Monthly Archives: March 2023

Digital palaeography come of age? Not quite yet

We are now firmly into 2020 in my blog blacklog, and that was, as you presumably remember, so very different a year that I amassed rather fewer stubs than usual and might even move through it mercifully quickly. For now, however, we’re in mid-February of that year, when an old friend who likes to scour the Internet for medievalist news, or as in this case even older, picked up on a recent study of digital methods for dating ancient texts and posed me the reflection which forms the title above: was this digital palæography finally coming of age?1

Now, I am less concerned than some have reason to be about the possibility of my expertise and training being replaceable by automation, although with every attempt to automate marking or package teaching content in such a way that anyone can deliver it whether expert or not, we get a step closer.2 Still, the actual doing of historical analysis, whether I am paid for that or not, will probably remain a thing beyond computerised automation until we somehow go full-on Hari Seldon, and the database categories you’d need for such an analysis will probably take a few more civilisations to work out, so I think I’m safe. But at the fringes of the historical endeavour, if I was picking a discipline for highest vulnerability to digitsation and automation, it might well be palæography. That’s not just because almost no institution wants to pay for there to be palæographers, despite the near endless potential they have for research contributions; it’s also because at its absolute basic simplest, the discipline of palæography is based on the ability to recognise consistent graphical patterns, that is, letter-forms, and graphical pattern recognition (rather than social pattern recognition à la Seldon) is a thing computers are good at.

Screenshot of the Digipal database interface showing the letter "eth" as written at Worcester Cathedral

Screenshot of the Digipal database interface showing the letter "eth" as written at Worcester Cathedral, borrowed from their website, linked through

Accordingly, it’s not surprising that almost since computing and the humanities first tentatively shook hands, people have been trying to get computers to recognise and date ancient and medieval scripts. The earliest reference I have on this goes back to 1994 and relates to Egyptian papyri, and that was little more than an expression of hope, but by 2006, when I myself was briefly professionally interested in image recognition, people were getting closer.3 Back then the academic work was ahead of Google Image Search, but that didn’t last long, and before long technology like theirs was getting into humanities computing labs and I was seeing papers about it.4 Now those papers are coming out and people are clearly making great progress, especially it seems with South Asian scripts, so the fact that the one my friend had pointed me to existed was not surprising to me.5 But whether because she hadn’t been looking for this sort of stuff already or because I am just more cynical, I wasn’t expecting as much from this article as my friend suggested was in it.

There are, I guess, at least three ways a scientific study on something from my periods of interest can disappoint. The most annoying is when even I can see that it’s scientifically faulty, because of minuscule sample size, unconsidered error margins, lack of reproducibility or whatever.6 Nearly as annoying is when the science appears to be good but the historical context is more or less derived from the 1950s textbooks which apparently sourced either the lead researchers’ own undergraduate study or the Wikipedia page on which they based their questions; that’s annoying because they could just have asked (and then ideally credited) a historian, and I myself would love to be asked, so you know, come on.7 But much the most common and least reproachable, but still annoying for the non-scientific reader, is the study which is actually out to test or validate a method, not to find out something historical, and which therefore stops at ‘we have therefore shown that this could work’ without actual results.8 And this is one of those, a study of how we might digitally date the many undated fragments among the Dead Sea Scrolls which, nonetheless, does not actually date any of them, because what it is trying to do is make their systems match the dates humans have already assigned to such fragments.

Dead Sea Scroll of Genesis, Israel Museum 4Q7

Dead Sea Scroll of Genesis, Jerusalem, Israel Museum 4Q7, image by KetefHinnomFanown work, licensed as CC0 via Wikimedia Commons, cropped

You might then ask why, if they in fact had a viable method demonstrated, they didn’t at least go so far as to show it in action. It might have been because they were attempting to avoid the risk of showing their historical ignorance, like those behind a new pottery dating method back in the day; but actually, it’s worse; they didn’t yet have a viable method.9 Instead, their conclusions section is full of fixes which might be applied to make the method work better: a new date calculation method which didn’t ideally require even intervals (which they didn’t have, because the palaeographical datings they were trying to match worked in historic periods, not mathematical ones), or a specialised Hebrew character recognition tool, for example.10 Their error margins were reckoned to be about 23 years either side of the central year in any given dating period; that would be better than the few radio-carbon dates that have come off the Scrolls, if it were accurate, but when one of the periods into which they are trying to date is only thirty years long – less, we might note, than the lifespan of most of the people writing in the appropriate style – you can see how that wasn’t enough.11 It doesn’t quite end with ‘so, back to the drawing board’, but it’s very much, ‘don’t come in, we’re not ready yet’.

