Category Archives: Currently reading…

Learning from an ailing emperor

The last two posts have involved rather a lot of me getting things wrong in a more or less embarrassing fashion, including about stuff I’ve either taught or written about. Obviously the thing to do next is to start giving opinions about a text written in a language I don’t even read, right? In fact, that might even be safer since at least here I know roughly how much I don’t know… But I have been meaning to write about this since the run-up to the Leeds International Medieval Congress last year, and my current somewhat shaky form isn’t going to stop me. So I want to introduce you to the work known as De Administrando Imperio by Emperor Constantine VII (913-959).1

Ivory depiction of Constantine VII being crowned by Christ

Ivory depiction of Constantine VII being crowned by Christ, now in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow, image from Wikimedia Commons

You see, last academic year I was under a certain amount of social pressure to identify as a Byzantinist, what with the second-best Byzantine coin collection in the world (so it has been claimed) in my charge. I was also trying to get people to participate in a grand effort of comparison of medieval frontiers, and needed to come up with something for a Leeds session on that subject. And so I thought that it would be potentially interesting to compare what my speciality medieval magnate, Count Borrell II of Barcelona (945-993), did with his frontiers to what a completely different but roughly contemporary polity, which given my immediate circumstances should most obviously be the Byzantine Empire, did with some of its. And having declared such an intent, the obvious next step was the De Administrando Imperio.

Now, there are lots of things about this text that struck me and I want to write about at least a couple, without anticipating the actual paper too much since I have every hope that a version of it will some day go into print.2 But to say anything useful about what the De Administrando says it seemed more and more to me that the first step was to understand what it is, which should be simple but isn’t. What it immediately appears to be is a manual of statecraft by a Byzantine Emperor, written for his son and future successor Romanus II (959-963). In fact, firstly not very much of it is explicitly about the administration of the Empire and secondly quite a lot of it is not by Constantine VII.3 I’ll try and explain…

Bronze follis of Emperor Constantine VII with Empress Zoe, struck at Constantinople in 913-919, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4871

Bronze follis of Emperor Constantine VII with Empress Zoe, struck at Constantinople in 913-919, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4871; Constantine is the little one on the left

In the first place one has to understand Constantine’s own life situation.4 He was son of the successful Emperor Leo VI the Wise (886-912) but was only two when Leo died, so although he succeeded he did so alongside his uncle Alexander (912-913), who kept his nephew mostly excluded from power during his short reign. Once Alexander was dead Constantine’s mother Zoe became leader of a regent council, but was for one reason or another unable to hold onto that status and the admiral of the fleet, Romanus Lecapenus, more or less took power in 919, marrying his daughter Helena to Constantine in that year and then assuming co-emperorship in 920.

Pierced gold solidus of Emperor Romanus I, showing him being crowned by Christ, with his son-in-law Constantine VII and his son Christopher sharing a cross on the reverse. Struck in Constantinople between 919 and 931, though narrower guesses have been made; Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4841

Pierced gold solidus of Emperor Romanus I, showing him being crowned by Christ, with his son-in-law Constantine VII and his son Christopher sharing a cross on the reverse. Struck in Constantinople between 919 and 931, though narrower guesses have been made; Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4841

Over Romanus I’s long and more or less successful reign (920-944) power was shuffled and reconfigured again and again, it seems, with his own sons Christopher, Stephen and Constantine becoming co-emperors alongside and indeed in front of Constantine VII, in terms of how they were presented in public display and on the coinage.5 Another of his sons, Theophylact, became Patriarch of Constantinople in 933, although far too young. Christopher, who seems to have been the intended heir, however died in 931, and after that Romanus seems to have accepted that his other sons would not be able to keep Constantine VII from power, and returned him to a more obvious rôle. Constantine was spared the bother of a contest, however, because in 944 Stephen and his imperial brother decided they’d waited long enough, kidnapped their father and deposed him and when they returned to Constantinople the people rose against them and demanded that Constantine VII take sole power. Usurper father and rebels sons all died as monks, although Stephen outlived both Constantine VII and Romanus II. It’s a messy story.

Gold solidus of Constantine VII struck in Constantinople, most likely between 945 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4855

Gold solidus of Constantine VII struck in Constantinople, most likely between 945 and 959 but let’s be honest, could be earlier too; Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4855

What it all means for us, however, is that until 944 Constantine VII had a lot of time on his hands, and he seems to have spent a lot of this buried in books and the archives of the imperial palace. By the time he came to the throne he had a better idea than most about what the empire had been and some strong ideas about what it should now be, based not least on a series of treatises he had written, of which the De Administrando was only one.6 But he proceeded by compilation, pulling in materials of all vintages, so that the empire he reconstructed, and in the case of his book on imperial ceremony even enacted, was an empire that had never quite been, not all at once.

A modern map of part of the world as depicted by Constantine VII

A modern map of part of the world as depicted by Constantine VII, by Hxseek at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6342264

This applies no less to the De Administrando, but this raises particular excitement for scholars of the areas that he covers. These are, more or less, the frontiers with non-Islamic powers: it starts with the Pechenegs and the various other peoples who can affect them, including Rus’, Bulgarians and Turks, then talks at length about the way the Rus’ get to Constantinople, briefly about how to constrain the the Khazars, then goes off for many chapters into a reprise of the early history of Islam, largely retold from the Chronographia of Theophanes, all of which seems to be leading up to the point at which the ‘Abbasids lost control of al-Andalus to the one Umayyad they’d failed to kill, ‘Abd al-Rahman I. But that, 756, is as far as that thread goes and then he moves onto recent diplomatic relations within Italy, a matter of much more current concern as Romanus was married to a daughter of King Hugh of Italy (924-947). After that he proceeds more or less geographically, giving a historical ethnography of the various Roman and Slavic peoples of the Balkans, moving into the Caucasus and then appending a series of anecdotes about treaties and the manning of the imperial fleet. He finishes with two legends from Cherson.

Bronze coin of Constantine VII struck at Cherson between 913 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4918

Bronze coin of Constantine VII struck at Cherson between 913 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4918

From this you can see that if there was really an overall plan for this work, it was not adhered to very well. This has been explained by suggesting that Constantine had actually already nearly finished a different, more ethnographical work hypothetically known as the De Nationibus, and then before the final edit recycled its material willy-nilly into his new project for his son.7 But lots of that material is not only not his, but not reconciled at all with the other components of the work, which has suggested to many people that what we are getting here is nothing less than palace archival material copied without alteration, and often (it can be argued from the language used) based on or even actually being reports by local officials or informants from the areas concerned. This opens up for scholars of the early Slavs or the Rus’ the irresistible possibility that Constantine has preserved for them the earliest written records from their chosen peoples of study, and so there is great resistance to any suggestion that this is in fact a compilation of Constantinopolitan pseudo-history, selected by Constantine to justify baseless claims to imperial suzerainty of areas he couldn’t actually affect.8

Map of the rapids down the Dnieper river constructed more or less from the account of the De Administrando Imperio

Map of the rapids down the Dnieper river constructed more or less from the account of the De Administrando Imperio

And yet it sometimes seems as if it must be, because Constantine turns up so strongly as an authorial voice, which was the the thing that I liked best about reading the text. He starts the first chapter with a clear agenda:

“Hear now, my son, those things of which I think you should not be ignorant, and be wise that you may attain to government. For I maintain that while learning is a good thing for all the rest as well, who are subjects, yet it is especially so for you, who are bound to take thought for the safety of all, and to steer and to guide the laden ship of the world… I conceive, then, that it is always greatly to the advantage of the emperor of the Romans to be minded to keep the peace with the nation of the Pechenegs and to conclude conventions and treaties of friendship with them and to send every year to them from our side a diplomatic agent with presents befitting and suitable to that nation, and to take from their side sureties, that is, hostages and a diplomatic agent, who shall be collected together under charge of the competent minister in this city protected of God, and shall enjoy all imperial benefits and gifts suitable for the emperor to bestow.”

