I should apologise for the absence of a blog post this long (UK) weekend when you might reasonably have expected one. There is a certain amount of background stuff going on, but the main reason I’ve been quiet is that both the next two posts I have set up are ones which require a certain amount of work, one reading and one dealing with photographs, and I have been using up my available blogging time doing that work for the blogposts of the future! So I hope it’ll be worthwhile when they emerge but right now, ain’t ready, sorry…


Lockdown Antiquarianism, II: Castercliff hill-fort

This gallery contains 7 photos.

As said a couple of posts ago, by summer of 2020 it was beginning to be possible to venture out into the world again, if you kept your social distance and took a mask, and given the previous few months … Continue reading

Seminar CLXXIII: lockdown conferring on a friendly scale

The slow approach to the present in my blogging has led us into the first lockdown in 2020, and now all the way through to July, at which point, after having had to cancel the physical version for the first time in its history, the International Medieval Congress at Leeds went virtual in a kind of scratch version so that something, at least, should happen. The team put in huge efforts to make it happen, and I should have felt guilty and taken part perhaps, but I just couldn’t face it, and when the call for replacement papers went out, I just let it go by. We were still dealing with backlogged assessments and all manner of daily crises, all of which we were trying to manage through screens rather than with the kind of empathic, direct, person-to-person dealings which actually help people, and I was exhausted and felt that I could not give even a partial virtual IMC the effort it needed. In fact, any time at all not spent talking into a screen was by then precious like gold… So I ducked out, of that. But it is harder to say no to friends, and in the end better not to, and that’s what this post is about.

You see, from quite early on in the pandemic my friend and colleague Luca Zavagno had been running a seminar series called Byzantium at Ankara in collaboration with another Byzantinist at another Ankara university, Dr Sercan Yandim. This had also now gone virtual, obviously, and Luca and Sercan, faced with putting together a quite different program from the one they might have intended, felt that at least they could embrace the possibilities of this format and get in a rather wider range of speakers. Each seminar thus became a multi-speaker event with a theme, and Luca took the chance with one of them, on 24th July, to kind of get the band back together, meaning the group of us who had produced an issue of al-Masāq with him the previous year, to reflect on the issue and its import under the title of Crisis and Migrations across the Mediterranean Frontier.1

Poster for the 2020-2021 seminar series Byzantium at Ankara

The official poster of the official seminar

So how we did this was that several of us met up on Zoom first of all. This may have been the first time I used Zoom in academic form; Leeds had been working in Blackboard Collaborate and Teams.2 It was also the first contact I’d had with our co-author Nikolas Bakirtzis except by e-mail, and putting a face to the name attached to the text we’d published was a little strange, though very welcome; how did I not already know this man? And was this actually adding anything except speed, given that we still hadn’t actually met? There was a lot of this unreality going on, I guess, especially I was tuning into Turkey from our library at home and Nikos from Cyprus, and so on. We’re all used to this now, but in July 2020 these things were still weird, as was by then the fact that I was in an online format where I wasn’t the only one using a camera; my students had almost all not done so, making teaching them seem very much like singing in the bathroom and about as useful. So this was all a bit different. Anyway, we did a half-hour of scratch planning which identified roughly what each of us would cover, then we went away and wrote our bits as far as we needed to, and then on the day we tuned in and found, firstly, that Luca had added the phrase ‘A Dark Age After All?’ to our title, and secondly, that we had an audience, one as international or more than the presenting panel. And this too seems normal now but wasn’t then; the idea that suddenly everybody’s seminars were open to everyone, and that people who could never normally be expected to turn up because of how far it was now might, was all a bit eye-opening back then.