For me, however, this study does not fail because of the weakness of the computing techniques used. I’m quite prepared to believe that for the values they’ve set up, those techniques could be refined, and at least they eliminate several as being unhelpful for the endeavour. But the problem they don’t see is the human element, in two places: in the creation of their source matter and in the provision of their classifications. The latter of these, the fact that the datings they were trying to train their method to match were all subjective by-eye evaluations by human beings, be they never so learned, the authors at least wave at in the introduction, saying that one advantage of a digital palæographical method might be to reduce subjectivity before proposing one based entirely on subjectively derived datings.12 But the fact that humans, individual ones many of whose working lives probably overlapped their period boundaries, actually made the things they’re trying to date, almost eludes them. They do admit that scribes demonstrably change their writing styles over time, before saying that they are after a method which captures period-level shift in script instead; but they don’t seem to see that the former factor is a component of the latter.13 This is partly just the problem of database categorisation: something must fall one side of a line or the other, it can’t be ‘sort of both’.14 But it’s also humans in action, muddling along, trying something different, going back to the old ways disappointed, maybe trying again later. Every one of those decisions and choices could throw a close palæographical dating way out. A good palæographer knows all this and tries, subjectively, to account for it with context and background knowledge. Remove that subjectivity, and every palæographical judgement would need to come with huge error bars which would be labelled, if there were space, ‘unless this is a weird one’. Long ago, a then-lawyer friend of mine angrily told me in a pub, “the trouble with you historians, Jon, is you forget that people are weird!” Probably a fair complaint; but I’m not the only one guilty… So in the end perhaps the human palæographer has not yet got to fear robotic replacement: the computers will certainly end up better able to match patterns than we can, but the task of working out what the patterns mean is going to remain gloriously and resistantly fuzzy.15

1. Maruf A. Dhali, Camilo Nathan Jansen, Jan Willem de Wit & Lambert Schomaker, “Feature-extraction methods for historical manuscript dating based on writing style development”, edd. Francesca Fontanella, Francesco Colace, Mario Molinara, Alessandra Scotto di Freca & Filippo Stanco in Pattern Recognition Letters Vol. 131 (Amsterdam 2020), pp. 413–420, DOI: 10.1016/j.patrec.2020.01.027.

2. Cf. Innovating Pedagogy: Exploring new forms of teaching, learning and assessment, to guide educators and policy makers by Agnes Kukulska-Holme, Carina Bossu, Tim Coughlan, Rebecca Ferguson, Elizabeth FitzGerald, Mark Gaved, Christothea Herotodou, Bart Rientes, Julia Sargent, Eileen Scanlon, Jinlian Tang, Qi Wang, Denise Whitelock & Shuai Zhang, Open University Innovation Report 9 (London 2021), online here, or Wayne Holmes & Ilkka Tuomi, “State of the art and practice in AI in education” in European Journal of Education Vol. 57 (Oxford 2022), pp. 542–570, DOI: 10.1111/ejed.12533, which both think otherwise.

3. The 1994 paper is Janet Johnson, “Computers, Graphics and Papyrology” in Adam Bülow-Jacobsen (ed.), Proceedings of the 20th International Congress of Papyrologists, Copenhagen, 23-29 August, 1992 (Copenhagen 1994), pp. 618–620. By 2007 one could also count Ikram Moalla, Frank LeBourgeois, Hubert Emptoz and Adel M. Alimi, “Contribution to the Discrimination of the Medieval Manuscript Texts: Application in the Palaeography” in Horst Bunke and A. Lawrence Spitz (edd.), Document Analysis Systems VII: Proceedings, Lecture Notes in Computer Science 3872 (Berlin 2006), pp. 25–37, or M. Bulacu and L. Schomaker, “Automatic Handwriting Identification on Medieval Documents” in 14th International Conference on Image Analysis and Processing (ICIAP 2007) (New York City NY 2007), pp. 279–284, online here, one of the authors of which shows up again in the paper under discussion. I’m sure there was lots more. The team I was part of myself was concerned with coins (inevitably) and showed up with Martin Kampel, “Computer Aided Analysis of Ancient Coins” in Robert Sablatnig, James Hemsley, Paul Kammerer, Ernestine Zolda and Johann Stockinger (edd.), Digital Cultural Heritage – Essential for Tourism (Wien 2008), pp. 137–144, and eventually Jonathan Jarrett, Sebastian Zambanini, Reinhold Hüber-Mork and Achille Felicetti, “Coinage, Digitization and the World-Wide Web: numismatics and the COINS Project” in Brent Nelson and Melissa Terras (edd.), Digitizing Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture (Tempe AZ 2012), pp. 459–489.

