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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 http://www.laits.utexas.edu/cid/mo/jpg/01r.jpg, 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…

Seminar CCLXXI: feudalism beats capitalism for most of history

Chris Wickham setting up for the Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture at Birkbeck, University of London, 14 May 2019

Chris Wickham setting up for the Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture at Birkbeck, University of London, 14 May 2019, photograph by your author

Well, I am back and I made a promise, and so here is the post which was promised, in which as has happened here a few times before I sing Chris Wickham’s praises. This is not musing on the his classic works of the 1980s or even 1990s, however, because this post is reporting on the Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture at Birkbeck, University of London, on 14th May 2019, which was given by Chris and which had the title, “How did Feudalism Work? The Economic Logic of Medieval Societies”. I was there—and it was a little odd to be back in my alma mater as a guest rather than as a student—and I took extensive and enthusiastic notes, but the lecture has since emerged as an article, under a slightly different title, in Past & Present for May 2021.1 So I’ve checked the article against my notes on the lecture, but I think having done so that a report on the lecture gets you the substance of the article without misrepresenting it; so, here goes.

To start with we have (of course) to define what we mean by ‘feudal’. Chris was addressing the term in the strictly Marxist sense, as an economic ‘mode’, in which the productive class, for the Middle Ages the peasantry, have more or less full direction of their own labour, but do not get to keep the proceeds, or at least are subjected to rent, levy, tribute, pre-emption or whatever else one might call it by the governing class, whose lifestyle and endeavours, including of course all government, are made possible by their right or ability to appropriate that peasant surplus. We’re not talking feudalism as in knight service, fiefs and vassals, arbitrary violence and private justice or anything like that, though those things might also have been present in some of the societies concerned, but just the economic relationship between producers and governors.2 Now, for most commentators this is a restrictive system, with no room for growth, because it rests fundamentally on the basis of peasant farming, and that can only be ratcheted up so far and only so much surplus extracted from it before peasants can’t survive; other than extract more from them, the only obvious means of growth for such an economy is to farm more land with more people, and there are usually effective limits on that too. For those same commentators, Marx was right that the game-changing phenomenon was industrialisation, which enabled the development of capitalism, in which the ruling class control the productive class’s labour directly, take all the proceeds and then pay the proletariat thus created for that labour. Marxist dialectic sees the end of the Ancien Régime and the Age of Revolutions as the messy and difficult transition of European society from the ‘feudal’ to the ‘capitalist’ mode, and from aristocratic land-owning ruling classes to bourgeois, commercial ones.

OK, so far, so much Marxism 101. But despite the Middle Ages usually being characterised as ‘feudal’ in this sense, it’s pretty easy to point to things like factory-scale industrial production of textiles in Flanders and Florence, plantation sugar cultivation in Sicily, day-labourers in England and many other places, extensive peasant access to markets and commercial goods, banking and credit and of course the rise of the middle class, a phenomenon which as someone I didn’t know once said at a paper I was at is one of those that seems to have happened in every age that anyone studies, and which then propelled the development of self-governing towns and so on. Quite a lot of this looks capitalistic, even if it really only seems to be visible after 1100, and it has led to angry if sterile debates about whether the profit motive was known in the Middle Ages, how rational an economic actor the medieval peasant was, and so on.3 And, whatever its mysterious cause, the medieval economy did manage a quite substantial amount of growth, punctuated by some dramatic but not total collapses. Probably no-one would disagree that the number of people and average standard of living, if what we mean by that is availability of market goods, was vastly higher in 1450 than in 550 despite the Black Death intervening (though, to be fair, 550 was also a plague period).4 So if this was a feudal economy, how did it contain all that?

Chris Wickham's Eric Hobsbawm Lecture at Birkbeck, University of London, May 2019

To this, a question which Chris himself had raised, his answer was brilliant and simple. Firstly, probably no society ever has been entirely formed around a single Marxian mode of production; we’re only ever talking about the dominant one. England didn’t become instantly capitalist the minute the first factory started operation, and the Middle Ages could accommodate a few textile manufactories without needing reclassifying, because so much more of the overall economy than that, even than Florence, was economically constructed on the ‘feudal’ basis. But the second part of the argument was for me the winner: actually, historically speaking, feudal economies could be very complex, could expand, and could do so quite a lot. Indeed, since the Middle Ages show that they could, by Chris’s argument, the real question is not ‘whether’ but ‘how’, and to that Chris said firstly that evidently, normally, peasants could amass a surplus of their own and were thus consumers and an economic force on the market alongside the lords who had the first claim on their stuff; the proportionally less the lords took, the more peasant action on the market there could be and the more market-based the economy could get. But peasants were not themselves dependent on that access to the market, because they were in control of production; if they didn’t get to keep enough to feed themselves, the whole economy stopped, but if there was difficulty, obviously the first thing peasants would do was look after themselves and withdraw from the wider economy. These capitalist-looking super-phenomena would then shrink or disappear. Because of this basic safety valve in a feudal system, it would never reach conversion point and become capitalist without some other factor developing. Such an economy could be stable, large and complex, even slightly industrialised, and remain feudal.

This didn’t meet much opposition in questions; instead, there was a small slew of people asking ‘do you think such-and-such-a-place fits or doesn’t?’, to which Chris naturally enough said that they all fitted if you looked at it right; someone asking about wage labour, which Chris thought was never very important, since seasonal labourers must still also have fitted into the economy some other way the rest of the year; and Caroline Goodson, suggesting the importance of at least Islamic states as economic drivers, to which Chris argued that as long as it was taxing peasants without telling them how and what to farm, the state was just a big lord in economic terms and his classification was safe. I didn’t get to ask my question in the session, but did get to catch Chris a bit later, and what I wanted to know was, what doesn’t fit into a feudal classification like this? Wouldn’t the whole ancient world, except the very few bits and times of it which really did run on plantation slavery, be ‘feudal’ in these terms? And if so, what did this mean for Chris’s early work, still much cited, on the transition from the ancient to feudal modes in late antiquity?5 And Chris said, yes, it pretty much would, and what this meant was that he’d been wrong. This actually rocked my thought-world a bit, not just because of someone with Chris’s stature disavowing some of his most influential writing but also because I still find ‘The Other Transition’ and ‘Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce’ intellectually compelling and explanatory. But so did I this. It has taken me some effort to prune the old work from my reading lists since then, and I’m still not sure it’s pruned from my own picture of fourth- to eighth-century European and Mediterranean change, despite the pretty major mounting block presented by Chris’s work in between.6 So for me at least, the way I used to understand about a thousand years of European history and indeed focus on about five hundred of them has changed because of this lecture, which is the power a really brilliant bit of work can have. But since the print version is very much the same paper, that is an experience you too can have, and I do recommend it!


1. Chris Wickham, “How did the Feudal Economy Work? the Economic Logic of Medieval Societies” in Past & Present No. 251 (Oxford 2021), pp. 3–40. It probably is worth mentioning that Chris reckons this article a partner to his earlier “Productive Forces and the Economic Logic of the Feudal Mode of Production” in Historical Materialism Vol. 16 (Leiden 2008), pp. 3–22, which I haven’t read, and should therefore mention so that you can.

2. My checkpoint for these distinctions remains Chris Wickham, “Le forme del feudalesimo” in Il Feudalesimo nell’alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo 47 (Spoleto 2000), 2 vols, I, pp. 15–51, but there is a quick run-through in Wickham, “How did the Feudal Economy Work?”, pp. 8-10.

3. For the latter, see Cliff T. Bekar and Clyde G. Reed, “Open fields, risk, and land divisibility” in Explorations in Economic History Vol. 40 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 308–325, ridiculed at the post linked. We might also note the weird branch of this scholarship which sees the Church as the only capitalist force of the Middle Ages, and thus essentially assumes, as do all those who like to bash the corruption and cynicism of the medieval Church, that everyone who believed was actually outside the organisation which mediated belief; for the one see Robert B. Ekelund, Robert D. Tollison, Gary M. Anderson, Robert F. Hébert and Audrey B. Davidson, Sacred Trust: The Medieval Church as an Economic Firm (Oxford 1996) and for the latter Alan Ereira, Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives (London 2005).

4. On the plague of c. 550 see Peter Sarris, “The Justinianic Plague: origins and effects” in Continuity and Change Vol. 17 (Cambridge 2002), pp. 169–182, though just lately a rook of exciting new work on it and its consequences has emerged that I haven’t yet followed up, beginning with Merle Eisenberg and Lee Mordechai, “The Justinianic Plague: an interdisciplinary review” in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies Vol. 43 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 156–180. We still lack a general economic history of the medieval period that I’d trust: Norman Pounds, An Economic History of Medieval Europe, 2nd edn, (London 1994) is OK in a traditional mould, but that’s kind of it. However, the last time I spoke to Chris Wickham, only a few weeks ago, he referred to an ‘economy book’ that he’d just sent to the press, and I wonder if that will prove to be the thing we need…

5. This work is collected and revised in Chris Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400–1200 (London 1994), but includes especially idem, “The Other Transition: from the Ancient World to Feudalism” in Past & Present No. 103 (Oxford 1984), pp. 3–36, rev. in idem, Land and Power, pp. 7-42, and idem, “Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 78 (London 1988), pp. 183–193, rev. in idem, Land and Power, pp. 77-98. Of course John Haldon, a long-ago colleague of Chris, was arguing even then that ancient and medieval states worked in fundamentally the same way in Marxist terms, and wanted rid of both ‘ancient’ and ‘feudal’ modes in favour of a more capacious ‘tributary’ mode: see John Haldon, The State and the Tributary Mode of Production (London 1993).

