Category Archives: Currently 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).

“He should comment on the fact that their Latin is not very good.”

The industrial relations situation at my employers grows ever more Kafka-esque, to the extent where it’s probably not wise by now for me to make it clear on here whether I have been on strike or not as this post goes up. Therefore, I offer you a pre-written one that I have been keeping against a pressed occasion and a reassurance that, whether or not I am, lots of people are, and that as ever I think that their reasons are good and the employers’ response inadequate where even existent. And with that, let’s move it on to the past and the problems of writing about it.

Manresa, Arxiu Històric Comarcal, pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, núm. 3

Manresa, Arxiu Històric Comarcal, pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, núm. 3, published as Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia volum IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, 3 vols, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica 53 (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. 1594; I have to admit, I don’t know where I got this image now, but it is a very typical-looking charter and its Latin is very much of its time

In general I have escaped the whole Reviewer #2 thing fairly well, but one or two of my early article submissions got stung thus.1 The quote of the title might take the prize, however: it was the complete totality of the second review I got of an early article that in fact never emerged.2 (The first review was broadly positive; the journal in question sent it out to a third reviewer, who also said it should be published; and so the editor rejected it and didn’t answer any further e-mail. I won’t deal with that journal again.) The reason I tell you this now, however, is that it had when I wrote this just come up again in something I was reading, and I wanted to pause and wonder.

For those that love their Classical Latin, the language of the documents of the eleventh-century Spanish March come as a bit of a shock. Inflection is generally down to three cases only, but the indirect object case can be one of several options; the scribes were fairly evidently normalising to sound, not to spelling. Many of the spellings and indeed words are themselves fairly Romance; and yet it is clear from the odd patches where the actual vernacular turns up that the vernacular was not what they thought they were writing, even if they could probably have read out what they were writing and had people understand it, just as most UK English speakers can probably parse a modern writ but wouldn’t be able to write one.3 But still, that doesn’t explain the way that some scholars apparently think this means that this is all that can be said of them. That reviewer, whoever she or he was, was one; but it was kind of a comfort to find that Pierre Bonnassie, no less, got the same treatment as far back as 1968, at a famous conference in Toulouse whose proceedings are cited to this day.4 Working through this for other reasons, I decided that although I’d long ago read Bonnassie’s contribution elsewhere, I’d still probably profit from reading the discussion, which was printed, and there it is.5 The by-then venerable Robert Boutruche seems to have spent most of every paper’s discussion trying to shoehorn the southern social structures just described to him into a legalistic template of northern feudalism, with a barrage of terminological questions whose answers didn’t leave him any happier.6 He did this to Bonnassie too, briefly, but he had to begin, all the same, with how the documents’ Latin sucked. It’s interesting to see basically the same conversation as I’ve had, as I’ve seen even Wendy Davies having to have, being carried on there, with the same uncertainty about what the more traditional side of the conversation wants out of the discussion. I translate, with my commentary in square brackets, and you can find the actual French here if you want (p. 558):

    BOUTRUCHE: The first document you give here is very curious: bad Latin accompanied with terms in the vernacular.
    BONNASSIE: This is very common in Catalonia.
    BOUTRUCHE: It would have been good to emphasise this and to place it in its temporal context.
    [Why? Why would that have been good?]
    BONNASSIE: The Latin of the Catalans of the eleventh century is terrible. There’s a reason for this, which is tied up with the fact that Catalonia hardly knew the Carolingian Renaissance.
    [No! Why’d you give in, Bonnassie? I suppose you were only a postgrad at this point and he was the old man of the field, but still. Anyway, what you said wasn’t true, as Cullen Chandler has now shown.7]
    JEAN SCHNEIDER [moderating, or trying to]: Never forget, it’s a typical phenomenon: they wrote Latin more grammatically in the countries that didn’t speak a Romance language. Among the Anglo-Saxons and the Germans, they cultivated grammar because they jolly well had to learn it! But in Romance-language countries, one could imagine oneself understanding Latin.
    BOUTRUCHE: Well, here they didn’t know it.
    [What did you want, man, an apology from Bonnassie for studying these documents?]
    SCHNEIDER: Sure, but they could have imagined that they did.
    [No, you too have conceded! Weak! Infirm of purpose! And here the ghost of Jarrett future is ejected from proceedings by the ectoplasmic bouncers.]