4. For example, Arianna Ciula, “The Palaeographical Method under the Light of a Digital Approach”, presented at the International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 8 July 2008, and Peter Stokes, “Computing for Anglo-Saxon Paleography, Manuscript Studies and Diplomatic”, presented at the International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 13 July 2011, both mentioned here in their seasons.

5. Ciula’s did, at least, as Arianna Ciula, “The Palaeographical Method Under the Light of a Digital Approach” in Malte Rehbein, Patrick Sahle & Torsten Schaßan (edd.), Kodikologie und Paläographie im digitalen Zeitalter. Codicology and Palaeography in the Digital Age (Norderstedt 2009), pp. 219–235; Stokes’s I haven’t seen, but he did mastermind DigiPal, so it’s not like he left the game. One could also see Florian Kleber, Robert Sablatnig, Melanie Gau and Heinz Miklas, “Ruling Estimation for Degraded Ancient Documents based on Text Line Extraction” and Maria C. Vill, Melanie Gau, Heinz Miklas and Robert Sablatnig, “Static Stroke Decomposition of Glagolitic Characters”, both in Sablatnig, Hemsley, Kammerer, Zolda & Stockinger, Digital Cultural Heritage, pp. pp 79–86 & 95–102, or Jinna Smit, “The Death of the Palaeographer? Experiences with the Groningen Intelligent Writer Identification System (GIWIS)” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 57 (München 2011), pp. 413–425, as steps along the way, and Mike Kestemont, Vincent Christlein and Dominique Stutzmann, “Artificial Paleography: Computational Approaches to Identifying Script Types in Medieval Manuscripts” in Speculum Vol. 92 (Cambridge MA 2017), pp. S86–S109, for where we are now or were recently. Again, I could cite lots more. On South Asian scripts, see Shaveta Dargan and Munish Kumar, “Gender Classification and Writer Identification System based on Handwriting in Gurumukhi Script” in International Conference on Computing, Communication, and Intelligent Systems (ICCCIS 2021) (New York City NY 2021), Vol. I, pp. 388–393, online here, and S. Brindha and S. Bhuvaneswari, “Repossession and recognition system: transliteration of antique Tamil Brahmi typescript” in Current Science Vol. 120 (Bengaluru 2021), pp. 654–665.

6. Discussed here but harmless: Michael McCormick, Paul Edward Dutton and Paul A. Mayewski, “Volcanoes and the Climate Forcing of Carolingian Europe, A.D. 750-950” in Speculum Vol. 84 (Cambridge MA 2007), pp. 869–895. Nastier: Mario Slaus, Zeljko Tomicić, Ante Uglesić and Radomir Jurić, “Craniometric relationships among medieval Central European populations: implications for Croat migration and expansion” in Croatian Medical Journal Vol. 45 (Zagreb 2004), pp. 434–444, PMID: 15311416.

7. S. R. H. Jones, “Devaluation and the Balance of Payments in Eleventh-Century England: an exercise in Dark Age economics” in Economic History Review 2nd Series Vol. 44 (1994), pp. 594–607; for an example where they did ask a historian but then didn’t credit her, see Susan M. Adams, Elena Bosch, Patricia L. Balaresque, Stéphane J. Ballereau, Andrew C. Lee, Eduardo Arroyo, Ana M. López-Parra, Mercedes Aler, Marina S. Gisbert Grifo, Maria Brion, Angel Carracedo, João Lavinha, Begoña Martínez-Jarreta, Lluis Quintana-Murci, Antònia Picornell, Misericordia Ramon, Karl Skorecki, Doron M. Behar, Francesc Calafell and Mark A. Jobling, “The Genetic Legacy of Religious Diversity and Intolerance: Paternal Lineages of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula” in American Journal of Human Genetics Vol. 83 (Bethesda 2008), pp. 725-736, DOI: 10.1016/j.ajhg.2008.11.007, where Dolors Bramon is acknowledged p. 734.

8. For example Alice M. W. Hunt and Robert J. Speakman, “Portable XRF analysis of archaeological sediments and ceramics” in Journal of Archaeological Science Vol. 53 (Amsterdam 2015), pp. 626–638, which more or less says, ‘this is a silly thing to do but if you must, here’s how’; cf. Warren W. Esty, “Estimation of the Size of a Coinage: a Survey and Comparison of Methods” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 146 (London 1986), pp. 185–215, for another example from a different discipline.

