The conference before the storm: Leeds International Medieval Congress, 2019

Looking back on the last pre-Covid International Medieval Congress seems like a different world by now, even though we’ve but recently had the 2022 one, where, ironically or not, I caught my first dose of Covid. I guess that, because of that and because of the big push towards online hybrid participation that the pandemic gave us, it’s clear already that we’re never going back to quite the same experience of a campus full of medievalists meeting and interacting, but will now live with the sense, firstly, that that may be dangerous as well as desirable and that some people just aren’t going to be able to take part, and secondly that a lot of the action is in fact happening off-stage, in the ether.1 So this was the end of an era, or the last stop before a change of trains, or some other metaphor. And, to be honest, because of that, before picking up my notes on it I would have said I remembered very little of what happened at the 2019 Congress, as opposed to any other year since the IMC moved to the Central campus. I didn’t organise anything myself, is all I would have told you this morning, and on inspection that is completely untrue: Rethinking the Medieval Frontier ran for a full day, with people speaking from two continents about places from the Canaries to Kashmir. So as it transpires, I was there (obviously) and was pretty busy (nearly as obviously) and learnt a good few things (thankfully), and it was actually an impressively international and intersectional gathering that had all kinds of promise for the future threaded through it, and it still seems worth writing a report on it. It’s just that the future took a different turn… Because these reports are always huge, however, and not necessarily of interest to all (certainly not throughout), I’ll do what has become my practice and give you the running order of my conference experience, and then put actual commentary below a cut and let you decide (the few of you reading on the actual site rather than in your e-mail, anyway) how much further you care to go.

Monday 1st July 2019

119. Materialities at Birkbeck, I: between mind and matter in medieval monetary policy

  • Rebecca Darley, “Discourses on Absence, or Kalabhra and Vakataka Monetary Policy in Early Medieval Southern India”
  • Chris Budleigh, “Surplus and Scarcity: the contested relationship between monetary supply and aristocratic land management in Comnenian Byzantium”
  • Sidin Sunny, “The Lighter Dirham: power relationships in medieval Spanish society and tendencies in coin fineness and debasement.”

240. The Use and Construction of Place, Space, and Materiality in Late Antiquity

334. Seas and Floods in the Islamic West

  • Andrew Marsham, “Nile Flood Levels and Egyptian Revolts in the Early Medieval Period”
  • Xavier Ballestín, “Ships, Seafarers, Sails and Bows: a source approach to marine networks and coastal settlement in the Western Mediterranean basin on the eve of the rabaḍ uprising in Córdoba, 202 AH/818 AD”
  • Maribel Fierro, “Sea in the Life Narratives of Andalusi Scholars and Saints”

Tuesday 2nd July

530. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier 2018, I: Iberian Spaces

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Ends of Empire: Two Island Frontiers between Byzantium and Islam”
  • Stacey Murrell, “Centering the Marginal: concubines on Castilian frontiers, c. 1050-1350
  • Sandra Schieweck, “Iberian Border Regimes: the case of Castile and Navarre in the late Middle Ages”

630. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, 2018, II: Administration and Control

  • Luca Zavagno, “‘The Byzantine Liquid Frontiers’, or How to Administer Insular and Coastal Peripheral Spaces and Stop Worrying About It”
  • Davor Salihović, “The Distribution of Bordering in Late Medieval Hungary”

730. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier 2018, III: between religions

  • Roberta Denaro, “Far from the Corrupting City: building the frontier as a stage for martyrdom and asceticism, 8th-10th centuries”
  • Turaç Hakalmaz, “‘Islandness’ of a Coastal Kingdom: the case of Cilician Armenia”
  • Aniket Tathagata Chettry, “Exploring the Complexities of a Brahmanical Frontier in Bengal”

830. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier 2018, IV: dealing with power on the frontier

  • Jakub Kabala, “Claiming Authority over the Edge of the World: Frontier Strategies in Salzburg, c. 870″
  • Zeynep Aydoğan, “Conquest and Territoriality in the Late Medieval Anatolian Frontiers”
  • Andreas Obenaus, “To Whom Might/Do They Belong? Claims to Newly-Discovered Atlantic Islands in the Late Medieval Period”

Wednesday 3rd July 2019

1048. Forging Memory: false documents and historical consciousness in the Middle Ages, I

  • Graham Barrett, “Charters, Forgeries, and the Diplomatic of Salvation in Medieval Iberia”
  • Daria Safranova, “Using and Detecting Forged Charters in Northern Iberia, c. 900-1100″
  • Levi Roach, “True Lies: Leo of Vercelli, Arduin of Ivrea, and the Struggle for Piedmont”

