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, Óland, from ‘Viking Murder Mystery’, PAL in Ancient Mysteries (4, London, 15 Dec. 2021) (25 Nov. 2022)

Reconstruction of fifth-century Sandby Borg, Óland, 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 Óland, 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 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 soldier 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 Óland. 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 Óland 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 Óland 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 Óland 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 Ólanders.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, “Óland, 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: <a href=";. 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

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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.


The gilty heart of Venice

This gallery contains 26 photos.

If you’ll permit me a return to medievalist holiday photographs – and, kind readers, you have never so far objected – then you may recall that I wrote two weeks ago of heading for Venice in July 2019. That was … Continue reading

Vikings in ninth-century Catalonia?

There is a tendency for this blog to become a series of photo posts when my backlog shrinks through each past summer, and I like to break those up with more academic contact even if it means jumping chronology a bit. So, though last post we were with me in Paris in July 2019, we’re now jumping ahead a couple of weeks to once I was back from holiday, at which point my absolute top priority was reading, carefully but speedily, a doctoral thesis in Catalan which I was due to examine at the very beginning of the next month.1 I will talk about that separately, because it was excellent and the now-doctor who wrote it deserves his own post, but there were a couple of things in it that deserved their own commentary and made me stub blog posts to do that thing, and this is the first.

Cloister of Sainte-Marie d'Arles-sur-Tech

Cloister of Sainte-Marie d’Arles-sur-Tech, image by Jordi Domènech, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve mentioned here before that I find it hard to be less than ten years behind with Catalan historiography, and in recent years there has also developed the problem of extensive publication of primary material I also haven’t had time fully to work through yet. Consequently, it’s pretty easy to find stuff I don’t know about, and this reference was such a thing. The text in question is a letter to King Charles the Bald of the Western Franks (r. 840-877) from Abbot Hilperic of Sainte-Marie d’Arles-sur-Tech (remember that place-name of Arles), giving an account of his monastery’s early history by way of explaining how it came to be so short of resource as urgently to need the king’s help.2 Hilperic starts with the founder abbot, naturally enough, and it quickly reaches a point at which I stopped and went, “What?” Here’s a scratch translation of some rather odd Latin.3

“For there came a faithful man of God from the regions of Hispania, Castellano by name, an abbot, who entering by a narrow path found in the waste a miraculous bathing-place, where he built a holy monastery, to which he called and directed a college of many monks worshipping the Highest King, who under the authority of your glorious grandfather Charles, conceded [the latter’s] precept to the same monastery.4 When he was dead, his successor Requesèn arrived, who also placed himself rejoicing into your hands.5 With him passing from the world, there succeeded a certain venerable man [called] Recimir, his brother, an abbot, who likewise once commended himself into [your] glorious hands.6 While he was alive, there was given to us, by the thickening [sic] of the Devil, a multitude of persecuting Northmen, who both staying there for three days and destroying the same monastery, and coming upon us suddenly, we knowing nothing of it, killed several of us. Considering these events of ours, that which had occurred first and foremost because of all our faults and abundant sins, having gathered into one council, we were converted back to the Lord. With us celebrating fasts and holding vigils, and beseeching the Lord Christ, there was revealed by the same Lord to one of our brothers the place there where bodies of the saints were resting, who were called the blessed martyr Quintinus, bishop Hilary, deacon Tibertius. With us gratefully looking forward to their arrival, suddenly our abbot died. With him passing on, there succeeded he who still now is seen to rule us according to the Rule of our Father Benedict, which is now instituted.”

And though there’s about as much again after that, it’s all upwards from there, including the fleeing of demons from the area and the subsequent discovery of twelve more saintly bodies, of whom the writer only bothers to name two (Abundus and Grisantus). I guess the point is made by then that this is a
holy community, albeit completely on its uppers. And this is held to have been what provoked Charles the Bald’s surviving precept to Hilperic, whose text we have.7