And he goes on with what is essentially a catalogue of people whom the Pechenegs can be induced to attack instead of the empire or who as allies of the empire may make the Pechenegs think twice before leaving their homeland open to attack by setting out against the empire. But it’s not long before that takes him onto ambassadorial routes to these people and then, apparently, he remembers this excellent account he has of bringing boats down the Dniepr from Kiev, and we’re off.9

Map of the Caucasus during the period of Romanus I's and Constantine VII's rule

Map of the Caucasus during the period of Romanus I’s and Constantine VII’s rule, from Wikiwand

Although a lot of the material can thus be explained as things it is useful for an emperor to know, some of it seems to have a bigger purpose, of presenting imperial claims in areas that lay well beyond the empire’s current control. On the former side there’s the intricate account of the recent politics of the Caucasus, important because almost all the rival potentates there had appealed for imperial support at some point and might do so again, always opening up opportunities for imperial expansion by force majeure. On the latter there are the quite dubious and much-debated claims about imperial Christianisation of the Balkans, which can be made into currently-relevant political statements but are at the least very odd ways to do that.10 Both of these cases are going to get their own posts, so I’ll not say more just now; instead, I’ll just add that not only do some sections, especially that on the Islamic conquest of Spain, not obviously serve any agenda beyond antiquarianism, but some are much more obviously personal. The little section on the imperial fleet—not the navy proper but a squadron maintained to carry the emperor and his officials in suitable style—is perhaps the most touching of these, where Constantine describes some of the men he remembers commanding the imperial galleys:

“When Podaron became vice-admiral, the protospatharius Theophylact Bimblidis was appointed protospatharius of the basin, who was nephew of the protospatharius John, surnamed Thalasson, and he lasted for a few years of the first reign of Constantine the Porphyrogenitus, the Christ-loving sovereign. On his death, since Michael the elder aforesaid [in a part not quoted here] was grown very old indeed and had given many long years of service as steersman, he was honoured with the rank of protospatharius and was also appointed protospatharius of the basin. And when the emperor embarked on the galley in the basin and set out either upon a progress or somewhere else, that good old man, ever memorable for his seamanship, would take his stand amidships of the galley, inspiring and urging the oarsmen of the galley to pull and row more bravely and manfully, and at the same time instructing the steersmen of the day how to manage the rudders and steer the imperial vessel when the winds were blowing distemperately. Well, he died….”11

I like this bit not just for the sheer irrelevance of Constantine’s genealogical detail—Romanus could surely get no benefit from knowing whose nephew an official of forty years before was—but because despite the third-person narrative, it’s clearly Constantine’s own memory we’ve got here, and it tells us that somewhere within the forty-five-year-old emperor who had spent much of his life as a virtual prisoner, albeit in a huge palace, was still the boy who had got to ride around on that galley and watch the elder Michael boss the sailors around in grand style.

Some of Constantine’s memories are less generous, and in particular, and understandably, he has almost nothing good to say of Romanus I Lecapenus. His words vary from lengthy accounts of why Romanus’s policy had been misguided, especially in areas where Constantine was now doing better, to straightforward character assassination:

“The lord Romanus the Emperor was an idiot and an illiterate man, neither bred in the high imperial manner, nor following Roman custom from the beginning, nor of imperial or noble descent, and therefore the more rude and authoritarian in doing most things … for his beliefs were uncouth, obstinate, ignorant of what is good, and unwilling to adhere to what is right and proper.12

One could certainly argue that this had a political purpose, since two of Romanus’s sons were still alive and, indeed, one Patriarch of Constantinople at the time of writing and might still have been seen as threats, and it’s an odd thing so thoroughly to insult your son’s grandfather in a work you’re giving to that son. This is not the only place where Constantine seems to have thought this work might have a wider audience, but on the other hand the contents could have been considered sensitive and the repeated addresses to his son make a specific audience also seem to have been intended.13

Gold solidus of Emperor  Constantine VII with Romanus II, struck at Constantinople probably between 945 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4852

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine VII with Romanus II, struck at Constantinople probably between 945 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4852

One is left to wonder if Constantine really knew what he was doing with this work, or if it was even really finished; it seems not to have been edited, as said, its chapter headings don’t always match its contents and Constantine seems to refer here and there to things he’s failed to say in other sections.14 One explanation of the state of it might be that the single surviving manuscript, which was copied in the second half of the eleventh century, was made up from something that was still a working copy, with notes and materials laid in that were never supposed to be part of the final version. The scholarship is pretty clear that the text was finalised in 952, however, because that is a date actually given as current at one point in the text and was the year of Romanus II’s fourteenth birthday, when he might have been considered to have come of age, and the opening proem not only names the author, in the first person, and the recipient, but gives a summary of the contents that seems to match the order of what we have.15 In other words it looks as if this is something like what Constantine meant it to be, although if so one wonders if our copy was made from the final version, if Constantine had in fact read over that version or if he was really working at full power. Later sources suggest that Constantine drank too much wine, and there is something about the way this text proceeds that does remind me of one knowledgeable but ageing alcoholic I knew well in his declining years.16 But if the De Administrando is, in fact, just badly put together, what does that do to our attempts to divine its various deeper political and intellectual purposes? Maybe they have also to be assumed to be not very well put together. And can we trust such an author to have reported or copied his sources accurately? These are questions people probably don’t want to deal with, as they threaten to diminish how much we know, but what mainly strikes me all the same is how very human Constantine comes across in his attempt to compile his uniquely imperial wisdom.

Copper-alloy follis of Constantine VII , struck at Constantinople probably between 944 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4597

Copper-alloy follis of Constantine VII , struck at Constantinople probably between 944 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4597


1. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperio, ed. Gyula Moravcsik, transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, 2nd edn., Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 (Washington DC 1967), online here.

2. Though should you really care and need a citation, that would be J. Jarrett, “De Administrandis Marcis: the 10th-Century Frontier with Islam, seen from Barcelona and Byzantium”, paper presented in session ‘Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, I: Beyond the Reconquista’, International Medieval Congress, 9th July 2015.

3. Also, it’s not called the De Administrando Imperio, in as much as it’s in Greek and it doesn’t have a title in any of the manuscripts, but this is what its first editor called it in an era when it was still considered necessary to give Greek texts a title of reference in a ‘proper’ language…

4. I base my account here mostly on Jonathan Shepard, ‘Equilibrium to Expansion (886–1025)’ in idem, The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire (Cambridge 2008), pp. 493-536, doi: 10.1017/CHOL9780521832311.020, at pp. 503-518. I was working at speed when I put that paper together…

5. On the coinage, which has probably been assigned too precise a chronology on the assumption that its iconography precisely reflects the shifting balance of power in the reign, see Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 172-188. The finer chronology proposed by Franz Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I in Constantinople, 713-976: structure of the issues, corpus of coin finds, contribution to the iconographic and monetary history (Lancaster PA 2007), goes well beyond the demonstrable. I’d give page references but, really, you could say that of the whole book. Even he, however, has to admit (at p. 39) that Constantine struck solidi with both sole and accompanied portraits at the same time, which if it could be done obviously undermines the whole chronology based on who’s on the coins. This really should have been obvious from the copper-alloy coinage already.

6. Others: Costantino Porfirogenito, De Thematibus, ed. Agostino Pertusi, Studi e Testi 160 (Città di Vaticana 1962); Constantine Porphyrogennetos, The Book of Ceremonies, with the Greek edition of the Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae (Bonn, 1829), transl. Ann Moffatt & Maxene Tall, Byzantina Australiensia 18 (Canberra 2012).

7. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, “General Introduction”, in idem (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus: De Adminstrando Imperio. A Commentary (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 2012), pp. 1-8.

8. E. g. Dimitri Obolensky, “C. 9“, ibid., pp. 16-61 at pp. 19, 25-26 & 40-42; Jenkins & Francis Dvornik, “Cc. 29/1-53, 217-295; 30-36“, ibid. pp. 93-142 at pp. 96-101, 112-113 & 118, or Moravcsik, “Cc. 37-42“, ibid., pp. 142-156 at pp. 143 & 145-146, all arguing for local informants behind Constantine’s material on the Rus’, Slavs and Hungarians respectively; cf. e. g. Florin Curta, The Making of the Slavs: history and archaeology of the lower Danube region, c. 500-700 (Cambridge 2001), pp. 64-66.

9. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperio, cc. 1-6, 7, 8 and then 9 respectively, section quoted from c. 1.

10. Ibid. cc. 29 & 31-36, all of which attribute a major role in the pacification and the Christianization of the relevant people of the Balkans to Emperor Heraclius, presumably to challenge any Frankish claims to control of either the peoples or their churches (clearest in c. 29) but picking the emperor who actually largely lost these areas on which to pin the relevant claims.

11. Ibid. c. 51.

12. Ibid. c. 13, though it needs to be clear that this is not Constantine giving voice to his actual thoughts, but part of an excuse he suggests offering by way of excusing the fact that although Romanus I married his grand-daughter to a Bulgarian prince, the foreign embassies with whom Romanus II might be dealing were absolutely not going to get a Byzantine bride to take home for their master. Still, he wrote it for his son to say about his son’s grand-dad…

13. Romanus II is directly addressed in ibid. Proem & cc. 1, 13, 43 & 46, but cc. 26 & 30 both seem to be addressed more generally. For the argument of sensitive contents, see Moravcsik & Jenkins, “General Introduction” in ibid., pp. 1-14 at pp. 13-14.