From there, anyway, it moves on to whether there were vassals in Bonnassie’s documents or not, as a French lawyer would understand the word, but you see why it perplexes me. I’ve had this too; it’s as if these scholars feel that by making them deal with these documents we’ve tracked dirt over their mental carpet. But of course this isn’t Classical Latin! It was aged by a millennium from when that was new. I imagine Gerbert of Aurillac would have been pretty horrified by Boutruche’s French, too, but that kind of parallel never seems to occur. I suppose that the teaching point is that old one we make to our first-year students: everything is a primary source for something. These traditionalists want to see the Catalan (and indeed other northern Iberian) documents as a source for decline of intellectual standards, and what I want to insist on is that they are a source for what Latin was c. 1100; not better, not worse, but still doing its work after a millennium of evolution. That should be cool, not a reason to reject an article just because it’s about these things. At least that didn’t happen to Bonnassie, on this occasion anyway. But I wonder if he too had his Reviewer #2 story for this reason…

1. As with any of these things, the ‘Reviewer #2’ trend has generated meta-commentary, of which the quickest study if you haven’t heard of this phenomenon before is probably Rachael Pells, “Research intelligence: how to deal with the gruesome reviewer 2” in Times Higher Education (THE) (13 June 2019), online here; but someone actually doing analysis on it concluded that actually, if anyone, Reviewer 3 is the problem one: see David A. M. Peterson, “Dear Reviewer 2: Go F’ Yourself” in Social Science Quarterly Vol. 101 (Oxford 2020), pp. 1648–1652, DOI: 10.1111/ssqu.12824. Well, not for me, so far…

2. I presented the paper in a couple of places, most recently as “The Continuation of Carolingian Expansion: splitting hairs in medieval Catalonia” at the Second Conference of Historians of Medieval Spain and Portugal, Liverpool, 15 September 2003. It was to be sort of a first half to the second half that became Jonathan Jarrett, “Caliph, King, or Grandfather: Strategies of Legitimization on the Spanish March in the Reign of Lothar III” in The Mediaeval Journal Vol. 1 no. 2 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 1–22, DOI: 10.1484/J.TMJ.1.102535, explaining how it was still accurate to call Catalonia Carolingian even in the late tenth century given its apparent group-think on the issue, and it too was generated out of an attempt to answer criticism from snobby reviewers…

3. Of course, we have discussed these issues before, and I still need to engage properly with Roger Wright, Late Latin and Early Romance in Spain and Carolingian France, ARCA Classical and Medieval Texts Papers and Monographs 8 (Liverpool 1982), and his more recent work as well of course, and decide what I think, but for now I think I hold to the idea that Latin and the vernacular were not the same thing in Catalonia by 1050, even if they might have been mutually intelligible still.

4. Pierre Bonnassie, “Les conventions féodales dans la Catalogne du XIe siècle” in Annales du Midi, Colloque sur les structures sociales de l’Aquitaine, du Languedoc et de l’Espagne au premier âge féodal, Vol.80/no. 89 (Toulouse 1968), pp. 529–561, DOI: 10.3406/anami.1968.4455.

5. The discussion is ibid. pp. 551-561; I’d already read the paper as Pierre Bonnassie, “Feudal Conventions in Eleventh-Century Catalonia” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. Jean Birrell (Cambridge 1991), pp. 170–194.

6. Bonnassie, “Conventions féodales”, pp. 557-558; also seen in M. De Boüard, “Quelques données archéologiques concernant le premier àge féodal” in Annales du Midi, Colloque sur les structures sociales de l’Aquitaine, du Languedoc et de l’Espagne au premier âge féodal, Vol.80/no. 89 (Toulouse 1968), pp. 383–404, DOI: 10.3406/anami.1968.4450 at pp. 399-401; Hilda Grassotti, “La durée des concessions bénéficiaires en Léon et Castille : les cessions ad tempus“, transl. André Gallego and Pierre Bonnassié [sic], ibid. pp. 421–455 at pp. 448-449; Élisabeth Magnou-Nortier, “Fidélité et féodalité méridionales d’après les serments de fidélité (Xe – début XIIe siècle)”, ibid. pp. 457–484, DOI: 10.3406/anami.1968.4453, at pp. 479-480; José-Maria Lacarra, “« Honores » et « tenencias » en Aragon (XIe siècle)”, transl. Pierre Bonnassie and Y. Bonnassie, ibid., pp 485–528, DOI: 10.3406/anami.1968.4454, at p. 523; and Paul Ourliac, “Le pays de La Selve à la fin du XIIe siècle”, ibid. pp. 581–602, DOI: 10.3406/anami.1968.4457 at p. 595!

7. See, of course, Cullen J. Chandler, Carolingian Catalonia: Politics, Culture, and Identity in an Imperial Province, 778–987, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 111 (Cambridge 2019), the book everyone wanted me to write but me and now done much better than I would have; and I’m not sure I’ve congratulated Cullen on it yet so, if you’re reading this note Cullen, congratulations and I’ll try and give it some proper blog attention in the near future!

