Category Archives: archaeology

Seminar CLIX: difficulties of studying medieval Balkh

The backlog now advances to the autumn term of the academic year just gone, a mere ten months now, and finds me in the Medieval Seminar of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages at Birmingham on 7th October 2014, when one of our resident scholars, Arezou Azad, was presenting with the title, “Balkh Art & Cultural Heritage Project: exploration, maps and Silk Road history from northern Afghanistan”. I should read Arezou’s book, because although Balkh is some way off my usual patch it’s really interesting, a real point where worlds met as the routes across the north of the Himalayas arrived at a junction heading both south to India and west to Persia, a major early Buddhist centre and that not the first or last faith to locate itself there, this also being the place of death of Zoroaster; under medieval Islam, likewise, it was a thriving university town that supplied many of the Caliphate’s leading scholars, and now somehow it’s a place almost no-one in the West has heard of.1 So I was eager to find out what I should already have read in the speaker’s book, which is always one gain of going to seminars, isn’t it?

What better image to borrow than the project website’s masthead, not least because it’s quite impressive…

The project about which Arezou set out to teach us is indeed an ambitious one: there have been eleven people involved both on site and spread across the scholarly globe, as the website says: “a team of experts with specialist knowledge on Afghan archaeology, coins, ceramics, and Persian and Arabic texts”, and more besides given that some of the documents from the area are in Bactrian, a language that really very few people in the world now read (which is frustrating to me, as these documents are obviously charters and I want to know how they compare…). They have aimed to look at settlement patterns, resource use, connections and conversion, fortification (the city walls seem to have been almost gone between the tenth and fifteenth centuries, but there is some suggestion that a new circuit was put up to encircle the whole oasis, a 72 km effort that it would be marvellous actually to prove), administration, religious building and a few other things besides including editions of the few surviving texts from the city. These include the Bactrian charters, which are apparently largely one family’s archive (which is perhaps even more intriguing than a civic one would be), and a fifteenth-century history of the city called the Fada’il-i Balkh, surviving in a Persian translation of its Arabic original and providing biographical notes about seventy generations of city luminaries, including a couple of notable queens and some learned women about whom Arezou has already written.2

Inside a post-Timurid shrine in Balkh, photo by Arezou Azad

Inside a post-Timurid shrine in Balkh, photo by Arezou Azad

All of this is however complicated by the fact that the project is trying to study a place now in Afghanistan, which is not currently perfectly accessible… Balkh is largely clear of warzone but local security is still quite tight, not least because that actually puts it very close to the border with Uzbekistan. That also has the complication that sites in the city’s old territory are now in fact across the border, meaning that they have to have a team member working with old Soviet archæological reports on finds that they can’t get at. The finds that they can get at, meanwhile, are in Kabul, were mostly excavated by French teams in the 1970s and were found in storage of the most dreadful kind, rooms full of uncatalogued potsherds and coins carefully stored in airtight plastic bags with perhaps just a little bit of moisture along with them that consequently provided perfect conditions for thriving populations of mould to grow on them then die in the bag.3 Even once conserved, the original records of these coins’ discovery context has been lost, and the situation is little better for many of the other finds, but what little is known suggests that they are only from two or three areas of the city, so that a great deal remains archæologically blank.

A coin of al-Mubarak (Balkh)

A coin of al-Mubarak, which is to say Balkh, cleaned and conserved; I can’t tell you metal or date but it’s one of the finds!

The team can’t afford to maintain an actual presence in either Balkh or Kabul except for local interns, who have been having to work largely unsupervised and unpaid with what help the Délégation archéologique française en Afghanistan is able to offer. This seems not to have stopped them making great efforts, but it’s obviously not ideal and putting their findings to work is very difficult. Indeed, at the time Arezou was speaking, the whole team had only been able to meet twice since they began the project in late 2011, although there was to be a conference in January 2015, which seems to have been the last time the project website was updated. The publication of those papers is obviously a desideratum, but at the end of Arezou’s paper my hopes for what they may contain were, I have to admit, considerably dampened.4 It seems as if new primary material is going to be very hard to add into any new synthesis, so the best we can hope for may be the refinement and greater accessibility of earlier syntheses. There are some places—and many worse than this, right now—which we just can’t study properly!

Professor Hugh Kennedy in discussion with Dr Mark Whittow at the BACH conference, Oxford 2015

The conference looks as if it may have been fun, though! Here the pictures from it show Professor Hugh Kennedy in discussion with Dr Mark Whittow.

1. That book being A. Azad, Sacred Landscape in Medieval Afghanistan: Revisiting the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh (Oxford 2013).

2. A. Azad, “Female Mystics in Medieval Islam: The Quiet Legacy” in Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient Vol. 56 (Leiden 2013), pp. 53–88, DOI: 10.1163/15685209-12341277. The Bactrian documents have been being published for some years now as Nicholas Sims-Williams (ed.), Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan, Vol I: Legal and Economic Documents (Oxford 2001), idem, Bactrian documents from Northern Afghanistan, Vol. 2: Letters and Buddhist texts (London 2007) and Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan III: Plates (Oxford 2013), which must have been a trial judging by the three different publishers. The Fada’il-i Balkh has been edited before, as Shaykh al-Islām al-Wā’iz & ‘Abd Allāh al-Husaynī (edd.), Fadā’il-i Balkh (Tehran 1350 [1971]), but this is apparently “inadequate” (Azad, Sacred Landscapes, p. 22 n. 2), and a new one by project member by Ali Mir Ansari, which will then be translated by Arezou and Edmund Herzig, apparently as Azad, Ansari & Herzig (transl.), Faḍāʾil-i Balkh (London forthcoming), is in progress still.

3. Kids, a curator’s advice to you: if you have old coins in a sealable plastic receptacle, like a zip-lock bag or something, poke a pinhole in that plastic or you too may face this problem after 35 years…

4. Arezou’s Birmingham webpage does mention as forthcoming something that looks as if it might be that publication, A. Azad, Edmund Herzig & Paul Wordsworth (edd.), Early Islamic Balkh: History, Landscape and Material Culture of a Central Asian City (forthcoming), but that’s the only trace I can find so far.

Towards a Global Middle Ages III and final: bits and pieces from around the world

I’ve put in two quite heavy posts now about thoughts arising from the meeting of the Global Middle Ages Network I was invited to in September last year, and although they have not exhausted those thoughts they have used up all the big ones, so this last one collects the small stuff. Consequently it’s a bit less structured than the others and I will use headings to gather it up, but hopefully there’s something in it for most readers.

The Rôle of Cities

Cities were one of the things that those assembled thought would be most obviously comparable across a wide area, because most areas of the world had cities in the Middle Ages. But this set off my erstwhile Insular early medievalist’s alarm bells somewhat, because there’s a substantial debate in Anglo-Saxonist circles about when we can start talking about England having had towns, let alone cities, and in Ireland agreement is pretty universal that, unless big monasteries and their dependent settlements count, towns arrived only with the Vikings.1 This has led to some fairly theorised wrangling about how to define a town, with words like Kriterienbundel (a bundle of criteria) flying around it, and I’ve written about this here before. This was not a debate that we seemed to be having here and I wondered why not.