Anyway, the way it went is perhaps best represented in the way I did for the one-and-only Political Cultures Seminar back at real physical Leeds earlier in the year, as a summary for each of the speakers and then some account of the discussion. And if I do that, it went like this:

    Mallorca in 2007

    Mallorca in 2007, by Sladky, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

  1. Luca Zavagno argued, as he had by this time been doing for a while, that its islands were always the key to the Mediterranean’s connectivity despite their individual isolation, and that he was now starting to see some of Byzantium’s landward provinces as another sort of island, given that after the fifth century all of its provinces north of Egypt and west of the Bosphorus were joined together only by sea. And this got me thinking, indeed, and set us up with the basic premise of our journal issue, and thus gave me the floor.
  2. Belgian postage stamp depicting Henri Pirenne

    Postage stamp depicting the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne

  3. I thus took this lead and linked our work to the age-old Pirenne Thesis, which, when it was new, argued that Roman economic unity in the Mediterranean long outlasted the unified Roman government, and was instead eventually broken up by Islam establishing a new division across the Middle Sea.3 I suggested that, while at the very turn of the millennium we’d been pretty sure Pirenne was wrong, since then there had been something of a reversal and, while whether writers blame Islam for it or not has more to do with their politics than the evidence, we are beginning to return to the idea that the fifth to seventh centuries were a period of great disruption in the Mediterranean.4 I used Matthew Harpster’s exemplary study of shipwrecks and their cargoes which we’d put in the journal issue to showcase the kind of new gathering of evidence which was making people think this.5 (Obviously, it would be difficult for disruption in the fifth and sixth Christian centuries to be caused by a religion which was first preached in the seventh, so I didn’t really address that point any further.) So having set the perspective for our issue I then explained very quickly what had actually been in it, that each of the authors who was present would speak, and then off we went!
  4. Entrance to Stavrovoini Monastery in Cyprus

    Supposedly the oldest in Cyprus, the Stavrovoini Monastery, or at least its entrance, image by Dickelbersown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

  5. Now, actually, we didn’t go off as planned, because that had already taken up time and Luca thought the others who hadn’t spoken yet should go first, which I agreed with, and so Nikos went next, by saying that one way to look at Mediterranean mobility and connectivity which we hadn’t actually used was the close study of monasteries, whose human inmates often came from afar (and whose texts or inscriptions often tell us this), but whose surviving remains and architecture also testify to such contacts. And he encouraged people to look into this with him going forward.
  6. Dragon's blood trees in Sokotra

    Dragon’s blood trees in Sokotra, image by Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia – Dragon's Blood Tree, Socotra Island, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

  7. Then lastly Rebecca Darley explained that the fifth to seventh centuries were also a time of disruption and breakdown of communications in the Indian Ocean, with communities often surviving very well but without the interchange and contacts that had previously provided for them. She also pointed out, however, that the scales of the two seas were very different: as we spoke, indeed, Sokotra, subject of her article, was in rebellion against the Yemeni government to which it notionally belongs, and the sheer difficulty of getting there (as well as the state of Yemen and the world) meant that just then that was sticking; but nowhere in the Mediterranean could hope to go separate now, and probably couldn’t in our period of concern either, because of just being too easily reachable by their controlling powers.

Now, at this remove I can’t tell you why, but my notes stop there. I don’t know if we’d used up all the time; I recall questions, but apparently I didn’t record any. So in terms of reproducing the conference experience online, I still had some way to go perhaps – and this was about as much academic engagement with a scholarly community as I’d had for maybe six months at this stage, so I can’t rule out that I just sat back and reeled a bit. But it was still quite important, as a reminder that we had done good things, that the relationships which made those things possible continued despite the world situation, were perhaps even enabled in new ways because of how we were dealing with that situation, and that somehow or other there were still things to find out and people with whom it might be fun to do that finding. It was a step out of panic and back towards a community of scholarship, and even at this remove I’m thankful to Luca for getting me to do it and set out on that quite important journey.

