Monthly Archives: November 2022


Venice II: Further Down and Further Out

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After a post as heavy as the last as bonus content, I hope you’ll forgive me if the regular one is more medievalist tourism pictures. If that’s annoying, then you may be reassured to know that these are the last … Continue reading

A sixth-century Swedish mass murder mystery

Yesterday and today, dear readers, I have been and am on strike again, because in short none of the promises that were made to stop me and my comrades striking last time have in the end been fulfilled, so we have had to come out again to try and get across that this will keep happening if the people in charge don’t in fact deliver some kind of reasonable attention to their staff’s problems. Indeed, it is not just keeping happening, it is escalating! Last time there were sixty-odd universities; today, and tomorrow and next Wednesday, every university in the UK has picket lines up, we are all out, and not just the academics but also the other two staff unions; the whole show is stopped. Admittedly, so is every school in Scotland, so we’re struggling for attention a bit; but it’s all the same disease, public-sector workers being asked to do more than we can for less than we used to be paid and much less than we deserve for the work we put in. So today that work stops, and you get an extra blog post.

Reconstruction of fifth-century Sandby Borg, Öland, from ‘Viking Murder Mystery’, PAL in Ancient Mysteries (4, London, 15 Dec. 2021) (25 Nov. 2022)

Reconstruction of fifth-century Sandby Borg, Öland, from ‘Viking Murder Mystery’, in Ancient Mysteries, Series 4, episode 2 (London, 15 Dec. 2021), on freeview here

So this is all based on a bit less knowledge than I’d like, and some of that is my own unwillingness to find out more, which I’ll explain. But you might just remember that in November 2019, still a few months before the pandemic deluge, I briefly posted that I was going to be on television. That did happen, in the USA on the Smithsonian Channel, and much much later it seems that it did also come out in the UK on Channel 5, though no-one warned me so I couldn’t tell you. I’m still not sure when it was screened here – IMDB and Channel 5’s own site disagree – and I’ve no idea how many people saw it; all those I dealt with at the relevant company, who were all pleasures to work with, seem to have gone and I can’t get answers from the new ones. The previous incumbents did at least early on send me a video link, but I confess I haven’t ever dared look at it in case I came across like a buffoon (or worse, perhaps, a ‘boffin’), and the link is in my University e-mail which, because of the digital picket, I’m not opening. So I don’t know how much I was in it or what selection of what I said they used. A couple of people have mentioned seeing me on TV, and that must be this, but they couldn’t remember anything much about it, which doesn’t bode well… But I can tell you what it was all about, and that is a story worth telling.

Our location, then, is a place on the Swedish island of Öland, a place called Sandby borg, and the date is, well, that’s a question but let’s say after 425 and before 600 CE, and we can narrow it down in a moment. Sandby borg was not really known about until 2011, when it was first dug by a small Swedish archæological team, and what they found proved quite surprising.1 The place had been a fortress settlement, and whatever it was defending against, it had failed: the place had been breached and ruined, and there were slaughtered bodies aplenty. Some, even, had apparently been placed deliberately across the thresholds of houses before the dwellings were torched. But what had not happened was looting; though smashed, scattered and what-have-you, the material treasures of the site, weapons, ordinary belongings, metalwork, had been left where they fell, and then fires set. And then, apparently, the attackers left and no-one ever came back to it again. It’s really something like the murder and burial of a place. It disappeared under the sands and was left as it had been left at the point of the sack, until found again in “our times”.2

Drone photo of archaeological digging under way at Sandby Borg

Drone photo of the dig under way, from the team’s Facebook site, linked through

Now, you may imagine that at that point the archæologists involved realised that they were sitting on something hot, and the press got involved and so, at some remove or other, did a company called Blink Films who, among many other things, do or did content for series about historical mysteries. Most of what they do is more esoteric, shall we say, than this, but when you have actual mystery any publicity may be good publicity, I guess, and so Blink Films picked this up and went looking for experts. And, because among the finds left to lie unstolen at the site were two Roman solidi of Emperor Valentinian III (r. 425-55), or so it seemed (more on this in a moment), one of the experts they needed was a numismatist, and they found me. So I agreed to be involved, and roped in the Barber Institute, where the now-Curator Dr Maria Vrij very kindly let me and a film crew back into my old workplace and we got out some more such solidi and I tried to sound like an expert about how the ones at Sandby borg might have come there and what it meant that they had.

