.

17. Signes, “Bizancio y las Islas Baleares”, p. 93 n. 5, cites Julián Ribera (ed./transl.), Historia de la Conquista de España de Abenalcotía el Cordobés, seguida de fragmentos históricos de Abencotaiba, etc., Colección de obras arábigas de historia y geografía que publica el Real Academia de Historia 2 (Madrid 1926), online here as of 10th July 2016 but sadly no longer, but he gives no page reference, I suspect because he could not find the passage in question either.

18. Amengual, Orígens del cristianisme, vol. I pp. 442-443, citing Ribera, Historia de la Conquista de España, p. 122, which is correct.

19. R. Dozy, Recherches sur l’histoire et littérature de l’Espagne pendant le moyen âge, 3ème ed. (Paris 1881), 2 vols, vol. I, online here, pp. 21-40.

20. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 210.