14. Chapter headings that don’t match chapters: ibid. cc. 9, 10, 51 & 52. Confusion: in ibid. at one point in c. 27 Constantine explains the Duke of Naples’s title in Byzantine terms but never actually refers to him by it; in c. 40 ideas are dropped and picked up again after a paragraph of digression; one could go on.

15. Date: ibid. c. 45; address: ibid. Proem.

16. Obviously I’m not going to name my example, but for Constantine see Moravcsik & Jenkins, “General Introduction”, p. 9, where the emperor’s drinking is excused without identifying the source of the accusation.

What if Widukind was wrong about warfare?

I feel a little bad about returning to David Bachrach’s book Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany with my claws still out after his generous and lengthy responses to my previous critiques. I’m going to do it anyway, of course, but I feel it more necessary than usual to stress to the readership that I use this blog primarily as a platform on which to look clever, and that someone else’s work gives me the chance to do so is not necessarily an indictment of it. Indeed, the first two substantive chapters of Professor Bachrach’s book are possibly the clearest narrative of the politics of the Ottonian realm under Henry I (919-936) and Otto I (936-973) that I’ve read anywhere, militarily-focused or otherwise, and the whole book does the English-reading population of historically-minded people a favour by making the Ottonians more available to us.1 But every year I have a fresh cohort of first-year students who don’t really understand what I mean by critical use of primary sources, and those same first two chapters provide me with some really good object examples.

Monte Cassino, Museo storico, Codex Casinensis 298, showing a contents page from Widukind of Corvey's Sachsengeschichte

A contents page from the oldest manuscript of Widukind of Corvey’s Sachsengeschichte, Monte Cassino, Museo storico, Codex Casinensis 298, here p. 190 (apparently)

The crucial source for much of what Professor Bachrach sets out is the so-called Sachsengeschichte of Widukind of Corvey, written up in 968 and then edited after Otto I’s death in 973, and very lately translated into English by none other than the well-known firm of Bachrach & Bachrach, indeed.2 Widukind was a monk but seems to have been unusually interested in military campaigns, so the first object lesson for my notional students: just because someone is religiously-inclined does not prevent them having good information on secular matters! You have to go further than that and establish, if you can, what bees this particular author has in his or her bonnet about such things. Now, as I say, Widukind is very often the key testimony for Professor Bachrach’s account but the trouble is that sometimes he is flatly contradicted by other sources. Let’s work through an example.

Roman walls built into later structures at Regensburg, Germany

I’m not sure how much of Regensburg’s medieval walls are left but here is some Roman work that obviously must still have been there at the time we’re writing about… Photograph by Lance Longwell

Even by 921 King Henry I was not accepted by all his German subjects, and one particular hold-out was the duchy of Bavaria, then under one Arnulf. Henry had hitherto been occupied trying to arrange peace on his western borders but with that done was able to turn his attention to Bavaria, where Widukind tells us he laid siege to Arnulf at Regensburg and that Arnulf, realising the game was up, surrendered and terms were reached.3 Well, so far so good, but this is only one version of events. The Italian diplomat, gossip-monger and courtier of Otto I, Liudprand of Cremona, writing in the period 958-962, instead records that Henry and Arnulf met with armies on the battlefield but concluded the truce there rather than fight.4 And if that weren’t enough, another text records that Henry invaded Bavaria but was driven out by the forces of an unnamed city, with terms being reached after that.5 Now, I have all these references from Professor Bachrach himself who diligently records them in a footnote, but what he doesn’t give is any reason why we should accept Widukind’s version over the other two. One might meanly suspect that it is because Widukind alone mentions a siege and Professor Bachrach has hung his historiographical hat on the importance of sieges in the warfare of the period, as we have seen.6 I’m sure it is in fact otherwise, but what could we do instead?

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

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

There are several ways this could be resolved, although none of them are conclusive. I think that the anonymous Fragmentum de Arnulfo duce Bavarie can probably be ignored; its purpose was to glorify Arnulf, so it had no interest in recording his defeat, but more importantly its version offers no explanation for Arnulf actually making terms, which he evidently did as Henry went away and Arnulf was willing to fight alongside him on the eastern frontier in later years.7 Liudprand is harder to dismiss, however; he was writing earlier than Widukind and with access to Otto I’s court and anyone there who might have had memories of these campaigns, and his obvious interest in praising the Ottonians (as compared to his previous employer, King Berengar II of Italy) still didn’t lead him to give Henry a decisive victory as did Widukind.8 In some senses both are telling the same essential story: Henry brought an army and Arnulf decided it wasn’t worth fighting. The difference is that Liudprand thought that was best set in the field and Widukind saw it at the city walls, and at least implies the fighting which Liudprand denies. We don’t know why but it is possible that Widukind was making a literary choice, in which case Professor Bachrach has a problem to deal with.

Reconstruction drawing of the Slavic fortress at Brandenburg

Reconstruction drawing of the Slavic fortress at Brandenburg

Can we get any other angles on Widukind’s historiographical preferences? Yes, we can. In 928 Henry I was busy dealing with the various Slav groups on his eastern border. First among these, because they had raided his territory a few years before and because they stood in the way of any major campaign in the middle Elbe region, were a group called the Hevelli who were centred at what is now Brandenburg, where they had a fortress.9 Professor Bachrach’s account is clear and concise, so let’s use that:

“Widukind, who is our best source for this war, makes clear that Henry’s campaign against the Hevelli involved several subsidiary military operations before the urbs at Brandenburg itself was captured. He stressed that the German forces wore out the Slavs in numerous battles (multis preliis fatigans) over a lengthy period.93 It was only after he had sufficiently isolated Brandenburg that Henry deployed his army in a close siege of the fortress. Widukind draws attention to the fact that by the time Henry actually began direct operations against the Hevelli princely seat, the coldest part of the winter had arrived. As a result, the army was forced to camp on ice (castris super glaciem positis).94 Ultimately, Henry captured Brandenburg by storm, after besieging the stronghold for some time.95

“93 Widukind, Res gestae, I.35.
“94 Widukind, Res gestae, I.35. In describing the siege and capture of Brandenburg, Widukind alludes to Cicero’s speech against Lucius Calpurnius Piso. Cicero, In Pisonem, 17 reads, “exercitus nostri interitus ferro, fame, frigore, pestilentia.” Here, Cicero was listing the causes for the casualties suffered by Piso’s troops when he served as governor of Macedonia. Widukind paraphrases here listing only hunger, arms (literally iron), and cold as the causes for the casualties suffered by the defenders of Brandenburg.
“95 Widukind, Res gestae, I.35.”

There’s quite a lot that can be read between the lines here, it seems to me. One is Henry’s determination in pursuing the campaign, which may well be what Widukind wanted to illustrate: the king presumably hadn’t meant to be campaigning still in the dead of winter, which would have been nearly as difficult for his troops as for the defenders and was an occasional cause of mutiny in the Byzantine world.10 It looks rather as if siege was his last resort after trying to beat the enemy decisively in the field had failed several times. Even then, he seems to have waited before risking an assault. Presumably at each stage he hoped for a surrender that the Hevelli weren’t willing to offer. That, at least, seems as fair a reading as one that makes it all strategic wearing down of the enemy; who would have planned to make their army camp on ice? (Though that does suggest that perhaps the fortress was unreachable previously because of surrounding water—as indeed above though the Ottonian forces presumably didn’t camp on the moat—in which case Henry probably didn’t start out meaning to besiege it.)