Now, it has straight away to be admitted that there is actually a plausible context into which this story could fit. You may already have noted that given where Vallespir actually is, more or less stretching north-west up the Tech valley from where Saint-Marie is there, any supposed Viking attack would have had either to have landed on the northern Atlantic coast of the Peninsula and then marched pretty much along the Pyrenees, or else made it through the Straits of Gibraltar and attacked from the eastern coast. That latter might sound pretty implausible but actually at least one group did it, and they were there over the course of 858 to 861, so within our window between the two charters and in the time of Abbot Hilperic of Santa Maria. (But Santa Maria of where? Ssh, we’re coming to that.) Admittedly, they are said in the main and contemporary Frankish source, the Annals of Saint-Bertin, written at the time by a bishop of Peninsular origin, Prudentius of Troyes, only to have raided the south coast of what is now France, and almost all the Arabic sources that also cover this, themselves distressingly late, to have come there from the Balearic Islands, and gone on to Italy; if they’d hit actually-Iberian targets once through the Straits I might have expected one source at least to mention it.8 Or perhaps I should say two sources, because one, the Mamlūk encyclopaedist Shihāb al-Dīn Aḥmad bin ʿAbd al-Wahhāb al-Nuwayrī, supposedly records that the same Vikings went as far as Pamplona, in the heart of the Basque country, and captured and ransomed its ‘Frankish lord’, García, for 90,000 dinars. The Moroccan polymath Ibn Khaldūn, likewise apparently, later repeated this story and reduced the ransom to 70,000 dinars, but I don’t think this is any reason to suppose an independent tradition given how rotten Ibn Khaldūn’s attention to detail was. One scholar who made this detail available to Westerners quite early on, Jón Stefánsson, for some reason decided that the Viking force could only have done this from the Atlantic coast; but if we add this attack on a Pyrenean monastery (and Prudentius does say they attacked monasteries on their way to the Camargue, if not that they were not nearby) then these could be considered to confirm each other.9 It’s a bit odd that Prudentius didn’t record the rather embarrassing capture of the ruler of the ex-Frankish client principality of Pamplona, but that’s at best an argument from silence.10 At the very least, we can easily see why a younger Xavier Costa, faced with a report of a Viking sack of a Catalan monastery which would have to have happened between 844 and 867, chose the date 858-860 at which to place it.

Unfortunately, this turns out to be one of those structures which collapses when you put weight on it. Costa is not the first person to note this document, and I am not the first person to have doubts about it, as indeed his citation reflects.11 Here are some reasons to have doubts, then.

  1. The preservation context for this document is lousy. We have no medieval text of it at all. Its earliest text comes from a 1591 study by a guy called Miquel Llot of the cult of Saints Abdon and Sennen, two Persian Christians supposedly killed in Roman games in the third century. Their bodies are claimed to have wound up in all of Soissons, Florence, Rome and Murcia, but also Santa Maria d’Arles, and I assume that Llot was delighted to find some source that might explain how a saint of roughly the right name was found in this area completely unconnected to their passion narrative. Of course, it isn’t the right name, but that is arguably not the document’s fault, rather than Llot’s, who saw in it the story he wanted to tell rather than the one it did. However, all we know about the document is what he says, and apparently he says he found it nailed to a pillar in the Church when he visited Arles.12 It’s not all the detail we might wish, though I suppose we should be glad he gave us the text.
  2. Now, you might justly say, well, that’s all well and good: the letter would have gone to Charles the Bald but maybe come back with the charter he issued, then been preserved as the house’s own sort of account of its history. In any case the bit about the Vikings isn’t actually critical to the narrative of finding the relics, so while we might justly wonder how it was that fifteen saintly bodies, including one of a bishop of Poitiers otherwise widely considered to be buried, y’know, at Poitiers, at Saint-Hilaire indeed, were just lying around nearby and how much work this monastery was having to do to justify its relic collection, that doesn’t actually speak against the idea of a Viking attack. To which I say, sure, and thankyou, imaginary reader, for being such an erudite critic; but I’m not finished.