1. May I still remind you of that fine issue’s contents? Well, why not, eh? They were:

  1. Luca Zavagno, Jonathan Jarrett & Rebecca Darley, “Editorial” in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, ‘Not the Final Frontier’: The World of Medieval Islands, Vol. 31.2 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 129–39, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1596645.
  2. Luca Zavagno, “‘Going to the Extremes’: The Balearics and Cyprus in the Early Medieval Byzantine Insular System’, ibid. pp. 140-157, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602375
  3. Matthew Harpster, “Sicily: A Frontier in the Centre of the Sea”, ibid. pp. 158-170, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602748
  4. Nikolas Bakirtzis and Xenophon Moniaros, “Mastic Production in Medieval Chios: Economic Flows and Transitions in an Insular Setting”, ibid. pp. 171-195, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1596647
  5. Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates: the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet compared”, ibid. pp. 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101
  6. Rebecca Darley, “The Island Frontier: Socotra, Sri Lanka and the Shape of Commerce in the Late Antique Western Indian Ocean”, ibid. pp. 223-241, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1604930.

2. I still think Collaborate the best of these, to be honest, because of how conveniently laid out and relatively intuitive all its tools are, but there seems no doubt that it started out marginally less stable and rather hoggier of bandwidth than the other two and then didn’t catch up when the competition improved. Teams at this point was still no more than a meetings tool, and it has never really made it as a virtual classroom as far as I’m concerned; Zoom has taken the lead for good reasons, therefore, but it’s still an ever-moving limited awkward program. If Blackboard had any sense they’d have got Collaborate out there as a stand-alone install…

3. Henri Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne, trans. by Bernard Miall (London 1939).

4. For example, compare Gene W. Heck, Muhammad, Charlemagne, and the Arab Roots of Capitalism (Berlin 2006), DOI: 10.1515/9783110202830 with Emmet Scott, Mohammed & Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy (Nashville TN 2011). A quick glance at either will show that these books are not, primarily, about the late antique world. On why this is still happening, see with profit Bonnie Effros, “The Enduring Attraction of the Pirenne Thesis” in Speculum Vol. 92 (Cambridge MA 2017), pp. 184–208, DOI: 10.1086/689473.

5. Harpster, “Sicily”.


Lockdown antiquarianism, I: John of Gaunt’s Castle

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So, we have seen that in early 2020 I was, firstly, visiting Carlisle and then writing myself up as a sinister political scientist; and then, of course, the world tilted on its axis and everything changed and has not, quite, … Continue reading

“With what I know, I could rule the world!”

It is one of the banes of the more academic sort of historian that there is a lot of pressure from funders and governments for our work to produce real-world outcomes, usually economic ones. I’ve mused here (long ago!) about what the purposes of historians’ work might be, and while I’ve tried the position that we fulfil a social function, I’ve never managed to make a case for an economic one (though it has been attempted by others).1 Nonetheless, we know that I study power and authority, and at times I have wondered if angling more towards a political-science angle in my presentation might sometimes give me a way through that particular quagmire. This is where the below came from.

In early 2020 I wrote an application that needed that question of the application of my work answering very directly. The application was a success, but subsequent world events meant that the whole thing fell through as travel became impossible and various other concerns arose in the wake of that ‘novel’ disease most of us caught. In it, however, I had to come up with an account of my “Major academic achievements, innovations and their scientific meanings; The impact of relative work outputs to the study field [globally]. (No more than 2 pages)”. This was quite a big ask, and I’m not sure one would ever see this asked of an academic in the humanities in the UK: whatever our myriad vocational uses may be, the people who hire and fire for us don’t really believe that a humanities academic could have this kind of effect on knowledge and its application. I’m not saying I have, but I had to write something, and having done so I wanted to save the prose somewhere. So this is it, with some anonymisation; this is the difference I think my work could make (albeit perhaps in the wrong hands!), if I could only do it