Digenes Akrites was not el Cid

It’s almost not news to say I’m on strike today, partly because there’s been so much of that on the blog in recent months but also because today, really, it might be quicker to say who isn’t. It might reasonably be said that something is wrong with the UK at the moment, and it is coming out in strikes the way a human body would come out in hives. But with the trains being part of that, I couldn’t get to join the picket or the rally so I have done strike blog instead! I hope it will make the point that all promises made to university staff since last time have been ignored and we are many of us still without a third to a quarter of our pensions despite the reason we lost them being admitted false, without pay that keeps pace with inflation, without equality between genders or races when it comes to that pay, without much progress away from temporary, prospect-less contracts for a decent part of the profession, and with unsustainable, impossible workloads with respect to which we are promised only ‘fairness’, but never reduction.1 I know there are other workers’ unions protesting worse situations, but I think my reasons for being out are reasonable even so. And besides, how very, pathologically, British even to consider not making a fuss because there are still some people who have it worse! Where can that end except with everyone squashed down into the bottom of the barrel, unwilling to complain because by then ‘we’re all in the same boat’? Sorry, horribly mixed metaphor, but you see my point. So, no, I’m on strike, and so you get extra blog.

Painting of Digenes Akritis fighting the dragon on a twelfth-century dish now in the Agora Museum at Athens

Digenes Akrites, on whom see below, on a twelfth-century dish now in the Agora Museum at Athens. “3335 – Athens – Stoà of Attalus Museum – Byzantine plate – Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto, Nov 9 2009” by Giovanni Dall’Orto. – Own work. Licensed under Attribution via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve had this post in stub since November 2019, when, having fairly recently actually read the Byzantine poetic novel Digenes Akrites for the first time (in English, I should say) I found myself at last able to comment on a number of studies I’d seen comparing this ‘two-blooded border-lord’ (more or less what Digenes Akrites means, as a name) to the heroic Castilian frontiersman of the twelfth century, subject of film and more, Rodrigo Díaz, or as he’s better known, el Cid.2 The stub had the title you see above, and read only:

“Because he’s basically Hercules/Samson with nice relationship ethics, not a human man with an army; also the race thing, as well as many more; why do people do this?”

I read this out to my partner and she said, more or less, “why don’t you just post that? It gets straight to the point.” And I considered it briefly, but I thought in the end that that would be a post for a very few people, whereas if I explained it even slightly it might be, you know, enjoyable for a public. So here goes.

So Digenes, the character, seems to be meant to have existed on the Byzantine-Islamic frontier in Anatolia, i. e. roughly the north edge of the present, or rather recent, Turkish-Syrian border, maybe in the late tenth or early eleventh century? It doesn’t much matter when, as he is archetypal more than historical. His name derives from the fact that he is son of an Arabic emir who carries off his mother, daughter of a Byzantine military commander in a raid, and who is then induced to convert to Christianity so as to marry her; these are Digenes’s two bloods, in a back-and-forth of loyalties which belongs, if anywhere, in the messy politics of the early Komnenian era just before the First Crusade.3 As the child grows it becomes clear he’s a physical and military prodigy, who hunts and kills beasts many times his size, defeats entire armies alone and bare-handed, and so on, and the poem is basically about him carrying off his own wife and going and settling part of the border with her, by defeating all comers single-handedly in between building a wasteland palace on the Euphrates, occasionally being called on to solve impossible situations by the Byzantine emperor (Romanos, either I or II one presumes, in some versions of the text, and Basil, presumably II, in others—but we’re not really moving in history here) by means of his extraordinary prowess and finally dying undefeated in his effectively home-made Eden.

Modern statue of el Cid in Seville

A modern statue of el Cid in Seville, image by CarlosVdeHabsburgoown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

As for el Cid, here there is more certainty. For those who don’t know, the historical Rodrigo Díaz grew up in Bivar, near Burgos in Castile, and became a military celebrity in the service of the Castilian king, but fell into disfavour for some reason and moved out to then-Muslim Zaragoza, where he served the Emir as commander for some years with great success, including against Castilian and Aragonese forces both regular and rogue. He then had a brief rapprochement with King Alfonso VI of Castile, but it didn’t work out and then he went rogue himself, moving into the gap between the south of Aragón and the Muslim world and eventually making his big move by besieging and taking the Muslim city of Valencia, where he ruled as king for the few years of his life, including repelling attacks by the Berber fundamentalist Almoravids who had reunified Muslim resistance to the recent Christian conquests. When he died, Valencia was abandoned as no-one else thought they could hold it. His earliest biographer records that, “Never was he defeated by any man,” though it should be said that that is at least in part because even that biographer shows him being quite picky about his battles.4 Still, after you’ve defied the king of Castile with one hand, the Commander of the Faithful with the other and taken the Count of Barcelona prisoner and ransomed him twice, it’s hard for anyone not to admit you knew what you were doing with an army.