Portrait bust of M. Tullius Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero, no less

But you saw the footnote, right? Object lesson number two for the notional students: always glance at the footnotes. Perhaps more important than the campaign’s duration is the unexpected presence of this guy in the text, this of course being Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman orator and politican of the first century B. C., and with him arrives a possibility unsettling for someone wanting to read Widukind straight here, to wit that he had a written model in mind for how this situation should be described that was nothing to do with what had happened. For most history undergraduates in the UK I guess that this methodological problem is first opened up to them when briefly studying Charlemagne, because they will be set to read Einhard’s Life of Charles and if their teacher’s any good, will then be faced with the fact that Einhard borrowed almost all of his description of Charlemagne from Suetonius’s Twelve Cæsars, in order to make Charlemagne truly the image of his Roman imperial predecessors.11

Portrait denarius of Charlemagne as Emperor (812x814)

Silver denier of Charlemagne, struck at an uncertain mint in 812-814, Künker sale 205 (March 12 and 13, 2012), lot 1405, now in a private collection

Silver denarius of Emperor Vespasian struck at Rome in 69-71, Beast Coins Z2844

Silver denarius of Emperor Vespasian struck at Rome in 69-71, Beast Coins Z2844

The good ones will then work out, of course, that if Einhard was picking descriptions from twelve different emperors to describe one, the best reason for him to select the bits he did was probably because they actually fitted Charlemagne—it’s like my bit about formulae mentioning dovecotes in charters, most probably used because the property in question actually had a dovecote. Maybe the same thing was happening here, so that Widukind had a historical story to tell and saw how perfectly the Cicero quote could fit it. We can hope so, especially since there seems to be no other lifting from Cicero in the story. But one does have at least to think about it. Now, I’m sure that Professor Bachrach has thought about all these questions, for the very simple reason that he’s put the evidence that provokes them in his own footnotes! But I wish he’d had space also to explain how he resolved them in favour of Widukind’s accuracy each time.


1. David Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012, repr. 2014), pp. 14-69.

2. Widukind, Res gestae Saxonicae, ed. & (German) transl. Albert Bauer & Reinhold Rau as “Die Sachsengeschichte des Widukind von Korvei” in Bauer & Rau (edd.), Quellen zur Geschichte der sächsischen Kaiserzeit (Fontes ad historiam aevi Saxonici illustrandam), Ausgewählte Quellen zur deutschen Geschichte des Mittelalters 8 (Darmstadt 1971), pp. 1-183, (English) transl. Bernard S. Bachrach & David Bachrach as Widukind of Corvey, Deeds of the Saxons, translated with an introduction and notes (Washington DC 2014).

3. Widukind, Res gestae, I.27; Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, pp. 20-21, citing Widukind at p. 20 n. 38.

4. Liudprand of Cremona, Antapodosis, ed. Paolo Chiesa in Chiesa (ed.), Liudprandi Cremonensis Opera omnia: Antapodosis, Homelia paschalis; Historia Ottonis; Relatio de legatione Constantinopolitana, Corpus Christianorum: Continuatio Medievalis 156 (Turnhout 1998), pp. 1-150, transl. in F. A. Wright (transl.), The Works of Liudprand of Cremona (London 1930), pp. 27-212, II.21, cit. by Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, p. 20 n. 38.

5. Fragmentum de Arnulfo Bavariae, ed. Philipp Jaffé in Jaffé (ed.), “Annales et notae S. Emmerami Ratisbonensis et Weltenburgenses” in Georg Heinrich Pertz (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores in folio) XVII (Hannover 1861, repr. 1990), p. 570 of pp. 567-576, cit. by Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, p. 20 n. 38.

6. Thus also ibid. p. 22 where Adalbert of Magdeburg, who describes a siege at Metz in 923, is preferred over Flodoard of Reims who describes a different sort of campaign by the German king. They both make it look as if their preferred king won, of course, and maybe there’s something going on where Flodoard focuses on the invading king as a general force of unjust destruction and Adalbert has him single-mindedly focused on the target, Bishop Wigeric of Metz, who had attacked a royal estate. That’s only my speculation, though, and doesn’t settle the question.

7. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, pp. 29-30.

8. On Liudprand’s agenda, see Karl Leyser, “Ends and Means in Liudprand of Cremona” in James Howard-Johnston (ed.), Byzantium and the West c. 850 – c. 1200: proceedings of the XVIII Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Oxford 30. March – 1. April 1984, Byzantinische Forschungen 13 (Amsterdam 1988), pp. 119-143, repr. in Leyser, Communications and Power in the Middle Ages, ed. Timothy Reuter (London 1994), 2 vols, I, pp. 125-142, but in searching out that reference I find also the very relevant-looking Antoni Grabowski, “‘Duel’ between Henry I and Arnulf of Bavaria according to Liudprand of Cremona” in Roman Czaja, Eduard Mühle & Andrzej Radziminski (edd.), Konfliktbewältigung und Friedensstiftung im Mittelalter (Torún 2012), pp. 387-400, which I have not seen but seems worth mentioning.

9. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, pp. 27-28, quote below on p. 28.

10. As under Maurice in 592: see Andrew Louth, “Justinian and his Legacy (500-600)” in Jonathan Shepard (ed.), The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire (Cambridge 2007), pp. 99-129 at p. 127.

11. See Matthew Innes, “The classical tradition in the Carolingian Renaissance: ninth-century encounters with Suetonius” in International Journal of the Classical Tradition Vol. 3 (New Brunswick 1997), pp. 265-282.

A Theory under Siege

You may recall that some time ago I recorded that I had been reading David Bachrach’s Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany as part of my ongoing reworking of my paper about military service in tenth-century Catalonia.1 There are ways in which that was really useful and ways in which we are just talking about different things, but a thing that we both talk about but take quite different views on is the normal size of early medieval armed forces. Now, this is an old controversy, which goes back far beyond this book and involves names like Halsall, Sawyer and not least, Bernard S. Bachrach, and in some ways I would prefer not to get into it, not least as several of these people including Professor Bachrach (the younger) have been known to read this blog, but I can’t avoid it.2 I would confine myself to an argument that the situation I see in Catalonia, of guardposts and border-raiding and no serious armies except when an Andalusi one comes calling, is just very different from the full-on imperial warfare of Ottonian Germany, and in the article I expect that I will. But still, there are premises to the large army argument, as set up in this book at least, that I find hard to accept, and this post is an attempt at a critical examination of one of them. Where most openly stated, it goes like this:

“Ottonian military operations were consistent with warfare throughout the medieval millennium, which was dominated by sieges, particularly in the context of campaigns that were intended to conquer territory. Contrary to the long-established narrative that the Ottonian kings fielded small armies of a few hundred to a few thousand heavily armed mounted fighters (Ritterkrieger) led by warrior aristocrats, the siege operations that dominated warfare in the tenth century required very large armies, composed predominantly of foot-soldiers.3

One is, initially at least, left to assume the premises behind this. It’s easy enough to come up with some: walled cities are naturally quite large, and need a lot of defenders to keep a whole perimeter secure. If you’re attacking them, you must need more attackers than defenders, right? As it turns out, in fact, you allegedly need quite a lot more: once you get through to p. 226 you learn that, “in order to storm a strongly held enemy fortress an attacker required four to five men for every defender.” The justification for that, however, is farmed out to an article by Bernard Bachrach and Rutherford Aris.4 Now, if you actually get hold of that article, that doesn’t seem to me to be what it says: instead, by virtue of some extremely hypothetical probablity mathematics, it says that a charge by a Viking warband at a typical Anglo-Saxon burh defended by archers of the number implied by the Burghal Hidage (1 to every 1.3 m of wall) would probably have resulted in one to two attackers in every four being hit before they reached the wall.5 Even if that mathematics were somehow realistic, it’s quite a specific situation and one calculated on the basis that Vikings attacking a fortress would only have ladders to deploy so needed to make that approach.6 I don’t see how it can be transportable to a large-scale military operation with siege engines such as (David) Bachrach thinks the Ottonians were able to mount.7 Moreover, it doesn’t actually provide the numbers that he employs, only an implication that if you were to outnumber your opposing force once atop the walls you needed to allow for a fifty per cent casualty rate when planning your attack. That seems like awful odds that no commander would have risked to me, but it’s obviously not what an Ottonian planner would have been facing.

Interior view of the restored Romanesque city walls at Worms

Interior view of the restored Romanesque city walls at Worms, one of the fortress cities Bachrach considers and possibly not too much unlike this in the Ottonian period? CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=167751.

But let’s take one step further back. These are figures based on the idea that victory at a siege is achieved by storming and carrying the enemy’s defences, and indeed so is Bachrach’s account of Ottonian warfare against fortifications more generally.8 But this is, surely, not the only way. More conventional, if much slower, would be simply to starve the defenders out. Now, in that case, your army requirements drop radically. Whereas before you perhaps had to have men all round the fortification, now you really only need to guard the points of access. Possibly someone could resupply a city by hauling sacks up the walls in the dead of night but not, you might think, in any real quantity, especially if you as attacker are sending patrols around every twenty minutes or so, which I assume you, as a thinking tactician, probably would be. Their supply will still not be equal to their demand. This makes siege warfare a much less demanding effort in terms of numbers; one must still be able to supply the besiegers for a prolonged period of time, but that’s easier if there’s fewer of them needed.