  3. There is no mention of such an attack in the most obvious place you would expect it, King Charles the Bald’s precept that is supposed to have been a response to this letter. Admittedly our text of this is not preserved quite as one would wish either; we first know of it from a fourteenth-century copy. But it’s pretty consistent with Charles’s other documents without plainly being a copy of any of them, so there’s some reason to believe in an actual document that people could still see in 1340, and while it does mention a mission from Abbot Hilperic and a plea of poverty, it mentions neither Vikings nor, more interestingly, any of these fifteen saints whose bodies had supposedly been found since Charles had last issued Arles a precept only as many years before.13 And again it’s an argument from silence but you’d think these events were remarkable enough to find some kind of mention; Charles being such a man as would join in a saint’s translation when he came across one even though it meant delaying fighting a civil war, I’d imagine him seeing the gain in associating himself quickly with this effective miracle.14 But he didn’t, which suggests to me that whatever Hilperic did tell him didn’t include this story.
  4. On the other hand, there is a very well-studied phenomenon of monasteries in the south of France going to later kings and saying that their current state of deprivation goes back to the time of Viking attacks, and invoking Carolingian grants made to fix that whose terms had not been respected, which they then entreated the current king to repair. This has been studied most of all by Amy Remensnyder, and Costa does cite this work, but he doesn’t seem to have let it make him suspicious.15 But that’s my secret power: I’m always suspicious.
Hulk Always Angry Secret Avengers GIF

And you may say, OK, Jonathan, but there’s also the Pamplona raid, so it seems to be corroborated that there was a Viking force in the area. Isn’t it easier to say that there was a known raid to which the monastery attached their story of relic-finding, for all the reasons Remensnyder points out and which indeed you have echoed in your dealings with accounts of the sack of Barcelona, that invoking this known context of shared affliction might make the people the writers were addressing more sympathetic?16 Maybe this just actually happened, the Viking bit anyway. But I’m still not finished.

The world-famous O RLY owl macro

Let’s take a quick look into that Pamplona raid first. Stefánsson, who reports it to us, did not read Arabic; his sources, in so far as he gives them, were secondary work and especially and foremost the multi-volume work of Reinhard Dozy, “the chief source of this paper, since the Dutch professor prints, the Arabic text and a translation in French of the Arabic records quoted”.17 And if you go to the French edition of Dozy, which is easy enough to do, the 858-861 raid is not there, at all, with or without the bit about Pamplona.18 So what had happened? Well, I draw the line at tracking down all of Stefánsson’s unreferenced secondary sources for an afternoon’s blog post—it’s evening already!—but I can offer a guess.19 Another Arabic source that described the episode is the Book of the Incredible Histories of the Kings of al-Andalus and the Maghrib by the Marrakesh historian Ibn Idharī. He doesn’t mention a Viking attack on Pamplona – but he does follow the account immediately with a Muslim raid on the area the next year, in which García’s son Fortún was captured and ransomed.20 It doesn’t give the ransom amount, so there is still some other source in the mix, which may even be al-Nuwayrī, at which I can’t get. But I bet that some combination of errors with these materials had combined the two stories in whatever Stefánsson was reading.

Church and defensive tower of Sainte-Marie d'Arles-sur-Tech

One of the forms of defence adopted by Sainte-Marie d’Arles in later centuries; as it turns out, we’re probably dealing with another one. Image by BaldiriTreball propi, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

So for these reasons I think it is unlikely that there actually was a Viking attack on Pamplona in 861 which only two fourteenth-century Arabic sources record for us. Without that, there is rather less reason to believe in an 858-860 sack of a monastery that goes unmentioned in the monastic community’s own next royal charter. But you can then reasonably ask, why was the story worth making up for someone at some point before 1561? And there Remensnyder, as I say, offers an answer, of a trial of faith by fire for which the monks were spiritually, but sadly not economically, rewarded (your majesty). And there’s also these fourteen saints they apparently had in their church, from some quite unlikely places, who needed some kind of back-story. But there might also be more, because of this problem of whether we’re talking about Santa Maria de Vallespir or Santa Maria d’Arles. Costa picks this problem up and notes that while most of the historiography treats these as the same place, actually they must have been some distance from each other.21 Our story, indeed, seems to show knowledge of this in its rather odd narrative order, in which the monastery is apparently destroyed before the monks find out about the raid and get killed. If we’re actually dealing with two sites of the same community, that problem can be made to go away.