Opening page of the manuscript of the Poema del Mio Cid, Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España, Vitr. 17 7, fo 1r

Opening page of the manuscript of the Poema del Mio Cid, Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España, Vitr. 17 7, fo 1r, by Per Abbat – originally, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Now, I say ‘earliest biographer’ there because this picture comes straight out of the Historia Roderici, a Latin Life that was written about him, perhaps by a bishop of Salamanca who had been one of el Cid’s churchmen at Valencia, and so an eye-witness source, albeit here via quite a lot of interpretation by Richard Fletcher.5 But it’s not necessarily the standard view of the man, because much more famous is a rather later Spanish epic poem, the Poema or Cantar del Mio Cid, as seen above in its oldest preserved form. This leaves out all Rodrigo’s fighting for Muslims – in fact even has the King of Zaragoza becoming his vassal rather than the other way around – and makes much more of his loyalty in exile to the King of Castile despite that ruler’s misinformed maltreatment of him, which is partly caused in this version by the king’s failure to prevent the murder of Rodrigo’s daughters after their marriage, at royal command, to some noble ne’er-do-wells called the Infantes of Carrión. But the undefeated hero still stamps larger than life through this narrative, including the chief victory against the Almoravids. Now, this version of the story is one of the great literary monuments of the Castilian language, taught on literature syllabi in Spain like Beowulf is in the USA.6 Furthermore, it got taken up big-time by a very influential historian in the 1920s, Ramón Menéndez Pidal, and he based on it a book which was much translated but also very compatible with Franco’s subsequent vision of a Catholic Spain built on its unified Christian resistance to foreign ideologies, and which for both of those reasons was the basis of the eventual Technicolor epic film that you may indeed have seen.7 If you haven’t, by the way, do, it’s fantastic and contains some of the most realistic-looking medieval fight-scenes I think have ever been filmed, and it’s why anyone outside Spain usually knows the story, if they do.

El Cid and his army, including the Emir Muqtadir of Seville, from the 1961 film

El Cid, as played by Charlton Heston in that same film, with Emir Muqtadir of Seville at his left hand; image from Diego Califano, ‘Un guerrero debe encontrar el valor por sí mismo: la película de “El Cid” (1961)’ in Fundación para la Historia de España, 9 October 2020, online here

So, it is perhaps unsurprising that, especially among Spanish-origin Byzantinists, there has arisen this tendency to take the Iberian border independent who was never ever defeated and rack him up against the Anatolian one and say, look, er… And indeed, one of my objections to this work has always been that there seems to be no conclusion anyone can reach from doing this that goes deeper than, “maybe frontier culture bred similarities”.8 But my other objection is that despite their border setting, the stories aren’t actually very similar. I’m conscious that unless you’ve actually read both texts, you can only take my word for this or not. I’m also conscious that, by even doing this negative comparison, I’m in danger of writing yet another of these comparative articles about which I was complaining. But let’s embrace these ironies and move from environment inwards towards the hero:

  1. Digenes’s frontier is basically empty; he can take space in it and almost no-one even notices, he’s hard to find and there’s no other settlement for a basically irrelevant distance. Rodrigo’s frontier is studded with fortresses and every part of it belongs to someone, a fairly close city and then a kingdom which claims the city. Armies cross it all the time and no-one can hide in one place for long. It’s also a lot more mountainous, for what that’s worth.
  2. In Digenes’s world there’s only one Christian polity, ineffective and distant though it might be, while the Islamic one is indefinite, fragmented and unclear of hierarchy. In el Cid’s world, the Islamic world has unattended limbs you can lop off but it’s all one tree, and a tree that can sometimes swing all of its branches at you at once, while the Christian kingdoms are plural and always opposed to each other; in the Historia Roderici he is opposed by Christian and Muslim forces together but only once two Christian polities working together, and then they have Muslim help.9 One might say that these are mirror images, but if you ask it’s more like through the looking-glass.
  3. While we’re talking about single combat, that’s almost the only time el Cid is foolish enough to attempt such a thing. Otherwise, he always fights with an army behind him, and indeed one of the motives the Poema and the Historia share is his attempts to manage his men’s loyalty in difficulties, which the Poema uses to compare their fallibility to el Cid’s own undaunted loyalty to a lord who treats him far worse than he treats his men.10 Digenes, by contrast, almost never has a following, almost always fights single-handedly and is often naked and bare-handed when he does so.

And this is because the two characters are fundamentally not the same archetypes. As it says in that stub, Digenes is basically a demi-god, mixed parentage and supernaturally powerful, to whom the most obvious comparison is Hercules. Rodrigo has a historical basis, but I don’t even mean that; one could certainly argue that the Rodrigo of the Poema is a fictional figure to all intents and purposes, with the fact of his actual existence a mere complication. But even as a fictional figure, his archetype is the ultimate knight, a human being whose prowess, manifest almost always as skill at war rather than skill at arms, was realisable by other human beings. One could compare William Marshal, not least because of the same Belisarius-like motif of continuing loyalty despite a lord’s suspicion and contempt.11 This hero is a type we see elsewhere in his age. Digenes isn’t really meant to be from the age in which he’s set, I don’t think, and certainly not the one in which he was being told. And then there’s the question of blood, which in Spain would be an ugly one perhaps involving words like ‘limpieza‘; whatever el Cid is and whomever he served, there’s no doubt that his origins are safely Castilian and Christian.12 The whole point of Digenes, his very name, is that he combines two ancestries, and he mostly serves neither. And because of this, while Digenes Akrites the poem is also a monument of Greek literature in a way, it’s not the same way – Greek culture doesn’t need this medieval novel as a foundation stone, having the Classics, but even if it did, there are other medieval Greek novels – and Digenes the character is no kind of heroic archetype for the modern Greek nation.13 He’s someone set in a non-time and a non-place where impossible things can happen, and there may be a message in that but it’s not the same one as in the Poema del mio Cid, or indeed any other source about him.