The ghost town of Craco, Italy

In the thirteenth century this place had a bishop, a lord and a university, and yet I cannot help thinking it is not necessarily what we all meant by the word city… It is the ghost town of Craco, in Italy. “Craco0001” by No machine readable author provided. Idéfix~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims).. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

It’s not that no-one asked what a city might actually be, not least because I did. The answer that Alan Strathern came up with, a settlement that can’t feed itself, presumably meaning by the agriculture or hunting of its own inhabitants, is actually a pretty good one in basic economic terms, but could again easily encompass a big monastery or an army camp while maybe not including, for example, fifth-century London as we currently envisage it, so I see some problems still.2 There’s also an important difference between a settlement that can’t feed itself and one that could, but is structured so as not to have to; some quite small places running on tribute were not necessarily doing so out of economic necessity, but because it was how they demonstrated and enacted importance. This kind of blur is why we need multiple criteria, but the western Kriterienbundel, which classically includes defences, planned streets, a market, a mint, legal autonomy, a rôle as a central place, population density, economic diversification, plot-type settlement, social stratification, religious organisation and political centrality, might not all make sense in, say, northern China.3 So I leave that there to wonder about, as I think it still needs it.

Map of Anglo-Saxon London in the seventh century

So, OK, we have defences and religious centrality, but probably not political centrality and while we do have economic diversification it’s not in the same place as the defences… I think I’ll leave this to them. Map borrowed from the Musem of London blog, linked through.

Anthropologists of resort

Here just a short note that there was, in some ways surprisingly little resort to anthropological models in this meeting but when the anthropologists did come in it tended to be the same one. I am of the opinion that while we can almost always profit from talking to anthropologists and then taking their models home to try on, a meeting and project with as broad a comparative framework as this one might need the outside help least of all; there are already an immense number of models flying about, surely, or ought to be. This is in fact more or the less the state I want to get my frontiers network to (had you considered offering a paper, by the way?), where we actually make our own theory. But until this group gets itself there, one name seems likely to recur, and that name was David Graeber. I have not read Graeber, though he is one of my anthropologist of resort‘s own anthropologists of resort and I know that I need to, and I see that he works on concepts that should indeed be comparable between societies, here mainly economic value, but I will need to read him before I can stop worrying about how well work based on him will encompass societies that didn’t use money and in which honour was something you could put a price on in law (which was supposed to be paid in money they didn’t have).4 I suppose this misgiving only exposes my ignorance and I ought to just knuckle down and get one of his books out of a library when I have long-term access to one again next month.5

Models of Trust

Some of the most interesting conversations in the meeting for me were about whether trust might be a concept around which one could organise a global comparison of medieval-period societies. It’s hard to dig further into this without basically summarising Ian Forrest‘s presentation, but he made the excellent point that as long as we are looking at contact over distances, trust was crucial because so little of what people knew of each other could be checked or verified.6 There was much debate about, firstly, whether this was a medieval issue or a more general one and whether that made a difference to its potential for the project, which Ian thought was best answered in terms of scale, often my favourite terms as you know, and secondly how trust could have been tested in such milieux, whether religion secured it and how foreigners could access that or whether kinship might work better (and how they accessed that.7 Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias told us of work that broke trust relationships down into horizontal ones, as between brothers, and hierarchical ones, as between boss and subordinate, and that in some ways the most interesting points of comparison might be between things that wouldn’t fit that scheme, and that struck me as really clever but also murderously abstruse to try and carry out, especially (as Ian had up-front admitted) in areas where the evidence was largely archæological.8 Lots to think about here but less clear as yet how to test it all…

And, types of network

There was also some interesting talk around the idea of networks. Jonathan Shepard had diaarmingly admitted that he was trying to continue working on empires by seeing them as large top-down networks, but was quickly led into the alternatives, because if a network is not top-down, no-one is in overall control of its structure, which will instead presumably develop as needed and possible and die off where non-functional. There were also in-between states to be considered such as diasporas, where the initial distribution is very much directed from above but its effects and low-level distribution is basically uncontrolled, or the slave trade, where the initial gathering of points of linkage is very localised but subsequent transmission takes place through a highly-structured network which is, nonetheless, not always there because, as Rebecca Darley pointed out, the early Middle Ages at least has to deal with the idea of trading places that occupied only intermittently.9 These were all interesting ways to think about intermittency and duration in almost any area. How were such intermittent networks accessed? If people rarely went somewhere, how did anyone know where to go? I imagined, for example, Norse settlers in Newfoundland sometimes, in very hard winters, trying to find the Dorset people to trade with (as some people think they did, even if perhaps in better circumstances), and going to places they supposed they might be and hoping to coincide. Does that still count? And if so, did it have much effect? In some ways you could dismiss it as occasional and not how that society usually worked (or indeed as entirely hypothetical) but if it ever did, they must have been pretty profound experiences for those taking part…

Wool recovered from a Dorset site in Baffin Island that has been argued to be a Viking import to the area

Wool recovered from a Dorset site in Baffin Island that has been argued to be a Viking import to the area

That’s about enough, anyway, but it goes to show that despite some of my big-order doubts about the viability of this group’s concept, attempting the work at all involves enough productive thinking about difficult cases of comparison and contact that we can all profit from their attempt even if it doesn’t achieve its main goal, and that might be quite enough to count it as a success!

1. My go-to for this is still Martin Biddle, “Towns” in David Wilson (ed.), The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England (London 1976), pp. 99-150, and for Ireland Charles Doherty, “The monastic town in early medieval Ireland” in Howard B. Clarke and A. Simms (edd.), The comparative history of urban origins in non-Roman Europe: Ireland, Wales, Denmark, Germany, Poland and Russia from the 9th to the 13th century, British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 255 (Oxford 1985), 2 vols, II, pp. 45-75; both are old but make the point.

2. I haven’t read this, but a quick search makes look like the obvious thing on this Howard B. Clarke, “Kingdom, emporium and town: the impact of Viking Dublin” in History Studies Vol. 2 (Limerick 2000), pp. 13-24.

3. Biddle, “Towns”, pp. 99-100; the idea is older, though, perhaps as old as Edith Ennen, Frühgeschichte der europäischen Stadt (Bonn 1953).

4. See Elina Screen, “Anglo-Saxon law and numismatics: a reassessment in the light of Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law” in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 77 (London 2007), pp. 150-172.

5. Presumably his Debt: the first 5,000 years (Bew York City 2011), but I’ll take recommendations…

6. For this I always think of Ernst Pitz, “Erschleichung und Anfechtung von Herrscher- und Papsturkunden vom 4. bis 10. Jahrhundert” in Fälschungen im Mittelalter. Internationaler Kongreß der Monumenta Germaniae Historica, München, 16.-19. September 1986, Schriften der Monumenta Germaniae Historica 33 (Hannover 1988), 5 vols, III, pp. 69-113, because of the stories in it about popes who just have no idea what is going on in many farflung places when people come from there to get it changed.