12th-century copy of a precept of King Charles the Bald for Sant Medir

This isn’t the right charter, but it gives you some idea of what these things usually look like as we have them. It is a 12th-century copy of a precept of King Charles the Bald for Sant Medir, now in the Arxiu Comarcal de la Selva

However, it may also have been a problem for the community. The precept issued by Charlemagne, to which our story refers, is lost, but it is referred to (and known from) a subsequent one that our story here doesn’t mention of Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious, which he gave to the first abbot, Castellano, in 820, and which we have in 17th-century copies made for Étienne Baluze.22 This is how we know that Castellano was Abbot of a Santa Maria at Vallespir. So where did Arles get into this? Well, the church there, of Sant Pere, is one of the properties confirmed to Castellano by Louis’s precept, ecclesiam Sancti Petri in Arulas. However, Charles the Bald’s subsequent charter, of 844, is to Abbot Hilperic at Santa Maria of Arles, which he goes on to say that Castellano built in Vallespir; the church of Arles is no longer mentioned, though otherwise the same properties are mentioned, including a church of Sant Quintí which may explain why his relics were among those the monks later claimed to have.23 By the time of the 869 charter this was sorted out and Hilperic was Abbot of Arles, and the monastery he is said to rule wasn’t further located; but the natural way to read this would be that Hilperic, as Abbot of Arles, had jumped over the head of the abbot in Vallespir and claimed the whole community’s territories from the new, and very beleaguered, king. This might also explain why Charles is said, in our story, previously to have received the commendation of two other abbots in what, given he only succeeded in 840, must have been less than four years. That seems like a viciously rapid succession if only one house was involved; but if there was some dispute between two, we might see something like this repeated race north to the king to get approved, a race which Hilperic ultimately won by coming last. It also helps explain why Recimir, who succeeded his brother Requesèn as abbot, was apparently already an abbot, and maybe that in fact was the takeover. But after that, an abbot of Arles might need some kind of account that explained why he now claimed all these lands which his own royal precepts apparently awarded to Vallespir. What might a good explanation be? Maybe Vikings destroyed the other monastery! And then whatever sins any of either congregation might have committed you can tell were repented away, because then all these relics became apparent to us! And maybe this is the story we have.

This is not a finished suggestion, of course. I’m not sure when I think this story would date from, but it seems that it would have to be pretty close to the events, given that it seems to be reflected in royal charters almost straight away. But I could alternatively suggest that it was only once the local history of the house was no longer remembered that the transition from Vallespir to Arles needed explaining. Likewise, Occam’s Razor might suggest, with some kind of disaster apparently afflicting a monastery not that many miles away from a known site of Viking raiding, that that disaster being a Viking raid is actually the simplest answer. Of course, that reasoning might also have occurred to someone later. Either way, I don’t think Costa was wrong to pass over this in fairly simple fashion, especially given the available space he had to cover this unique occurrence that didn’t much contribute to his overall arguments. But isn’t it fun to see what you find when you turn over these stones?

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

2. Pere Ponsich (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia volum VI: Els comtats de Rosselló, Conflent, Vallespir i Fenollet, Memòries de la Secció Històrica-Arqueològica, 70, 2 vols (Barcelona 2006), doc. no. 61, discussed by Costa, ‘Paisatges monàstics’, pp. 249-251.

3. Ponsich, Catalunya carolíngia VI, doc. no. 61:

“… Quia veniens vir Dei fidelis ex pertibus Hispaniae, nomine Castellanus, abbas, qui ingressus per angustam semitam, invenit in eremo mirabilia balnea, ubi aedficiavit sancta coenobia, in quo vocavit atque advertit multorum monachorum collegia Regi superno famulantia; qui sub auctoritate avi vestri gloriosi Caroli, eius preceptum in eodem monasterio concessit. Defuncto eo, successor eius adfuit Ressendus abbas, qui et in manibus vestri se glorianter tradidit. Migrante illo a saeculo, successit quidam vir venerabilis Recimirus, frater eius, abbas, qui et ipse similiter in gloriosis manibus se hactenus commendavit. Illo vivente, data est nobis, crassante diabolo, multitudo persequentium Normanorum, qui et tridium ibi manentes, et idem coenobium destruentes, et subito super nos irruentes, nihil nobis percipientibus, occiderunt aliquos de nostris. Haec nobis considerantibus, eo quod pro supereminenti omni nostro delicto et abundanti peccato evenissent, collecti in uno concilio, conversi sumus ad Dominum. Ieiunia nobis celebrantibus et vigilias facientibus, atque Christo Domino deprecantibus, revelatum est ab eodem Domino uni de fratribus nostris, eo quod ibi corpora sanctorum requiescerent, qui et vocantur beatus Quintinus martyr, Hilarius episcopus, Tiburtius levita. Eorum adventum gratulanter expectantibus, subito obiit abbas noster. Illo migrante, successit is qui et modo secundum regulam patris nostri Benedicti nos regere videtur, qui et modo consistit….”