Now, if someone who can handle both languages enough to convince wants to write that up as an article, go right ahead; I ask only to be named as co-author and to do the proof checks before submission if it’s being written in English. (Nothing personal, I just care a lot about punctuation and referencing.) But otherwise: can we stop, now? They aren’t the same thing.

1. This is a common enough trick in academia now that there is actually academic literature about it: see Jack Grove, “Academic workload models: a tool to exploit staff and cut costs?” in Times Higher Education (THE) (6 February 2019), online here, reporting on Rebecca Hewett, Amanda Shantz & Julia Mundy, “Information, Beliefs, and Motivation: The antecedents to human resource attributions” in Journal of Organizational Behavior Special Issue (2019), pp. 1–17, DOI: 10.1002/job.2353.

2. For example, Ioannis Kioridis, “The Wife’s Prayer for her Husband in the Cantar de mio Cid and the Escorial version of Digenis Akritis” in Scandinavian Journal of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies Vol. 1 (Stockholm 2015), pp. 65–80, and Marina Díaz Bourgeal and Francisco López-Santos Kornberger, “El Cantar de Mio Cid y el Diyenís Akritas (manuscrito de El Escorial): Un estudio comparativo desde el legado clásico” in Estudios medievales hispánicos Vol. 5 (Madrid 2016), pp. 83–107. Cf. also n. 8 below.

3. John Mavrogordato (ed./transl.), Digenes Akrites, edited, with an introduction, translation and commentary (Oxford 1956), has a really useful study of the manuscripts as well as the actual thing, but there are several other translations; that’s just the one I have. For the Komnenian situation here, see Peter Frankopan, The First Crusade: the call from the East (London 2012), pp. 42-86.

4. “Historia Roderici”, transl. by Richard Fletcher in Simon Barton & Richard Fletcher (transl.), The World of el Cid: Chronicles of the Spanish Reconquest, pp. 90-147, c. 74 (p. 146); cf. c. 15 (p. 107). I should say, by the way, that I could probably double these notes if I were also giving references in Spanish; but I’m guessing that if you read Spanish and are reading this, you probably already know where that stuff is…

5. Ibid., pp. 90-98, based on Richard Fletcher, The Quest for El Cid (New York City NY 1990).

6. For the Poema, see in English Peter Such & John Hodgkinson (edd./transl.), The Poem of My Cid (Warminster 1987), or otherwise R. Selden Rose and Leonard Bacon (transl.), The Lay of the Cid (Berkeley CA 1919), online here.

7. Ramón Menéndez Pidal, The Cid and his Spain, trans. Harold Sunderland (London 1934, repr. 2016); Helen Nader, “Encountering the Cid” in Jason Glenn (ed.), The Middle Ages in Texts and Texture: Reflections on Medieval Sources (Toronto 2011), pp. 177–188, more or less retells this work’s story in summary, with Fletcher’s critique noted only in references. For an analysis of the politics which led to the making of the film, see John Aberth, A Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film (London), pp. 63‒148.

8. A conclusion already reached by Ralph-Johannes Lilie, “The Byzantine-Arab Borderland from the Seventh to the Ninth Centuries” in Florin Curta (ed.), Borders, Barriers, and Ethnogenesis: Frontiers in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 12 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 13–22, which I might have thought got all there was to be got out of the theme, but cf. n. 1 above

9. “Historia Roderici”, c. 37 (pp. 122-123 in Fletcher & Barton).

10. Geoffrey West, “King and Vassal in History and Poetry: A Contrast between the ‘Historia Roderici’ and the ‘Poema de Mio Cid'”, in Alan Deyermond (ed.), ‘Mio Cid’ Studies (London: Támesis, 1977), pp. 195–208.

11. For William Marshal, see among numerous (so many) biographies David Crouch, William Marshal, 3rd ed. (London 2016; 1st ed. London 1990).

12. “Historia Roderici”, c. 2 (p. 99 in Fletcher & Barton) tracks his ancestry back 9 generations in the northern part of Castile.

13. Margaret Mullett, “Novelisation in Byzantium: Narrative after the Revival of Fiction” in John Burke (ed.), Byzantine Narrative: papers in honour of Roger Scott, Byzantina Australiensia 16 (Leiden 2006), pp. 1–28; cf. Michael Angold, “The Poem of Digenes Akrites: the frontier and the Byzantine identity” in Convivencia, defensa y comunicación en la frontera: En memoria de Don Juan de Mata Carriazo y Arroquia, Estudios de Frontera 3 (Jaén 2000), pp. 69–79, online here.