Gold coin and jewellery uncovered in the Sandby Borg archaeological dig

I did have pictures of the coins, but I seem to have filed them somewhere ‘safe’; instead, here is one of them, and I think it’s the imitation, in its state of discovery (or a plausible reconstruction thereof), again from the team’s Facebook site

Now, at that point I’d had about four days to read up, and that during term, so I did not know all I wanted. But I had already learnt that, firstly, late Roman coins are not uncommon finds north of the Baltic, or indeed in the northern lands beyond the Empire in general, and that they are usually explained as payment for military service, brought home by the successful soldiery.3 I’d also learned, however, that apparently this set up a sufficient demand for such gold coin in at least what’s now Sweden that it became worth making your own, because a good part of the ones which we have are imitations.4 Whether that means that there were was a circulating economy of gold coin in Scandinavia this early, or that people outside the Empire were hiring Geats as soldiers and paying them in knock-off coin when the real stuff ran short, I didn’t have time to consider; but I could say that the likely context of these coins was military service, probably under Rome, and that one of the two finds here was probably an imitation, and I got to wave real ones at the camera and talk about the differences I saw and I hope, I hope, that that’s what’s in the programme. I think I also offered a theory about what had happened to the fort, but at this remove I can’t remember what I knew and what I only found out later, so can’t safely guess what that theory would have been. I can tell you what it is now, though.

Gold solidus of Emperor Valentinian III struck at Ravenna 425-455 CE, Barber Institute of Fine Arts LR0540

Both sides of a real gold solidus of Emperor Valentinian III struck at Ravenna 426-430 CE, Barber Institute of Fine Arts LR0540

The important difference between what I knew then and what I came to know, you see, is a book by one Joan Fagerlie called Late Roman and Byzantine Solidi Found in Sweden and Denmark.5 I had started it, I had it with me and I think that’s where I had the idea of imitations from, but at point of filming I’d had no time to do more than open it and check some lists. It was sufficiently interesting, though, that I read all through it and realised that whatever I’d said on camera probably wasn’t wrong but could have been a lot better, because actually Sandby borg, both in its having these coins and in its untimely murder, turns out to have been part of a bigger phenomenon and it’s all, as my inner hippy still sometimes says, pretty heavy, man.6 These are the things I learned from Fagerlie and the other reading I also did:

  1. This coin flow was a long-term affair; even when Fagerlie was writing there were nearly 800 known coins (and of course there are now more), and their dates of issue ranged from 395 to about 600 CE, Theodosius I to Maurice, but with a very sharp falling-off after Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565). After that, indeed, Scandinavia was more or less the same as the rest of Western Europe, which basically stopped seeing imperial coinage in the troubled reigns of Phocas and Heraclius.7 But before that, it had something specific going on.
  2. Fagerlie then did a bunch of very clever deductions from the 726 of the 800-odd coins she had been able to look at. First she observed that the coins largely came from Constantinople, but also from some western mints, suggesting a flow from both halves of the Empire, and secondly she thought that it began under Emperor Leo I (r. 457-474), with anything earlier being stuff picked up from circulation (including lots of Valentinian III). And she noted that this period of maximum flow, from around 461 to about 550, pretty much coincides with when the Ostrogoths were a military quantity in the Roman Empire and then their own, but kind of not their own, kingdom of Italy. So the first clever deduction was that somehow the Ostrogoths were feeding this coin, which they perhaps obtained in tribute or salaries from the Empire, northwards, and that seems hard to dismiss.
  3. Secondly, she worked on distribution and die-links, that is, sets of coins which were struck using the same dies. This corpus is actually busy with die-links, which can only easily be explained by the coins involved having got to the north almost direct from the mint; they must have been shipped, received, paid out again and transported (apparently not through Italy but the Balkans and points north, scatters of incidental finds along the route suggest) and finally redistributed almost without being mixed with anything else. That’s interesting in itself, and tends to confirm the idea that these were state payments of some kind. Furthermore, the die-links start with the coins of Leo I, which also tends to confirm that that was a threshold of some kind and that earlier coin only came there from his time onwards. But this also lets one do something quite serious with distribution, because when you find coins with die-links that are a bit scattered, in this situation you can reasonably hypothesize that they arrived together. But where? And that’s where our stories recombine.
  4. You see, the die-links and distribution together, as Fagerlie saw it, paint a clear pattern of successive, single points of distribution into Scandinavia. The last, where the flow of coinage petered out in the 560s, was Gotland, now more famous for hoards of Islamic silver coin but apparently starting early; but the previous one, up till about 480, was Öland. And everywhere else which was getting these coins, including another island focus, Bornholm in Denmark, which has lots too, was getting them from one then the other of those islands.