9. My whipping boy this time is Moira A. Wilson, Margaret A. Carter, Christopher Hall, William D. Hoff, Ceren Ince, Shaun D. Savage, Bernard McKay & Ian M. Betts, “Dating fired-clay ceramics using long-term power law rehydroxylation kinetics” in Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences Vol. 465 (London 2009), pp. 2407–2415, DOI: 10.1098/rspa.2009.0117, on whose problems see my old Cliopatria post here.

10. Dhali & al., “Feature-extraction methods”, p. 419.

11. Ibid., p. 418 (error margins) & pp. 414-415 (periodization), with the problems it causes expressed p. 419.

12. Ibid., p. 413 and 413-414.

13. Ibid. p. 414. For more on the problem see Jesús Alturo and Tània Alaix, “Categories of Promoters and Categories of Writings: The Free Will of the Scribes, Cause of Formal Graphic Differences” in Barbara Shailor and Consuelo W. Dutschke (edd.), Scribes and the Presentation of Texts (from Antiquity to c. 1550), Bibliologia 65 (Turnhout 2021), pp. 123–149.

14. Cf. Jonathan A. Jarrett, “Poor tools to think with: the human space in digital diplomatics” in Antonella Ambrosio, Sébastien Barret and Georg Vogeler (edd.), Digital diplomatics: The computer as a tool for the diplomatist?, Beihefte der Archiv für Diplomatik 14, (Köln 2014), pp. 291–302.

15. It wasn’t deliberate, but it’s probably no coincidence that the position I thus finish with is similar to that in Smit, “Death of the Palaeographer?” and Arianna Ciula, “Digital palaeography: What is digital about it?” in Digital Scholarship in the Humanities Vol. 32 Supplement 2 (Oxford 2017), pp. ii89–ii105, DOI: 10.1093/llc/fqx042.

Habeas Corpus before Magna Carta

Long-term readers here will know the term ‘protochronism’, which I stole from an anthropologist friend of mine to cover the practice that so many historians have of finding something famously developed in a period or area more famous than one’s own, and then pointing out that one’s own actually did it first or better. I don’t like to pass these chances up when they occur, and back in early 2020 I found one while reading an ancient article about royal-aristocratic relations in tenth- to twelfth-century Navarra. I’ve been saving it up till my blog clock rolled round to 2020 since then. The phenomenon in question here would be the ancient right of habeas corpus, enshrined in English law and explained by that always-useful textbook, 1066 and All That, as follows:1

[This right] “meant it was wrong if people were put in prison except for some reason, and that people who had been mutilated by the King… should always be allowed to keep their bodies.”

A more serious definition can be found on Wikipedia, where else, which at the time of writing explained it as follows:

“Habeas corpus is a recourse in law through which a person can report an unlawful detention or imprisonment to a court and request that the court order the custodian of the person, usually a prison official, to bring the prisoner to court, to determine whether the detention is lawful.”

Either way, you see where the notion attaches to the Latin; fundamentally, you have the right to your own body, so constraint of it by imprisonment needs to have a justification. This is canonically supposed to go back to the great concession of rights to the baronage of England by King John in 1215 that we know as Magna Carta, which does indeed contain a clause to roughly this effect, although the actual term Habeas corpus took a few more years to arise.2 Since John was a bit of a one for unjustified imprisonment, among the hundred other civil abuses that Magna Carta tries to prohibit, you can see why it was on people’s minds. I don’t suppose the baronage of England meant to establish a fundamental human right so much as keep themselves out of the clink, but there you go. Humans rarely mean to make their history, I figure. But wait! What is this here clause I see before me?

“Et nullo homine in terra de illo Rege, in priso non sedeat, si directo ibi facere non potest, donec tornet ad suam casam.”

I render that roughly as:

“And let no man in the land of that King stay in prison, if his case cannot be dealt with directly, but rather let him return to his home.”