Visiting the dead king at Driffield

We edge towards the end of the backed-up blog material from 2019 by now, which is something of an achievement given where we’ve been, but just now we’re still there and one of the things I was doing in later 2019 was constructing a review of a book for Northern History, a journal that’s edited from my institution and to whose review editor’s plea I’m thus physically vulnerable. It was one of those things I was only just fitted to review, namely this:

Cover of Tony Abramson, Coinage in the Northumbrian landscape and economy, c. 575-c. 867 (British Archaeological Reports (British Series), 641, Oxford, 2018).

Cover of Tony Abramson, Coinage in the Northumbrian landscape and economy, c. 575-c. 867, British Archaeological Reports (British Series), 641 (Oxford 2018).

Of the book as a whole, you can see the actual review, which came out almost immediately after I’d submitted it, in volume 56 over pages 162-165, and here I’ll just say that it was such a work as I couldn’t review properly without begging for more words, which is why that runs over four pages.1 But there were loads of interesting things in there, and this post is about one of them, an analysis of the early medieval coin finds from Driffield in North Yorkshire where I don’t think Abramson quite goes all the way to the end of his logical thread.

Abramson’s method in the book is to characterise sites by their coins profile as compared to the profile of their other material culture. The statistical interpretation he does with this is one of the reasons my review was so long, but Abramson is a man full of curiosity and he tries to resolve individual cases where possible as well as fit things into a bigger pattern. And Driffield is one of a couple of sites which have a particular profile, sites with a known élite status, not very much recovered material culture to match that, and not very many coins but of those coins a surprising proportion either rare or foreign.2 In Driffield’s case the élite status derives from it having been a royal vill of the Northumbrian kings, especially King Aldfrith (685-704 CE), who was there when he died and may be buried in the church there, although the most recent excavator thinks we may not actually have found the vill.3 This implies that what we are actually seeing is the material culture profile of the church site around which the later village coalesced.

Reused tombstone in the exterior wall of Saint Mary's Little Driffield, perhaps Viking-period

Reused tombstone in the exterior wall of Saint Mary’s Little Driffield, perhaps Viking-period; photo by Robert Andrews via Historic England, linked through. I was after a photograph of the memorial to King Aldfrith inside the church but the only one I can find firmly states its copyright

So, in coin terms, that profile includes at least eleven foreign coins, and while most of those are Low Countries sceattas that got all over England, some are southern English, which is less usual, and one is a Lombard tremissis, unusual both for being Italian and gold, not a thing anyone commonly lost in the Yorkshire Wolds. Moreover, several of the local ones are types with fantastic animals on the reverse, occurring by themselves or of what Abramson calls ‘unusual style’, or both, as if they were being selected for the site somehow.4 Overall, the sample of coins at Driffield has well over the average level of rarities.

Lombard pseudo-imperial tremissis in the name of Emperor Maurice Tiberius, perhaps struck at Pavia 582-602, MEC 301-04, found at Driffield

Lombard pseudo-imperial tremissis in the name of Emperor Maurice Tiberius, perhaps struck at Pavia 582-602, MEC 301-04, found at Driffield; Abramson, Coinage in the Northumbrian Landscape, p. 45 fig. 6

So what’s the explanation? As close as Abramson gets is to say, with suitable caution:

“With all the caveats and constraints on interpretation, that this location is so rich in rare coinage, implies that Driffield was a site of special, not merely economic, significance, as would be expected for the final resting place of Aldfrith.”5

Now, to that my initial reaction was, “Would it? He’s not a saint or anything. Considered holier than most kings, yes, but that’s partly because he had the good luck to be around when Bede was and to have been hauled from the monastery at Iona to replace a man Bede deplored (Aldfrith’s half-brother Ecgfrith).6 But he wasn’t a monk, though he may have been a scholar. And besides, have we any sign at all that any Northumbrian king other than Oswald was culted after his death?”

St Alkmund's Sarcophagus, from St Alkmund's Duffield, Derby, now in Derby Museum

St Alkmund’s Sarcophagus, from St Alkmund’s Duffield, Derby, now in Derby Museums; the image is copyright to Derby Museums but use is allowed

But then I remembered this, dear reader, as you also may do if you go back far enough on this blog. What this is fairly solid evidence of the cult after death of a Northumbrian ruler, King Ealhmund; it’s just that because we suspect that cult was set up deliberately by a king of Mercia for political reasons about 150 years later than this, it doesn’t necessarily spring to mind as a comparison. But also, I then remembered, after Aldfrith died the kingdom of Northumbria was riven by civil war, succession struggles and then eventually Vikings (one of whose victims, King Edmund of East Anglia, struck one of the southern coins that has turned up at Driffield, really very late for a Northumbrian site).7 In general, dark times followed him. Was it in fact not possible that at least some people might have looked back to the scholarly Adlfrith as the last Good King?