6. Most obviously Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005), to which cf. Historical Materialism Vol. 19 no. 1, Symposium on Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages (Leiden 2011).

A Jewish garrison town in Carolingian Catalonia?

Please forgive a gap in posting. On the 4th started the biggest conference in a medievalist’s calendar, and I was running sessions on the first day; 29th and 30th also had a different conference in them, and a family house-move needing my driving fell between the two events. The week before that had been the finalists’ marking deadline, so I’d got very little ready for either conference till then, and by the third day of the conference this week I felt ill and, when tested, turned out to have caught Covid-19. Since then I’ve mainly been asleep, sweating feverishly or otherwise useless in our spare room. So it’s not been full of blogging opportunities. But all this time I have been trying, now and then, to finish this for you, refreshed over many weeks now from an old draft. The title of the post is a conscious riff off Arthur Zuckerman’s infamous and, erm, let’s say ‘disputed’ book A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, but I am actually reacting here to a reaction to it, published in 1980, by Bernard Bachrach of whom we were lately talking.1 I write here because although I can deconstruct Bachrach’s paper and see many things wrong with it as argument, I can’t actually dismiss it all out of hand without better access to the evidence than I have, and that frustrates me. So when I read it in 2019, I wrote the beginnings of this to try and work it out. Since then I made the effort to get hold of some important extra evidence that allowed me to write the closing section, and now at last I inflict it all upon you.

Spine of Arthur Zuckerman's A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, 768-900 (New York City NY: Columbia University Press 1973)

Spine of Arthur Zuckerman’s A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, 768-900 (New York City NY: Columbia University Press 1973), image by Dranoel26own work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons, because this is a work which has its own Wikipedia page

So, for those unaware of it, Zuckerman’s book is a tour de force of medievalist imagination from 1965, in which some fourteenth-century references to a ‘king of the Jews’ in Narbonne are built up, with the aid of anything that could possibly be used as evidence even when it’s really not, into a concession agreed by Charlemagne and the Caliph of Baghdad to establish an autonomous Ashkenazi principality on Narbonne that was eventually shut down by various interests colluding with the pope in 900. Everything in the area gets wrapped into this theory, to the extent of the line of Saint Guilhem being figured as Jewish because of the reported size of one of their noses (says Bachrach, anyway).2 The most generous reviews of this book thought it might, just, have shown that the Jewish ‘king’ of Narbonne was a real dignity, of rather uncertain nature, in what certainly was a city with a big Jewish community in it.3 Bachrach didn’t even accept that much, but in this chapter he performs a clever move and, using the credibility gained from the fact that he is critical of Zuckerman, proposes a different understanding of Jewish presence in the Midi that has nearly as many problems, even if it’s less ambitious. The logic is quite complex, however, and needs expounding (and exploding) step by step. It goes like this:

  1. Among the considerable evidence for a Jewish presence in Narbonne, we find in the Visigothic-period Historia Wambae a reference to the Jews of that city expelling the local authorities in support of the rebellion of Duke Paul of the Tarraconensis in 673. For Bachrach, that shows they could muster armed force. Admittedly, that rebellion was unsuccessful, but though the Jews were expelled they were subsequently allowed to return.4
  2. When King Pippin III of the Franks took Narbonne in 759, the populace were induced to surrender by a guarantee that they would be allowed to retain their own law. Bachrach argues that this concession would have thus reinforced the Jews in their local position.5
  3. A letter of a Pope Stephen is recorded complaining to Archbishop Aribert of Narbonne about all the concessions Pippin and then Charlemagne made to the Jews in Narbonne and saying that Aribert needs to roll them back as soon as he can. Since there is no other record of this archbishop, or anyone of that rank in the see of Narbonne until the tenth century, this has usually been taken to be a forgery; Zuckerman, indeed, connected it to the end of his ‘princedom’ in 900. Bachrach rehearses these arguments, agrees the letter probably can’t be accepted, but somehow it remains in his argument as support for a Carolingian generosity to Narbonne’s Jews.6
  4. Since we have militarised Jews at Narbonne in 673 (at least per Bachrach) and an assurance that in 759 the Jewish importance in Narbonne would have been protected (per Bachrach), we can now introduce a third element, the service of all free men in the Carolingian army that is demanded by various Carolingian capitularies. From that we can, or at least Bachrach can, conclude that the still-militarised Jews of Narbonne would have been among the troops subsequently deployed in campaigns on the Spanish March.7
  5. In one of these campaigns, in 798, as readers of this blog will know, the old fortresses of Casserres de Berguedà, Ausona and Cardona were reactivated by a Count Borrell. Ausona is the odd one out here as it had been a city, as it would again become. However, Bachrach observes, by 900 (recte 906), the newly emplaced bishop of Osona could complain that there were no Christians in his diocese, and there is also apparently a Hebrew responsum from a rabbi in the Middle East to an Iberian-peninsula contact of his of c. 850 saying that there are ‘no gentiles’ in Ausona. The explanation is of course obvious, to Bachrach: no gentiles, no Christians, because the town had been settled by the Jews of Narbonne as a regular Carolingian garrison.8

Now, you can probably tell already that I don’t buy this. I’m not against the idea of Jewish settlement in the Spanish March, at all: it explains a few place-names, like Judaigues in Besalú where the comital family of Barcelona later had land.9 Moreover, there is fairly solid evidence of Jewish landholding in the south of France in this period, including someone Jewish whose lands had been encroached upon appealing directly to Emperor Louis the Pious and having his case upheld, as well as the various rather earlier or later evidence for a Jewish presence in Narbonne, in Barcelona and in Girona.10 My credulity runs out, however, before being able to accept a Jewish military garrison town that no source describes as such.

View over Barcelona looking towards Montjuïc

The most obvious place-name mentioning Jews on the Spanish March is however probably the crown of Barcelona, Montjuïc! Image by Fabio Alessandro Locatiown work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Basic lack of positive evidence isn’t the only issue here, either. Every one of those steps above has its own problems, which I should set out.

  1. The Historia Wambae, of course, reports the suppression of autonomy at Narbonne, and says nothing about the terms on which the Jews were allowed to return; one might imagine that it was not swords in hand, although Bachrach just waves at the lack of evidence for Wamba having cared about Jews very much and assumes he’d have been cool with that.11 But also, importantly, the Historia was written by documented polemical anti-Semite Bishop Julian of Toledo, and so it’s not a given that these Jewish actions are even historical, rather than a way to blacken the name of the rebel Paul with people whom Julian would have seen as distasteful and unholy associates. Blaming the Jews for the fall of cities is a good strong tradition in this era, after all.12 So to get from that to an organised Jewish political faction in the city, with regularised military capacity, is what you might call an over-reading of this source. What Bachrach suggests is not impossible, but it’s a long way from being what the source says and there are reasons to mistrust what the source says on such matters. This will be a repeated theme in what follows…
  2. Next, whatever position the Jews held in Narbonne in 673 then needs to have been preserved eighty-six years until the Frankish conquest, and of course that period also contains the Muslim conquest of the city in 721 or so. It is likely that that materially improved the situation of the Jews in the city, but it is, I’d have thought, extremely unlikely that they would have been allowed to continue to bear arms, if that was actually something they had been doing!13 Bachrach simply doesn’t mention the Muslim conquest, which gets him round that particular problem, but doesn’t do anything to remove it.
  3. If, nonetheless, we somehow still wind up at 759 and the Carolingian capture of Narbonne with a powerful Jewish faction in the city with an old right to bear arms, the Visigothic Law that it seems reasonably safe to say that King Pippin III guaranteed at Narbonne in 759 actually pretty much denies Jews any civil rights whatsoever, in an accumulation of legislation from the final years of the Visigothic kingdom that has attracted a lot of scholarly attention.14 It may be easy enough to imagine that those laws were never enacted or had been repealed—Jews are still attested in these territories, after all, however thinly—but to guarantee or restore them and the old Jewish privileges they deny at the same time would take a level of double-think we don’t usually attribute to the Carolingians. It’s certainly not inherent in what the sources actually say, and in any case it requires an assumption of prior continuity that is hard to credit given the likely disruptions to it which Bachrach doesn’t mention.
  4. The council record of 906 in which Bishop Idalguer of Vic says there are no Christians in his diocese is clearly inaccurate; we have land-charters from people in his diocese going back to 880, and in fact we have Christian burials from the city that probably belong to this period.15 It is also, however, spurious as it stands, having been inserted into a record of 788! This becomes more comprehensible when one realises that the plea is made as part of an attempt to be rid of a levy up till then paid by the new bishopric to the metropolitan of Narbonne. What Idalguer was supposed to be saying, in other words, was, “I don’t get enough tithe to afford this.” A certain amount of exaggeration is therefore easy to understand. Less easy to understand is how he wouldn’t mention that his episcopal city was a Jewish military colony, however; I feel that also might have made a good part of such a case. Arguments from silence are always more difficult, but this is really quite a loud silence. The record does talk about the difficulties the area had faced because of ‘the infestation of pagans’, but that, pace Bachrach and Zuckerman both, seems much more likely to refer to the Muslim conquests, in the same basically fictive way that other tenth-century sources from this are wont to do when seeking to justify a land claim.16 These were educated Christian clergy to whom Jews cannot have been unfamiliar (though if they were, it wouldn’t do much for Bachrach’s argument that there was a town of them right next door). Christianity has been dealing with the Jewish religion since its birth out of it, and churchmen knew that Jews were not pagans, whereas Muslims remained in a rhetorical and intellectual space where that could still be alleged.16bis
  5. Last of all, but important, another thing that Bachrach doesn’t mention, like the Muslim conquest of Narbonne, is the 826–827 rebellion on the March under the mysterious Aizó, which took Ausona out of Carolingian control. We don’t in fact know that that control was ever regained, at least before the area was brought back under the authority of Count Guifré the Hairy of Urgell and Barcelona in the 870s; it has been suggested that the town was completely deserted and it has been suggested that it became a Muslim fortress allowing a series of raids into the Frankish interior that seem to have stopped in the 850s.17 Either of these cases might be a pretty good explanation for why a Hebrew letter of 850 might say there were no gentiles there, but Bachrach’s arguments rely on continuity, a long long continuity right the way from Narbonne 673 to Ausona 906, so unsurprisingly, as with the Muslim conquest of Narbonne, he doesn’t mention this rebellion. Frighteningly, Zuckerman’s case actually fits better here, as he saw a reimposition of Jewish rule in this area c. 852 under ‘Abbasid pressure on the Carolingians, but that would wreck Bachrach’s argument, so he ignores it and in this case, that’s probably fair enough!18