Illustration of a (small) siege from the fourteenth-century Codex Manesse

Even more anachronistic, but far too good a picture not to use, an illustration of a (small) siege from the fourteenth-century Codex Manesse

Of course, you still need to have more men than the defenders do, otherwise they could just sortie out and squash your forces. But wait a minute. How many more men than you do they have to have to do that before it would mean leaving the walls partly undefended, giving your troops access to the city and thus losing the war for the sake of a battle? There’s more balance here than might immediately appear, because both sides need their forces at least partly dispersed to hold their positions. The various ways that concentration of force could play out here seem to me to be very hard to calculate with and I’m not at all sure it reduces to any simple arithmetic beyond the basic logic that the more troops whom you can feed you have available, the more tactical options you have. But in a siege situation, that proviso about feeding is quite important, often for both sides.

Crop-marks clearly showing a fortress, supposedly the Slavic fortress of Gana, at Hof-Stauchitz

A different (and more usual?) scale of opponent, crop-marks clearly showing a fortress, supposedly the Slavic fortress of Gana, at Hof-Stauchitz

I should say that I am not, a priori, against the idea that the Ottonians could sometimes field quite large armies, meaning in the double figures of thousands of men, although whether such were necessary for all their campaigns I rather doubt. When they were, though, they had a whole empire to draw upon and Bachrach has here a whole book full of details about how such things might have been organised, resourced, supplied and led which almost make his argument for him; one can reasonably assume that the Ottonians would have wanted to raise large armies and Bachrach shows us how they could have. But he argues it the other way around, from the necessary existence of large armies, through a reading of the sources which illustrates that, to the techniques for their provision and operation, and if these are the starting premises, they seem very shaky to me.


1. D. S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012, repr. 2014).

2. In reverse chronological order, more or less, Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900 (London 2003); Bernard S. Bachrach, Merovingian Military Organization 481-751 (Minneapolis 1972), what I think of as the wellspring of the maximalist argument, and Peter H. Sawyer, The Age of the Vikings (London 1962, 2nd edn. 1971), which is the place where I first met a sustained attack on the numbers which early medieval sources used for army size. In all these cases, albeit Sawyer least and Bachrach most, references could be proliferated; a lot of Bachrach’s most relevant works are collected in his Warfare and Military Organization in Pre-Crusade Europe, Variorum Collected Studies 720 (Aldershot 2002).

3. D. S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, p. 1, which is a good place to state your axioms after all.

4. B. S. Bachrach & R. Aris, “Military Technology and Garrison Organization: some observations on Anglo-Saxon military thinking in light of the Burghal Hidage” in Technology and Culture Vol. 31 (Baltimore 1990), pp. 1-17, on JSTOR here, repr. in B. S. Bachrach, Warfare and Military Organization, III, cit. D. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, p. 226 n. 2. A much fuller version of the argument here is however to be found in B. S. Bachrach & David Bachrach, “Early Saxon Frontier Warfare: Henry I, Otto I and Carolingian Military Institutions” in Journal of Medieval Military History Vol. 10 (Woodbridge 2012), pp. 17-60, which was presumably not available to cite in D. S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, and would have made that a much longer book to reprise there. I engage with the version in the book here, which I assume to be self-standing.

5. B. S. Bachrach & Aris, “Military Technology”, pp. 5-10 with an appendix for the mathematics pp. 14-18.

6. Ibid., pp. 3-5, on the not unreasonable basis that the Burghal Hidage uses the same ratio for number of defenders required for places with eight-foot thick Roman stone walls (Winchester) and earthen ramparts with wooden palisades (Wareham), so the writers obviously weren’t thinking in terms of attacks actually upon the defences.

7. D. S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, pp. 151-167, covers Ottonian siege equipment, including ladders but also mantlets, rams, ballistas, catapults and mobile towers, largely by providing detail from Vegetius and anchoring it in less-detailed reports from Ottonian sources.

8. Ibid., pp. 12-13 and repeatedly exemplified in his narrative of Henry I’s and Otto I’s campaigns provided pp. 14-69; see also Bachrach & Bachrach, “Early Saxon Frontier Warfare” for a fuller statement of the position.

Money of post-Viking Brittany

I only have time to write a very short post, but happily I have something quite short to communicate, arising from an equally short article by my old colleague Rory Naismith in last year’s Numismatic Chronicle.1 I suspect there is interest among the readership, somehow… Basically, in late 2011 there went through a Brussels auction house, as part of a small but really good collection of Carolingian (and some other stuff of interest to those of more classical and modern bents) coins, a two-coin hoard apparently found in the 1990s on the banks of the Loire near Saint-Florent-le-Vieil. The first was a penny of King Edward the Elder of England, and the second was this, which I reproduce from an old online copy of the auction house’s web catalogue:

Brussels, The BRU Sale auction 6, 9 December 2011, lot 153

Our mystery coin

If you follow the link that goes through that image to Sixbid.com you’ll find that the auctioneers, although they had successfully talked quite a lot of rare and unknown stuff, had really struggled with this one. Their description reads: “England. Vikings (?). Penny (AR, 1.30g, 10h). Uncertain mint. 885-954. Small cross pattee. Rev. Moneyer’s name. Possibly unpublished.”2 Rory, however, has other ideas. He notes firstly that it is more of an Anglo-Carolingian hybrid than an Anglo-Viking one, presumably working off the arrangement of the moneyer’s name, and then points to the near-Breton findspot and finally reads off the moneyer’s name as CONGVION, Conwoion, also Breton. All in all, he argues, this is probably a Breton coin.

Now as we have frequently observed, in print we academics are limited by the standards of reasonable proof and so on but here on a blog I can speculate if I like. As Rory says, the coin:

“stems from the aftermath of a period when Brittany was threatened by viking [sic] attacks, and its leaders sought refuge in, and support from, England. Alan Barbetorte (‘twisted beard’) (d. 952) returned from exile in England in 936, and had vanquished the vikings by 939, thus establishing himself as Count of Cornouaille and Nantes. His position remained tenuous, however. Sporadic viking attacks continued into the 940s, sometimes under Norman patronage, and Alan also faced attacks from Judicael Berengar, count of Rennes.”3

So that’s our context. There’s nothing here to say this is a coin of Count Alain, however. The obverse inscription, which Rory reads as FELECMANIS, is obscure; Rory compares it to the mint signature for Le Mans, CENOMANIS, but it seems to me that this cannot what the engraver was after; although they don’t seem to have been familiar with this kind of work (two forms of E, backwards Ns) their mistakes are still competently carved. So it could be a mint we don’t know about – on an unparalleled coin that probably isn’t as surprising as it would be otherwise – but it could also be a person, for whom this apparently-Breton moneyer Conwoion (and I feel obliged to say that a Breton name does not of itself make someone Breton) was striking coin.

Google map of Brittany

Google map of Brittany and the approximate findspot of the coin, marked as ‘Loire’ down towards the bottom centre

Now I have no idea at all who this person would be, count, bishop, abbot, untitled warlord or immigrant pirate chief, though Feleman or Felkman might have been their name. I have to admit that the word appears to be in the genitive (i. e. the possessive case), which makes a place-name more likely, but even if the issuer is not named here, there must have been one. If Rory is right, someone in that uncontrolled Channel coast zone had decided it was time their area had money again, money that would look roughly acceptable in both England and in Francia but which presumably to them sang of their locality. Now, I have to admit that I come back to that ‘Breton name need not equal Breton’ problem, or more specifically need not equal Brittany. If I were guessing what that signature FELECMANIS meant, I think I would pretty quickly light on Fécamp in Normandy as a possibility [Edit: though as Fraser gently demonstrates in comments, I’d be wrong to do so], and then remember all the links between Bretons and Normans that we can recount and think that maybe this is a Norman coin with a Breton moneyer striking it. There’s no way to decide, and Rory’s proposal may be the simpler, but wherever it was, someone there had decided enough was enough and there needed to be money in the area that was internationally recognisable and communicated both to England and to Francia, thus claiming their own authority in the area. It’s an important early sign of independent state formation in this old fringe of Francia, and I wish we knew more about it. I suppose we can hope for more to be found or recognised!


1. R. Naismith, “A Pair of Tenth-Century Pennies Found on the Banks of the Loire” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 174 (London 2014), pp. 223-225.