Obverse of silver penny of King Aldfrith of Northumbria, struck 685-704, found at Driffield, EMC 2006.0119

Obverse of silver penny of King Aldfrith of Northumbria, struck 685-704, found at Driffield, EMC 2006.0119

Reverse of silver penny of King Aldfrith of Northumbria, struck 685-704 CE, found at Driffield, EMC 2006.0119

Reverse of the same coin, with one of the aforesaid fantastic beasts on it

That seems, anyway, to be what Abramson is implying by that last statement quoted: that the weird coins here are actually the consequence of numerous visits to Aldfrith’s grave. If that’s right, though, there are two further implications to be teased out, which I’m not able to do fully here but which seem at least worth indicating. Firstly, this all kind of does mean Aldfrith was being considered as a saint, in the simplest sense of being a soul in Heaven; not much point making an offering at the grave of someone whose ultimate destination means they can’t help you…8 But secondly, the fact that especially rare coins seem to have been selected for this probably needs thinking about. To someone who has the whole picture of the coinage, the implication is almost that so did its average user, that we would have here a bunch of historical collectors who, having saved this unusual specimen from the usual pell-mell of circulation, thought it a fitting gift to the royal maybe-saint. This, when actually set out, seems a bit unlikely, you may agree.

Silver penny struck perhaps at London 730-65 CE, from the Beowulf Collection, CNG sale 76 lot 1848

Silver penny struck perhaps at London 730-65 CE, from the Beowulf Collection, CNG sale 76 lot 1848

But why are those coins so rare? Is it not perhaps easier to read the logic the other way round and say: this is the kind of thing those coins were struck for, they’re rare because they were small-issue, special-purpose coinages that didn’t ordinarily circulate. There are more than a few issues, in this sceatta period of multifariously issued small silver penny coinages, which seem to have some connection with the Church; they have helpful indications like having an named archbishop on the reverse (one of which was found at Driffield) or the legend Monita scorum, as you see above, which we take to be what we’d normally spell and expand as moneta s(an)c(t)orum, ‘money of the saints’. But as our esteemed commentator Rory Naismith, who has studied these coinages, has observed, they are also rare, and they don’t seem to have had much connection with actual church sites.9 He concludes that they’re not evidence for the church as a major driver of the coinage in this period, and I think he’s right.

After this, though, I find myself wondering if their existence instead forms part of a larger pattern of special-issue coinages whose purpose would have been to be used as offerings to holy or significant sites. Should we even see the Church as competing, with its few issues, for space in an iconographic tradition happier with fantastic beasties? Odder suggestions have been made about the art of these coinages!10 But for now I have gone far enough, I think, and probably too far by many standards, so I’ll stop here.

1. Jonathan Jarrett, ‘TONY ABRAMSON, Coinage in the Northumbrian Landscape and Economy, c. 575–867, BAR British Series 841 (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2018. £59.00 xxi + 207 pp., inc. 161 figures, 13 graphs and 10 plates, plus 2 databases and 20 datasets online, ISBN 9781407316536)’ in Northern History Vol. 56 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 162–165, DOI: 10.1080/0078172X.2019.1678288.

2. Tony Abramson, Coinage in the Northumbrian Landscape and Economy, c. 575-c. 867, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 641 (Oxford 2018), pp. 141-142 and pp. 145-146 figs 118-124; the other site of this type is Garton-on-the-Wolds, covered p. 142 and pp. 146-147 figs 125-128.

3. Chris Loveluck, “The Development of the Anglo-Saxon Landscape, Economy and Society ‘on Driffield’, East Yorkshire, 400‒750 AD” in Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History Vol. 9 (Oxford 1996), pp. 25-48, cited by Abramson, Coinage, p. 141, as ‘Lovelock’ passim though with the author spelt correctly in the Bibliography. Aldfrith’s burial somewhere here is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, however: I find it in Michael Swanton (transl./ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1996), E sub anno 705 (p. 41), though the location detail is not in the A Manuscript (cf. p. 40).

4. I should add at this point that one of the great things about this book is that his datasets are all freely available online, so you can if you like click this and get all his files in a ZIP, and find the coins yourself. I was in a hurry this time so didn’t, but I had a good prowl round in the review and the claimed information was always there.

5. Abramson, Coinage, p. 142.

6. For the messy background here see Barbara Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England (London 1990), pp. 79-86.

7. Ibid., pp. 86-98.

8. If this makes early medieval piety seem uncomfortably transactional, immerse yourself in either or both of Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: triumph and diversity, A.D. 200-1000, 2nd edn (Malden MA 2003), pp. 145-165, or Julia M. H. Smith, “Relics: An Evolving Tradition in Latin Christianity” in Cynthia Hahn and Holger A. Klein (eds), Saints and Sacred Matter: The Cult of Relics in Byzantium and Beyond (Washington DC 2015), pp. 41–60, online here, for more fully textured takes on the spirituality of the age as it involved saints.