So at the end of this, we have a very long chain of over-read sources, which, if every one is accepted, can indeed be lashed together in some dreadful Heath-Robinson fashion that allows one to bridge the gap between 673 and 906, but whose lashings are rotten at every join, and which has to reach over some really quite serious discontinuities that Bachrach ignores. It’s perhaps not completely surprising that I only lately discovered this paper because I’ve only ever seen one citation of it despite working on the county that grew up around reoccupied Ausona; there really is no reason to take this theory seriously, and people mostly haven’t.

Cathedral of Sant Pere de vic seen from the Riu Gurri

The cathedral of Sant Pere de Vic, seen from the Riu Gurri, photo by Enfo (own work), licensed under [CC-BY-SA-3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

And yet, there is apparently this rabbinic letter… The letter is the one piece of this puzzle I can’t point at and show Bachrach doing bad history with it, simply because I can’t read Hebrew. There are so many things that could be wrong with it: its date, the identification of the place-name it uses, its basic authenticity… but if it is what Bachrach says it is then I can’t ignore it. So I reluctantly picked up Zuckerman and, actually, he gave a lot more information. Firstly, we learn the name of the relevant rabbi, Natronai Gaon of Sura. He was based in Qayrawān in what is now Tunisia, and was consulted on several occasions between 853 and 868 by Jews in what Zuckerman insisted on rendering as Ispamia, and one of his letters of advice went to, “the town Ausona (Al-Osona) bordering on Barcelona County”.19 Zuckerman explained that hitherto this had been rendered as Lucena by scholars of Natronai’s letters, but preferred Osona because of the other evidence Bachrach would later repeat. One thing that Bachrach does not repeat, however, is that the letter also advises the Jews of the town not to buy cattle, fish or flour if the market day falls on a Jewish holiday, which tells us pretty clearly that the Jews were not organising the market or it presumably wouldn’t ever have done that thing.

Arthur J. Zuckerman, A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, 768-900 (New York City NY 1965), p. 318

Arthur J. Zuckerman, A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, 768-900 (New York City NY 1965), p. 318 and nn. 5-6…

Arthur J. Zuckerman, A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, 768-900 (New York City NY 1965), p. 319

… and p. 319 & nn. 6-8.

Now, Zuckerman’s notes are not clear (as you see above). They are anchored to strange places in the text, too, making it less than easy to see what note is supposed to cover what assertions. But it seems that we’re dealing here with pp. 318-319 nn. 6-8, in which as you see he prints what I suppose is some of the relevant Hebrew and various references, including to one German translation. That, thankfully, is on the web, and from that I can render the German as follows (badly):20

“Non-Jews often bring in oxen and rams from outside the city on Sunday and Friday, and from time to time the market day falls on a Jewish holiday; should one then buy from the non-Jews? – We decide: One should not buy on a holiday, and not fish or flour either. – And what you have asked: ‘On what ground?’ – Answer: Because Lucena is a Jewish town and has a very great number of Israelites – may the Eternal, the God of our Fathers, multiply them!21 – There are there almost no non-Jewish inhabitants, so surely the objects for sale are brought chiefly for the use of the Israelites; if non-Jews sometimes also find themselves there on market day, surely their numbers are vanishingly small against the majority Israelite population. Were this even in Córdoba, where the seat of government is, but where the Israelites are in the majority over the Arabs, there would be fear that the Israelites would be attracted to market more than would otherwise be done; how much more in a city like Lucena!”

Now, from this lots of things arise. Firstly we see that the German translators, Winter and Wünsche, assumed that the place concerned was Lucena, but we’ve already seen how Zuckerman headed that off, and I have to say that if he was right about the Hebrew, of which of course I’m no judge, then Osona seems more likely. Let’s assume it is for now, but that doesn’t end the questions by any means. Winter and Wünsche also did not offer much help in finding this text; they reference only Warnheim’s edition, as given by Zuckerman in the notes above, and say nothing about where we have this letter, from when, what its transmission is and so on.22 Now, all of that stuff could be really quite crucial in the interpretation of this letter; did its copyist likely have an idea what it was really about, and if not, what might he or she have corrected it to? Further inspection reveals that Warnheim’s edition is actually in Hebrew, with a German subtitle, and that Zuckerman’s helpful transliteration of its main title is not what’s actually on the title page – and neither is Winter and Wünsche’s, so even finding it may be beyond me, let alone reading it. I don’t suppose anyone else is able to help here? Manchester apparently have a copy…

All the same, if the text in question is what either of these writers say it is, i. e. a letter from a near-contemporary well-informed about Andalusi matters, I have at least to consider it. But even from the German, some important things emerge which neither Bachrach cares nor Zuckerman cared to mention (though the former Zuckerman at least implied).

  1. It’s clear that wherever this town was, the Jews were a majority there, a substantial one indeed, but not the only people present. At least, the market provision makes it seem otherwise, and Winter and Wünsch translated the Hebrew that Zuckerman renders, “Al-Osona is a Jewish place without gentiles” with an all-important qualifier, “gar”. The line that both Bachrach and Zuckerman also quote, “there are no gentiles in Osona”, is not actually in this source, and Zuckerman’s notes, once gleaned, say it’s “perhaps by the same author” (p. 319 n. 6) but cites it from a different edition with no further details.23 Again, help getting at this would be lovely!
  2. Much more important, though, is the reference to Córdoba, because that shows that Rabbi Natronai Gaon believed this place ‘al-Usuna’ to be in al-Andalus, under Muslim rule. He must have done, because that was the government whose seat Córdoba was! And that changes the picture rather.

Wherefrom follows a rethink. Around 850 is actually a bad time to see Vic as having been in Carolingian hands, as already discussed; it had certainly been in pro-Muslim ones only 24 years before and is not recorded in Christian ones again till 885 (though late 870s is likely).24 And while we can ignore some of the Christian reports that Jews let enemies into Christian cities, so much more easy to bear than Christians actually having lost them, we maybe need to consider Arabic reports that sometimes local Jews were put in charge of recently conquered towns; the Egyptian historian Ibn al-Athir says that the conquering general Mūsa ibn Nusair did this in Seville, for example.25 What if Vic was such a place? That is, maybe when the Muslim army arrived in 827 they took the place over, but installed a Jewish colony there rather than settle it themselves. Then Vic would indeed be a Jewish garrison town, but for the Muslims, or, probably more likely, a Jewish town with a Muslim garrison. That might be what this source is actually reporting!