7. Some of these points came from Chris Wickham, who prefaced them with the name of Jessica Goldberg, whose most relevant work would seem to be Institutions and geographies of trade in the medieval Mediterranean: the business world of the Maghribi traders (Cambridge 2012).

8. I didn’t catch the reference here. My notes contain the word ‘Salura’, but I can’t tell if this is a cite or a place or what, sorry!

9. Professor Shepard’s examples were here coming largely from his (and others’) Dirhams for Slaves project, about which I have several reservations, but I can’t find that it’s as yet published anything, so I can’t tell you where to find the opportunity to think differently, sorry!


An array of interesting links

I tend to store up interesting links against a day when I have no content to post, but the backlog situation has meant that not only does that never occur any more but that the links themselves get very old. I thought it was about time to clear some out! I had so many that categories seem necessary, even. So let me humbly suggest that you may wish to click to learn more about the following:

    Things from out of the ground

    A Celtic disc brooch looted by Vikings and now in the British Museum

    A Celtic disc brooch looted by Vikings and now in the British Museum, see below

  1. In no particular order, a previously-undiscovered Viking fortress, at Vallø in Denmark, located in mid-2014 by laser imaging and ground-penetrating radar;
  2. I have been known, in my cynical past, to say that the best way to hide an archæological discovery you wish to keep secret is to give it to the British Museum, due to their cataloguing backlog, but I was not wholly serious obviously, whereas this is a bit ridiculous (but has that brooch in it);
  3. further stuff has also been found, as is now de rigeur for all credible archæology in the UK, under a car-park, in Haddenham in Cambridgeshire where they hit what seems to have been a small sixth-century Anglo-Saxon cemetery during development work in February 2014;
  4. some eighth- to -tenth-century bodies found stuffed in a well Entrains-sur-Nohain in Burgundy provoke the writer of that post to several equally hypothetical Carolingian-history explanations
  5. an Iron Age hillfort at Broxmouth in East Lothian, Scotaland (just), has revealed what seems to be evidence of fifth-century BC steel-making;
  6. and there has been an array of hoards discovered that need their own subsection:
    A silver lidded vessel of Carolingian date recovered in a hoard from Dumfries in 2014

    A silver lidded vessel of Carolingian date recovered in a hoard from Dumfries described below

    1. a hoard of Viking silver loot, including what was once a really nice Carolingian lidded ewer or similar, found near Dumfries in south-west Scotland in late 2014;
    2. “one of the largest Roman coin hoards ever discovered in Britain”, 22,000 or so third-century coins found in Devon in November 2013 but only breaking into the news in September last year; I think Georgia Michael told me about this one so hat tip to her;
    3. and although 5,000 coins suddenly seems like not so big a deal, nonetheless, for the Anglo-Saxon period it is; I’m pretty sure this find nearly doubles the amount of King Cnut’s coinage known to exist in the UK, for example, and this one I definitely do owe to Georgia so off that hat comes once again;
    4. Posed photograph of some gold dinars from a hoard found off the coast of Israal

      I would not let someone do this with a gold find even before it had been catalogued, myself, but I am not the Israel Antiquities Authority, in whose care this hoard of Fatimid gold dinars ended up (see left)

    5. and two thousand is hardly trying, but firstly these ones were gold and secondly they were off the coast of Israel, dating to the reigns of the tenth- and eleventh-century Fatimid caliphs Al-Ḥākim and Al-Ẓāhir, and possibly coming from a sunken tax shipment, which I bet has caused a lot more diving since the news came out and which news I owe, once more, to Georgia Michael, who must have got the idea that I like coins or something…

    Things afoot in the research world (including those parts of it that blog)

  7. A new(-ish) project running out of Oxford to map all the various hillforts of the British Isles, presumably including that of Broxmouth above…
  8. … out of which project came the following endeavours from my native land, with lots to read if hillforts are of interest to you;
  9. a thorough and useful set of suggestions about what was wrong with the UK’s Research Excellence Framework exercise, not including its terrible name but with many other good points, from the self-appointed but persuasive Council for the Defence of British Universities (and here I owe a tip of the hat to Professor Naomi Standen);
  10. more light-heartedly, here is a reason for scribal errors that I had never considered, and still rather wish I hadn’t given some of the suggested remedies;
  11. a suggestion from a doctoral researcher at Sheffield that the current male fashion for extreme facial hair has medieval precedents, and plenty of modern ones too (a tip of the hat here to one of the Australian Medievalists);
  12. Things from out of the archive

    Fragments of a mid-seventh-century manuscript of the Qu'ran in the Mingana Collection, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham

    Fragments of a mid-seventh-century manuscript of the Qu’ran in the Mingana Collection, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham, see below

  13. Some extra fragments of illustration from the Catalan comital cartulary known as the Liber Feudorum Maior have been rediscovered!
  14. Following our theme of materials for the study of Anglo-Saxon England feared forever lost to scholarship, you may not necessarily be aware that after much deliberation about what to do with it, Professors Stephen Baxter and John Hudson have published the unfinished second volume of Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law on the Early English Laws website as Patrick Wormald, Papers Preparatory to the Making of English Law, vol. II, for which many people may be very grateful;
  15. the Vatican Library’s digitisation project has a new website and a much more searchable catalogue, though it does admittedly appear to be broken just now;
  16. and, to end with something at least that is very new and exciting, we have a lot of people coming to the Barber Institute just now because they have not read far enough down this story to realise that the very very early Qu’ran manuscript it describes is not yet on display here, but it is still extremely exciting!

Leeds 2014 Report II: the edges of many different empires

Returning to the backlog on reporting what others think about the Middle Ages finds me now at the second day of the International Medieval Congress 2014, on 8th July 2014, and faced with some hard choices between sessions. In the end, I chose this one because I knew one of the people in it, had reviewed the work of another and Wendy Davies was moderating, and this is what I got.

515. On The Fringes of Empire: local and supra-local identities beyond the Carolingian realm, I

  • Frode Iversen, “Impact of Empires: the Scandinavian fringe AD 200-1300”.
  • Letty Ten Harkel, “On the Edge of Empire: early medieval identities on Walcheren (the Netherlands)”.
  • Margarita Fernández Mier, “Peasant Communities and Distant Elites in Early Medieval Asturias”.
  • As you can see, the unifying thread here was Carolingian periphery, but this didn’t always make it through. Dr Iversen gave a very rapid run-through of significant bits of the settlement history of Norway, and when he began to speak of how urbanisation fitted to a new structure as if he’d described change, I realised I must have missed something. I also struggled with Dr Fernández’s paper, although the sites she was talking about, rural sites whose material culture might tell us something about the links from elite to peasants in early medieval Asturias, were very interesting-looking, but as it turned out known much more from place-names than anything more material. She drew a picture of competing local identities visible in funerary archæology and developing church sites that would be familiar in Anglo-Saxon England, however, and looked worth chasing in more places. Both of these papers had a tendency to argue for connection between sites that seemed to me from their maps to be a good distance from each other, in the former case up to 50 km, however, and I wasn’t sure that either case had been demonstrated.