2. Jean B. Forestier & Maxime Mégret-Merget (edd.), The Bru Sale Numismatics and Paper Money Auction 6, 6th December 2011 (Brussels 2011), online here, lot 153, from a ‘European private collection’. The record on Sixbid suggests that it didn’t sell, and Rory informs us that the coin is in a private collection, but whether it’s still with its 2011 owner I couldn’t guess.

3. Naismith, “Pair of Tenth-Century Pennies”, p. 225.

What happened to Roman municipal archives: an old problem solved?

Every now and then, when I can still find the time to read, I read something really clever. One of my favourite sorts of cleverness, furthermore, is that which takes an old old historiographical problem and finds an elegant and satisfying solution to it, and this post was occasioned by me finding one. The problem is the fate of the Roman municipal archives known as the gesta municipalia and its solver is quite possibly Warren Brown.1

One obviously needs to start by explaining what the gesta were, and this is part of the problem. Where we see them most clearly, in Northern Italy in the sixth century, they seem to have been city tax registers, in which transfers of property had to be noted so that the liability to tax travelled with the owner. If you did this, you got a docket saying that you had, so that no-one could get you for tax evasion. The trouble is firstly that this process is not evidenced very much outside Northern Italy, which raises the prospect that we are seeing something either regional or else the result of Emperor Justinian’s fiddling with documentary practice, but the gesta themselves are evidenced, across quite a lot of Frankish Europe, and the further trouble is that they are almost always attested in formulae, that is, documents abstracted from once-real charters to provide models for future practice.2 This means that it’s possible reasonably to hold opinions right the way from ‘the gesta were all gone by the sixth century at the latest and the formulae are just throwbacks that people copied because they were old but which no-one actually used’ through to ‘the gesta were still going in some places in the Carolingian era’.3

Early woodcut image of Ravenna

Images for this post are really hard to find. No-one seems to have put images of any of the relevant manuscripts online and the one ancient book that has one which is on Google Books is there in a scan for which the operatuve didn’t open the gatefold, so you can only see the left margin. Consequently, here is an early woodcut image of early modern Ravenna, which is where most of the relevant documents survive, you’ll just have to imagine the documents somewhere in it, invisible…

Of late the weight of the argument seems to have fallen into ‘the Church sort of replaced the gesta as a place where you could store documents’, but on the other hand in the Lay Archives book I lauded so much when it came out (and even before I’d read it, though now that I am I’m not changing my mind) Nicholas Everett now pushes the scepticism still further out, to ‘the gesta are not some ancient practice, they were new in the fifth century and died with the tax system, which is why we only functionally see them in Italy where that survived longest’.4 He doesn’t know about my colleague Arkady Hodge’s suggestion that the gesta are attested in Cherson in the Crimea also, but Arkady’s astute observation would not actually make the theory wrong: Cherson too could have held a limited tax system together quite late, and there are all kinds of reasons why it might have had a central institution of record like this, starting with it being a tiny exclave miles away from any other government.5

Ruins of the Byzantine city walls of Cherson

Ruins of the Byzantine city walls of Cherson

So it is debated! I have always felt uncomfortably torn between sides here: I am persuaded that the mentions of the gesta in a formula probably mean something, but if they had survived into the era in which the formulae were being copied, the ninth century, it seems too much to explain away the fact that we have nothing surviving that looks like actual gesta records like those from Italy, and i don’t think churches filled the role because they obviously preserve actual charters, not records that such existed somewhere else. So I wind up uncomfortably believing that there probably were gesta municipalia in Frankish Europe but that our best evidence for them is atypical because of Justinian, and though this sort of works I’d really like a better answer.

The mosaic of Emperor Justinian I and Empress Theodora in San Vitale di Ravenna

It’s all his fault! As with so much else. “Meister von San Vitale in Ravenna 003” by Meister von San Vitale in Ravenna – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

This, however, Warren has now provided! But! he is on record in several places arguing that the Frankish formulae were fairly flexible resources that people copied, and changed, because they were useful, not just out of some antiquarian spirit of editorialisation.6 How can he, therefore, follow Everett’s shattering argument, as he quite literally has to in the book in question? In two ways, it transpires; with a perceptive thesis and a wealth of previously uncollected examples (the latter of which was, of course, what the Lay Archives project was supposed to find). The thesis is the clever bit, and goes roughly like this.

What do people get out of reporting a transaction to the gesta? Obviously, yes, protection against tax liability, but also and as well as that, they get an officially-witnessed documentation of their new property. That is a thing people might want almost as much as the protection against the taxman, and most importantly it is a thing that people plainly continued to want even once (and where) the Roman tax system was inarguably dead.7 There are lots of ways we see that being done: people took their documents to court and got royal confirmations, under Merovingians and Carolingian rulers both; they took them to an ordinary court and had a confirmation issued by the gathering; they even, arguably, set up spurious lawsuits between each other so as to get the verdict publically issued that the recipient did indeed own the land.8 And, in some places where the formulae were known and the practice remembered, they went to a town and got the local bigwigs to fill the rôles of the old Roman curiales and issue something saying they’d seen the transaction documents, and the scribes who were writing this up knew the old formulae and wrote the dockets or records up accordingly. There doesn’t need to have been any surviving central archive: that wasn’t why people still did this. What was important to them was the document they got to take home.

Well, then, you may ask, why don’t we have any? And the answer to that is probably because they took them home! It is odd how few we have, even so, but we do have some, and it’s enough to convince me. The latest one Warren can find is from Prüm in 804, that monastery’s only gift of land from Angers, a city where they had a formula collection and knew about gesta (though, oddly, the Angers formula is not the one this record uses).9 That illustrates a further preservation problem, however; the scribe there copied four separate documents up as if they were one, but the first was a donation charter and really, that’s all you would need for a later cartulary. What good would it do you in the eleventh or twelfth century to copy up how this document had been confirmed by courts that no longer existed? The purpose of copying was no longer to prove possession, but to list and to remember, and for that the original charter was quite sufficient.10 Really, we shouldn’t expect any such documents to survive outside the original, and where would preserve them in the original except the personal archives that we hardly ever still have, the whole problem the Lay Archives project was meant to address?

So I think it all works, personally. It’s certainly much better than my halfway house answer and I’m very glad to have read it, certainly glad enough to share!


1. W. C. Brown, “The Gesta municipalia and the Public Validation of Documents in Frankish Europe” in idem, Marios Costambeys, Matthew Innes & Adam J. Kosto (edd.), Documentary Culture and the Laity in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2013), pp. 95-124.

2. The surviving examples are almost all in Ravenna, and edited in Jan-Olof Tjäder (ed.), Die nichtliterarische Papyri Italiens aus der Zeit 445-700 (Lund 1955 and Stockholm 1969), 3 vols, and are now discussed in Nicholas Everett, “Lay Documents and Archives in Early Medieval Spain and Italy, c. 400-700″ in Brown, Costambeys, Innes & Kosto, Documentary Culture, pp. 63-94, with refs; for the Justinian problem see Francesca Macino, “Documenti d’Impero: precedenti di età tardoantica (V-VI sec.)” in Peter Erhart, Karl Heidecker & Bernhard Zeller (edd.), Die Privaturkunden der Karolingerzeit (Zürich 2009), pp. 23-30.

3. I first met this debate in Ian N. Wood, “Disputes in Late Fifth- and Sixth-Century Gaul: some problems” and Paul Fouracre, “‘Placita’ and the Settlement of Disputes in Later Merovingian France”, both in Wendy Davies & idem (edd.), The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1986), pp. 7-22 and pp. 23-43 respectively, and I never really thought either side had enough evidence for their case. Scepticism has more recently been raised in Warren C. Brown, “When Documents are Destroyed or Lost: lay people and archives in the early Middle Ages” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 337-366; Alice Rio, Legal practice and the written word in the early Middle Ages: Frankish formulae, c. 500-1000 (Cambridge 2009) argues for limited continuity and according to Brown at least, Josiane Barbier for rather more in her “‘Dotes’, donations après rapt et donations mutuelles : les transferts patrimoniaux entre époux dans le royaume franc d’après les formules (VIe-XIe s.)” in Régine Le Jan, Laurent Feller & François Bougard (edd.), Dots et douaires dans le haut Moyen Âge. Actes de la table ronde “Morgengabe, dos, tertia … et les autres …” réunie à Lille et Valenciennes les 2, 3 et 4 mars 2000, Collection de l’École française de Rome 357 (Roma 2002), pp.353-388, although in looking that up I find that she has now apparently got more to say in the subject in the form of Barbier, Archives oubliées du haut Moyen Âge : Les gesta municipalia en Gaule franque (VIe-IXe siècle) (Paris 2014), which must have been done without knowledge of Brown, “‘Gesta municipalia'”; I wonder how it compares?