My primary research interest is in authority and government in the non-industrial world, an interest which I pursue primarily in the European Middle Ages and the Byzantine Empire, approximately CE 300‒1100. I focus both on the tools of power used by rulers and their reception by the ruled, and therefore operate in a broad socio-economic framework partly founded in Marxist thought. My first major work, my doctoral thesis, was published as a book in 2010, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, and was runner-up for the Royal Historical Society of London’s Gladstone Prize. This developed a new methodology for the study of societies which do not preserve substantial narratives, using the extensive documentary survival from Catalonia (Spain) around AD 1000 to reconstruct social networks visible through participation in transactions. By this means I plot the associations between persons that connected the top ranks of society to those below. This book was submitted by the University of Birmingham for the UK’s national Research Excellence Framework in 2013.

Using the techniques developed in my thesis, I have put forward a theorization of medieval societies—and arguably any without electronic communication—based on social range, the geospatial distance over which a person is known and can affect decisions. In this way societies under study can be dismantled into overlapping layers of influence of different ranges. This model can be adapted to contemporary societies by the use of different measures, and has many further applications.

My work on this project also convinced me that medieval government can be understood in terms of Foucault’s concept of governmentality, whereby a ruling power defines certain spheres of social action as its own, thus excluding others from power in those areas. I believe that this was a common project of medieval rulers, and that it is the social process underlying what Western historiography describes as the search for legitimacy. Legitimacy is in fact not just something which the audience of power awards to a convincing performer; it can be asserted and even taken by a suitably confident ruler.

I now study this phenomenon particularly in frontier zones, where rulers must convince those who do not yet belong to their polity to engage with and become part of it, rather than of alternative groupings beyond the frontier. In two articles (‘Combination Capital’ and ‘La fundaciò de Sant Joan’) I have explored such strategies of rule and have developed a model of dual ideological and material engagement which the rulers I study deployed from local bases, by buying land in the communities at whose control they aimed and using the rights they held elsewhere to claim political legitimacy in these new areas. This strategy could be effective in any zone where a state engages with a locally distinct identity and is surely still used today, albeit untheorized. I now seek to develop models for such frontier interactions in comparative dialogue with scholars with expertise on other areas and periods, and have organized several conference sessions and a dedicated international conference, thanks to a British Academy Research Grant, to bring such scholars together. I intend to continue this work by testing my findings with political scientists and anthropologists. The extensive scholarly literature on frontiers, especially on those of [your country], has been extremely useful to me here, but does not anticipate my conclusions, which also necessarily study the disputed existence of pre-industrial states and the definition of the term ‘frontier’. On all of this my work offers new insight.

Because of the source material I normally use, transactional documentation dealing mostly with land, I also work on document creation, literacy, cultural understanding and memory. In this I have developed a new approach to such materials, known as ‘critical diplomatic’, and in 2013 published a volume of essays by Western and Eastern scholars on this, Problems and Possibilities; my chapter there and my recent SSCI-indexed article ‘Ceremony, Charters and Social Memory’ are some of my contributions in this field. I emphasize that such technologies of government are often used in ways not foreseen by their inventors—we see this with the Internet, but the problem is much older. To understand the effects of government, however, it is necessary to understand its uses to the people it governs. These priorities also inform my research in the area of numismatics and coinage, where again the purposes of ancient states in issuing coin were often quite different from the uses which people made of it. I have two papers currently in press… that raise such questions in the areas of forgery or imitation, also a concern in my documentary work, and of acceptance of or resistance to governmental strategy. These are concerns for all modern states and my work has messages about them for modern audiences. In particular, my emphasis on the limited control that states have over the circulation of money applies more widely to all forms of cultural broadcast; widespread issue does not guarantee widespread reception and study of ancient empires like Byzantium suggests that targeted messages directed at powerful social groups were sometimes more effective.

While my work has many points of comparison and contact with [your country at one of its peak periods], therefore, my findings and research impact reach into most periods of world history. My new understandings of ancient and medieval rulers and their aims and strategies can help to understand rulers in many other periods and present models of successful government in contexts well beyond my period of study.