1140. Byzantine Materialities, II: Ephemera and Iconoclasm

  • Rachel Banes, “You Can’t Write That Here! Mapping Religious and Secular Graffiti in Asia Minor, c. 300-700 CE”
  • Daniel K. Reynolds, “Images, Icons and Apologetic: Christian Iconoclasm in Early Islamic Palestine”
  • Leslie Brubaker, “Dancing in the Streets: the ephemera of Byzantine processions”

1252. Transport, Traders, and Trade Routes in Early Medieval Europe

  • Ewa Magdalena Charowska, “Dugout Builders: the trademark of the Sclaveni in the 6th and 7th Centuries”
  • Daniel Melleno, “From Strangers to Neighbors: Franks and Vikings in the late 9th century”
  • Thomas Freudenhammer, “Rafica: early medieval caravan trade between the West Frankish kingdom and al-Andalus”
  • Victor Farías Zurita, “Response”

1340. Byzantine Materialities, IV: workshops, trade and manuscripts

  • Shaun Tougher, “Macedonian Materialities: the Menologion of Basil II”
  • Chris Wickham, “Materialities of Middle Byzantine Exchange in the Aegean”
  • Flavia Vanni, “Men at work: stucco workshops on Mount Athos”

Thursday 4th July 2019

1509. Gold, Coins and Power in the Early Middle Ages

  • Marco Cristini, “The War of the Coins: Numismatic Evidence for the Gothic War”
  • Nicholas Rogers, “Angels and the King’s Evil: projections of royal authority”
  • Vera Kemper, “‘All that glitters is not gold’: heroes and material wealth”

1652. The Monetary System and Currency in Eurasia in the Pre-Modern Era, II: money and its circulation in British Isles and Scandinavia

  • Yuta Uchikawa, “Commerce and Coin Circulation around the Irish Sea in the 9th and 10th Centuries”
  • Hiroko Yanagawa, “The Irish-Sea Imitations and their Circulation during the Middle Ages”
  • Kenji Nishioka, “The Use of Money in Scotland during the 12th and 13th Centuries”
  • Takahiro Narikawa, “Church and the Money Circulation in High Medieval Norway”

1738. Materialities and Religion in Medieval Armenia and Byzantium

  • Katherine New, “The Representations of Material Objects in Medieval Culture: statue or doll in Byzantine mythography”
  • Carmen Morais Puche, “Medieval Byzantine Coinage in Patrimonio Nacional: image, materiality and religions”

So what to say about this from this distance, especially given how shamefully little of it I apparently remember? Well, that failing memory is why I take such notes, isn’t it…


Double-pierced silver dirham of 'Abd al-Rahman III al-Nasir struck in al-Andalus in AD 930–31, Tonegawa Collection 3b

Double-pierced silver dirham of ‘Abd al-Rahman III al-Nasir struck in al-Andalus in AD 930–31, Tonegawa Collection 3b

To start with, I obviously couldn’t or didn’t want to make it to the initial keynote lectures, as my conference began with the Monday 11:15 session, and there my choice was made because I was moderating one, not that I might not have been there anyway given the subject and people. Rebecca’s paper raised for us the possibility of a state whose ability to act in its world we can see primarily in the coinage which it didn’t let circulate within its borders, as the mysterious Kalabhra polity of early medieval India is notable for not showing finds of the Byzantine gold coin that otherwise thinly permeated the south of the peninsula, raising all-but-unanswerable questions about whether they feared economic or ideological damage. Chris Budleigh showed us the possibility that eleventh-century Byzantium was partly maintaining its Adriatic coastline (because it still had one then) by feeding the cities along it from imperial estates. And Sidin looked at reasons the Berbers of North Africa might have been trying to cut down the size and standard of coins they fed into al-Andalus, and had lots of fun possibilities. This is a research complex that has since moved to Leeds, at least in part, from which doubtless hang further possibilities for projects about money and metal flow in the Mediterranean world in which I hope I get to take part! But I might need to start by remembering those in which I already have…


Modern statue of Saint Gregory of Tours in the Louvre, Paris

Modern statue of Saint Gregory of Tours in the Louvre, Paris, image by Jastrow (own work), licensed under CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

After that, a session in which the dynamics were interesting, in so far as I think it was a Ph.D. student arranging a session in which her supervisor and his supervisor both spoke alongside her, not an easy thing to face. Ms Hailstone did perfectly well all the same, but for me the stand-out in this session was Guy Halsall using a range of French literary-philosophical attacks, including Derrida, Lacan and Latour, to raise problems in intelligible language with the idea of objects as things that create identity, rather than being victims of others’ perceptions of identity. However, in questions Edward James also offered the interesting text-critical point that Gregory of Tours’ saints’ lives are, naturally enough, full of miracle cures, but that often resort was only made to the saints after resort to doctors had already failed; it’s just that Gregory was writing about saints, not doctors, both of whom were nonetheless obviously available.