4. The argument for Church replacement is started in Brown, “When Documents Are Destroyed” and made more fully by Rio in Legal Practice and the Written Word, but cf. Everett, “Lay Documents and Archives”.

5. A. Hodge, “When Is a Charter Not a Charter? Documents in Non-Conventional Contexts in Early Medieval Europe” in Jonathan Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout 2013), pp. 127-150.

6. Brown, “When Documents are Destroyed”; idem, “Die karolingischen Formelsammlungen – warum existieren sie?” in Erhart, Heidecker & Zeller, Privaturkunden, pp. 95-102; and there are certainly other things of his I haven’t read on similar subjects.

7. As to when that was, well… I can best refer you to Chris Wickham, “The Other Transition: from the ancient to feudalism” in Past and Present no. 103 (Oxford 1984), pp. 3-36, rev. in Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history 400-1200 (Londin 1994), pp. 7-42.

8. Examples of all these in Brown, “‘Gesta municipalia'”, but on the fake trials, Scheinprozesse, see most of all Chris Wickham, “Land Disputes and their Social Framework in Lombard-Carolingian Italy, 700-900” in Davies & Fouracre, Settlement of Disputes, pp. 105-124, rev. in Wickham, Land and Power, pp. 229-256; there is more work to be done finding such cases for sure outside Italy, though see 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 2005 for 2003), pp. 229-258, for at least one.

Lost in translation III: transmission of sources for China and Aragón

I have mentioned recently that at something like this time last year I was for the first time teaching early medieval China to a number of unsuspecting first-years at Birmingham. We were approaching the topic via a primary set-text, which was the Records of the Western Regions by the Buddhist pilgrim traveller Xuanzang, active in the early seventh century.1 The setting and circumstance of the text is fascinating: driven by political circumstances into which the text does not go, although a later biographer of its author does, our man Xuanzang headed east from the T’ang Empire, determined to reach India and bathe in the metaphorical springs of pure untranslated (and thus textually correct) Buddhism.2 What now looks like the simplest route, south-westwards through what is now (again) Burma, did not make sense to him (and anyone who’s read war memoirs from Burma may be inclined to agree—even without people trying to stop you, something of which he probably wasn’t entirely free, the environment and its various predatory and parasitical lifeforms might manage it3) and instead he went the long way round, across the northern foothills of the Himalayas and then down through what are now Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Map of the travels of the seventh-century Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang

A handy map by someone else; I’m out to make a point, but if you are just interested by the story, click through this for a more balanced view…

The text we have records each leg of the journey, often making it clear that what we easily call the Silk Routes were sometimes no kinds of route at all; once the only hints they have that they’re on the right general lines are the dry skeletons by the wayside, and avalanche or hostile weather caused, our writer explains, by malevolent dragons, offended by red clothes (among other things), is a perpetual danger in the early stages of the journey.4 Once beyond the routes southwards up into Tibet, however, there were more cities and communities and things calm somewhat; the fact that our fugitive must by then have been beyond the reach of the Chinese government may also have helped…

A fourteenth-century Japanese depiction of seventh-century Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang

A fourteenth-century Japanese depiction of our featured pilgrim, apparently: “Xuanzang w“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

At this point the text becomes considerably less dramatic and, depending on your perspective, either more or less interesting. For each little city-state it gives the distance and direction from the previous one, some idea of its population size, what its system of government is, what family its native language is from and a sort of statistical count of the state of Buddhism there in terms of how many monasteries and stupas there are there, how many are active, how many people serve them, and whether any particular stories adhere either to the city or the shrines.5 And then we move on. It’s a kind of religious Domesday of the western Silk Routes, or perhaps more like the supposed Carolingian survey of the Holy Land.6 So the interest level depends on whether you like having that kind of data recorded in something like a steady format or whether that bores you. You can guess that my students and I divided pretty neatly on this! But we did get quite a lot out of other issues, largely using the matrix for text analysis that was published on Dead Voles a long time ago, but also hitting at one big issue that is the actual subject of this post, which is that this whole text is not what Xuanzang wrote.

The Chahabil stupa in Nepal

I’m not sure this is one of the stupas Xuanzang saw, partly because my notes on the text aren’t good enough but also because it seems to have been many times rebuilt since its alleged third-century BC origins, but it’s much too cool not to include; it is the Chahabil stupa in Nepal. “Chabahil.stupa” by User:China_CrisisOwn work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons.

This is true at several levels, and they’re mostly self-evident which is why it is strange that I found it so often ignored in the scholarship we were using (which is, admittedly, basically either about Buddhism in China or the Silk Routes and therefore data-mining, but even in data-mining the context matters).6 To work back from the very first step: obviously, we were not reading this in Chinese but in a nineteenth-century English translation, which led to complications in two directions, firstly things that the translator Samuel Beal didn’t think needed translation (such as units for distance—a li seems to be about one-sixth of a mile, I worked out); and secondly things that he did, but which it might have been useful to be able to check (like, for example, ‘king’ or ‘stupa’—always the same word, or was he smoothing out what could have been significant variation?). Secondly, we are dealing here with a write-up of his travels that Xuanzang apparently wrote up in 646 on the request of the T’ang Emperor Taizong, but it was edited by his disciple Bianji and opens with a prologue by one Zhang Yue, declaring to Taizong how worthy Xuanzang is as a source of information, so it had been through one and maybe two careful if friendly editors before it got to the ruler (and of course, we don’t know whether it was then censored before being allowed out into circulation).7

Illustration by Yen Li-Pen of Emperor Taizong granting an audience to Ludongzan the ambassador of Tibet in 641

Here he is again, Emperor Taizong giving an audience to Ludongzan the ambassador of Tibet in 641. Yen Li-pen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

What this means is that editing and selection may have been going on at many stages: between approval by the emperor’s court and the creation of any of the actual manuscripts (leaving aside their own individual copying histories), before presentation to the emperor by Bianji and by Xuanzang as he compiled a final text of his notes from twenty years before, when he had apparently been fleeing Taizong’s officers; no wonder that the text as we have it says nothing deep about his reasons for travelling! We therefore don’t know whether Xuanzang’s notes and memories, and his interests, went beyond this methodical cataloguing of Buddhist survival, although in his doing of that an apocalyptic framework of overall decline does become sufficiently apparent that I believe that was one of the things on his mind, the imminent Destruction of the Law.8 But thirdly and perhaps most importantly, Bianji also tells us that Xuanzang had translated this text. From what? I presume that, since he was a Buddhist pilgrim travelling internationally, he was probably actually writing in Sanskrit, but in that case there’s another set of difficulties at that end of the writing process too! So it really is a very long and tangly set of steps from what a much younger Xuangzang had seen on his travels to what we have, as follows:

  1. from what he saw to what he, a foreigner, understood of it;
  2. from what he understood to what he thought worth writing down, probably in Sanskrit;
  3. from his earlier records, reviewed twenty years later, to what he could still read, understand or remember, and thought worth presenting to the Emperor;
  4. from that selection to what could be clearly expressed in Chinese, perhaps only a thin filter but there;
  5. from what Xuanzang then sent or had left to Bianji to what Bianji thought could be usefully presented to the emperor;
  6. from what Bianji then sent to Zhang Yue;
  7. what went to Emperor Taizong after Zhang Yue had seen it;
  8. what was considered worthy of keeping on official record thereafter;
  9. and then an uncountable number of steps from that archetype to the manuscripts we now have, followed by, for me
  10. the final filter of Beal’s translation.

Enough to slow us down before drawing hasty conclusions!

Map of the Upper March of Muslim Spain as laid out in the Ornament of Records of al-'Udrī

Map of the Upper March of Muslim Spain as laid out in the Ornament of Records of al-‘Udrī

Now, all of this struck particular chords with me because I had met something very much like it in my actual research quite shortly before as I finally got to grips with one of the principal Arabic sources for my corner of Europe, the Tarsi al-ajbar wa-tanwi al-atar wa-l-bustan, or Ornament of Records of Abu al-Abbas Ahmad ibn ‘Umar al-‘Udrī, an eleventh-century geographer and scholar of Almeria.