Now, there is a lot here, and it’s all known just from the coins, which may explain why I’ve seen so little use of this corpus in more conventional histories. The Ostrogoths were, at least in the sixth century, apparently prone to claiming ancestry in Scandinavia: Jordanes’s Getica, which he wrote around 550 in Constantinople alongside a history of the Romans in order to prove that the two peoples had equally honourable and ancient backgrounds, claims to have this from an earlier history by Cassiodorus which no-one but him seems ever to have seen, and he only for three days; but it doesn’t matter where he had the idea from, it was there to be had.8 Now, these coins obviously don’t prove anything about a deep Gothic prehistory in Sweden; but they do show pretty sharply that there was by the sixth century a strong connection between the political entity of ‘Ostrogoth’ and the place that was by then being claimed as their homeland. And we really don’t know what that connection was, just that it was worth a lot of gold. Military service is a possible, even a likely answer to that question, but only a hypothesis even so.

Jordanes, ‘De origine actibusque Getarum (Fragment)’, Parchment, 1 f., ca. 14.5 x 18.5, Parchment leaf (Fulda, ca 830) (Lausanne, Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire, Ms 398) (, fo 1r

One of the oldest (fragmentary) texts of Jordanes, Lausanne, Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire, Ms 398, fo. 1r, which was probably written at Fulda around 830, itself raising questions I can’t look at here; licensed under CC BY-NC via e-Codices, linked through and here

Secondly, the other end of the connection must have been something quite specific, or perhaps someone quite specific, because apparently the peoples of these islands were the Ostrogoths’ sole agents in the area, and that must have put them in quite a powerful position, since apparently everyone else was having to come to them for this imperial gold coin which was getting everywhere around southern Scandinavia, but getting there only from Öland and then Gotland. There’s a power structure there about which we just know almost nothing, but which is required to explain the coin finds.

Now, there is one more part of this context I’ve not yet mentioned, which is that Sandby borg is not alone in its sudden destruction. In fact, pretty much every coastal fortification of this early period in either Öland or Gotland which has been investigated met a messy end, and even when Fagerlie wrote it was recognised, largely because of the coin find threshold indeed, that this must have happened in the late fifth century in Öland and in the middle-to-late-sixth for Gotland, presumably in some associated fashion each time. The latter of these waves of destruction has been tentatively explained, when at all, in terms of the takeover of the people from whom Sweden takes its name, the Svear, chasing out the Gotlanders from a previously dominant position in eastern Scandinavia, and one could therefore guess at the former wave being how the Gotlanders got that position in the first place, apparently at the expense of the Ölanders.9 In both cases, while I might not now want to endorse these pseudo-legendary peoples’ existence, it’s tempting to see that stranglehold the populations of the two islands apparently had on imperial prestige goods as being too much for their power-hungry dependents to stomach, and episodes like Sandby borg the messy and unpleasant result.

Archaeological investigation under way at Sandby Borg

The investigation under way at Sandby Borg, again from their Facebook site

So at this point, had we learned anything from the Sandby borg dig? If I’d already done my reading when I did that excited piece-to-camera in summer 2019 in the dark of the Barber’s coin room, would I have been saying confidently that this happened all the time, wasn’t unusual, in fact wasn’t even the only such coin find in Sandby or the most important one even if the actual borg hadn’t been found before, and that it told us nothing new? I don’t think so, because firstly, in terms of coin finds the finds here seem to say something different from the hoards; they were both early, separate and one’s an imitation. If Fagerlie was right then they should have arrived here maybe forty years after they were struck; and maybe they did, but I wonder if what we see here is actually the type of place these coins were going all over Scandinavia, perhaps heirlooms from service with a foreign army that it was worth having because it marked you as member of a kind of élite; and if I’m being properly fanciful, maybe the reason they stayed here was because for some reason Sandby borg’s defence included two very old soldiers who, in the end, lost their last battle, but whose status was recognised in death in so far as they got to keep their coin-badges. There have been hoards of Fagerlie’s types found nearby; but these two didn’t get hoarded, they stayed with their owners, and that might be important.