Abū Zayd al-Harith sailing on the Euphrates, from al-Ḥarīrī's Al-Maqāmāt, Paris, BNF MS Arabe 6094 fo. 68r

The closest I can find to an Andalusī ship, a 13th-century depiction of a 7th-century boat carrying Abū Zayd al-Harith on the Euphrates, in al-Ḥarīrī’s Al-Maqāmāt, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Arabe 6094 fo. 68r

In the third session, although I personally learnt a fair bit about ships in the Western Mediterranean for my core period, the paper that probably filled up the session room was Professor Marsham’s, arguing that while Egyptian tax revolts can be broken down along many sectarian and political lines as well as simple economic ones, very high Nile floods do seem to have lit the touchpaper for a lot of them, I guess bringing already-present tensions to breaking point but with no particular discrimination over which tensions.

530, 630, 730, 830

Masthead of the Rethinking the Medieval Frontier project

Masthead of the Rethinking the Medieval Frontier project

Then there was our full day of frontiers sessions on the Tuesday, in which I’m delighted to have been able to showcase such a variety of speakers working on such a variety of areas but almost viscerally ashamed of not having been able to do anything ever about publishing any of the really interesting work that the project has generated. I need to write about this on its actual blog, so will not add yet more weight to this post right now but refer you to that when I’ve done it. I do, however, want to thank all my friends and colleagues who made those sessions go and made the conversations afterwards so much fun, despite the very low energy I’ve been able to put aside for the project.


Charter of donation by Diego Fernández y Gelo to San Benito de Sahagún, 1063, Archivo de la real cancilleria de Valladolid

Not forged as far as I know, but the right kind of document, a charter of donation by Diego Fernández y Gelo to San Benito de Sahag&uacuteln, 1063, Archivo de la real cancilleria de Valladolid

I should also probably apologise to Graham Barrett for arriving late to his paper in the first Wednesday session; it doesn’t seem to matter when his papers are scheduled, except that he is almost always first in the session because of being earliest in speciality; muggins here charges in ten minutes late for some reason or other anyway. He did, however, even in what I saw, give a good body-blow to the idea that a charter of this era, really anyway, might be found false because of not being in the proper legal form: anyone who spends much time with these things should know that, beyond a certain sense of what order elements come in, there clearly wasn’t a legal form and we just need to stop thinking in terms of secret codes of diplomatic and come back to what the texts actually say.


Aphrodisias South Agora graffito two athletes on goldworker inscription

A graffito from Aphrodisias’s South Agora, showing two athletes (apparently) overlaying an inscription commemorating a goldworker

In the second of the Byzantine Materialities sessions, I was struck by the variety of graffiti which Rachel Banes had to show us, including an apparent plan of a church building from Aphrodisias theatre; was an architect watching the games that day who couldn’t get work off his mind? Dan’s paper, also, was as ever really interesting, skewering over-simple explanations of the deletion of figural art from Palestinian churches in the period after the Islamic conquests simply by sitting those places where it happened alongside those where it didn’t, often next-door or even in the same building. Whatever was going on here, straightforward policy-level iconoclasm it wasn’t.


Reverse of a Hedeby penny recovered from one of the town's Viking burials

Reverse of a Hedeby penny recovered from one of the town’s Viking burials, image by Christer Åhlin

Ms Charowska started from the premise that the migrations of Slavs into the Balkans described in the sources of the Byzantine Empire mobilising to reconquer that territory were all genuine movements of popular groups and that we can track those movements using material culture, and I’m afraid I gave up on the paper at that point; pots don’t mean people and we’re not even sure there were peoples involved here.2 Dr Melleno pitched an interesting idea that the ninth-century missionary bishopric at Hamburg was out to enable trade through funnelling coinage northwards because trade was a conduit for conversion, i.e. material wealth being used as a spiritual tool, which I liked. And Herr Freudenhammer’s paper was extremely interesting, being one of those premises with which I would have quarrelled initially but then had to back down in the face of evidence, that there were organised trading caravans moving between the Carolingian/Frankish world and al-Andalus as early as the 9th century, on routes we can more or less map by records of the tolls taken from them, which is what the mysterious revenue that we see called rafica in our texts was. He’s subsequently published this with full documentation, albeit in German, and it is slowly transforming my thinking about the way that interaction worked and, perforce, how it affected Catalonia, through which, of course, it had to pass.3

Tenth-century manuscript depiction of Bulgars slaughtering Byzantine 'martyrs'