You have to admit, the core idea is the same.3 The context is an odd one, however. The document was apparently put together in Saragossa in 1134, straight after the death of King Alfonso I the Battler of Aragón. Now, I haven’t read everything about Alfonso I I’d like to have, and myabe this is all well-known to his scholars, but he had run his kingdom pretty hard, as this article explains it, cutting in on many a noble privilege by hiring in foreign soldiery and setting them up in newly-conquered lands so that they threatened the influence of the old Aragonese noble families. Also, and highly inconveniently, he left no male heir and tried to will his kingdoms to the Military Orders.4 The collected élites of Aragón, new or old, could all agree that that was a bad idea, so this gathering at Saragossa had a pretty open opportunity to reshape the kingdom as they wanted it, firstly by choosing a successor and then, presumably, by getting him to swear to this document of which the clause above is the fourteenth and final. The document, I should say, claims to be the privileges that the infanzones (basically, gentlemen) and barons of Aragón had had in the time of King Pedro I, Alfonso I’s immediate predecessor. In other words, as depicted here they were claiming to be turning back the clock on Alfonso’s abuses, but there’s no trace that such rights were ever declared in Pedro’s time, so you have to see this more as a sort of Aragonese noble wish-list, to bind a king who had yet to be chosen.5

Archivo Municipal de Zaragoza R3

I was slightly surprised to find that this document does actually exist in what appears to be a contemporary copy, but it does, as Archivo Municipal de Zaragoza, R.3, so here it is

To give themselves some chance of this sticking, the assembled gathering got pretty much every surrounding major figure to come and witness, including the Count of Barcelona (then Ramon Berenguer IV), the Count of Urgell, the Count of Pallars (all in Catalonia) and the Count of Foix (in Provence), plus two Aragonese counts but also, and most impressively, Alfonso I’s step-son, Emperor Alfonso VII of León (as he signs himself).6 I imagine all were fairly happy to see whoever actually succeeded here thus trammelled by his nobility. But still, what the nobles had done included inventing the right to no imprisonment without charge.

Now, it should be said, I don’t think they got to have this concession. In the end, the succession problem was solved by hauling Alfonso’s brother Ramiro out of the monastery where he was, crowning him and marrying him to someone post haste (that being Agnes, daughter of Duke William IX of Aquitaine and herself already widow of Viscount Aimery of Thouars). They then had a daughter, who was betrothed almost forthwith to that same Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer IV of Barcelona, who thus became ‘Lord of Aragón’, and its active ruler, while Ramiro returned, still as king, to the monastery (and Agnes went to the nunnery of Fontevraud).7 As far as I know, there’s no sign that either Ramiro or Ramon Berenguer accepted these terms as part of their succession. But then, John repudiated Magna Carta within months as well; it was his son Henry III who had to concede it again.8 The idea was out there, though, and if all this shows is that it was also out there in Aragón eighty years before John was forced to concede it, I’m happy with that!

1. Walter Carruthers Sellar and Robert Julian Yeatman, 1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates (London 1930), p. 65.

2. Ralph V. Turner, Magna Carta through the Ages (Harlow 2003), 69-73, and see pp. 161, 194-196 and 208-218 on the afterlife of the idea in law.

3. José-Maria Lacarra, “« Honores » et « tenencias » en Aragon (XIe siècle)”, transl. Pierre Bonnassie and Y. Bonnassie in Annales du Midi Vol. 80 (Toulouse 1968), pp. 485–528, DOI: 10.3406/anami.1968.4454, Ap. III.

4. See Elena Lourie, “The Will of Alfonso I, ‘El Batallador,’ King of Aragon and Navarre: A Reassessment” in Speculum Vol. 50 (Cambridge MA 1975), pp. 635–651, DOI: 10.2307/2855471, repr. in Lourie, Crusade and Colonisation: Muslims, Christians and Jews in Medieval Aragon, Variorum Collected Studies 317 (Aldershot 1990), chapter III, and for a more recent take on Alfonso I see Clay Stalls, Possessing the Land: Aragon’s Expansion into Islam’s Ebro Frontier under Alfonso the Battler (1104-1134), The Medieval Mediterranean 7 (Leiden 1995).

5. Lacarra, “« Honores » et « tenencias » en Aragon”, p. 520.

6. I glean these details from the text of the document itself, ibid. pp. 518-519.

7. Thomas N. Bisson, The Medieval Crown of Aragon: a short history (Oxford 2000), pp. 14-19.

8. Turner, Magna Carta, pp. 77-100.

A different Adelaide and her friends

We get very close now to both a resolution of the UK’s higher education industrial dispute and, more importantly right here and now, to the end of my backlogged content from 2019, neither of which seemed very likely even a short while ago, but in both cases, as the old and bitter calypso goes, “we ent arrive as yet”. So another thought from the tail end of that year, when I was working my way through an essay volume on crisis among medieval élites and ran into a paper about literacy in the lay aristocracy of the early Middle Ages.1 You may, as did I think, that that is not much to do with the theme of the volume, and indeed my notes say that this paper was in fact, “an unsorted list of evidence of classical works in libraries of élite persons”, so what it was doing in the volume is anyone’s guess. But! it did contain a few interesting facts and not least, a fact about a woman called Adelaide (and some others). You have to go a long way back with this blog to know that that’s a theme here, but in my documents from what’s now Catalonia it can sometimes seem that every second woman bears that name, and this is an affliction – or a blessing! as long as you’re not a prosopographer – that other areas of tenth-century Europe share. So with sharing in mind, I thought I’d put it before you, because it is a good little bit of history.