    Aerial view of Middelburg in Walcheren

    Middelburg in Walcheren, one of those cases where it could hardly be clearer where the original settlement was and how the church was inside it…

    Letty Ten Harkel was also arguing for very local identities in her study area, however, and in particular in what has apparently been seen as a chain of associated ringforts along the Netherlands coast that have been blamed placed either in the reign of Emperor Louis the Pious of the Franks (814-840) from texts or the 890s from radio-carbon. The latter is problematic, because by then the area was split between two kingdoms, but Letty argued that there is such variation in size of and finds at these forts that they actually make more sense read as very local lordship centres, erected independently of each other. If there was outside influence, for Letty it was coming from the reviving bishopric of Echternach, not in the era of its Carolingian foundation but in the twelfth century. For me this paper connected most closely to the theme of the session, but only by disputing it!

Nonetheless, my interest was piqued enough to come back for more once caffeinated, as follows.

615. The Fringes of Empire: local and supra-local identities beyond the Carolingian realm, II

  • Alex Langlands, “Empire and Infrastructure: the case of Wessex in the ninth and tenth centuries”.
  • Iñnaki Martín Viso, “Local Communities and Kingship South of the Duero, 9th-11th Centuries”.
  • Álvaro Carvahal Castro, “The Astur-Leonese Power and The Localities: changing collective spaces (9th-10th centuries)”.
  • This session played a lot closer to my usual interests. Dr Langlands was chasing a word, ‘herepath’, literally ‘army-path’ but using a word for army that usually means raiders’ bands, not the army you serve in, and one would think that a path wide enough to carry an army might in fact be a road anyway, so it’s a funny term. Most of the references are in Anglo-Saxon charters, and while Dr Langlands argued convincingly that these paths appear mainly as links between sites rather than routes as such (though now I write that I am no longer seeing the difference) I wasn’t really sure that we could be sure they were anything to do with either roads, bridges or army-service, all of which had come into the argument.

    The track of an ancient herepath near Avebury

    Wikimedia Commons believes this to be an actual herepath, near Avebury, and who am I to say different? “Herepath Avebury England” by Chris Heaton. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

    Professor Martín then took us into the almost-unknown territory of the southern Duero valley in the centuries either side of the year 1000. Somewhere in this period, and with setbacks due to the final, red giant phase of Muslim rule in Córdoba, the kings of Asturias-León acquired a dominant control in this area and most of what we have is to figure it out with is archæology. With it, Professor Martín depicted a process by which the king used military service, and his ability to demand it (or possibly to convince local élites to join in with it) to elbow those élites into a position of obligation to him. He tied this to a particular sort of fortress with square towers and sloping walls that seems to be Andalusi workmanship but in a zone that was never under Andalusi control; I myself thought that that was a very unsafe thing to say, but the general proposition could fit round what I think happens in such zones.

    The Porta dos Cavaleiros in Viseu

    A location of military service in Viseu, one of Dr Mart&iacute’n’s example sites, even if that service would have been a bit later: this is the Porta dos Cavaleiros. “Nt-Viseu-Porta dos Cavaleiros“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

    Lastly Álvaro, whom in this session I realised I had known while we were both at Oxford but never quite fixed his name in my head, looked for those same local élites a bit closer into the Asturo-Leonese core where we have charters to play with, and found them manifest in assemblies, often as small power groups within likewise small communities, the kind of people who make deals for their communities and so on, who must have existed in these zones before our sources, generated by the making of those kinds of links, show them to us.1

    The memorial to the founders of Sant Andreu de Tona on the Turó del Castell de Tona

    The memorial to the founders of Sant Andreu de Tona on the Turó del Castell de Tona, one group of ‘local élites’ we can name

    I’ve gone into some detail with this because these questions, of why people on the edge of polities decide to join in with them, are meat and drink to me and my frontier interests, and as Charles Insley rightly pointed out in discussion, the crucial questions here are ones of agency: who makes anyone in these situations do stuff? All three speakers offered answers, although Professor Martín’s was mostly a judicious refusal to guess where there was no evidence. Only Álvaro seemed to me to have a clear eye on what sort of people these local élites actually were, however, a problem we’ve discussed before, and I offered the answer I even then had in press and alas still do, to wit that we can at least see them in church consecrations, leading their communities.2 Alas, this is a category of evidence that only exists in Catalonia, so Professor Martín remained obdurate, only suggesting that the fueros of the twelfth century indeed suggest some continuities that we can’t, all the same, prove. He’s right, of course!

Anyway, that was all fun and put me back on some Castilian radars I think, but there wasn’t much time to capitalise on it as there was another lunchtime keynote lecture, and again personal and institutional loyalties drove me to attend, as well as the expectation that it would be very interesting, as indeed it was, which I tried not to spoil by noises of eating my packed lunch again. (I’m glad they dropped this arrangement this year.)

699. Keynote Lecture 2014

  • Naomi Standen, “A Forgotten Eurasian Empire: the Liao dynasty, 907-1125”.
  • The Fugong Temple Pagoda, built in 1056 by Emperor Daozong of Liao

    The Fugong Temple Pagoda, built in 1056 by Emperor Daozong of Liao. By Gisling (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

    Naomi introduced what was for many people an unfamiliar area by setting up the familiar dichotomy of civilisation versus nomads, a way of classifying society probably familiar to most people in the West from the work of Ibn Khaldūn but very common in Chinese sources too, especially when the Mongols are at issue. On one side, bureacracy, tax, education, cities, a professional class and so on, on the other personal hierarchy, tribute and plunder, and a life for which warriors trained in the saddle, you know the deal. Naomi then pitched her subject area of the moment, the Liao Empire, as a third way that breaks this dichotomy, using archæology wherever possible to vie with the impression of the Liao given by Chinese writers who were determined to put them, and their cities too, in the nomads box. But they didn’t fit either, Naomi argued: they had a structured élite but it was maintained by family succession, they had a trade network which we can see in ceramics finds along routeways but no sign that the state tapped it, the empire was stable and not expansionist and held to long treaties with inner China, the citizens were called nomads but lived in cities, and people in the empire invested hugely in religious patronage. It also comprised more than two hundred ‘peoples’ as the Chinese geographers counted it but made no legal distinction between them. It had not borrowed all this from central China or been civilised by contact, or so Naomi claimed; it was a different sort of empire. I’m sure that some might contend with this or find it idealistic but the thought experiment of substituting a trinary for one of the binaries with which Western historiography is famously dogged is probably worthwhile even so, and the detail is meanwhile still coming together as the pottery series and the architectural history of the zone get worked out by Naomi’s super project, so we will either way know more before long.

Thus refreshed both physically and mentally, I headed some of the way back west.