Now, I would want a lot of those vital details about source transmission and indeed identity in hand before I started seriously proposing that last thing. But both Bachrach and, before him, Zuckerman just left these details out because they didn’t fit their respective wild hypotheses. I hope I’ve shown that Bachrach’s hypothesis has to be discarded whatever the results of this enquiry should be; but there could be an almost equally surprising alternative to their ideas derived from the same sources, and more easily I’d say, which neither of them for some reason wanted to discover. It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, about the preoccupations which drive our enquiries…


1. Arthur J. Zuckerman, A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, 768-900 (New York City NY 1965, repr. 1972); Bernard S. Bachrach, “On the Role of the Jews in the Establishment of the Spanish March (768–814)” in Josep M. Solà-Solé, S. G. Armistead & Joseph H. Silverman (edd.), Hispania Judaica: studies in the history, language and literature of the Jews in the Hispanic world, Estudios 2 (Barcelona 1980), 3 vols, I pp. 11-19, repr. in Bernard S. Bachrach, Armies and Politics in the Early Medieval West, Collected Studies 405 (Aldershot 1993), chapter XV, online here from the reprint.

2. On inspection, this is less racist and more crazy than Bachrach, “Role of the Jews”, p. 12, makes it sound; Zuckerman notes the name Naso given to Bernard of Septimania as a pseudonym by Paschasius Radbertus, in his polemical diatribe the Epitaphium Arsenii (Zuckerman, Jewish Princedom, p. 263), which Calmette explained as being a reference to a big nose, but which Zuckerman in fact sees as the ancestral title Nasi born by his alleged Jewish princes. Even in his critique of others, therefore, Bachrach doesn’t really represent what his source says accurately.

3. Nahon Gérard, “Arthur J. ZUCKERMAN, A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France, 768-900” in Annales : Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations Vol. 30 (Paris 1975), pp. 363-364; for the wider background at Narbonne see with more safety Jean Régné, Étude sur la condition des juifs de Narbonne du Ve au XIVe siècle (Narbonne 1912), one of several secondary sources that Bachrach uses rather than cite actual evidence for Jewish presence. After the discoveries of the previous note, one may justly wonder whether checking these would actually back up his points at all or if these citations would also turn out to be misread.

4. Bachrach, “Role of the Jews”, p. 14, citing two chapters of Régné and himself, “A Reassessment of Visigothic Jewish Policy 589-711” in American Historical Review Vol. 78 (Washington DC 1973), pp. 11-34, repr. in idem, Armies and Politics, chapter XI, pp. 26-27, rather than the actual source, Hist. Wamb. c. 5 (he says there). This is now available as Joaquim Martínez Pizarro, The Story of Wamba: Julian of Toledo’s Historia Wambae regis (Washington DC 2005), on JSTOR here.

5. Bachrach, “Role of the Jews”, pp. 13-14; the source is the Annals of Aniane, which are printed in Claude Devic and Jean Vaissete, Histoire Générale de Languedoc avec les Notes et les Pièces Justificatives, ed. by Edouard Dulaurier, édition accompagnée de dissertations et actes nouvelles, contenant le recueil des inscriptions de la province antiques et du moyen âge, des planches, cartes géographiques et des vues des monuments (Toulouse 1875), 16 vols, vol. II, online here, col. 7.

6. Jacques-Paul Migne (ed.), Anastasii Abbatis, sanctæ Romanæ ecclesiæ Presbyteri et Bibliothecarii, opera omnia: editio præ aliis omnibus insignis, ad fidem manuscriptorum codicum et juxta probatissimas editiones expressa, Blancsini nempe Romano-Vaticanam, quod Librum Pontificalem, Mabillonii, Cardinalis Maii, etc., etc. Accedunt Stephani V, Formosi, Stephani VI, Romani, Pontificum Romanorum; Erchemberti Cassinensis monachi, Angilberti Corbeiensis abbatis, S. Tutilonis Sangallensis monachi, Grimlaici presbyteri, Wolfardi presbyteri Hasenrietani, Anamodi Ratisbonensis subdiaconi, Scripta vel scriptorum fragmenta quæ exstant. Tomum claudit Appendix ad Sæculum IX, Patrologia cursus completus series latina CXXIX (Paris 1879), 3 vols, vol. I, online here, col. 857; Bachrach discusses this and its problems over “Role of the Jews”, pp. 12-13 n. 6, in which he both accepts and rejects the arguments for a tenth-century date before using it as straightforward evidence for Pippin’s granting of land to Jews p. 14 n. 9.

7. Bachrach, “Role of the Jews”, p. 16, “The count of Narbonne, whose military contingent surely had a substantial proportion of Jewish allodial landholders among its members…”, with n. 16 there providing cites only for Jewish military service three centuries before or five centuries after, both in other countries.

8. For the refortification see ‘Astronomer’, “Vita Hludowici imperatoris”, ed. & transl. Ernst Tremp in Tremp (ed./transl.), Thegan: Die Taten Kaiser Ludwigs. Astronomus: Das Leben Kaiser Ludwigs, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi LXIV (Hannover 1995), pp. 278-558, online here, cap. 8; for the council of complaint, see Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memoòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 53 (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, vol. I no. 75; for the letter, see below.

9. Judaigues occurs in Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Sebastià Riera i Viader and Manuel Rovira i Solà (edd.), Catalunya Carolíngia V: els comtats de Girona, Besalú, Empúries i Peralada, rev. by Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 61 (Barcelona 2009), 2 vols, doc. nos 312 & 523 at least, and I think at least one more, but can’t check right now given my situation.

10. Jewish landholders appealing to Emperor Louis the Pious in Devic & Vaissete, Histoire Générale de Languedoc, II, Preuves: chartes et diplômes, no. 97; for wider context see David Romano, “Els jueus de Barcelona i Girona fins a la mort de Ramon Borrell (1018)” in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium Internacional sobre els Orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), 2 vols, vol. II , pp. 123–30, online here.

11. Bachrach, “Visigothic Policy”, p. 27, with only secondary references.

12. On Julian see Abdón Moreno García and Raúl Pozas Garza, “Una controversía judeo-cristiana del s. VII: Julián de Toledo” in Helmantica Vol. 53 nos 161–162 (Seville 2002), pp. 249–69, online here, and on Visigothic anti-Judaism more widely Rachel L. Stocking, “Early Medieval Christian Identity and Anti-Judaism: The Case of the Visigothic Kingdom” in Religion Compass Vol. 2 (Oxford 2008), pp. 642–658, DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00087.x; for the trope of Jews causing the fall of Christian cities to invaders, see among many other instances Janet L. Nelson (transl.), The Annals of St-Bertin, Ninth-Century Histories 1 (Manchester 1991), s. a. 852.

13. Norman Roth, “Dhimma: Jews and Muslims in the Early Medieval Period” in Ian Richard Netton (ed.), Studies in Honour of Clifford Edmund Bosworth (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 2 vols, vol. I, pp. 238–266, on Academia.edu here.

14. S. P. Scott (transl.), The Visigothic Code (Forum Judicum), translated from the Original Latin, and Edited (Boston MA 1910), online here, XII.ii.3-18 & iii.1 & 3-28; for discussion, as well as the works in n. 12 above see Bat-Sheva Albert, “Les communautés juives vues à travers la législation royale et ecclésiastique visigothique et franque” in John Victor Tolan, Nicholas De Lange, Laurence Foschia & Capucine Nemo-Pekelman (edd.), Jews in Early Christian Law: Byzantium and the Latin West, 6th‒11th centuries, Religion and Law in Medieval Christian and Muslim Societies 2 (Turnhout 2014), pp. 179–193, online here.

15. Christians in Osona before 906 in any of Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia 4, doc. nos 1-74, really; for the burials see Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer, “Dos exemples d’arqueologia medieval al nucli urbà de Vic: la casa de la Plaça de Dom Miquel i la necròpolis del Cloquer” in Ausa Vol. 10 nos 102–104 (Vic 1982), pp. 375–385, online here, and Joan Casas Blasi, Anna Gómez Bach, Raquel Masó Giralt, Imma Mestres Santacreu & Montserrat de Rocafiguera Espona, “Ciutat de Vic: darreres intervencions i línies de recerca” in I Jornades d’Arqueologia de la Catalunya Central: Actes. Homenatge a Miquel Cura, Publicacions d’Arqueologia i Paleontologia 14 (Barcelona 2012), pp. 220–224, online here.

16. The Church history background is set out in Élie Griffe, Histoire religieuse des anciens pays de l’Aude (Paris 1933), 1 vol completed, online here, pp. 246-250; even now this is a tremendously perceptive and thorough book and I wish he’d finished the rest. Bachrach cites it, “Role of the Jews”, p. 17 n. 22, because it establishes a 906 date for the council text, but otherwise ignores what Griffe says was going on. For the trope of Muslims as pagans here, see 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, at pp. 15-16; cf. Bachrach, “Role of the Jews”, p. 17 and Zuckerman, Jewish Princedom, p. 319.

16bis. On Christianity and Judaism, an interesting range of perspectives is to be found in Adam H. Becker and Annette Yoshiko Reed (edd.), The Ways That Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis MN 2007) , though goodness knows there are others. For Muslims as pagans, see John Victor Tolan, Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination (New York City NY 2002), pp. 105-134.