I admit that I sound pretty sinister there, hence my title, and of course one always presents only certain sides of oneself in any pitch or application.2 That said, I don’t think anything I’ve said there is untrue, either, even if my impact is limited somewhat by the relatively few people who actually read my stuff (and how few of them are in government). But it obviously convinced someone…

1. Philip Kraeger, “Humanities Graduates and the British Economy: The Hidden Impact” (Oxford 2013) online here, though whether a study of Oxford graduates alone helps save the sector we may doubt; Ian Diamond, Frances Burstow, Simon Gallecher, Rita Gardner, Roger Goodman, Shelagh Green, Martin Halliwell, David Hughes, Emma Hunt, Stephen Isherwood, Ewart Keep, Neil Kenny, Peter Mandler, Anne Sofield, Catherine Souch, Allan Sudlow, Molly Morgan Jones, Harriet Barnes, Adam Wright & Tony Lyscom, “Qualified for the Future: Quantifying Demand for Arts, Humanities and Social Science Skills” (London 2020), online here, may be better balanced but has way less evidence.

2. The title, I should say, is not mine, but a line from The Brain Surgeons, “The Brain from Terra Incognita” on Eponymous (Cellsum Records 1994), online here.


Return to Carlisle

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My progress through my backlogged academic life now takes us into March 2020. The world was about to go mad, but as yet Britain had very little idea if any that that was coming, and the most immediate problem my … Continue reading

The lost reputation of King Hugh of Italy

As so often, I have to beg your forgiveness for a gap in posting. Family has become a much larger part of my life this year than usual, is probably the shortest way to put it, and they keep getting my weekends. However, I do have something ready now, so here goes. Every now and then I am spurred to write a post here by something I’ve read, in which I think I have a new historical insight that, nonetheless, I don’t think I could get a publication out of, either because it’s too minor or because I could never get up to speed in the relevant subfield in time. That latter kind of thought is obviously vulnerable to me subsequently finding out that, if I had been up to speed, I’d have known someone had already had the idea; we’ve seen this happen here, and this time it has happened again but thankfully, during the draft stage so that I can still write it up coherently. On this occasion, the subject is a tenth-century king who too often gets forgotten about, Hugh of Italy, and it turns out I may still have something to add.

Portrait of King Hugh of Italy from the 12th-century cartulary of the monastery of Casauria

Portrait of King Hugh of Italy from the 12th-century cartulary of the monastery of Casauria, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Lat. 5411, fo. 270r, online here but on this occasion got from the public domain file on Wikimedia Commons

Hugh of Italy is not much known now. He began his career as son of the Count of Arles, in southern France, at the time when the Carolingian Empire was running into its final breakdown, and he wound up closely associated with one of the last and most troubled Carolingians, Louis the Blind, son of the usurper King Boso of Provence but nonetheless himself becoming King of Provence after his father in 887, King of Italy in 900 and Emperor in 901. Louis was kicked out of Italy in a coup there in 905, which is when he earned his unfortunate byname, and retired to Provence where Hugh now became his chief advisor and started an on-and-off war with King Rudolph II of Burgundy. Rudolph also got involved in Italy, in the end deposing and removing Emperor Berengar, who had chased out Louis the Blind, and Berengar’s supporters therefore asked Hugh to step in, so in 925 he became King of Italy like his boss had been; in 928, when Louis died, Hugh simply annexed Provence to Italy and ruled them both, and he lasted in this position, more or less, till 945, when he in his turn got kicked out of Italy by another man named Berengar. Still King of Provence, Hugh died not very long after this, in 947.1