719. Were the Umayyad Caliphates Empires? I

  • Andrew Marsham, “In What Respects Was the Umayyad Empire an Empire?”
  • Harry Munt, “The Umayyad Imperial Rationale and Hijazi Cities”.
  • Hannah-Lena Hagemann, “Rulers and Rebels: Kharijite Islamic resistance to Umayyad authority in early Islamic historiography”.
  • This was an interesting and tightly-focused session, even if again about the category of ’empire’ as much as the actual materials of the presenter’s study. Dr Marsham invoked the work of Michael Mann (which I should know better3) and used its categories to argue that the early Islamic caliphate, with its emphasis on dynastic succession, its religious qualities attached to state office, its structured hierarchy of that office and its tax system, was as much an empire as the late Roman one it replaced, which given the inheritance perhaps shouldn’t be surprising but still often is. The other two papers focused on opposition to the Umayyad Caliphs, but from two different sources, in the case of Dr Munt from the cities in the Hijaz area of modern Saudi Arabia and most notably Medina, whose ruling class never aimed at separation from the state but frequently rebelled to achieve better inclusion in it. In the case of Dr Hagemann, however, the rebellion came from the Kharijites, a sect of early Islam who declared, according largely to their opponents, that there were no legitimate successors to the Prophet and therefore rejected all attempts at command in his name; she pointed out that even some of those enemies still used them, in pleasingly Roman style, as a foil for criticism of the Umayyad reégime where those writers felt it had gone so far wrong as almost to justify the reaction of the supposed ‘heretics’. It all gelled very nicely and in discussion I witnessed, for the only time I can remember, someone successfully defend their point against a question about the economy from Hugh Kennedy, no small achievement.

This was all grand, therefore, but I sorely needed caffeine by now, and hunting in the bookfair, always dangerous, found myself deep in conversation with Julio Escalona about the need to get Castilian and Catalan scholars around the same table. Thus it was that I was late for the next session, nothing to do with books honest…

812. Empire and the Law

  • Vicky Melechson, “From Piety to the Death Penalty: new capital crimes in the Carolingian Empire”.
  • Graham Barrett, “Legislation and its Afterlife in Early Medieval Europe”.
  • Sharon Fischlowitz, “Laws of an Empire: after the Romans, what were the leges barbarorum?”
  • So I was late for the start of Ms Melechson’s paper but caught her point quickly, it being that while the Romans really only imposed the death penalty for crimes against the emperor, and the various barbarian laws attempted to divert people from vengeance for murder to compensation payments, nonetheless the influence of the Old Testament in the way the Carolingian kings presented themselves made capital punishment an appropriately Biblical step for increasingly many things. There are arguments one could have with several parts of that but the basic argument seemed well-founded. I got rather less out of Dr Fischlowitz’s paper, which was given largely from the perspective of teaching modern law using the ‘barbarian’ laws as examples. It sounded as if she was having great fun doing it but the paper nonetheless really only told us what she found the most striking bits of late Roman and Frankish law.

    Breviarium Alarici [Bréviaire d'Alaric].

    The opening of the Theodosian Code in the Breviary of Alaric, ironically one of its principal manuscript sources, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Latin 4404, fo. 14v, from Gallica

    But it was all worthwhile for Graham’s paper, which was him absolutely on form: he was arguing that although we know and read late Roman and early medieval law as codes, big books of more or less organised and collected legislation, it could almost never have been used like that, especially not the huge late Roman codices. It was also hardly ever issued like that: the late Roman codes explicitly compile decisions, largely reactive rather than proactive, fragmented and disparate, from centuries apart by many different emperors, the Visigothic Law does some of the same work and citations like this also appear in the Salic and Burgundian laws. What this means is that capitulary legislation like that of the Carolingians would actually have the primary form of law, and the codes we think of as definitive only its secondary collection, which could have very little to do with law as it would have been used, as dockets and loose gatherings of relevant edicts, rescripts and proclamations. This was one of those papers that seemed to make everything very obvious which before had not been, and I hope as with almost all of Graham’s work that we get to see it in print before very long. It provoked a lot of discussion, also, with Paul Hyams wisely pointing out that law that got written relates only to the problems that couldn’t be solved more locally, and is therefore always outstanding. There was also some discussion about law that gets made as part of a treaty process, to which Dr Fischlowitz offered the Lex Romana Burgundionum, intended to regulate the relations of the Romans of what is now Burgundy to the newly-arrived military group after whom it got named, and I proffered the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, after which, probably wisely, the moderator drew the session quickly to a close.

Again I can’t remember how the evening went, but the day had been pretty full and this post is certainly full enough, so I shall leave it here for now and pick up after a couple of smaller posts that don’t take me days to write. I’m sure you’re already looking forward to it…

1. On such groups see now Robert Portass, “Rethinking the ‘small worlds’ of tenth-century Galicia” in Studia Historica: Historia Medieval Vol. 31 (Salamanca 2013), pp. 83-103, online here.

2. Few better statements of this line of thought are available for Spain than Álvaro’s own “Superar la frontera: mecanismos de integración territorial entre el Cea y el Pisuerga en el siglo X” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 42 (Madrid 2012), pp. 601-628, DOI: 10.3989/aem.2012.42.2.08, but I hope soon to be adding to it in “Engaging Élites: Counts, Capital and Frontier Communities in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries, in Catalonia and Elsewhere” in Networks and Neighbours Vol. 2 (Leeds forthcoming for 2014), pp. 202-230, preprint online here.

3. Presumably most obviously M. Mann, The Sources of Social Power Volume 1: a History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760 (Cambridge 1986)? I wonder if this will supply something I found myself in want of in a dissertation supervision a few weeks ago, too, a cite for the conceptual differentiation of ‘intensive’ and ‘extensive’ lordship. If anyone reading happens to have one handy, however, I’d be glad of it!

The Carolingian Frontier I: points south

[Edit: a correction has reached me from one of the organisers of this conference, so please note alterations in the first paragraph. Otherwise, this stands as it did when first posted in June 2015.]

Last July was a rather busy conference season, possibly even busier than this one is, and the first one of it was that one I plugged here long ago (obviously), The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours, which was held at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge from the 4th to the 6th of July. This was organised principally (maybe entirely?) by three postgraduates, and given this—in fact, even not given it— it was a success of a great order as far as I was concerned. I guess that they had some help in securing[Edit:] They secured some really big-hitting speakers, without assistance too, but there were also plenty of new voices, not just from Cambridge, as well as, you know, me, wherever I fit onto that continuum. Aside from one failure of the college staff to realise that during a paper was not when to set up the refreshments noisily in the same room, I don’t recall anything going wrong and lots went right, including some of the most avid dicussion I remember at any conference. So, firstly, my congratulations to the organisers, and now I’ll move onto what people were actually saying!

Cover of the programme of the conference "The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours", 4th-6th July 2014, Cambridge

Cover of the conference programme

The conference ran from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning (which just about allowed people time to move on to the Leeds International Medieval Congress; we went direct from one to the other with one of the organisers in the back of the car…), with Saturday the only full day. The Friday thus had a sort of micro-unity, which was enhanced by the fact that all four papers were on the Mediterranean edges of the Frankish empire. We arrived late, for reasons I no longer recall, however, so I didn’t get all of the first one, a pity as it provoked a great many questions. What I can report broke down like this.