17. Imma Ollich i Castanyer, “Roda: l’Esquerda. La ciudad carolingia” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cultura antes del románico (siglos IX y X): 16 diciembre 1999 – 27 febrero 2000, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Palau Nacional-Parc de Montjuíc (Barcelona 1999), pp. 84–88, transl. as “Roda: l’Esquerda. The Carolingian Town” ibid. pp. 461-463; cf. Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Els orígens històrics de Vic (segles VIII-X), Osona a la butxaca 1 (Vic 1981), online here, pp. 22-26.

18. Zuckerman, Jewish Princedom, pp. 316-319.

19. Ibid., ‘Ispamia’ p. 317 and thereafter, quote p. 318.

20. Jakob Winter and August Wünsche (edd.), Die jüdische Litteratur seit Abschluss des Kanons: eine prosaische und poetische Anthologie mit biographischen und litterargeschichtlichen Einleitungen (Trier 1894-1896), 3 vols, vol II, online here, pp. 23-24.

21. Identified by Winter and Wünsche as quotation of 5 Moses 1, 11.

22. Winter’s and Wünsche’s background information covers the author (vol. II pp. 22-23) without references, but of the actual text offered they say only, “Aus „Kebuzat Chachamim‟, Wien 1861, S. 110”, which from Zuckerman and Google it’s possible to decode as W. Warnheim (ed.), קבוצת חכמים: כולל דברי מדע פרי עשתנות חכמים שונים: Wissenschaftliche Aufsätze in hebräischtalmudischer Sprache (Wien 1861), p. 110, but as I say, that doesn’t get me personally much further.

23. As you can see above, Zuckerman, Jewish Princedom, p. 319 n. 6, gives this source as “J. Müller, Teshubhot geoné mizrah uma`arabe, no. 26, p. 9a”, but websearch for that string or variants produces nothing, so I guess that the actual title is again in Hebrew, and he transliterated it into Roman, an operation I cannot reverse.

24. The first possible evidence that the city’s church was up and running again comes with Archpriest Godmar, soon to become the first bishop, who turns up in Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia 4, doc. no. 2, but we don’t know for sure that he was Archpriest of Vic; that association only becomes clear when he occurs as bishop ibid. doc. 7, in 885. Eduard Junyent, who first edited these documents, thought that the handwriting of the main scribe who worked with Godmar when he was archpriest, Athanagild, suggests that both had been brought in from Narbonne, which is a priori likely and would help make sense of the see’s later special subjection to the metropolitan one.

25. Accessible to me as Ibn el-Athir, Annales du Maghreb et de l’Espagne, transl. Edmond Fagnan (Alger 1901), which is no longer online whence I got it, sadly, but where the relevant bit is on p. 47.

Y’are caught

(The following was written pretty much entirely in February 2019, when I was reading for a now-stalled project that I hope to reactivate next year. I’ve edited for clarity and added the images and notes but otherwise it’s as it was then.)

I do hope some day to move away from what I think of my destructive mode of scholarship, where what I’m primarily doing is showing what I think people have got wrong. Still, one does find people getting things wrong, and even more occasionally one finds them apparently just inventing things, and when one finds those things it’s maybe important just to make a note. The perpetrator in this instance is also famous for scholarship in the destructive mode, in any case, so I feel they can take it.

Cover of Bernard S. Bachrach, Armies and Politics in the Early Medieval West (Aldershot 1993)

Cover of Bernard S. Bachrach, Armies and Politics in the Early Medieval West (Aldershot 1993)

Y’see, I’ve been reading Bernard Bachrach’s first Variorum volume of reprinted papers as I work towards revising my article on military service in Catalonia.1 I expected this to be far more egregious in terms of special practice and special pleading than in fact it largely has been, except about Alans, and in that respect it’s a lesson in humility to me; whatever his reputation may now be and the problems of his contributions may still be, there is sound and important scholarship in the Bachrach corpus of the early 1970s.2 Problems began to creep in, however, when he got to the point of being able to rest new work on his old work, at which point the actual sources on which his conclusions rest started to disappear from view and, perhaps inevitably, the occasional slip of memory occurred. And I just found one.

‘Charlemagne’s Cavalry: Myth and Reality’ is a fairly short and densely-referenced article in which Bachrach renewed his attack on a then-partly-established thesis that Charles Martel, Charlemagne’s grandsonfather [Edit: oops], by taking emergency measures to raise a mounted cavalry arm for his wars against the Muslims, established the foundations of Frankish feudalism. Here Bachrach, who had already written a couple of pieces against this idea, brought his conclusions to a more general stage.3 I’m utterly sympathetic to that as an aim; there’s no point working this stuff out if it never gets to where the people who write textbooks, and thus command the attention of the general audience, notice it. But your practice should be as rigorous there as, in this case, in Speculum, no? So I sat up when, describing early Carolingian campaigns into Spain, Bachrach says on p. 5, “The fortified civitas of Vich (Ausona) was occupied and garrisoned as were the castra of Casserres and Cardona. The latter fell only after a siege.” This is, of course, my patch and if there was evidence that Cardona was held and defended against the Carolingians in that campaign (which happened in 798), I really ought to have seen it. It’s certainly not in the only text I know that describes these fortifications, the anonymous biography of Emperor Louis the Pious whose author we call ‘Astronomer’.4 This matters a little bit because if it existed, it would be pretty much the only evidence going that the Frankish take-over in Catalonia was a conquest imposed from outside, as some have argued, rather than a consensual secession from Muslim rule to Christian as the Carolingian sources, perhaps naturally, paint it.4bis

The castle of Cardona

The castle of Cardona, tenth-century at platform level, fourteenth-century in most of its visible fabric, and now a quite expensive hotel; but it might still be quite hard to take by siege…

So what’s the source? Well, the endnote for the paragraph reads: “Bachrach, ‘The Spanish March’, 16, and Bachrach, ‘Aquitaine under the Early Carolingians’, 24, 25-26. J. E. Ruiz Doménce, ‘El Asedio de Barcelona, según Ermoldo el Negro’, Boletín de la Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona, 37 (1978-1979), 149-168, provides nothing from a military point of view.”5 Good to know. But this being a reprint volume, those references to earlier work are really easy to check, and in them there is no reference to that resistance at Cardona; indeed, where referenced in the former he admits, “Contemporary and near contemporary sources tell us nothing of Cardona and Casserres”.6 Neither does the piece by Ruiz Doménec (as he’s actually spelt) have any such information. So where had this come from? Nowhere, I guess. It’s not a big deal, in the overall scheme of his argument, which I still find basically convincing. But we’re not supposed to make stuff up, are we? So I just point it out.


1. Bernard S. Bachrach, Armies and Politics in the Early Medieval West, Collected Studies 405 (Aldershot 1993). If you’ve never met a Variorum volume before, they can be quite confusing: they are a 1980s creation, reprints of articles and essays by a single author, done photographically with the original pagination and mise-en-page preserved intact. Their look and feel thus jumps erratically from chapter to chapter and the only way to cite the works within is by chapter number, as the original page ranges tend to overlap in many places. Occasionally people put new work in them alongside the old, which just complicates matters further. They’re kind of crazy, but if they weren’t so very expensive I’d have many of them.

2. I thought especially highly of Bernard S. Bachrach, “Procopius, Agathias and the Frankish Military” in Speculum Vol. 45 (Cambridge MA 1970), pp. 435–41, DOI: 10.2307/2853502, repr. in idem, Armies and Politics, VIII, and idem, “Charles Martel, Mounted Shock Combat, the Stirrup, and Feudalism” in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History Vol. 7 (New York City NY 1970), pp. 49-75, repr. in idem, Armies and Politics, XII, though perhaps it should be noted that these are both articles whose work is largely to show that others are wrong, at which Professor Bachrach was and remains frighteningly able.

3. Idem, “Charlemagne’s Cavalry: Myth and Reality” in Military Affairs Vol. 47 (Washington DC 1983), pp. 181-187; this is derived largely from idem, “Charles Martel”, and idem, “Military Organization in Aquitaine under the Early Carolingians” in American Historical Review Vol. 78 (Washington DC 1973), pp. 11-34, repr. in idem, Armies and Politics, XIII. This latter is more typical Bachrach in that I have to agree with about a third of it, find a third of it quite difficult to agree with but have to think about it, and think one third of it gets meanings out of the sources that aren’t there; but also, and with no discredit to the author rather than the press, it is riddled with typos. The American Historical Association were obviously having a bad year, editorially speaking.