4. This document, which does not survive, is indexed and discussed as Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, Catalunya carolíngia II: els preceptes carolingis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològico 2 & 3, 2 vols (Barcelona 1926-1955, repr. in facsimile 2007), Arles I.

5. This one we have, and it is printed as Abadal, Catalunya carolíngia II, Arles III.

6. This one, however, does not survive, and neither does Charles the Bald mention it in his subsequent document (see n. 7 below).

7. Abadal, Catalunya carolíngia II, Arles IV.

8. The relevant sources are probably all collected in Ann Christys, Vikings in the South: Voyages to Iberia and the Mediterranean, Studies in Early Medieval History (London 2015), but I haven’t access to it to check; it may well be that everything I say here is pre-empted there. Without it, I’m using Jón Stefánsson, “The Vikings in Spain, from Arabic (Moorish) and Spanish Sources” in Saga Book of the Viking Club Vol. 6 (London 1908-1909), online here, pp. 31–46, where pp. 40-42 cover this voyage. Of course, his references can mostly be updated a bit, and in any case he doesn’t consider the Frankish sources, so you also need to know about Janet L. Nelson (transl.), The Annals of Saint-Bertin, Ninth-Century Sources 1 (Manchester 1991), and Janet L. Nelson, “The Annals of St. Bertin” in Margaret T. Gibson and Janet L. Nelson (edd.), Charles the Bald: Court and Kingdom. Papers based on a Colloquium held in London in April 1979, British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 101 (Oxford 1981), pp. 15–36, reprinted in Janet L. Nelson, Politics and Ritual in Early Medieval Europe, History 42 (London 1986), pp. 173–194, and in Margaret T. Gibson and Janet L. Nelson (eds), Charles the Bald: court and kingdom, 2nd edn. (Aldershot 1990), pp. 23–40, on the author(s).

9. Stefánsson, “The Vikings in Spain”, p. 41, where also n. 1: “They could only get to Pampelona from the Bay of Biscay.”

10. Pamplona’s rulers had submitted to the Carolingians somewhere around the 790s, but were independent again by 820, and before long clients of the Emirs of Córdoba instead, at least as far as Córdoba were concerned; see Juan José Larrea and Jesús Lorenzo, “Barbarians of Dâr al-Islâm: The Upper March of al-Andalus and the Pyrenees in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries” in Guido Vannini and Michele Nucciotti (edd.), La Transgiordania nei secoli XII-XIII e le ‘frontiere’ del Mediterraneo medievale. Trans-Jordan in the 12th and 13th Centuries and the ‘Frontiers’ of the Medieval Mediterranean, British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 2386 (Oxford 2012), pp. 277–288.

11. Costa, “Paisatges monàstics”, p. 250 and n. 602, citing Aymat Catafau, “À propos des origines de l’abbaye Sainte-Marie d’Arles-sur-Tech”, Bulletin de l’Association Archéologique des Pyrénées Orientales Vol. 15 (Perpignan 2000), pp. 76-81, Catafau, “Cuixà, Arles de Tec i Sant Martí del Canigó: el paper de l’aristocràcia nordcatalana en les fundaciones monàstiques del segle VIII al segle XI” in Lluís To & Jordi Galofré (edd.), Monestirs i territori: 1200 anniversari de la fundació de Sant Esteve de Banyoles (Banyoles 2013), pp. 79-88, and Amy G. Remensnyder, Remembering Kings Past: monastic foundation legends in medieval southern France (Ithaca NY 1995), pp. 42-84. I haven’t read either of the Catafau pieces, though I’m very honoured to be following in his sceptical footsteps if I am; to Remensnyder, meanwhile, we will come shortly.

12. Ponsich, Catalunya carolíngia VI, vol. I, p. 123, including reference to the four times it’s previously been edited.

13. See n. 7 above.

14. This story is from Nithard’s Histories, III.2, accessible as Bernard Scholz with Barbara Rogers (transl.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories (Ann Arbor MI 1970), pp. 129–174 and 199–211, online here, where see pp. 157-158.