And then secondly, of course, there’s the macabre picture of how one of these settlements, apparently a casualty in a much bigger war, was not just destroyed but almost ritually ended, bodies across thresholds, buildings literally closed by the dead, and everything left where it had fallen, forever, never again to be visited. Or at least that was the plan, it seems. And that’s telling us about something more than a commercial power-grab; it’s telling us something about what that power meant and how it was explained, and if some day we figure that out properly, this site will be part of the explanation. But until then, it may remain at least mostly mystery, even though we apparently know more than many people think about the times in which the mystery was set.

1. The academic publication of these finds, until the full report at least, is Clara Alfsdotter, Ludvig Papmehl-Dufay & Helena Victor, “A Moment Frozen in Time: evidence of a late fifth-century massacre at Sandby borg” in Antiquity Vol. 92 no. 362 (London 2018), pp. 421–436, DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2018.21.

2. Andrew Curry, “Öland, Sweden. Spring, A.D. 480” in Archaeology (Boston MA March/April 2016), online here; “The Sandby borg massacre: Life and death in a 5th-century ringfort” in Current World Archaeology (London 25th July 2019), online here.

3. For the data see Arkadiusz Dymowski, “Roman Imperial Hoards of Denarii from the European Barbaricum” in Journal of Ancient History and Archaeology Vol. 7 Supplement 1 (Bucharest 2020), pp. 193–243; for some interpretation see Svante Fischer and Fernando López Sánchez, “Subsidies for the Roman West? The flow of Constantinopolitan solidi to the Western Empire and Barbaricum” in Opuscula: Annual of the Swedish Institutes at Athens and Rome Vol. 9 (Rome 2016), pp. 249–269.

4. See n. 5 below.

5. Joan M. Fagerlie, Late Roman and Byzantine Solidi Found in Sweden and Denmark, Numismatic Notes and Monographs 157 (New York City NY 1967).

6. Those that know me may be wanting at this point to suggest that the hippy is not in fact inner, and I who am currently sitting in a stripy woollen jumper that would fit in fine on the pampas and listening to Os Mutantes’s debut album would, I admit, have few arguments against that position. But it is pretty heavy, all the same.
7. See Cécile Morrisson, “Byzantine Coins in Early Medieval Britain: a Byzantinist’s assessment” in Rory Naismith, Elina Screen and Martin Allen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: studies in memory of Mark Blackburn (London 2014), pp. 207–242.

8. If you want to read it, the oldest translation is helpfully online, as Jordanes, “The Origin and Deeds of the Goths”, transl. Charles Christopher Mierow in Texts for Ancient History Courses, 22nd April 1997, online here; for (competing) study of him and his project, try Lieve van Hoof and Peter van Nuffelen, “The Historiography of Crisis: Jordanes, Cassiodorus and Justinian in mid-sixth-century Constantinople” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 107 (London 2017), pp. 275–300, DOI: 10.1017/S0075435817000284 or Robert Kasperski, “Jordanes versus Procopius of Caesarea: Considerations Concerning a Certain Historiographic Debate on How to Solve ‘the Problem of the Goths'” in Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies Vol. 49 (Berkeley CA 2018), pp. 1–23, DOI: 10.1484/J.VIATOR.5.116872. For the kind of work which you’d think would love this stuff, but doesn’t use it, see Herwig Wolfram, “Origo et religio: Ethnic traditions and literature in early medieval texts” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 3 (Oxford 1994), pp. 19–38, reprinted in Thomas F. X. Noble (ed.), From Roman Provinces to Medieval Kingdoms, Rewriting Histories 22 (London 2006), pp. 70–90; but against it, see Walter Goffart, “Does the Distant Past Impinge on the Invasion Age Germans?” in Andrew Gillett (ed.), On Barbarian Identity: critical approaches to ethnicity in the early Middle Ages (Turnhout 2002), pp. 21–37, also reprinted Noble, From Roman Provinces to Medieval Kingdoms, pp. 91–109.