9. Rory Naismith, “Money of the Saints: Church and Coinage in Early Anglo-Saxon England” in Tony Abramson (ed.), Studies in Early Medieval Coinage 3: Sifting the Evidence (London 2014), pp. 68–121.

10. I think specifically of Anna Gannon, The Iconography of Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage, Sixth to Eighth Centuries (Oxford, 2003), but it should be said that she reads most of these coinages as one way or another referring to Christian imagery, so by some lights her interpretations are less weird than mine just now.

Vikings in ninth-century Catalonia?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The world-famous O RLY owl macro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Abadal, Catalunya carolíngia II, Arles IV.

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

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

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

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

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

13. See n. 7 above.

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

15. See n. 11 above.

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

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

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

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

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

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

22. Abadal, Catalunya carolíngia II, Arles II.

23. See n. 6 above.

Detective work in ninth-century Córdoba

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

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

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

The Roman bridge over the Guadalqivir in Córdoba, Spain

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

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

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

2. Ibid. p. 103.

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

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

I promise you this hardly ever happens

You would have to go a long way back in this blog to find the one other instance of the ‘gratuitous blank verse’ tag, because as I claim above, this hardly ever happens. But on the occasion of the post below, written pretty much direct into a browser in early June 2019, I had been reading. Specifically, in my working time, which for a brief moment then was bent on my usually-dormant project Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, I was reading Chiara Brambilla, “Exploring the Critical Potential of the Borderscapes Concept” in Geopolitics Vol. 20 no. 1, Borderscapes: From Border Landscapes to Border Aesthetics (Abingdon 2015), pp. 14–34, DOI: 10.1080/14650045.2014.884561. But, in my leisure time at exactly the same point I was reading Brian Aldiss, Barefoot in the Head (London 1969, repr. 1974) for the first time. You may not know both these works, but one of them is a studiedly literate effort in confusion, neologism and futurism taken to a darn-near psychedelic level and the other’s this famous novel by Brian Aldiss and the other, well, has some similar qualities. I mean, I also read Emmanuel Brunet-Jailly, “Theorizing Borders: An Interdisciplinary Perspective” in Geopolitics Vol. 10.4 (Abingdon 2005), pp. 633–649, DOI: 10.1080/14650040500318449, which is brilliant and about the best piece doing what it claims to do of its length that I’ve so far found; but really, it was the combination of Brambilla and Aldiss that caused the result below, plus a certain amount of background Daevid Allen, who is by now part of my lexical composition like teflon is of our bodies. I thought about trying to edit it and decided that spontaneity might be its only actual charm. I do stand by its general message, though. So here you are. No non-literary substances other than tea were involved…

Collaboration my Siblingry

It doesn’t get us anywhere
To disaggregate everything down to the individual case
and always insist that complexity
Prevents its connection with anything

Where that leads is a place to hide
In the irreducibility of your expertise
And sure no-one can impeach you there
But the party’s happening in the other room

So what can we take to the party?
You can of course bring a bottle of wise
You fully intend to drink by yourself
Being there and participating
But making no ultimate imprint
On the shape of the ruins the next morning
Without responsibility for breakage or change

But if you want to be remembered
For having dones and thoughts with matter
That weighs upon the afterwards
Distorts the rubber sheet
So the ball runs towards your imprint
Till people have to kick it out again
Then you rather have to share your bringing
And that means terms of reference
That link your worlds to others
Temporally spatially thematically humanly
Someone somewhere gotta see it like you see it
In other words comparability
However you care to build it

Caring too much, in comparison or classroom
Stops you giving it up for free
But a thought freely given, enalienated
Is a victim of collision with another

The interest is in the offspring

But still at the end we need the goods in order
Because reducing to order is the means of transport
Without some order you can’t get across
The borderline of mutuality
And the meaning is lost
And the whole thing just cost
Which makes us all cross
When we should be across
To whatever land the other has got
On which to build something that lasts
Till the next wave of surfers comes in hot
To deconstruct our building too

But utter deconstruction just leaves you sand
A desert of inclusions disincluded by specificity
To allow deconstruction you have to construct
And there’s no harm in building to last
To make sure that new tools are needed
To take it all down and turn over again
When the time comes, when the time comes, when the time comes…

Put it this way
If your thing is incomparable
It can only matter to those with no thing
If I gotta thing
You gotta thing
An’ everybody gotta thing

Common thingness is needed
For any thing to touch another
And we all only got here
Because someone touched someone else’s thing
With the result of making a new one
If you won’t make commonality
No-thing can result from your own
So find your common ground
And I’ll argue about it
And we’ll all join in at the chorus
You ready?

I mean, given what I was reading it could have been much worse…