15. See n. 11 above.

16. Remensnyder, Remembering Kings Past, more or less passim; Jonathan Jarrett, “A Likely Story: Purpose in Narratives from Charters of the Early Medieval Pyrenees” in †Simon Barton and Robert Portass (edd.), Beyond the Reconquista: New Directions in the History of Medieval Iberia (711–1085). In Honour of Simon Barton (Leiden 2020), pp. 123–142 at pp. 127-128.

17. Stefánsson, “The Vikings in Spain”, p. 46.

18. Reinhard Dozy, Histoire des Musulmans d’Espagne jusqu’à la conquête de l’Andalousie par les Almoravides (711-1110), 4 vols (Leyde 1861); vol. II (online here). Admittedly, Stefánsson specifies the 3rd edn., which I can’t immediately access.

19. Stefánsson, “The Vikings in Spain”, p. 46, adds to his mention of Dozy the following: “Werlauff, Mooyer, Professor Steenstrup and Fabricius have written on this subject. The two last-named have used Dozy’s work and some of the Spanish Chronicles.” Working these out looked like more work than I wanted to do today, sorry.

20. I access this through Aben-Adharí de Marruecos, Historias de Al-Ándalus, transl. Francisco Fernández González (Granada 1860), online here, repr. as Ibn Idari, Historias de Al-Ándalus, transl. Francisco Fernández González (n. p. n d.), where see pp. 88-89.

21. Costa, “Paisatges monàstics”, p. 249 n. 599.

22. Abadal, Catalunya carolíngia II, Arles II.

23. See n. 6 above.


A Medievalist Walk Through Paris

This gallery contains 27 photos.

I mentioned, the post before last, that I’d gone on holiday in July 2019 and was meaning to blog bits of it, and now here indeed we are. My partner and I lit out pretty much as soon as the … Continue reading

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”

Continue reading

Detective work in ninth-century Córdoba

The next thing in my stack of things to blog about is the 2019 International Medieval Congress; but I just did a conference report, and this is basically a good day, so rather than put that task into it – you can wait till next week for that – I’m going to jump slightly ahead, to something that I read and decided to blog about while on the holiday I went on straight after the IMC. The holiday itself will generate a few posts of photos, but we’ll get there in something more like due course. For the time being, all you need to know for this was that I went on holiday with some academic reading off our shelves that I was determined just to read for fun, without taking notes. The lucky selection was Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle (very interesting, but hard to track an argument through), the collected works of Liudprand of Cremona (always good, but I’d never read them all through before), and the translation by David James of the History of al-Andalus by Ibn al-Qūṭīyah.1 And it’s in the last of those, in the section on Emir ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II of Córdoba (ruled 822-852 CE) that I found the story below, which I’ll transcribe from James’s English.2 If you ever find yourself in one of those arguments where someone is maintaining that we’re just smarter now than people in the ‘dark ages’ could have been, it’s a good counter-example.

One of the things told about ‘Abd al-Raḥmān: So many complaints were made against successive civil governors (wulāt al-madīna) of Cordova that he swore that he would never appoint another person from among the inhabitants of the capital. He searched for some one suitable among his clients who were inhabitants of the provinces. One, Muḥammad ibn Sālim was brought to his notice, who – it was said – had made the Pilgrimage, and was a clever but modest man. So he sent for him and appointed him.
“On the first day after his appointment, while riding to the palace, some one told him, ‘A dead body has been found in a straw basket in the al-Qaṣṣābīn [Street or Quarter of the Butchers]. ‘Let us be taken to it!’ he replied. Now, when it was before him, he ordered that the body be exposed on the quay (raṣīf), in case a passer-by might recognise the dead man. Then he ordered that the basket be brought to him, and upon seeing that it was a new one, said, ‘Let all in the straw trade (ḥaṣṣārūn) be brought to me – merchants and workers alike!’
“When they were before him, he took the leaders aside and said, ‘Are baskets and panniers all alike; or can you tell the work of individual makers apart?’ They said, ‘Yes, of course, you can tell them apart; and you can tell the work of those in the provinces from those of Cordova.’
“So he commanded that the basket be brought to them, and they told him, ‘This is the work of so-and-so, who is in the group waiting here.’ Muḥammad ordered that the man be brought to him, which was done. He showed him the basket and he said, ‘Yes this basket was bought from me yesterday by a servant (fatā) in royal uniform’; and he described him. Then the police and vendors said, ‘This is the description of one of the al-akhras, ‘the dumb ones’ [those who do not speak Arabic] who lives at Ruṣāfa!’ They went off to search for him. Some of the clothes of the murdered man were found in his possession.
“Now, when ‘Abd al-Raḥmān heard this, he ordered that Muḥammad be made a minister as well as civil governor; and when he entered the chamber of ministers (bayt al-wuzarā’) all paid attention to his opinion.”