You see, one of the classical works listed in the paper is a manuscript of the comedies of Terence which is now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and which its cataloguers believe was made in late-10th or 11th-century Germany.2 That’s odd, because the author of the paper, Claudia Villa, asserts that it claims notes of use by Ottonian princesses, which would seem to put it earlier.3 But, thanks to the good offices of the Digital Bodleian, we can see it too:

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Auct. F. 6. 27, fo. 112v

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Auct. F. 6. 27, fo. 112v, image licensed under CC-BY-NC 4.0

This is right at the end of the text of Terence, and immediately below it we have a line added in a different hand, reading (says the Bodleian’s transcription – but it looks 99% right to me), “Adelheit Heilwich Matthilt curiales adulescentulæ unum par sunt amicitiae”, or in English, roughly, “Adelaide, Hedwig and Matilda, young courtiers, are one through friendship.” The scribe’s grammar arguably wasn’t perfect, and I could fairly easily see Hedwich rather than Heilwich in the below, though we’ll come back to that, but the meaning seems pretty clear.

Addition to the end of the Comedies of Terence in Bodleian MS Auct. F. 6. 27, fo. 112v

Here’s the line blown up close

So who were these young ladies? Ottonian princesses? Well, King Otto II of the Germans had three daughters, of whom two were called Adelaide and Matilda. Adelaide would run the abbey of Quedlinburg from 999, Gernrode from 1014 and Gandersheim from 1039, and died only in 1044; she was probably born around 974, so would have been an adolescens in the 980s I guess.4 Matilda, her sister, was for a while a nun in Essen but then married Ezzo Count Palatine of Lotharingia; she was born in 979 and died in 1025, by which time she’d had ten children!5 But what about Hedwig? The Bodleian suggests Duchess Hedwig of Swabia, daughter of Duke Henry of Bavaria, himself brother of King and Emperor Otto I, making Hedwig the princesses’ first cousin once removed. The argument is that they all studied together in the same nunnery of Gandersheim which Adelaide would eventually run and that the manuscript was annotated there, which is kind of sweet as well as being a useful step in its history we don’t otherwise have.

Abbey church of Gandersheim

In which case, here’s the church they probably knew, the abbey church at Gandersheim as it stands, image by Misburg3014own work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

But Duchess Hedwig died in 994, so there are problems with this identification.6 Firstly, that would make an eleventh-century date for the manuscript quite impossible; it couldn’t have been written after Hedwig could have written or been referred to in it. Secondly, though, when Hedwig died, aged in her fifties, Adelaide might have been twenty and Matilda was fifteen. I’m not saying they weren’t friends, but if they were it wasn’t their shared adolescence that bound them all together! So where did the Bodleian and then Villa get this idea? And it turns out the answer is circular: the Bodleian’s source is an earlier work by Villa.7 By 2006, she was being a bit less specific and now perhaps we see why.

So then what? Not Ottonians, not princesses? After all, they don’t say they’re princesses, they say they’re courtiers. Apart from anything else, that rather implies they were at court, not at a nunnery (though in the Ottonian world, those things could coincide).8 But! There may still be an answer, because the Wikipedia page for the Matilda we’ve already mentioned, as of the date of writing, says that among her ten children were daughters by the names of, no less, Adelaide (to become Abbess of Nijvel), Heylwig (to become Abbess of Neuss) and Matilda (to become Abbess of Dietkirchen and Vilich). (Please note, Helwig not Hedwig…) The only trouble is that this is Wikipedia, because none of that is explicitly sourced. The only source for the whole page is a family tree in a book by Peter Wilson which is partly visible on Google Books and whose index contains no references for these ladies, and out of whose limited preview I cannot get them to come up in searches.9 Even the German version of the page has nothing to offer here. So I don’t know where that information has come from. I should say that I don’t doubt it, necessarily; one webpage that the German version cites has a bibliography of 24 different German or Latin books and I’m sure that data is in one or more of them. And if so, these girls would have been adolescing together around the second decade of the eleventh century. Of course, when I got to that point, I suddenly had a feeling that I’d just followed the intellectual steps of whoever put that Bodleian catalogue entry together, because they seem to have included all the information to undermine their own cite of that early work of Villa’s without actually coming out to say it must be wrong…