4. ‘Astronomer’, “Vita Hludowici imperatoris”, ed. & transl. Ernst Tremp in Tremp (ed./transl.), Thegan: Die Taten Kaiser Ludwigs. Astronomus: Das Leben Kaiser Ludwigs, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi LXIV (Hannover 1995), pp. 278-558, online here, cap. 8: “Ordinavit autem illo in tempore in finibus Aquitanorum circumquaque firmissimam tutelam; nam civitatem Ausonam, castrum Cardonam, Castaserram et reliqua oppida olim deserta munivit, habitari fecit et Burello comiti cum congruis auxiliis tuenda commitit“, which I english roughly as: “Moreover, at the same time he [Louis the Pious, then King of Aquitaine] ordered the firmest possible guard placed at the Aquitainian borders and thereabouts, for he fortified the city of Ausona, the castle of Cardona, Casserres [de Berguedà] and other once-deserted hillforts, had them settled and committed them to the protection of Count Borrell [I of Urgell and Cerdanya], with suitable support.”

4bis. For example, cf. Ramon Martí, “Conquistas y capitulaciones campesinas” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cultura antes del románico (siglos IX y X), 16 diciembre 1999 – 27 febrero 2000, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Palau Nacional-Parc de Montjuïc (Barcelona 1999), pp. 59–63, transl. as “Peasant victories and defeats”, ibid. pp. 448-451.

5. Bachrach, “Charlemagne’s Cavalry”, p. 5 n. 24 (p. 16).

6. The former reference is Bernard S. Bachrach, “On the Role of the Jews in the Establishment of the Spanish March (768–814)” in Josep M. Solà-Solé, S. G. Armistead & Joseph H. Silverman, Hispania Judaica: studies in the history, language and literature of the Jews in the Hispanic world, Estudios 2 (Barcelona 1980), 3 vols, I pp. 11-19, and that paper deserves a whole separate post for which I need help with Hebrew and which may therefore take a while; the latter is of course Bachrach, “Aquitaine”. The third one is online here.

Scribes who knew more

Moving forward definitively at last into 2019 in my backlog, in February of that year I was mainly reading Wendy Davies‘s then relatively new book Windows on Justice in Northern Iberia 800–1000. I got two posts out of this, but it turns out on reviewing the drafts now that the first one I had kind of already written in two places. Therefore, here is just the second one, on the second part of the book, which is substantially about scribes and what they knew, especially in terms of formulae. It is great, obviously, because Wendy Davies. But there is one conclusion she has that stuck out at me and now that I look at it I have objections, but I also have examples that may mean I have to swallow those objections. Tricky, huh? So I invite you to read on…

Cover of Wendy Davies's Windows on Justice in Northern Iberia, 800-1000

Cover of Wendy Davies, Windows on Justice in Northern Iberia, 800-1000 (London 2016)

Wendy starts by categorising her documentary sample, and while I suspect she goes too far with this—I always suspect this with efforts of categorisation, I guess—there is a distinctive category she sets apart, which is big documents that narrate a judicial dispute and then have the outcome confirmed by important people.1 This is, she thinks, basically a monastic habit (um, as it were; I don’t appear to have meant the pun when I drafted this) and with her favourite example it’s clear firstly that other documents from earlier in the process were used (and reported slightly differently each time they were used), and secondly that there were several distinct episodes of confirmation some years apart, as if San Vicente de Oviedo‘s monks had a ceremony every now and then when the king was hosted at their place and got him to sign things (or, I suppose, when they solemnly trooped to the palace chanting and got him to do so, or whatever).2 There are a few documents in my sample with extra, later, confirmations on so I can imagine that happening in my world too.3

However, the bit that I baulked at was towards the end where she suggests that these documents required special knowledge to write, and that unlike the average sale or dispute document, whose structures the local priest of wherever knew and could write you more or less as per standard—and Wendy’s sense of the variations in that standard is acute and fascinating4—these ones have language in that would have been the preserve of only a few highly-educated clerics.5 Something socialist in me doesn’t like that; I think a number of local priests came from cathedral chapters and might have been as highly trained as the next man, but they didn’t get to write one of these big things every day, or possibly at all unless they happened to work for a monastery. The hearing over the abbacy of Sant Benet de Bages that I wrote about years ago might even be an example of someone we otherwise think was a local priest finding himself in that context and having to step up to the formulaic plate.6 But then I thought back and remembered my best example of such a document from Catalonia, which is of course the Sant Joan de Ripoll hearing of 913.7

Low-quality facsimile of the charter of the Vall de Sant Joan hearing

Low-quality facsimile of the charter of the Vall de Sant Joan hearing, Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 32

Now I’ve written a lot about this document here and elsewhere and I won’t trouble you with it all again, but thre are several things about this huge hearing that gel with Wendy’s analysis here. Firstly, it’s a substantially fictive narrative designed to represent only one side of a dispute.8 Secondly, it is confirmed or at least witnessed anew on two occasions at least, though not by anyone much as far as I could discern; Sant Joan seems quickly to have lacked powerful supporters in its area.9 But thirdly, I have repeatedly observed that its scribe, one Garsies, is not attested anywhere else ever. I have in the past suggested that that was because he was needed to mobilise or silence the otherwise scarcely visible community of old settlers who predated Sant Joan’s tenure of the area under dispute.10 I sort of picture him as being in charge of some crumbling church from long before far out in the wilds, or possibly I suppose even at Santa Leocàdia in Vic, the once-and-by-then-replaced cathedral, in general being an older authority not necessarily well integrated into the new church structure, and that because of this he was who was needed to write this document, as a person everybody could accept would be trustworthy.11 The other possibility I’ve never been able to rule out, of course, is that he was a scribe of Count Sunyer who came along for the day, but I’ll ignore that for now. Wendy now opens up a third possibility, which is that he was just called upon because he had some sense how this should be done that other less experienced or learned priests might not have had. We don’t have another such document, at least not for twenty years or so not very close by, so we don’t see Garsies again. She could be right. In which case I don’t have as many frontiersmen, but I wonder where on earth he would have learnt this stuff? Santa Leocàdia might just still be the answer, but I will have to rethink…12


1. Wendy Davies, Windows on Justice in Northern Iberia, 800-1000 (Abingdon 2016), pp. 35-39.

2. Her specific worked example, of many, is Pedro Floriano Llorente (ed.), Colección diplomática del monasterio de San Vicente de Oviedo (años 781-1200): Estudio y transcripción (Oviedo 1968), doc. no. 26, discussed Davies, Windows on Justice, pp. 1-5 & 146-147, with text pp. 60-3 and photo p. 2.

3. Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic: segles IX-X, Documents 1 (Vic 1980-1996), 5 fascs, doc. no. 594, also printed as Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia Volum IV: Els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica 53 (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 1712, actually tells us that this happened to it, which is nice but of course raises questions of which bits were written when. In some ways more interesting is Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 995A, because there are two copies, the former of which was already witnessed by Count Borrell II but the later of which us confirmed additionally by Viscount Guadall II of Osona. More would not be hard to find.

4. Davies, Windows on Justice, pp. 95-120, which is kind of a kingdom-wide application of my technique in Jonathan Jarrett, “Comparing the Earliest Documentary Culture in Carolingian Catalonia” in Jarrett and Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout 2013), pp. 89–126, DOI:10.1484/M.IMR-EB.1.101679, which is rather flattering.

5. Davies, Windows on Justice, pp. 141-143.

6. Jaime Villanueva, Viage literario a las Iglesias de España, tomo VII: Viage á la Iglesia de Vique, año 1806 (Valencia 1821), online here, ap. XIII.

7. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 119.

8. Jonathan Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2003), pp. 229–258 at pp. 241-248 and Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 35-42.

9. Ibid., pp. 46-49.

10. Ibid., pp. 42-46.

11. The identification is argued in Ramon Ordeig i Mata, “Santa Eulàlia i Santa Leocàdia, una església altmedieval de Vic” in Ausa Vol. 25 no. 168 (Vic 2011), pp. 323–332. .

12. It is arguable, of course, that I should have maybe done that rethinking in the three years since writing this post. One thing that should have occurred to me then but didn’t, and does now, is that the possible link to Santa Leocàdia has the additional strength that by 913 the church was actually held by Sant Joan de Ripoll, having been granted to them in Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya carol&iacutelngia volum II: Els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 2 & 3 (Barcelona 1926-1952), repr. in facsimile as Memòries… 75 (Barcelona 2007), Sant Joan de les Abadesses I. So I might still think that the most plausible answer. An outside possibility might be that Garsies had come from some Andalusi intellectual centre such as Toledo which might be thought to have given him special knowledge of charters and the like; but if that were the case, I’d expect him to have been widely sought out as scribe, and in any case Toledo diplomatic wouldn’t necessarily have been what was wanted in Osona (see my “Comparing the Earliest Documentary Culture” as in n. 8 above). Maybe he just refused any lesser client than two counts, a viscount and an abbess, but still, I think more or less on-site but normally disregarded is a more plausible and interesting possibility…