  1. Lorenzo Bondioli, “A Carolingian frontier? Louis II, Basil I and the Muslims of Bari”.
  2. What I got here was focused on the southern Italian city of Bari, which fell to Muslim forces in 841 and then became a distant target of the campaigns of Emperor Louis II, great-grandson of Charlemagne, for whom beating up on Muslims made an excellent way of justifying pushing the Christian cities between him and the Muslims into his control. There were also Byzantine claims to the area, but both empires could derive importance from squashing the same Muslims so there was a short-lived cooperation in 869, which broke down acrimoniously. Eventually Louis captured Bari with Slav aid instead, in 871.1 He then died in 875, however, leaving it more or less ready for the Byzantines to move in as protection. Signor Bondioli was arguing, I think, that the anti-Muslim campaigning was initially a cover for more local ambitions but became the basic requirement of an imperial claim to power in the area, which both sides could benefit from even as they were beholden to it.

  3. José Miguel Rosselló Esteve & Isabel Busquets Porcel, “The Balearic Islands and the Carolingian Empire: an unknown relationship”
  4. As the title implies, this was a paper with less evidence to put to work. It used to be thought that Byzantine control in the Balearic islands ended in the mid-eighth century, and that the Muslims then took over rather later, but we now have reason to believe (seals, mainly) that an observable flight of settlement from the coast to hilltop fortifications was actually done under the auspices of imperial authority. By 799, however, Christians there were soliciting aid against the Muslims from Charlemagne and Carolingian naval forces began to get involved very soon afterwards. What we don’t as yet have is anything archæological to indicate Carolingian presence on the island, rather than control from outside, the islands’ once-three bishoprics all being replaced by mainland Girona for example. (There is a bigger problem here about identifying a Carolingian archæological signature at all, something I have seen elsewhere in Catalonia.) This fits with the ease that the Muslims retook the islands in 849. It seems rather as if this was a place that wanted to be Carolingian but got nothing from the concession, so, did it count as frontier or not? Come to that, did Bari?

This was but one of many themes that came up in the very busy discussion after this session. Oddly, the answers diverged somewhat: the actual urban centre, Bari, had its Muslim presence reduced by Signor Bondiolo’s comments to a sporadic or vestigial mercenary force, making it essentially just a town with a purely local context except when larger polities gave it more, whereas Drs Rosselló and Busquets were anxious to stress the less populous Balearics’ involvement in their wider political world and the articulation of the fortified environment by such powers, even though they were doing this based on only one of the castles on the islands, because it’s the only one (of three on Mallorca itself) that’s been dug. I don’t have a clear record of which one this was, but I think it must have been the Castell del Rei at Pollença, which as far as I can discover is not the one that produced the seals, which came up at Santueri. You can probably argue that if any fort is producing Byzantine seals so far out it bespeaks a wider involvement, but one could still wish for more evidence; the site could have just been coordinating or gathering revenue via the one local official who still wrote to Constantinople, for example.2 We can see more Byzantine involvement in the Balearics in the archæology and more Carolingian in the texts, and I suppose it’s partly a choice of which to emphasise, but in Bari the same arguments from silence led to very different places. As ever, one model won’t do for such variant areas but it does make one wonder what models people start with when they look at them.

The Castell del Rei at Pollença, Mallorca

The Castell del Rei, a serious enough looking refuge! By Grugerio (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Once the moderators had managed to quell things enough to get some tea down us and we had managed to get some air and were all back in the conference room, we got another suitably border-crossing pairing.

  1. Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “The Carolingians and al-Andalus: an overview”
  2. This was nothing so superficial as an overview but in fact a very trenchant analysis, and my notes on it are full of marginal asterisks of emphasis. Professor Manzano pointed out that the area between the Frankish empire and Muslim Spain was articulated by cities, with local rulers who were at first emplaced or suppressed by a centralising Muslim government whose tax systems and garrisons are evident (he argued) through coins and seals, and which the Carolingians just attacked, without further plans, until the Andalusi government collapsed into civil war in the 740s, when Mayor-then-King Pepin III started to get the idea of actual takeover and to incentivise the local élites to come over to his side. Thereafter the contest was for the loyalty of the city lords, and what happened there is that what had been an incomer Muslim élite was displaced by Islamicised locals using either one of the big states on their borders as a hand up into power. Except in the relatively small area of what is now Catalonia that was held by the Carolingians after 830, the resulting power interests were then able more or less to ignore those powers for a long time thereafter.3 This all made a lot of sense to me, and it would probably work in other areas too.

  3. Sam Ottewille-Soulsby, “‘The Path of Loyalty’: Charlemagne and his Muslim allies in Spain”
  4. Sam, one of the organisers, thus had the unenviable task of following one of the masters of the field, but he did so capably by focusing down onto a few particular cases of the kind of interaction Professor Manzano had been discussing, in which lords of cities like Huesca, Pamplona, Barcelona and so on moved between Córdoba and wherever Charlemagne was holding court as each grew more or less able to exert influence in the area, usually gravitating to the stronger but backing away as soon as that meant concessions. In 799, particularly, never mind the famous 778 campaign, Charlemagne had the alliance of the King of Asturias, Barcelona notionally under his lordship, Huesca sending him its keys, Pamplona having freshly thrown out its Muslim governor and a claimant to the Andalusi Emirate hanging round his court… and when Carolingian forces turned up at Pamplona they couldn’t take it and the whole position fell apart. As my notes suggest I thought then too, this is that idea I had long ago of Königsfern; for many a lord in a quasi-independent position, kings and the like are useful resorts but you want them to stay at a distance! This is how the kind of status that Professor Manzano had been drawing out was maintained under pressure, and it is in a way understandable why the two superpowers severally resorted to force to remove such unreliable allies and replace them with still more local ones who actually needed their help to get into power. But we only have to look at the Banū Qāsī to see how that could turn out…

The Catedral de Santa Maria la Real de Pamplona

The Catedral de Santa Maria la Real de Pamplona, not Carolingian-period itself but in a location that would almost certainly have been in use when Charlemagne arrived, and that’s as close as we’re going to get I fear! Image licensed from the Centro Vasco de Arquitectura under Creative Commons.

Questions here were also busy. I asked about the language of such deal-making; of course we don’t know, but I think it is worth asking whether these Arabicized élites spoke a language that Charlemagne’s court could understand, because I think it helps determine whether they seem like the Other or not. Rebecca Darley raised scepticims about the conclusions Professor Manzano was drawing from the coin evidence, and once he’d explained himself I was sceptical too, I’m afraid; much rested on the non-existence of Visgothic copper coinage, which is a given in some parts of the scholarly literature even though it’s been disproved at least three times.4 The seals are still fun, though. And the last question, from someone I didn’t know, was perhaps the most important if again unanswerable. Sam had mentioned that the Carolingian sources refer to some people as custodes Hispanici limitis, ‘guards of the Spanish frontier’. What were they guarding? Lines of defence, points of entry, tax districts? We just don’t know how this government defined the places where they ran out, but by now this gathering seemed a pretty good one in which to start thinking about it!5

This post was again constructed with the aid of Kava Kava, Maui, which turns out to have been a good purchase.

1. I’m lifting the background detail so far from R. J. H. Jenkins (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii: a Commentary (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 2012), pp. 101-106, because it’s what is to hand and I missed the bit where Dr Bondioli doubtless explained it all… I may therefore be slightly out of date.