Despite the tangled way in which it all arose, in the terms of the time Hugh was a success as King of Italy. His rule really only encompassed the north of the peninsula, and he could not control Rome despite a tactical marriage there (largely because the relevant wife, the infamous Marozia, had a son by her first husband, Alberic I lord of Rome, himself an interesting figure, and that son, Alberic II, did not intend to let the city out of his grip despite his mother’s new interest). But on the other hand, Hugh fought and won (mostly) against the Hungarian raiding armies that plagued the era and the Muslim raiders who had set up in the wildest part of Provence at la Garde-Freinet; he managed that latter with Byzantine naval help, and in the end indeed a daughter of his married into the Byzantine imperial family and finished up briefly as empress.2 I put some of this together for my article that touched on la Garde-Freinet and thought then that it seemed weird that someone so internationally successful should be such a small part of our historiography.3 Admittedly, he has the problem that he belongs to no current nation very clearly, so no-one wants him to be proud of; but still. He held a series of tricky situations together for decades with what was clearly considerable personal force and ability. So why is his reputation so scant?

Later tenth-century manuscript page of Liutprand's Antapodosis now in Münich

Later tenth-century manuscript page of Liutprand’s Antapodosis, now Münich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 6338, image public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Well, when I was then writing it seemed obvious to me that the answer was Liudprand of Cremona. Everyone’s favourite gossipy tenth-century Italian chronicler, you see, owed Hugh a living, having first been employed at his court. As a result of this, he is usually considered to be one of Hugh’s fans, but I have never thought this to be so. Liudprand undermines Hugh by mocking his wives’ conniving manipulation of him, which I knew already from scholarship, but looking at la Garde-Freinet I realised that he also collapses time so that Hugh’s victory over the Muslims there is immediately made irrelevant by his concession of the frontier passes of the Alps to them to keep him safe from Berengar of Ivrea, which actually only happened later.4 Whether Liudprand owed him his start or not, therefore, Hugh was apparently safe to lampoon from where Liudprand eventually got, and what success of his comes through Liudprand’s account is, I think, simply because it was too well-known to be ignored; he had to go all Chaucer’s Knight on it instead.5 So I thought that we should probably try looking past Liudprand to see the real power that Hugh apparently wielded. And then I read something else which notes that at the Italian monastery of Farfa, a namesake but unrelated Abbot Hugh at the end of the tenth century remembered King Hugh as a force for the good in the monastery’s history, helping it recover its property by installing and supporting an effective abbot like the author. That’s a politicised record itself, obviously, but one in which Hugh featured as one of the good kings, not the bad ones who had helped Farfa lose the property in the first place.6 So I decided there was something to write here.

Now, as it turns out, better scholars of Italy than me had already spotted this, and in particular none other than Ross Balzaretti had already published an article in 2016 that I’d completely missed, saying that it’s not just Liudprand, but all Liudprand’s contacts, who participate in this running down of Hugh’s reputation.7 Ross thinks that this was not just to amuse King Otto I of the Germans, for whom by this time most of these people worked and who in one case had installed their boss, but because of Hugh’s pretty free-wheeling attitude to marriage and legitimacy of offspring. The Wikipedia entry I found when I first drafted this post in February 2020 was and still is revealing here: it lists eight children, only two of whom were legitimate, both by his second of four wives. Hugh probably wasn’t the model reform monarch, therefore, whatever Farfa thought of him, and he had also removed one of our important primary authors, Bishop Rather of Verona, from office for a while.8 So there were axes grinding for him. Liudprand, who seems to have been highly amused by all sexual misconduct, probably didn’t think better of anyone for it either, but mainly I think he just found Hugh laughable in safe retrospect; Liudprand wasn’t a very nice man.9 Anyway, Ross does all this better than I just have, including the setting of Hugh’s career in context, so you can read him if you need the details. But there is just one thing he doesn’t cover, and there I can help because it’s about the Iberian Peninsula and indeed also about la Garde-Freinet.