9. For the wider background see Bjørn Myhre, “The Iron Age” in Knut Helle (ed.), The Cambridge History of Scandinavia, volume I: Prehistory to 1250 (Cambridge 2003), pp. 60–93; the end of the Gotland system is passed through on p. 84, but for specifics I had to go back to Alfsdotter, Papmehl-Dufay & Victor, “A Moment Frozen in Time”.


The Empire Strikes Back (in Ravenna)

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I promised something more academic for this post than holiday photos, I know, although I hope that even my holiday photo posts have something educational going on in them. But when I did check forwards, in the thin light of … Continue reading


Imprint of an Ostrogothic Arian on Ravenna

This gallery contains 32 photos.

We return now to my north-eastern Italian holiday of July 2019, the pictures from which I’ve been inflicting on you and intend to inflict on you for a few posts longer as well (though I do notice it’s doing my … Continue reading

Revisiting Sant Pau del Camp

I promised something more academic than holiday photos for this week, but my first option, a post about the probably-legendary Battle of Baltarga at which Count Ermengol I of Osona, elder brother of Borrell II, was supposed by some three hundred and fifty years later to have died, will not work. You can tell even from that how it was meant to go, but in order to do it properly I’d first have to read a recent article on the subject and then find a way to consult all three volumes of Ramon Ordeig i Mata’s recent Diplomatari del Monestir de Ripoll, which as far as I can see you can only do in Catalonia, and the result would be a proper article.1 Since that article is probably necessary for me to write in order that I don’t have to cover it in the book, it then becomes work someone is paying me for, which I don’t do at weekends any more, and thus I cannot blog it. It’s a funny situation into which we unionised UK academics have got ourselves…

Interior of the Biblioteca de Catalunya, Barcelona

Interior of the Biblioteca de Catalunya, Barcelona (from Spanish Wikipedia)

But the reasons I’d had the idea in the first place was because of reading that thesis I mentioned which I was examining in 2019.2 I will, as promised, write about that in short order, but not today. Instead, today I want to say something about another academic thing I did on that trip. In fact, there were two of those things: firstly, I used as much time as I could on reading things I can only get at in Catalonia, evidently a theme for this post, in the Biblioteca de Catalunya, my favourite research library of all so far and a place to which, of course, given subsequent events, I’ve not since been able to go back.3 But I did pop out to have a look around during its lunch hours, and the nearest and best thing for a medievalist to look at nearby the Biblioteca de Catalunya, other than than the erstwhile medieval hospital in which the Biblioteca is itself housed, is the erstwhile monastery of Sant Pau del Camp.

Sant Pau del Camp in Barcelona

A Wikimedia Commons image of the building, which unlike every time I’ve been there they managed to find not covered by repair works; image by TenOfAllTrades, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons as I said

It had been a few years since I was last there, and actually a few things had changed. They had a new entry facility set up—the previous time, it had just been a woman at a table in the doorway—and working disabled access, loos and so on, and they had also got a new set of leaflets. Unfortunately for them, in a tiny way, since my previous visit I’d also done slightly more research into the place, and so I have expert-level quibbles with the interpretation, which I hope just about make a blog-post. This is the relevant text from the English-language leaflet I picked up that day (found after about ten minutes’ burrowing in my personal archives…), all typos authentic:

Front page of English-language leaflet from Sant Pau del Camp, Barcelona

Front page of the leaflet, large version linked

“It is not known exactly when the monastery was built. Unfortunately there is no document to confirm this. The archaeological excavations left uncovered some remains of buildings that could be dated between 8th and 10th centuries. The discovery in 1596 of the tombstone of Wifred II (911), Count of Barcelona, outside the monastery, has led some historians to attribute him the foundation of the monastery.