Murder of a factoid about Mallorca

My backlogged blog chronology is getting a bit out of step here, as I find this in my drafts folder from November 2018 referring to an unusual luxury I’d been able to permit myself that summer, which was a trip to Cambridge University Library. I was privileged enough to do most of my undergraduate and doctoral work out of that library (even though my doctorate’s from London) and there are still times when it’s invaluable to get there, for the simple reason that unlike most big research libraries a good proportion of its stock is on open shelves. The speed factor this adds to checking references is hard to exaggerate; when ordinarily you might have to wait an hour or two for your books to arrive, being able to go straight to not just the things you already knew you needed, but also then the things which they reveal you also need to check, which otherwise might normally mean a second trip at some future point, is invaluable. I was at that point up against a tight deadline to finish my article “Nests of Pirates” and, among other things, I was able to check the thing I want to tell you about now, and because of the open shelves track it to its root rather than just the next layer down. It’s about the Islamic conquest of Mallorca, I think by the definition offered some time ago by frequent commentator dearieme it counts as a ‘factoid’, and I think I killed it.1

The Balearic Islands had a rough Late Antiquity.2 Taking part fairly fully, as far as patchy archaeological evidence and a few textual anecdata can so far reveal, in both the third-century crisis (during which Mallorca’s then-capital, Pollentia, burned down) and then the general shrinkage of economy and settlement suffered by the western half of the Roman Empire over the fifth century, they fell in the course of that century into the maritime empire of the Vandal kings of Carthage, where they remained until returned to imperial control during the Byzantine conquest of that kingdom. They then remained under at least some kind of Byzantine obedience into the eighth century, to judge by seals found at the hilltop fort of Santueri in Mallorca, and perhaps even later, but that’s where the trouble begins, because the terminus post quem non is of course Islamic conquest, and we don’t really know when that happened.3

Wall of the castle site at Santueri, Mallorca

Wall of the castle site at Santueri, Mallorca

Now, first of all some important preconditions. There are five major islands in the Balearic archipelago, as you see above, in descending order of size Mallorca, Minorca, Ibiza, Formentera and Cabrera, of which Ibiza and Formentera sit apart as part of a separate group called the Pityuses, all over an area of about 150 square miles. There is much more evidence about what happened to Mallorca than any of the others; indeed, archaeologically and documentarily, we don’t actually have any proof so far identified that Cabrera, Formentara, Ibiza or even Menorca were actually occupied between the seventh (or for Menorca, eighth) and tenth centuries (mid-ninth for Menorca, as we’ll see), though it’s probably more likely that they were than they weren’t.4 Nonetheless, people who write about this area always seem to do so as if what happened in one island can be generalised to all the others, apparently believing that because they are governed as a unit now, and have been since, well, mumble mumble mumble, they must always have behaved as one. But it ain’t necessarily so.

Ruins of the late antique Christian basilica in Illa del Rei, off Menorca

Ruins of the late antique Christian basilica in Illa del Rei, its own separate islet off Menorca, by Pytxyown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

So what we’re actually able to discuss is the Islamic conquest of Mallorca, not the Balearics, and we just have to live with that. Now, currently the archaeology can really only tell us that at some point people started using Islamic-style ceramics and burying like Muslims, not when or why.5 For when or why the answers must for now come from texts. The terminus ante quem this time is 933 CE, by which time there was an Andalusī (i e. from al-Andalus, Muslim Iberia) fleet using Mallorca as a base for raiding Christian Francia, according at least to the chronicler Ibn Ḥayyān, who had access to some of the caliphal archives of Córdoba somehow and thus had reason to know.6 So the conquest was before that, but when? Excitingly, there are four different dates recorded, all in different sources, none of which seem to know the others’ stories. For dramatic reasons it’s most fun for me to go through them from latest date to earliest, which means that the first entrant is fourteenth-century CE polymath, bureaucrat, lawyer and underrated sociologist, but questionable historian, Abū Zayd ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān ibn Muḥammad ibn Khaldūn.

Bust of Ibn Khaldun at Casbah de Bejaia, Algeria

Bust of Ibn Khaldun at Casbah de Bejaia, Algeria, image by Reda Kerbushown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Ibn Khaldūn, who had excellent sources for the most part, including Ibn Ḥayyān, but notoriously scrambled them in his own work, offers the latest date for the conquest, placing it in 902/903 and explaining it as the result of an Andalusī pilgrim to the East having been stranded in the islands for a while and having thus learned their weak spots, and then offering to lead a conquest of them for the Emir of Córdoba, which succeeded.7 Opinions vary among the people who know this report as to whether the islands could possibly still have been Byzantine at so late a stage, or had been assimilated into the Carolingian sphere after an appeal to Charlemagne for help against pirates in 798, which was answered.8 That appeal is documented in the Carolingian court chronicle, the Royal Frankish Annals, but only in its early version, not its revision of 829, as if by then it was no longer a working claim. So if the Balearics did swing Carolingian, it may not have lasted long.9 Nonetheless, after 903, says Ibn Khaldūn, they were Islamic territory.

Approach to Puig d'Alaró, Mallorca

Approach to Puig d’Alaró, Mallorca

But! The twelfth-century Granadan geographer Muḥammad ibn Abi Bakr al-Zuhri has a different story. According to him, the conquest took place in the reign of “Muḥammad, son of the fifth Emir of al-Andalus”, and although it was mostly successful, the “Rūm” held out in one particular fort, Ḥisn Alarūn, almost certainly modern Alaró seen above, for a further eight years and five months before finally running out of supplies and surrendering.10 So for him Mallorca was definitely still Byzantine territory, but when? Muḥammad I ruled 852-886 CE, but the trouble is that he was the fifth Emir, and his son was called al-Mundhir (r. 886-888 CE). Professor Juan Signes Codoñer has suggested that the peculiar way in which the ruler is identified might be explained if the name of Muhammad’s father ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II had dropped out, supposing a correct text saying “Muḥammad son of [‘Abd al-Raḥmān], the fifth Emir…” and that looks like a good solution to me, but it’s still a 30-year window.11 Also, al-Zuhri said that he had heard this story told, not that it was a matter of record, and while he was nearer in time to the events than was Ibn Khaldūn, that distance was still four hundred years, so it’s not the best evidence.

But! Maybe we need neither of these, because the somewhat later Marrakech historian Abū al-ʽAbbās Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn ʽIḏārī has a different report again. He, frustratingly, doesn’t tell us when the conquest actually was, but notes that in 848/849, none other than ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II sent a punitive naval expedition against Mallorca because its inhabitants had “broken their pact” and were harassing Islamic shipping in their waters. Some kind of blockade seems to have been imposed and next year Mallorca and Menorca both sent envoys begging for the renewal of the pact, though Ibn ʽIḏārī doesn’t say that they got it.12 Nonetheless, as far as he was concerned, subjection of the islands to Islam, even if not conquest by it, had happened by then.

Romantic modern depiction of Ibn al-Qutiya

Modern depiction of Ibn al-Qutiya

Now it’s possible to reconcile that with either, but not both, of the previous two, and maybe even the Royal Frankish Annals, by saying that the Balearics, or at least Mallorca, had maybe been under a pact to the Muslim rulers in the Peninsula for some time but not actually conquered by them – this was also the case with Basque Pamplona, so it wouldn’t be unprecedented – and had perhaps flirted with a Carolingian alternative before being brought back into line by ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II.13 But! Now we reach the meat. Our earliest source for the conquest also gives the earliest date, or at least so it seems. If you look in the work of Juan Signes which I already mentioned, or that of Josep Amengual i Batle on which it often rests, you will find a report there that the tenth-century Sevillano lawyer and historian Muḥammad Ibn ʿUmar Ibn al-Qūṭiyya dated the conquest of the islands to 707/708 CE, when ‘Abd al-Malik, son of the then-governor of Muslim North Africa, Mūsā bin Nuṣayr, mounted a naval raid on Mallorca and Menorca and captured the “kings” (mulūk) who ruled there and sent them off to Damascus.14 I grant you that’s not quite the same as actual conquest, and it might even have led to the kind of pact subsequently reported by Ibn ʽIḏārī, but it is still quite surprising, not least because it’s a full four years before the actual conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, which Mūsā carried out in 711-712 CE. Now, that may just be presentism talking and it might have made more sense, before their permanent attachment (so far) to governments in the Peninsula in the thirteenth century, to see the islands as prone to African dependency, as under the Vandals and Byzantines, and not Iberian rule. But, this is also our factoid.

You see, when I first saw this report, in Signes I think, I was immediately struck by two things. One was how early it was, as I just said; but the other was that I really ought to have known about it because I own an English translation of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya’s History of the Conquest of al-Andalus.15 I’m not saying I’ve ever sat down and read it all through and made notes, but I have gone into it quite a lot for gobbets for my Special Subject at Leeds, and if I’d seen this bit I would have grabbed it because of what it implies about the conquest of the Peninsula following on naval raiding rather than being a spontaneous event.16 So I went and got my copy off the shelf, and this bit isn’t there.