La Garde-Freinet, seen from the fort on Massif des Maures

La Garde-Freinet, seen from the fort ruins on Massif des Maures, photo by Patrick RouzetOwn work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Y’see, it wasn’t just the Byzantines who paid attention to Hugh, but also the first Umayyad Caliph in Spain, ‘Abd al-Rahmān III al-Nāsir. Various European rulers seem to have assumed that he was in some way or another in charge of the Muslim raiders at la Garde-Freinet, whom even Muslim sources say had come from al-Andalus, and embassies were probably sent to him about this.10 The most famous of these was led by Abbot John of Gorze, who spent several years in Córdoba while everyone tried to stop him getting himself martyred by denouncing the Prophet Muhammad before the Caliph.11 It’s not really clear that he was sent to negotiate about the raiders, rather than in fact to denounce Islam, but priorities seem to have changed as when he sent for instructions after a couple of years, that was one of the things that came back: “accomplish peace and friendship about the infestation of Saracen bandits”.12 The source that tells us this, a biography of John written after his death, unfortunately doesn’t survive complete, so we don’t know if that was achieved once he and the caliph made friends, but we may suspect not. Why? Because the Muslim chronicler Ibn Hayyān, writing in the later eleventh century but with apparent access to Cordoban court records, recorded a different embassy from a different king that raised the same question, as a result of which instructions were sent to the qādi (more or less, director) at ‘Farahsinit’, pretty clearly Fraxinetum, the Latin for la Garde-Freinet, telling him to lay off the relevant king’s territory. And who was the relevant king? Why, Hugh of Italy of course.13

So at the end of this we have, for the first half of the tenth century, one man whose diplomatic web reached effectively from end to end of the Mediterranean, making rulers he’d never met do what he wanted for no very clear reason, making up for his own weakness by his ability to mobilise or demobilise the forces of others, and generally surviving at the precarious pinnacle of Italian and wider Meridional politics for twenty years and getting in the end to die in his bed, quite possibly with someone the Church thought he shouldn’t have been with. There are ways in which such a person could be considered the most important man in Europe just then, and I imagine Hugh did so see himself (which may be why Liudprand liked to take him down so much). If I ever write the book I’d like to about the tenth century, Hugh will have to get a decent bit of it. It makes you wonder what other people like this have got written out or down because their achievements didn’t turn into countries or monasteries…

1. In English there really isn’t much about tenth-century Italy, as I’ve mentioned before, but I recently re-read Guiseppe Sergi, “The Kingdom of Italy” in Timothy Reuter (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History volume III: c. 900–c. 1024 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 346–371, and it’s better than I remembered and definitely enough to start with. I haven’t yet read Chris Wickham, Medieval Rome: stability and crisis of a city, 900-1150 (Oxford 2015), but you’d imagine it would help.

2. Here you’d definitely want Wickham, Medieval Rome, by the look of it pp. 20-28 & 204-212, but for la Garde-Freinet best of all is Kees Versteegh, “The Arab Presence in France and Switzerland in the 10th Century” in Arabica Vol. 37 (Leiden 1990), pp 359–388, and for the Byzantine marriage you’re best to go to the source, which is Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De administrando imperio, ed. Gyula Moravcsik & transl. R. J. H. Jenkins, Corpus fontium historiae Byzantinae 1, 2nd ed. (Washington DC 1967), cap. 26.

3. Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates? ‘Islandness’ in the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet” in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101, pp. 212-214.

4. The Works of Liudprand of Cremona: Antapodosis; Liber de Rebus Gestis Ottonis; Relatio de Legatione Constantinopolitana, transl. F. A. Wright (London 1930), online here, Antapodosis V.xvi-xvii, and see also V.xix. On interpreting Liudprand, an ever-live concern, see for example Jon N. Sutherland, Liudprand of Cremona, Bishop, Diplomat, Historian: Studies of the Man and His Age (Spoleto 1988), and, maybe best of all till recently, Karl Leyser, “Ends and Means in Liudprand of Cremona” in James Howard-Johnston (ed.), Byzantium and the West, c. 850‒c. 1200, Byzantinische Forschungen 13 (Amsterdam 1988), pp. 119–143, reprinted in Leyser, Communications and Power in Medieval Europe: The Carolingian and Ottonian Centuries, ed. Timothy Reuter (London 1994), pp. 125–142.