Brauweiler Abbey, from Wikimedia

Brauweiler Abbey as it now stands, image by A.Savinown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia

But this doesn’t, any of it, take away the basic point. It may not have been Gandersheim in the late tenth century; it may not have been a nunnery at all (though if it was, Brauweiler, above, founded by Momma Matilda and Ezzo, seems the most likely). But somewhere in the probably-early-eleventh century, three young noblewomen, sisters if both I and Wikipedia are right, formed some kind of pact of friendship together, and because they inscribed it in a schoolbook of Latin drama we know about it. We don’t – I mean, I don’t – know what became of that friendship or that pact, whether separation and time broke them apart or whether monastic isolation perhaps made it even more important, as we might see if we only had their letters; but we do know that they had a moment of solidarity one day and wrote in this manuscript. And that, it seems to me, is worth the reading of an otherwise questionably relevant paper in an essay volume I probably didn’t really need to read all of. Maybe I didn’t; but what doing so got me is Adelaide, Helwig and Matilda, one through friendship.

1. Claudia Villa, “Lo stato dell’alfabetizzazione e il grado di istruzione tra le aristocrazie laiche” in François Bougard, Laurent Feller and Régine Le Jan (edd.), Les élites au haut moyen âge : crises et renouvellements, Haut Moyen Âge 1 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 127–142.

2. Terence, “Comedies”, parchment codex (Germany, late-tenth to mid-eleventh century), Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, MS Auct. F 6 27, online here.

3. Villa, “Lo stato dell’alfabetizzazione”, p. 128.

4. Thietmar of Merseburg, Chronicon, IV.10, accessed for today in Ottonian Germany: the Chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg, transl. David Warner (Manchester 2001), pp. 157-158.

5. I have to admit that I looked this up on Wikipedia, and the English one isn’t much use but German Wikipedia cites an article on Matilda in the Lexikon des Mittelalters by Gerd Althoff, and that might do for me. I can’t look it up today, however, because of the digital picket! So let’s hope there is in fact a source.

6. Karl Schmid, “Hadwig” in Neue deutsche Biographie Vol. VII (Berlin 1966, p. 419, a reference which again I admit I got from German Wikipedia but which is handily digitised here. Unfortunately Mathilda isn’t in the same work!

7. Claudia Villa, La «lectura Terentii», Studi sul Petrarca 17 (Vatican City 1984), 2 vols, I, pp. 103ff, they say.

8. Classically discussed at length in John William Bernhardt, Itinerant Kingship and Royal Monasteries in Early Medieval Germany c. 936-1075, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 21 (Cambridge 1993).

9. Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire (Cambridge MA 2016), p. xvii (non vidi).

Name in Print XXXI: those aren’t folles

I owe apologies for sporadic blogging again; it’s been a difficult couple of weeks, is all I can say, and also that forthcoming posts need photographs I haven’t yet processed. But we’re getting there, and to start with here’s the post I realised that I hadn’t written in the last post, announcing my almost-most-recent publication. This is one of those insider stories, kind of. You may remember I gave a paper in China looking at the Emperor Anastasius’s reform of the Roman-or-Byzantine base-metal coinage and suggesting that it was not in fact a popular move at the time? If, for some reason, you’ve actually read that, which bearing in mind that the official version is in Chinese with English footnotes might, I grant you, be difficult—there is an English text online here—you’ll know that there’s a kind of throwaway section near the end suggesting that the reform coins of 40-nummi which we usually call folles probably weren’t called that at the time.1

Copper-alloy 40-nummi coin of Emperor Anastasius I struck at Constantinople in 498-512, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B0036

Copper-alloy 40-nummi coin of Emperor Anastasius I struck at Constantinople in 498-512, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B0036

So that was as far as I had intended to take that. Every time I write something numismatic I think it will be the last thing, and then someone asks me for another paper and I can’t refuse them for some reason. This time the reason was that there was being constructed a volume of articles in honour of Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, one of the most important numismatists in Catalonia and someone whose work I helped see into English back when I worked at the Fitzwilliam Museum.2 After presenting that work in Catalonia, I met Jaume Boada, who nowadays edits the journal of the Societat Catalana d’Estudis Numismàtics, Acta Numismàtica, which En Miquel started and was therefore the best place to publish essays in his honour, and Jaume very kindly thought I should be in it. That happened in mid-2021, and I thought that he was right and I should. But the only thing I even possibly had was the idea that folles weren’t called folles.