Inner content of English-language leaflet from Sant Pau del Camp, Barcelona

Inner pages

“Due to the archaeological investigations in the area, have also been found som graves from the Romano-Christian era (4th-5th centuries). There are also visigothic carvings in the principal door to the churuch that could reveal that a former church existed here at that period (5th8th centuries). All this evidence proves that Sant Pau del Camp is one of the most ancient Christian sites in Barcelona. It was built far from the city walls, between the walled city and the hill of Montjuic -hence its name, Saint Paul-in-the-fields.
Back of English-language leaflet from Sant Pau del Camp, Barcelona

And the back

“In 985 the monastery was destroyed during the Almanzor attack against Barcelona. The rebuilding was slow; the church is mentioned several times during the XIth century. At the beginning of the XIIth century the nobleman Geribert Guitard and his wife Rotlendis restored the monastery. In 1117 the foundation was placed under the protection of the Bishop of Barcelona. The Benedictine community was never too large; it oscillated between three and five monks.”

Now, let us set aside the fact that a monastery of three to five monks is uncanonical and technically, it must if that was so have been a cell of some larger community. (Let us also set aside, if we can, the joyful image of a Benedictine community oscillating between teams of three and five monks like some unbalanced monastic Blind Man’s Buff.) Let us also ignore the easy slip from the chronology of the building and its purpose to that of the site in a grab for extra antiquity; what person billing their site wouldn’t try it? But there is stuff here that merits at least a quiet alternative putting.

You see, it was news to me from my previous research on this place, if we can call it that, that there had ever been any archaeology done here, and in Catalonia, these days, even the unpublished reports from archaeological interventions are usually on the web. I couldn’t find them all, but I found two, one of which reports on most, I hope even all, of the foregoing work.4 And so what I would write of this place’s history from that would look more like this…

The earliest signs of occupation in the immediate area are Neolithic and Late Bronze Age, but settlement seems to have coalesced only in the third century CE, when a Roman villa, whose proportions have not yet been established, was set up here. Before that, we might assume this was open or waste land for most of the prehistoric and ancient period, though by then within sight of the walled city of Barcino. The villa seems to have been shortlived; by the late fourth or early fifth centuries CE it had been replaced by one or more burial grounds; this context has been struck by every dig that’s happened at the site, as far as I can tell, but because they have been disparate, we don’t know if all the burial grounds were one. If they were, it was a decent size. The religion of burial is not evident, but the Roman Empire was by then mostly Christianized and it seems unlikely that a new burial ground for pagans would have been established at that time.

Timpanum and surround of portal at Sant Pau del Camp, Barcelona

Timpanum and surround of portal at Sant Pau del Camp, taken by me on my previous visit

At some point after this, the area was partly flattened as the foundations for a new structure. Only one end of this structure has been recovered, but it seems to have been an apse, i.e. the semi-circular end to an early church or basilica, and with that and the funerary context of the site beforehand it seems reasonable to assume that a church is what was built here, not least because such a building would provide a home for the supposedly-Visigothic tympanum that now sits above the portal and seems, as I said the last time I visited, to indicate a dedication to both Peter and Paul, not just Paul. But dating it is hard. The oldest datable artefact found at the site so far has been a fragment of a type of Late Roman amphora which was not imported after the mid-sixth century, which was stuck in the foundation layer, suggesting that the foundation of the building must date from after that point; and the horizon in the other direction is the rebuilding of the place into what is mostly its current form in the early twelfth century.5 However, the view of various people the archaeologists consulted on the structure as it could be perceived from what had been found was that it belonged to a point in the seventh to ninth centuries.6 Now, on the one hand that amphora fragment could go equally back to the late fifth century , but on the other hand it’s probably disturbed matter from one of the graves and gives us really no idea of how much later than its deposition that disturbance might have taken place; it could have been centuries later. The tympanum probably belongs closer to the early end of the sixth-to-twelfth-century gap rather than the late one, but that’s an art-historical judgement, not an empirical one, and as with it and the tombstone of Guifré II Borrell, we don’t know that it started its life here rather than arriving on the site later because something or several things nearby were being demolished. I can’t see any hint in the reports of the leaflet’s buildings “between 8th and 10th centuries” unless they are actually this apse, which implies that the anonymous redactors of the leaflet either think there were two phases of the church’s building, one early for the tympanum and one later for the apse – though they don’t say that – or that there were two churches here; or, they’re trying to have it both ways. The reports both seem clear that the archaeologists themselves found nothing certainly datable between the sixth and twelfth or thirteenth centuries. Otherwise, we have nothing archaeological to go on but the current standing fabric.