Well, how odd, I thought. It seemed unlikely that Professor Signes had just made this up, so I looked up his reference, which was as I might have expected to the old Castilian translation of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya by Julián Ribera. And that was online then, so it was pretty easy to check that too and find that it’s not there either.17 But he gave a reference also to Josep Amengual’s two-volume history of the late Antique Balearics, and it was that which I arrived in Cambridge needing to check. And from that it became clear that the reference in question is in the Ribera volume after all.18 So for a moment it looked as if either David James had missed it out of his English translation, or it wasn’t in the manuscript of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya that he’d used. BUT! Not so! There are actually two texts translated in that volume of Ribera’s, Ibn al-Qūṭiyya and a similar history under the name of Abū Muhammad Abd-Allāh ibn Muslim ibn Qutayba, and our factoid is in the latter, not the former. Well, at least I now had the source. And in some ways it should be a better source, because although based in Iraq, Ibn Qutayba was writing even earlier than Ibn al-Qūṭiyya and brings the gap between source and event, otherwise so large in this saga, down to a mere 150-odd years.

But.

Shamefully, I knew nothing about this Ibn Qutayba, so I did some rapid research. That told me that Reinhart Dozy had written about this very text in the 1880s.19 And this is the great virtue of the Cambridge UL: having found this out, within ten minutes I could sit down again with Dozy’s work before me, and it gave me pause. Dozy had spent some time with this Ahādith al-Imāma wa’l-siyāsa of Ibn Qutayba and in the end concluded that it was actually nothing of the kind, partly because no such work seemed to be attributed to that author by medieval biographers, partly because it claims to have had the Mallorca report from eye-witnesses but it had supposedly happened 134 years before, and mainly because there is a reference in it to Maroc, a city not founded until 1062 CE, difficult for a ninth-century CE author to have added. Dozy’s conclusion was that the whole thing is an Andalusī “romancing” of the work of Abū Marwān ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Ḥabīb, with some extra Iberian material from who knows where, and that its unique content – of which the notice with which we’re concerned is part – is late eleventh-century at the earliest and probably without earlier basis. So, let’s stack all this up.

  1. Some time after 1062 CE, someone decided to write a history of Muslim Iberia, which they based on an earlier work but to which they added some of their own material, including our notice about a 707/708 Muslim attack on Mallorca, and put the whole thing out under a respectable, plausible, but false name. Well, goodness knows they weren’t the last to do that, but then what?
  2. In the 1870s, Reinhart Dozy, having got curious about this, went into it and discovered the forgery, and wrote the discovery up as one of about a dozen unconnected little studies in one of his less well-known works. Not many people seem to have noticed.
  3. Juan Ribera had noticed, but for reasons that aren’t entirely clear thought that an earlier thought of Pascual de Gayangos that maybe this was more of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya still deserved to be taken seriously enough that the known text of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya and this one should be translated together, and so he did that.
  4. Several people, including Josep Amengual, presumably searching quite rapidly for all references to Mallorca they could find, then found this one, but apparently did not realise that it was not actually within Ibn al-Qūṭiyya’s text.
  5. Signes then presumably got the cite from Amengual, and repeated it even though he doesn’t seem to have been able to find it himself. And that paper, unlike Amengual’s book, went online and thus other people started to ‘know’ this thing as well. But unfortunately, it’s a dud…

Now, of course, this does not leave us with any kind of definitive answer. As I said in my article, you can even just about have it all: it could be that there was a 707/708 raid which sent the poor Mallorcan mulūk off to Syria, possibly even resulting in a pact to the then-governor of Ifrīqiya, which the islands then, finding that not keeping them safe, repudiated in favour of an approach to the Carolingians that didn’t last long, then went independent and possibly piratical for a bit before being reigned back in by ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II, but were not finally conquered till either the 850s-880s or 902/903.20 Or maybe those two dates are even for different islands in the archipelago and both true! It would be a bit weird that not one of our writers seems to have known other stories if they were all true, but they’re not actually incompatible, and even if the 707/708 story is from three hundred years later, that’s still closer to the supposed facts than Ibn Khaldūn or Ibn ʽIḏārī. But what that story is not is the work of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya. And that is a dead factoid, thankyou very much.


1. What that means, of course, is that if you’ve read 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, at pp. 199-209 and esp. 206-209, none of what follows is going to be new to you, sorry. But given firewalls and time, I’m betting that mostly you haven’t, and I can forgive you.

2. Covered ibid. pp. 198-212, but see also Luca Zavagno, “‘Going to the Extremes’: The Balearics and Cyprus in the Early Medieval Byzantine Insular System” in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 140–157, and Miguel Ángel Cau Ontiveros and Catalina Mas Florit, “The Early Byzantine Period in the Balearic Islands” in Demetrios Michaelides, Philippa Pergola and Enrico Zanini (eds), The Insular System of the Early Byzantine Mediterranean: Archaeology and History, British Archaeological Reports International Series 2523 (Oxford 2013), pp. 31–45.

3. On the Santueri seals see Juan Nadal Cañellas, “Las bulas de plomo bizantinas del Castillo de Santueri” in Bolletí de la Societat Arqueològica Lul·liana Vol. 72 (La Palma 2006), pp. 325–340; they are the only part of the evidence from an extensive archæological dig that has been made public.

4. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, pp. 199-204.

5. This is changing as radiocarbon dating begins to make a difference, as witness Miguel Ángel Cau Ontiveros, M. Van Strondyck, M. Boudin, C. Mas Florit, J. S. Mestres, F. Cardona, E. Chávez-Álvarez & M. Orfila, “Christians in a Muslim World? Radiocarbon dating of the cemetery overlaying the forum of Pollentia (Mallorca, Balearic Islands)” in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences Vol. 9 (Cham 2017), pp. 1529–1538, DOI: 10.1007/s12520-016-0325-0, but as the title notes they had found Christian burials, not Islamic ones. The real problem is non-differentiation of pre- and post-conquest coarse-ware ceramics, which absent Islamic fine-wares makes it very hard to tell when a site stopped being used. Once this changes, it will probably no longer be viable to hypothesize non-occupation of any of the islands.

6. Dolors Bramon (ed.), De quan érem o no musulmans: textos del 713 al 1010. Continuació de l’obra de J. M. Millàs i Vallicrosa, Jaume Caresmar 13 (Vic 2000), &section;374; Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 207.

7. Juan Signes Codoñer, “Bizancio y las Islas Baleares en los siglos VIII y IX” in Rafael Durán Tapia (ed.), Mallorca y Bizancio (Palma de Mallorca 2005), pp. 45–99 at pp. 84-85; Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, pp. 208-209. The opinion of Ibn Khaldūn is mine, not Signes’s!

8. Basically, the Byzantinists see it as Byzantine till the last possible moment (as witness Signes), the Islamicists see it conquered as early as possible, and the Catalans see it as taken over by the Carolingians and thus effectively gathered into the future Catalonia with some unfortunate Islamic interludes that however serve to justify Aragonese ‘reconquest’. There are, admittedly, exceptions to this in every group except the Byzantinists.

9. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, pp. 205-206; the text is in English in Bernhard Walter Scholz and Barbara Rogers (edd.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, Ann Arbor Paperback 186 (Ann Arbor 1972), online here, pp. 1-128, s a. 798.

10. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 208.

11. Signes, “Bizancio y las Islas Baleares”, p. 85.

12. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 208, accessible to me from Ibn Idari, Historias de al-Andalus, transl. Francisco Fernández González (n. p. n. d.), pp. 81-82.

13. On the situation of Pamplona see Juan José Larrea & 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 & 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.

14. Signes, “Bizancio y las Islas Baleares”, pp. 46-54; Josep Amengual i Batle, Els orígens del cristianisme a les Balears i el seu desenvolupament fins a l’època musulmana, Els Trebals i els dies 36 & 37 (Palma de Mallorca 1991), 2 vols, vol. I pp. 441-453; there are other people I could cite, as well, but these notes are crowded enough and anyway I do at Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 207 n. 64.

15. Muḥammad ibn ʻUmar Ibn al-Qūṭīyah, Early Islamic Spain: the history of Ibn al-Qutiya, transl. David James (London 2011).

16. I have, in fact, sat down and read all of it, while in bed in Venice in fact, and it has many excellent stories in it one of which will be a future blog post; but I don’t have notes. Anyway, while I’m trailing future blog posts we might note that if this thing were in there it would not be the only evidence for early raiding preceding the invasion of Iberia, as I will later disclose, and that was why I didn’t initially think anything need be wrong with the idea.

17. Signes, “Bizancio y las Islas Baleares”, p. 93 n. 5, cites Julián Ribera (ed./transl.), Historia de la Conquista de España de Abenalcotía el Cordobés, seguida de fragmentos históricos de Abencotaiba, etc., Colección de obras arábigas de historia y geografía que publica el Real Academia de Historia 2 (Madrid 1926), online here as of 10th July 2016 but sadly no longer, but he gives no page reference, I suspect because he could not find the passage in question either.

18. Amengual, Orígens del cristianisme, vol. I pp. 442-443, citing Ribera, Historia de la Conquista de España, p. 122, which is correct.

19. R. Dozy, Recherches sur l’histoire et littérature de l’Espagne pendant le moyen âge, 3ème ed. (Paris 1881), 2 vols, vol. I, online here, pp. 21-40.

20. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 210.