2. Drs Rosselló and Busquets referenced the Taktika of Emperor Leo VI (now available as George T. Dennis (ed./transl.), The Taktika of Leo VI, Dumbarton Oaks Texts 12 (Washington DC 2010)) by way of explaining what Byzantine policy with regard to fortresses would have been, and OK, but what I’ve just described would fit perfectly well into Leo’s son’s De Administrando Imperii (available as Constantine Porpyhrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii, ed. Gyula Moravcsik & transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, 2nd edn. (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 1967 and as Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 Washington DC 1993)), for all that that’s later, so I think this is also plausibly sourced.

3. All of this reminds that I still badly need to read Eduardo Manzano Moreno, Conquistadores, emires y califas: los Omeyas y la formación de al-Andalus (Barcelona 2006), as it’ll obviously be great.

4. In Xavier Barral i Altet, La circulation des monnaies suèves et visigothiques : contribution à l’histoire économique du royaume visigot, Beihefte der Francia 4 (München 1976); Philip Grierson & Mark Blackburn, Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 1: the Early Middle Ages (5th–10th centuries) (Cambridge 1986) and Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, Sistema monetario visigodo: cobre y oro (Barcelona 1994).

5. We actually have a much better idea of such matters for al-Andalus, largely thanks to Professor Manzano; see his La Frontera de al-Andalus en época de los Omeyas, Biblioteca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991) and “Christian-Muslim Frontier in al-Andalus: idea and reality” in Dionisius Agius & Richard Hitchcock (edd.), Arab Influence upon Medieval Europe (Reading IL 1994), pp. 83-96.

A Compensation Coin, then, Two Rooms of Budding Byzantinists

I have been neglecting this blog, I’m sorry. I can only assure you that this is not out of laziness; rare has been the day of 2015 so far in which I have not written a couple of thousand words, but much less of this has been in the kinds of document that will ever have a readership than I would like, and much of that which has been is a long way off getting to that state… In particular, I have about thirty thousand words of a book manuscript (enthusiastic first-draft words, but words), and at the other end of the scale of scale, about four thousand words of exhibition copy of various sorts which were really hard to keep short. The fruits of all of this will be announced in their due season, of course, but just for the moment let me make up for the long silence with a picture of a coin, and then a conference report.

Reverse of a gold solidus of Emperor John I Tzimiskes, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4953

Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4953 (reverse)

This is a gold solidus of Emperor John I Tzimiskes (969-976), and it’s connected to what I’ve been doing at work lately in several ways. In the first place, it is a little way down the slippery slope of decreasing fineness that Byzantine gold coinage descended in the tenth and eleventh centuries; it looks pretty shiny, but all that glitters is not gold… That’s not news exactly, but it’s one of the types we’ve been blasting with x-rays to find out what more its metal can tell us. Secondly, it’s one of the coins that’s going in the next exhibition on the Coin Gallery at the Barber Institute, which is why I happen to have an image of it handy, And, thirdly, because as you can see it shows the Virgin Mary, identified in Greek, ‘theotokos’, motherbearer of God, crowning Emperor John with some help from a Hand of God, it was among the coins that my first research enquiry at the Barber, some time ago now, involved me getting out to scrutinise because of being a depiction of divinity in Byzantium. And with that, you see, we connect to the conference report, because the person who asked me about this coin was also presenting at the conference against which the blog backlog now laps. So!

A woodcut depiction of Constantinople from Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

A woodcut depiction of Constantinople from Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Every year since 1999, the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham has held a postgraduate colloquium to showcase its research. In the last few years this has grown somewhat to become an international event; the fifteenth colloquium, on 24th May 2014, had thirty different speakers from fifteen different institutions in seven different countries, organised by necessity into two parallel strands, and I know because I was there. I usually don’t report on postgraduate presentations here, figuring that students are not necessarily fair game for such exposure, but there was such a lot of good stuff said here that I want to give some account at least, so I will give you the running order of the papers I saw and then offer some remarks about the ones I found most thought-provoking. The theme they’d chosen was “Language as Culture in the Eastern Mediterranean (330-2013)”, and you see below how that was reflected in the papers on offer.

    Keynote address

  • Maria Georgopolou, ‘Διγλωσσία: bilingualism as a cultural paradigm’
  • Session 01

  • Zuzana Cernáková, “Language of Fiction: representations of Byzantium in twelfth-century French literature”
  • Kirsty Stewart, “Beast Literature and the Vernacular in Byzantium, 1261-1453”
  • Jeff Brubaker, “The Language of Religious Union: the Greek-Latin Disputatio of 1234″
  • Theofili Kampianaki, “John Zonaras’ Treatment of the Roman Past in his Epitome of Histories
  • Session 03

  • Eileen Rubery, “Making and Meaning in the Frescoes in the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum (600-800 AD)”
  • Katherine Harrison, “From Ancient Lapidaries to Christian Allegories – Textual Sources on Stones and Their Impact upon Gemstone Icons in Byzantium”
  • Sandro Nikolaishvili, “Translation of Byzantine Symbols and Language of Power to Medieval Georgia”
  • Georgia Michael, “The Visual ‘Language of Death’: new interpretations of aspects of idolatry and worship of early Christian funerary art (3rd-4th centuries)”
  • Session 05

  • Panagiotis Sotiropoulos, “Visual Representation in the World of Late Antiquity: religious origins of a gaze attracted by new public and private sights”
  • Miranda Williams, “Language and Propaganda in 6th-Century Africa”
  • Daniel Kelly, “Hagiographic Evidence for Continued Language Diversity in Post-Crises Byzantine State”
  • Lilly Stammler, “One Spiritual Beneficial Tale from the Life of St Andrew the Fool in South Slavonic Translation”

Continue reading

Seminar CLV: tracking the head of John the Baptist

I proffer my usual apologies for the intermittent service here at the moment. I had hoped that the holidays would give time for blog catch-up but I am between even more places than usual this Christmas and have also been contriving to get about 1,500 words a day of book written and an article finished off and ready to submit, and I’m loath to mess with the magic… Nonetheless, tonight I have some time and so I can tell you about going to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research on 14th May 2014 to hear Dr Georges Kazan speak to the title, “The Head of St John the Baptist: Byzantium and the Circulation of Relics in the Early Middle Ages”.

View from the west of the church of Sv. Ioan Prodrom, Sveti Ivan, Bulgaria

View from the west of the church of Sv. Ioan Prodrom, Sveti Ivan, Bulgaria. Photograph by Kazimir Popkonstnatinov

This was an unusual paper, not least because the speaker confessed himself out of his area of expertise almost immediately and then turned out to know an awful lot. Dr Kazan’s expertise is archæological, and specifically he knows a lot about reliquary types and designs, especially in the Byzantine world. But reliquaries are what they are only because they contain things connected with saints, and that gets you into the world of hagiography, that most tricky and unreliable of genres. Plucking up his courage after getting involved in the Bulgarian find of relics that were immediately hailed as John the Baptist’s at Sveti Ivan near Sozopol in 2010, as reported sceptically here indeed, Dr Kazan had tried using the texts to tell him what relics of St John the Baptist were around in the early Middle Ages and where, and had been pretty exhaustive in breadth about it.