Light and darkness inside Sant Pau del Camp

Light and darkness inside Sant Pau del Camp, photograph by me on my previous visit

So, the path of least resistance here, though it is more than part guesswork, would seem indeed to be that there was a villa which fell into disuse or was perhaps even given over to the local church, as was happening at about the same time with Barcelona’s first cathedral site, and turned into a burial ground. There was, most likely, some wooden chapel or oratory there, but no sign of it remains. At some point after the late fifth century, however, probably quite a bit after but probably before the Muslim occupation in 711, someone decided a better church was needed and built one, partly by flattening the existing cemetery site. If the tympanum does come from that church, it may have been quite fancy, but still fairly small. And we could probably stretch as far as suggesting that it was still there, maybe even reasonably new, in 911 for Guifré II Borrell to be buried in it, but we really can’t be sure.

On the other hand, what there is no sign of at all is the supposed destruction of the place in 985, even though that’s in every secondary reference to the site I can immediately bring to bear, including, for what it’s worth, Wikipedia.7 There’s no archaeological destruction layer, and there’s no reference in any of the sources for the attack to Sant Pau having been one of the targets.8 If there are eleventh-century references to it as being in a state of ruination—and I don’t have the means to check between 1000 and 1079 here, unfortunately—I don’t know of them. But neither, I might point out, did Paul Freedman when in 1993 he studied a papal privilege to the place from 1165 on the basis of all the then-available secondary literature; the best he can cite is a reference to works (opera) at the site in 1035.9 The place’s own documentation doesn’t survive, so it’s hard to say more, but it doesn’t seem as if anyone medieval that we can still access ever said this place was destroyed by the Muslims. If it really was a sixth-century church, or even an eighth-century one, it might not surprise if at age 300-500 it needed some light opera. And then, from about 1101 onwards, a couple called Guitard and Rotlendis started pouring real resource into the site, definitely involving a thorough rebuild, and in the end set it up as a monastery.10 And that, plus a thirteenth-century cloister, is what we have.

I guess the assumption here among historians has been that, as an extra-mural site like the monastery of Sant Cugat, Sant Pau del Camp must have been in the way when al-Mansur’s army arrived in 985, and since a nunnery inside the city was certainly destroyed, how could this one have escaped? But at that stage it was only an old church, and in any case it’s no longer clear that Sant Cugat was destroyed in the attack either, rather than claiming to have been much later in order to explain why it didn’t have certain documents any more.11 At which rate, why would this much smaller place have been? So I think we might reasonably delete that sentence from this leaflet, and the idea from the historiography. But I’d still recommend the visit…

Lobed arcades in the cloister of Sant Pau del Camp

Lobed arcades in the cloister, photograph by me on the previous visit

1. Specifically, I need to read Oliver Vergés Pons, “La batalla de Baltarga en el joc de la política comtal del segle X: la mort d’Ermengol d’Osona i la successió del comtat d’Urgell” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 48 (Barcelona 2018), pp. 901–923, and at least consult Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Diplomatari del Monestir de Ripoll, Estudis Històrics: Diplomataris, 8-10 (Vic 2015-2018), 3 vols, and those definitely make that paid-for work.

2. Xavier Costa Badia, “Paisatges monàstics: El monacat alt-medieval als comtats catalans (segles IX-X)” (Tesi doctoral, Universitat de Barcelona, Barcelona, 2019).

3. Specifically, I was reading Antoni Pladevall, Tona: mil cent anys dʾhistòria, LʾEntorn 16 (Vic 1990), and Albert Benet i Clarà, Història de Manresa, dels orígens al segle XI (Manresa 1985), neither of which you find in the average UK library, or actually any at all.

4. Albert Bacaria, Emília Pagès & Ferran Puig, “Excavacions arqueològiques a l’entorn del monestir de Sant Pau del Camp” in Tribuna d’Arqueologia 1989-1990 (Barcelona 1991), online here, pp. 149–151; “Memòria de la intervenció arqueològica al C/ Sant Pau 99, Horts de Sant Pau del Camp” by Oriol Achón Casas & Andrea Lages Tonet, Memòria d’excavació (Barcelona 2010), online here. Previously I’d been going on Antoni Pladevall & Francesc Català Roca, El Monestirs Catalans, 4th edn. (Barcelona 1978), pp. 204-207. Achón and Lages, “Memòria”, pp. 17-22, provide most of the information for what follows, but the villa, specifically, is covered in Bacaria, Pagès & Puig, “Excavacions arqueològiques”, pp. 149-150.