5. For those that don’t know, I refer here to a book by the late lamented member of Monty Python, Terry Jones, Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary, 4th edn (London 2017), originally published in 1980, in which he argued that the apparently-heroic and chivalric knight in the Canterbury Tales was actually being placed by Chaucer at every notorious defeat or disgrace in European warfare of the fourteenth century possible for one man to attend, as a send-up of the ideal of chivalry the knight purported to represent. This was widely embraced by literature scholars at the time, and widely rejected by scholars of medieval warfare as being a stretched reading of almost all the evidence, or so I have been told. Jones seems to have relished the fight and made his argument more specific with each edition. Still, I have been told this at school, thirty years ago, in the specific context of a history teacher telling us our English teacher was teaching us rubbish, and so it’s possible I don’t fairly reflect the current state of the discussion…

6. Jean-Marie Sansterre, “« Destructio » et « diminutio » d’une grande abbaye royale : la perception et la mémoire des crises à Farfa aux Xe et dans les premières décennies du XIe siècle” 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. 469–485 at p. 475.

7. Ross Balzaretti, “Narratives of success and narratives of failure: representations of the career of King Hugh of Italy (c.885–948)” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 24 (Oxford 2016), pp. 185–208, DOI: 10.1111/emed.12140, on here.

8. Balzaretti, “Narratives”, pp. 190-197; on Rather of Verona see also Irene van Renswoude, “The sincerity of fiction: Rather and the quest for self-knowledge” in Richard Corradini, Matthew Gillis, Rosamond McKitterick and Irene van Renswoude (edd.), Ego Trouble: Authors and Their Identities in The Early Middle Ages, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 15 (Wien 2010), pp. 227–242, on here.

9. See here not least Ross Balzaretti, “Liutprand of Cremona’s Sense of Humour” in Guy Halsall (ed.), Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2002), pp. 114–127, but also Philippe Buc, “Italian Hussies and German Matrons: Liutprand of Cremona on Dynastic Legitimacy” in Frühmittelalterliche Studien Vol. 29 (Sigmaringen 1995), pp. 207–225, or Antoni Grabowski, “From Castration to Misogyny: The Meaning of Liudprand of Cremona’s Humour” in Acta Poloniae Historica Vol. 112 (Warszawa 2015), pp. 243–268.

10. Argued most straightforwardly by Ann Christys, Christians in al-Andalus (711 – 1000) (Richmond 2002), pp. 108-110, on the supposed basis of Liudprand, Antapodosis, I.i-iii; but Liudprand never actually describes the embassy which his correspondent, Recemund by then Bishop of Elvira, was returning, there or elsewhere.

11. Christys, Christians in al-Andalus, pp. 109-113; for the Life, or the significant bit of it, in English (and indeed in Latin) see Colin Smith (ed./transl.), Christians and Moors in Spain, volume 1: 711 – 1150 (Warminster 1988), no. 14.

12. Frustratingly, Smith ellipses this bit out of his translation (ibid. cap. 130). I actually did my own translation before finding Smith’s, however, which is what I’m here quoting, and if you want the Latin you can find it in Georg Heinrich Pertz (ed.), “Vita Iohannis Abbatis Gorziensis auctore Iohanne Abbate S. Arnulfi” in Pertz & Georg Waitz (edd.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica… Scriptorum Tomus IV (Hannover 1841), online here, pp. 335‒377, where it is also cap. 130.

13. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates?”, p. 214, based on Versteegh, “Arab Presence”, p. 363 & n. 15. He cites Ibn Ḥayyān, al-Muqtabis, ed. Pedro Chalmeta, Federico Corriente & M. Subh (Madrid 1979), p. 308.

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).