Tenth-century manuscript depiction of Bulgars slaughtering Byzantine ‘martyrs’, in the Menologion of Emperor Basil II, Vatican MS Gr. 1613, here obtained from Wikimedia Commons

After that, we seem to be down into single remarks: one needs making, for example about how Professor Tougher’s paper about the famous Menologion of Basil II alerted me to the fact that there are fragments of enough such massive, illuminated compilations of saints’ lives from the Byzantine world as to suggest that the Menologion might not even have been the most splendid one out there, and how Leslie Brubaker, Professor Tougher and I then got into an argument about whether Basil II’s one, full of images of Bulgarian violence against Christians, would have been taken on campaign against the Bulgars Basil so famously combatted.4 Another needs making about the sheer cultural bravery of session 1652, four Japanese scholars coming all the way to Britain to tell a predominantly British audience about the British (and Scandinavian) medieval economy, in English, and doing so with sound scholarship throughout; they also taught me that several people I didn’t know issued coins did, not least Hywel Dda the lawmaker king of Wales. And a third remark for Dr Morais Puche, who had come to England largely to tell people about a coin collection she now had charge of that had hardly been touched since the 19th century, and basically had only me to tell about it; but you might ask, whom better could she have hoped for? If only I’d been able to do something with the knowledge since!

IMC 2019 book haul

IMC 2019 book haul

Now, of course, the point of a physical-space conference is, or at least used to be, only partly the papers and much more happens outside the sessions, be it around the coffee urns, at bookstalls, in bars or, for some brave souls, at the dance—I don’t like the venue the IMC now uses for its dance at all and am always too exhausted by the Wednesday night to overcome this, especially when, as happened this time and very often happens, I have been rostered for the graveyard shift next morning. I can’t now recover any of that from memory without notes, however (and I don’t take notes on my socialising, in case that was a concern), except for the group in the Old Bar after the frontiers sessions, discussing what we might do with the material from the sessions, the profession or our lives. Again, none of us knew what was coming here; but it was a good evening. But the book fair bit I can partly reconstruct from material evidence, plus a good collections database (i. e. Zotero), which seems fitting to the conference theme. And you know what, I have actually started reading one of them…

1. One might argue that this was not so new, given the efforts being made in various places both to encourage and to quell live-Tweeting of conference sessions a few years back; but someone pointed out to me the other day that that seems to have died out now that half of all conference papers are simultaneously available on Zoom or similar anyway. I don’t know how true this is, though…

2. I realise that this is not the view of everyone, not even everyone in the field, so I should make it clear what I’m resting that fairly strong statement on, which is, inter alia, Florin Curta, The Making of the Slavs: history and archaeology of the Lower Danube region, c. 500–700, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 52 (Cambridge, 2001) and idem, “The Early Slavs in Bohemia and Moravia: a response to my critics” in Archeologické rozhledy Vol. 61 (Prague 2009), pp. 1–30.

3. Thomas Freudenhammer, “Rafica: Frühmittelalterlicher Karawanenhandel zwischen dem Westfrankenreich und Al-Andalus” in Vierteljahrschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte Vol. 105 (Wiesbaden 2018), pp. 391–406. I have to thank Herr Freudenhammer for a digital copy of this article, sent to me soon after our talking at this very conference.

4. Professor Tougher had raised this possibility first bruited by another scholar, but thought it unlikely because of the very great value of the manuscript. I therefore put in that there are quite a lot of very valuable things in the list of stuff the emperor takes on campaign that is discussed in Michael F. Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985), pp. 146-154. To that, Leslie responded that the valuable things in that list were gifts, but the manuscript was not meant to be given away. She is right about that, but I’m still not sure it actually counters my point…

4 responses to “The conference before the storm: Leeds International Medieval Congress, 2019

  1. Thank you for this summary. Returning from the dead to mention that I expect to make my first ever (possibly only) Leeds next year as well as Kalamazoo for the first time since 2015.

    • Wow, long time no see, Curt! We must be in touch before you get here, as I’ve pretty much decided I’m not doing this next IMC. I may get pushed out of that position, but not unless they’re going to take a sight more care (read: any) over Covid. But if you’re here, we should meet up anyway; that would be grand.

      • The plan is to spend about 2 weeks in an air bnb or other similar-type lodging at Leeds. Everyone recommends York but IMC is in the middle of my “North England” plans so moving seems impractical. Also looking at ten days or so in Worcester as well as a few days each in London and Scotland.

        I’ll be in-country June 14-July 17. I’d think we could at least grab a meal/have a drink together at some point. I’ll make a blog post re this eventually. Only thing confirmed/bought are flights.

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