There are fewer issues here, but some obvious ones immediately recur: firstly, I don’t read Arabic, so was accessing this through a Castilian translation of the parts of the text that referred to the March of Zaragoza, exactly what I needed but not much of a clue either to al-‘Udrī’s technical terminology or to his larger purpose in assembling the text as a whole.9 There is in fact no full manuscript of this text and until 1965 it was unknown even in the parts we have except where quoted by other historians; the manuscript we do have, now in Egypt, has been claimed as an autograph second edition of the initial version of the text but is apparently incomplete even so, and details are hard to get, for me, because the edition of that fragment is in Arabic, and none of the Castilian authors who have used it say much about the manuscript preservation.10 Also, of course, it’s derivative; sometimes the author tells us he’s quoting the earlier work of Ahmad al-Rāzī, and sometimes it’s other authors, not always flagged as quotes. He probably does add more of his own but given the state of preservation of any of these texts it’s hard to be sure!

The Monasterio de San Benito de Talavera

One part of the Upper March that al-‘Udrī might have recognised, albeit with horror, the tenth-century castle at Talavera de la Reina with the later monastery of San Benito built pretty thorougly onto it. By Dixflips (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

More importantly, however, there seems to be with this as with Xuanzang a further step away from our original that is so immediate and obvious that none of the historiography stops to consider it. I’m conscious that here I can only work from Fernando de la Granja’s translation, and he himself was working from a photocopy of the manuscript made for him by its editor long before that edition had come out, none of this perfect for textual transmission, but the very first words of the translated text as de la Granja gives it are: “Dijo Ahmad ibn ‘Umar: …”, “Ahmad ibn ‘Umar said: …” In other words, unless our author talks about himself in the third person and the past, what we have here is already a report, a write-up and possibly even a summary of what al-‘Udri actually wrote; if that manuscript is (or was) an autograph, it was not al-‘Udri’s autograph but that of someone working with his text. In which case, what we have is surely only a selection, quite possibly added to by our anonymous editor working with who knows what other material and potentially using al-‘Udri’s name to add to the plausibility of what might be quite a different work with a very different agenda. We’ve no way of knowing, other than maybe lexical analysis of this text against other known works of his. But no-one’s done that, or even raised the issue, as far as I have yet found.11 I certainly can’t do anything about it myself, but I need to use this text so I do wish that someone else already had! I feel as if I shouldn’t need to be trying to lead scholarship through the same elementary hoops of text transmission that I was setting before my first-year students last year… Am I missing something out there, does anyone know?


1. Xuanzang, Da Tang Xiyu Ki, transl. Samuel Beal as Si-yu-ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, translated from the Chinese of Hiuen Tsiang (A.D. 629) (London 1884), 2 vols, online here and here, last modified 20th December 2011 as of 8th November 2014.

2. The biography is Hiuli, Da Tang Ci’en si sanzang fashi zhuan, which doesn’t seem to be in English translation but is summarised by various secondary works, including most obviously Sally Hovey Wriggins, The Silk Road journey with Xuanzang, 2nd edn. (Boulder PA 2004), on whose and others perspectives see now Max Deeg, ‘”Show Me the Land Where the Buddha Dwelled”: Xuanzang’s “Record of the Western Regions” (Xiyu ji): A Misunderstood Text?’ in China Report Vol. 48 (Los Angeles 2012), pp. 89-113, DOI: 10.1177/000944551104800205. On the Silk Routes more generally there are a wealth of books and I would cautiously recommend Valerie Hanson, The Silk Road: a new history (Oxford 2012) as the most scholarly I’ve met, while still reserving the right to be sceptical about the whole concept, even more so after reading Xuanzang indeed!

3. I get my perspective here from the excellent if grim George MacDonald Fraser, Quartered Safe Out Here: A Recollection of the War in Burma (London 1993).

4. Xuanzang, Xiyu Ki, transl. Beal, I, pp. 25 for hostile weather caused by dragons & 32 for the bones in the waste.

5. For example, a short one, the place that is now Aksu (ibid., I p. 24):

“The kingdom of Poh-luh-kia is about 600 li from east to west, and 300 li or so from north to south. The chief town is 5 or 6 li in circuit. With regard to the soil, climate, character of the people, the customs, and laws of [literary] composition, these are the same as in the country of K’iu-chi. The [spoken] language differs however a little. It produces a fine sort of cotton and hair-cloth, which are highly valued by bordering countries. There are some ten sanghârâmas here; the number of priests and followers is about one thousand. These follow the teaching of the ‘Little Vehicle,’ and belong to the school of the Sarvâstivâdas (Shwo-yih-tsai-yu-po).”

6. The former well-known to you I guess, the latter most recently treated in Michael McCormick, Charlemagne’s Survey of the Holy Land: wealth, personnel, and buildings of a Mediterranean Church between Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Washington DC 2011).

6bis. Examples I actually read of this: Stanley Weinstein, “Imperial patronage in the formation of T’ang Buddhism”, in Arthur F. Wright & Denis Twitchett (edd.), Perspectives on the T’ang (New Haven 1973), pp. 265-306; Erik Zürcher, “Buddhism and education in T’ang times” in W. Theodore de Bary & John W. Chaffee (edd.), Neo-Confucian education: the formative stage (Berkeley 1989), pp. 19-56; and of course, Jerry Bentley, Old World Encounters: cross-cultural contacts and exchanges in pre-modern times (Oxford 1993), pp. 29-66.

7. See n. 2 above.

8. E. g. Xuanzang, Xiyu Ki, transl. Beale, I, p. 53:

“Sanakavâsa was the disciple of Ananda. In a former existence he had given the priests garments made of the Sanaka plant, on the conclusion of the rainy season. By the force of this meritorious action during 500 successive births he wore only this (kind of) garment, and at his last birth he was born with it. As his body increased so his robe grew larger, until the time when he was converted by Ananda and left his home (i. e., became an ascetic). Then his robe changed into a religious garment; and when he was fully ordained it again changed into a Sanghâti, composed of nine pieces. When he was about to arrive at Nirvana he entered into the condition of Samâdhi, bordering on complete extinction, and by the force of his vow in attaining wisdom (he arrived at the knowledge) that this kashâya garment would last till the bequeathed law (testament) of Sâkya (was established), and after the destruction of this law then his garment also would perish. At the present time it is a little fading, for faith also is small at this time!”

9. Fernando de la Granja (transl.), “La marca superior en la obra de al-‘Udrī” in Estudios de la Edad Media de la Corona de Aragón Vol. 8 (Zaragoza 1967), pp. 447-545, online here.

10. My limited detail here comes from the equally limited detail of Luis Molina García, “Los dos versiones de la Geografía de al-‘Udrī” in al-Qantara Vol. 3 (Madrid 1982), pp. 249-260 at p. 250.

11. Molina, ibid., certainly cites the text as if it’s actually al-‘Udrī’s words throughout, using just the same phrase as does de la Granja’s translation for it!

The power of coincidence

[This post was written on 18th November 2014 and queued; I’m finally up to it in the queue and have updated very slightly for my current situation.]

Chinese pottery at the top of the yet-to-be-excavated Belitung shipwreck in 1998

Chinese pottery at the top of the yet-to-be-excavated Belitung shipwreck in 1998

Humans are pattern-spotting animals, of course, and a great many false findings rest on our attempting to find reproducibility and significance in patterns that are effectively random. As we know, if someone is asking you in print, “Is it a coincidence that… ?” then the answer is probably yes. All the same, sometimes you cannot help but wonder. Four days before writing the first draft of this post I was at a paper where I met the word ‘keelson‘ for the first time (it’s a stiffener one puts inside a boat’s hull to support the keel on the outside, as the speaker explained).1 On the day I wrote the post I then met it for the second time, with no explanation, in the article from my to-read directory of PDFs that I have been assembling since 2008, but of course now I knew what it meant.

This particular file wound up in that directory in 2009 but I came to it only now, in November 2014, without any selection except that of when I put the file there and my ignoring a section of a thesis on Girona cathedral which I’m not sure why I wanted. So there was no reason at all for the article at the top of the heap either to mention keelsons or to be about Persian and Indian contact with T’ang China, which I was then teaching, but nonetheless it was, even though I’d grabbed the file to read five years before, when I was still working at the Fitzwilliam Museum and never expected to teach China and the Silk Routes at all.2 Don’t you also find that this kind of thing happens quite a lot? This is why I try not to mess with my routines for working through undirected reading; it often turns out to have a direction I never expected after all…


1. Rebecca Ingram, “Making it Last: the construction and repair of a 7th-century ship from Constantinople’s Theodosian harbour”, paper presented to the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, University of Birmingham, 13th November 2014.

2. Michael Flecker, “A ninth-century AD Arab or Indian shipwreck in Indonesia: first evidence for direct trade with China” in World Archaeology 32 (London 2001), pp. 335-354, DOI: 10.1080/00438240120048662.