Cover of Acta Numismàtica 52 (2022), Homenatge al Dr. Miquel Crusafont

Cover of Acta Numismàtica Vol. 52, Homenatge al Dr. Miquel Crusafont (Barcelona 2022),

For some reason I was worried this wouldn’t make much of an article. By the time I’d worked it up, however, it had become almost 9,000 words, with a table and stuff, and had meant not just quite a lot of reading of really bad metrology (A. H. M. Jones was indubitably a brilliant historian – but never ever trust his sums!3) but also doing that thing that we can now do to perform an end-run on almost all older scholarship, that is, electronic search of digital corpora, which led me into having to handle both Greek and papyri, sometimes together, neither of which are things in which I have any real training. If this all worked out, it’s only because of the work of Roger Bagnall and because of two incomparable databases, and the Perseus Digital Library Word Study Tool, which have allowed me to mobilise the brains of others to patch what I don’t know in a way that scholars of twenty years ago just couldn’t have done.4 Even so I’ve already found one mistake, which I can only hope doesn’t get perpetuated, and rested part of my argument on an old article by Michael Hendy which I have subsequently learned is now considered not to be right, a rare thing for Hendy.5 But for all that, I think I might still be right, overall. So what does it say?

First page of Jonathan Jarrett, "Follis or follaron? The name of the Byzantine coin of 40 nummi" in Acta numismàtica Vol. 52 (Barcelona 2022), pp. 225–248

First page of Jonathan Jarrett, "Follis or follaron? The name of the Byzantine coin of 40 nummi" in Acta numismàtica Vol. 52 (Barcelona 2022), pp. 225–248

Well, here’s the abstract I sent in:

The standard term for a Byzantine base-metal coin is follis, but this word is older than the coins that numismatists so name, meaning especially a bagged amount of currency, a usage which overlapped with the coins. This article shows that when the first such coins were introduced, in the reform of Anastasius I in 498 CE, contemporaries in fact called them follares, not folleis. The article sets out the evidence for this, and disarms apparent evidence for the term follis as meaning coins. It concludes that numismatists and curators should probably abandon the term follis for coins before at least the reign of Justin II (565-85 CE).

World-changing? Perhaps not. But the people it was meant for liked it and that’s what counts. Of course, none of them are normally concerned with Byzantine coinage, and in that respect this was an odd place to put the article.6 But I wouldn’t have written it if these people hadn’t asked! So maybe by mentioning it here I can start getting the word out more widely. I haven’t actually put it online, which I realise doesn’t help, but for those that need it I can probably find a file to send you…

1. 加莱特乔纳森, ‘拜占庭帝国的市场交易与阿纳斯塔修斯一世的货币改革’, transl. 张 月, in 王春法 (ed.), 货币与王朝: 国际视野下钱币的影响与改变 (北京 2021), pp. 266–276 at pp. 275-276.

2. Miquel Crusafont, Anna M. Balaguer and Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 6: The Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge 2013).

3. And specifically the sums in A. H. M. Jones, “The Origin and Early History of the Follis” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 49 (London 1959), pp. 34–38, where for example over pp. 36-38 he had to found a sum on the premise that pork prices in Rome were the same in 363 and 452 (p. 36) despite the fact that he admitted massive inflation over the period (p. 37) and documented prices twice as high in Egypt in between (p. 38), and I’m afraid it’s almost all like that.

4. The Bagnall work specifically Roger S. Bagnall, Currency and Inflation in Fourth Century Egypt, Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists Supplement 5 (Chico CA 1985), found online here, a really helpful little book.

5. That being Michael F. Hendy, “On the Administrative Basis of the Byzantine Coinage c. 400-c. 900 and the Reforms of Heraclius” in University of Birmingham Historical Journal Vol. 12 (Birmingham 1970), pp. 129–154, which I now find overthrown by work such as Andrei Gandila, “Free Market, Black Market or No Market? Money and Annona in the Northeastern Balkans (Sixth to Seventh Century)” in Journal of Late Antiquity Vol. 14 (Baltimore MD 2021), pp. 294–334, not someone I carelessly gainsay! Neither was Hendy, of course, but as we have seen even Homer could nod.

6. Citation for you: Jonathan Jarrett, “Follis or follaron? The name of the Byzantine coin of 40 nummi” in Acta numismàtica Vol. 52 (Barcelona 2022), pp. 225–248.