Supposed relic of the skull of St John the Baptist in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Supposed relic of the skull of St John the Baptist in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

The first thing that surprised me about this catalogue is that it was surprisingly unambitious till about 800. Despite John’s fame, his head was not claimed by anyone until the end of the fourth century, although then there were two, in Alexandria and in Constantinople. Other places claimed to have unspecified relics of his and it is possible to guess that these might in fact have been coming from Constantinople, not least because the Sveti Ivan relics were in a reliquary of a type that was exported from there in some numbers. In about 800 a third head came to light, however, and by 814 a fourth one (claimed to be the same one) was in Rome, and after that it begins to get silly: there are, to Dr Kazan’s knowledge, thirty-six claimed heads of John the Baptist currently preserved in whole or in part, and a hundred and thirty-seven relics of him in general, with sixty-seven other cases now lost. All this is exactly why I was sceptical about the Sozopol claim, though I didn’t know the numbers. Interestingly, however, that has been radio-carboned and DNA-tested and comes out (at least the human bones in the casket, which were accompanied by lots more including animal bones 500 years older) as bone from a Middle Eastern male alive in the first century A. D., so at the very least it was a suitably-old body the makers piled in there…

The supposed relics of St John the Baptist as discovered at Sveti Ivan, in the sarcophagus that contained them

Not that there was very much of him… The relics as discovered, in the sarcophagus. Photograph by Kazimir Popkonstnatinov.

That was the second thing that surprised me, and the third was that, with excruciating effort, it was more or less possible for Dr Kazan to construct a story that more or less reconciled all the different snippets of hagiography up till 800.1 In that construction, that of the chronicler Rufinus of Aquileia, the body of St John was first reported at Sebaste in Palestine, when with that of the prophet Elisha it was attacked by pagans during Emperor Julian’s persecutions in 361. It was gathered up and brought to Jerusalem for safety, then to Alexandria, then back to Jerusalem in 362, by which time the body had been divided; it was then established in a martyrium in Alexandria (again!) in 395. On the other hand, in the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, monks who had found the head in the mid-fourth century were reported to be venerating it in Cilicia during the reign of the Emperor Valens; Valens ordered them brought to Constantinople but the mules pulling the cart would go no further than Cosilaos, where a new cult was set up and whence Emperor Theodosius I removed the relics in 391, taking them to Constantinople where they were established in a church at the Hebdomon.2 The thing that makes this all just about possible is the first story’s insistence that there were two bodies at Sebaste and that they were burnt and broken up; after that, how to know which head was which? Both groups could have believed they had the right one. Of course, then there come the heads of 800, one supposedly located in the ruins of Herod the Great’s palace by yet more monks and stolen off to Emesa by parties unknown, who sealed it into an urn that became the property of an Arian healer, who hid it in a cave when his quackery was revealed and he was run out of the town. The cave got used by hermits, who eventually turned up the urn in 453, and passed it on to a monastery back in Emesa in 753. This was the head that was claimed to be at Rome in 800 but was unfortunately also still attested at Emesa in 814, so by then things have got silly but before 800 the details we have that are not fantastic are not in themselves clearly contradictory.

Supposed relic of part of the head of John the Baptist in the Residenz, Münich

Supposed relic of part of the head of John the Baptist in the Residenz, Münich. By LarryB55 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, the fact that that is possible does not mean that any of it is true, and the fantastic details do present a problem or two here, ones that may be more apparent to the textual scholar than the archæologist. In the first place, the deposition of the bodies at Sebaste is hard to take in Rufinus’s terms because we have very little sign otherwise of persecution under Julian, rather than just cutting funding. In the second place, of course, it is completely unclear how many of these details could possibly have been known by the people who would have to have hold the story; in the case of the Emesa head most of that is frankly impossible (and this Dr Kazan freely acknowledged). To do any more one would need to know a lot more about the manuscript situation of each of the texts (Rufinus, at least, not being preserved in any version earlier than the seventh century, surely affecting what his redactors knew to be ‘true’ about such matters, and you already know what I think about Sozomen’s critical faculty) but Dr Kazan had not gone any further than the nineteenth-century editions, so there that matter had to rest. At this rate, to accept any of the details as any more than a fortunate stab in the dark by an inventive hagiographer is pretty much unjustifiable, so the body part maths doesn’t really get us very far, and what we are left with is more or less where Dr Kazan had started, the Sozopol sarcophagus and its siblings.

Reliquary box which contained supposed relics of St John the Baptist, found at Sveti Ivan

The reliquary with its lid on. Photograph by Kazimir Popkonstnatinov.

By Dr Kazan’s account, pressed from him in questions by Charlotte Roueché, Alan Thacker and Caroline Goodson, these kinds of reliquaries were made in Asia Minor half-finished and finished wherever they were needed, but the best finishing was done in Constantinople. They often contained metal caskets, although both the stone shells and the caskets are found separately. They were not necessarily reliquaries, but were almost always put to funerary purposes and so make sense for that use. It would seem that Constantinople had quite the trade in these things going on, so that by the fifteenth century relics with a Constantinopolitan provenance were considered automatically suspect. Nonetheless, it was and had been for a long time one of the kinds of status Constantinople had to offer people. The trouble was, I think these were things that Dr Kazan had known already before starting research for this paper. It was delivered sincerely and contained a great deal of interesting information, but very little of it was information on which a historian could put any weight, and sadly that is a state of the record which further finds are unlikely to fix.3

1. Happily for me given the state of my notes, Dr Kazan seems to have had most of these references worked up for a conference he organised in the Sozopol finds in Oxford in 2011, which I completely missed but whose papers are now online. I get most of the textual references following from Dr Kazan’s own “The Head of St John the Baptist—the early evidence”, and the site details and a number of the images in this post from Rossina Kostova, Kazimir Popkonstantinov and Tom Higham, “Relics of the Baptist: Scientific research planned for the finds excavated in Sozopol, Bulgaria in 2010 (Radiocarbon Dating, DNA testing)”.

2. Rufinus of Aquileia, Historia Ecclesiastica, ed. Theodor Mommsen in Eusebius, Werke, ed. Eduard Schwartz (Leipzig 1903-1909), II: Die Kirchengeschichte – die lateinische Übersetzung des Rufinus, II.28; an earlier translation is here. Other later historians also report this, and are listed in Kazan, “John the Baptist”, p. 2, but all seem to be working from Rufinus. Sozomen, who worked explicitly to correct Rufinus, is edited in Sozomène, Histoire ecclésiastique, ed. J. Bidez, trans. André-Jean Festugière & rev. Bernard Grillet (Paris 1983-96), and in older English online here, VII.21.

3. Kostova, Popkonstantinov & Higham, “Relics of the Baptist”, cites as publication of the excavation K. Popkonstantinov et al., ‘Srednovekoven manastir “Sv. Ioan Prodrom” na ostrov ”Sv. Ivan”, Sozopol’ in Arheologičeski otkritija i razkopki za 2009 godina (Sofia 2010), pp. 595-599.