5. Achón & Lages, “Memòria”, pp. 56-57; the amphora type, for those who care, was Keay 62B.

6. Bacaria, Pagès & Puig, “Excavacions arqueològiques”, p. 150; Achón & Lages, “Memòria”, pp. 57-59 & nn. 10-11 & p. 78-81.

7. Pladevall & Català, Monestirs catalans, p. 204; and Paul Freedman, “A Privilege of Pope Alexander III for Sant Pau del Camp (Barcelona)” in Archivium Historiae Pontificiae Vol. 31 (Rome 1993), pp. 255–263 at pp. 255 & 257, which is what Wikipedia cites. Achón & Lages, “Memòria”, p. 14, is much less sure, associating the sack only with the lack of documents for the place.

8. 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), lays out all the sources for the event and takes a suitably critical view of some of them. But none of them mention Sant Pau del Camp.

9. Freedman, “Privilege of Pope Alexander III”, p. 257, citing Philip Banks, “The Topography of Barcelona and its Urban Context in Eastern Catalonia from the Third to the Twelfth Centuries” (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, 1981), which is online here, in 5 vols and we want vol. II, p. 528. That sends you to his notes, vol. III pp. 1361-1362, where you find that he is borrowing three citations from Jordi Vigué, El monestir romànic de Sant Pau del Camp (Barcelona 1974), “with a historical section by A. Pladevall” (p. 1361), and Pladevall apparently, at p. 20, cites three documents from Josep Mas, Antigüetat d’algunes esglesies del Bisbat de Barcelona, Notes historiques del Bisbat de Barcelona 13-14 (Barcelona 1921), 2 vols, vol. I. That is online here, and at its pp. 167-168, not clear in Banks’s citation, you finally get the source references. Phew! But Banks, “Topography of Barcelona”, p. 1361, believes that at least one of them is actually about the monastery of Sant Pau del Maresme, so that leaves one reference in 986 and one in 1048 and that’s it until the rebuild. Now, the 986 one at least I can get at, in Ignasi J. Baiges i Jardí & Pere Puig i Ustrell (edd.), Catalunya carolíngia Volum VII: el comtat de Barcelona, Memòries de la Secció Històrica-Arqueològica 110 (Barcelona 2019), 3 vols, doc. no. 859 where it is now printed, and that just refers to the ‘house of Saint Paul’, domus Sancti Pauli, with no indication at all that it was ruined or anything; but it’s a boundary clause, so you wouldn’t necessarily expect that detail. Still, it’s negative evidence where there’s no positive evidence…
But Mas doesn’t mention the 1035 document. For that we have to go back up to Freedman’s citation of Banks, “Topography of Barcelona”, p. 528, and he there (or rather at vol. III p. 1362 n. 79) cites a table in his own vol. IV. Strike a light! But ibid. vol. IV p. 1988 gets you that table and a reference to Montserrat, Arxiu Monàstic, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, no. 1360. Now it’s possible I even own an image of that, but if I do it’s on microfilm (remember this story?) so I can’t check. But even so, as Banks cites it it’s just a gift of five mancuses ad opera, to pay for works, which presumably implies a working community there who could receive and spend that money. In short, still no positive evidence, and if it were there, I think one of these fine scholars would have quoted it…

10. Pladevall, Monestirs catalans, seeing the couple’s gifts from 1117 onwards as a response to a possible but undocumented sack of the place by Almoravid armies in 1114 – for heavens’ sakes, sometimes buildings just get old, it doesn’t always have to be hostile Muslims! –; Freedman, “Privilege of Alexander III”, pp. 257-259, using a different piece of Banks’s I’m not now going to track down to show activity renewing at the site before 1114. Banks, “Topography”, vol. II pp. 528-529, however points out that those two were not the only donors, because another couple’s donation of cash was actually inscribed over the tympanum, so you only know about it if you go and look! (I didn’t work out that’s what it was; I’m a bad epigrapher.)

11. Gaspar Feliu, “Al-Mansur, Barcelona i Sant Cugat” in Acta Historica et Archæologica Mediævalia Vol. 3 (Barcelona 1982), pp. 49–54.