So there you have it, a tenthninth-century Islamic impromptu detective inspector! This said, of course there are some things worth drawing out. Firstly, this obviously wasn’t in any way usual: not only is the reward for cracking the case an indication that this was well above and beyond usual intellectual application to such things, but also the foreign slave soldier (for that’s what the ‘dumb ones’ usually were) obviously didn’t expect anyone to try following his trail, so I suspect on both of those counts that actual investigation of murders in Córdoba of this time was a bit above and beyond. On the other hand, there was a police force, and someone did report the crime to the magistrate-equivalent; it’s not a million miles from French police procedure even if there wasn’t much of a crime-scene investigation or establishment of motive. (I imagine there also wasn’t much of a trial…) But it’s still a forensic resolution of a hidden murder by a man in his second day in a job, and as Ibn al-Qūṭīyah tells it, they had the murderer identified even before they knew who the victim was. Beat that, Maigret!

The Roman bridge over the Guadalqivir in Córdoba, Spain

One of the few bits of Córdoba that’s still roughly as Ibn al-Qūṭīyah would have known it, bar the lighting at least, the Roman bridge over the Guadalqivir looking onto the mosque-cathedral, image from Farhana Nitol, ‘Once Upon a Time Europe Had Its Very Own Flourishing Islamic City’, Mvslim, 25th April 2016, linked through

It’s also worth asking why Ibn al-Qūṭīyah tells the tale, of course. He was writing in the time of ‘Abd al-Raḥmān’s great-grandson of the same name, the one who would claim the caliphate, so some of it is surely the glorification of an ancestor of the current ruler. On the other hand, it’s also plainly a tale of his own streets, even if seventy years before he was born; the numerous local place-names that go unglossed (except by James, thankfully) expect a Cordoban audience who knew they were listening to a Cordoban author. But the message is also clear: appoint your subordinates from wherever good people can be found and reward the ones who deserve it, never mind existing power interests. For a writer at that point claiming descent from the displaced Visigothic kings of two centuries before, that might have been an important message to sneak through in such a genealogical compliment.3 But it isn’t as if the ruler himself was going to turn up to Ibn al-Qūṭīyah’s mosque to hear him teach (which is thought to be how this text was assembled4); the beneficiaries of this message were presumably those who might hope to be appointed, not the ones appointing. And even Muḥammad ibn Sālim was a client of the emir, though it doesn’t sound as if the emir himself knew that, and the audience for this story was in Córdoba while he was not. The most plausible role for the audience’s members might in fact be the anonymous people who made the link between the distant client and the emir by telling the latter about the former, and who presumably also profited from their contact’s sudden and lofty advancement. Oh, and we’re also presumably supposed to be unsurprised that non-Arabic-speaking foreigners are suspect and violent, they’ll murder you for the clothes on your back most of them so watch out, and so on. But for all that the story has messages in it and meanings that lurk below the text, the actual text is still really interesting as a picture from an age we might so easily characterise as incapable of producing it.

1. Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350‒550 AD (Princeton NJ 2013); The Works of Liudprand of Cremona: Antapodosis; Liber de Rebus Gestis Ottonis; Relatio de Legatione Constantinopolitana, transl. F. A. Wright (London 1930), online here; and Early Islamic Spain: the history of Ibn al-Qutiya, transl. David James (London 2011).

2. Ibid. p. 103.

3. On him and his social position see Ann Christys, Christians in al-Andalus (711 – 1000) (Richmond 2002), pp. 158-183, or eadem, “How the Royal House of Witiza Survived the Islamic Conquest of Spain” in Walter Pohl and Maximilian Diesenberger (eds), Integration und Herrschaft: ethnische Identitäten und soziale Organisation im Frühmittelalter, Denkschriften der Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-Historische Klasse 301 (Wien 2002), pp. 233–246.

4. James, Early Islamic Spain, pp. 8-19.