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A cautionary tale

Obverse of a gold laurel of James I of England and VI of Scotland, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, BR0025

Obverse of a gold laurel of James I of England and VI of Scotland, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, BR0025; coins like these were the ‘Jacobuses’ referred to in the post below

This week, here is an excellent story to frighten young archaeologists and numismatists in their methodological cradles! I encountered this while reading up for an article that still hasn’t come out about changes in the coinages of the post-Roman world; I’m assured it’s now in final stages… But that doesn’t matter for these purposes. I will not, therefore, paraphrase what John Kent, no less, wrote better:1

One of the few comprehensive accounts of the collection, concealment and recovery of a hoard is related in Pepys’ Diary. At the Restoration of 1660, Samuel Pepys declared himself to be earning £50 a year, and to have £40 cash in hand. By the end of 1666, his average annual income exceeded £3,000, and he ‘was worth in money, all good’, above £6,200, beside two-and-a-half dozen silver vessels. Like many of his thrifty contemporaries, he kept his surplus cash under lock and key in his own house; the unfortunate Mr. Tryan, of Lime Street, who kept the key of his cash-chest in his desk, was robbed of £1,050 in money and £4,000 in jewels held as securities for loans. In June 1667, deeply worried by the penetration of the Dutch fleet into the Thames estuary, Pepys resolved to conceal his money. He was at first undecided whether to conceal it elsewhere in London to to despatch it to the family estate in Brampton, Northamptonshire. The latter counsel prevailed and his father and wife took coach, with a bag containing some £1,300. Finding himself unable to convert his silver in hand for gold – he had been forestalled by others – Pepys sent on another 1,000 gold pieces by special messenger, and carried on his own person another £300 worth, together with ‘directions where to find £500 and more in gold and silver’.
“Recovery of the treasure in October of the same year proved a gruelling experience. His wife gave him ‘so bad an account of her and my father’s method in the burying of our gold, that made me mad; and she herself is not pleased with it, she believing that my sister knows of it. My father and she did it on Sunday, when they were gone to church, in open daylight, and in the midst of the garden, where for aught they knew, many eyes might see them; which put me into trouble, and I presently cast about, how to have it back again to secure it here, the times being a little better now’. Recovery began at night, with a dark lantern, but ‘they could not justly tell where it was’, and Pepys began to fear the worst; but ‘by poking with a spit’, it was at length located, ‘not half a foot under ground’. Frantic digging merely succeeded in scattering the coins in the grass and loose earth. Finally, coins, dirt and all, were raised and washed. To Pepys’ chagrin, he found himself about one hundred pieces short, and fearing that the neighbours might have observed him, and come searching on their own account, he and his servant sieved through the earth until they had recovered a further seventy-nine. Pepys considered it quite acceptable that his special messenger should have lost some twenty to thirty pieces en route, and regarded himself as well content with the matter when all was finally safe back in London, ‘under a bed in our chamber’.
“This true story prompts several reflections. Pepys’ wealth, though certainly a ‘savings hoard’, was assembled over a very short period. It certainly included some old coins – he gave three ‘Jacobuses’ (gold pieces of James I) to his father-in-law and its random origin and rapid assemblage suggests that it would have been indistinguishable from a ‘currency hoard’ assembled ad hoc in 1667. Indeed, since his surplus increased in 1666 by only £1,800, as against £3,000 in 1665, we might suspect that the dates 1666 and 1667 were relatively slightly represented, i.e. that the hoard ended ‘weakly’. The really extensive coinages of guineas lay, in any case, in the future, and we may postulate that Pepys’ fortune consisted predominantly of the old ‘broad pieces’. Great quantities of these were certainly still available; a poulterer of Gracechurch Street died in November 1662 leaving an unsuspected hoard of 40,000 ‘Jacobs’. We may conclude that the recovery of a hoard was not necessarily an easy matter, and that there was a significant risk that it would not be recovered intact. The discovery in modern times of a scatter of twenty or thirty broad pieces at Brampton, or between Brampton and London, would give a totally false impression alike of date, of the circumstances of concealment and of the size of the original treasure.”

I think Kent actually relied on the intelligence of his audience a bit too much here in pushing the full implications of this story. It might be worth just setting out what a likely, nay, reasonable, interpretation of a find of say, twenty-five gold pieces of James I and Charles I in a Northamptonshire garden would be: firstly, that it was a small hoard by someone of moderate means (since it was not larger); secondly, that the owner lived thereabouts, since otherwise why would it be there and how would they recover it? and thirdly, that it was probably deposited because of trouble in the English Civil War, since nothing later than that appeared in it and one would hardly expect the Anglo-Dutch Wars to be troubling people in Northamptonshire, landlocked on the far side of the country from the North Sea. And all of these reasonable deductions would be wrong. On this occasion, there is no actual hoard to interpret and we know what happened. But what of even quite recent cases where it’s the other way about, eh, what about them?


1. John P. C. Kent, “Interpreting Coin-Finds” in John Casey & Richard Reece (edd.), Coins and the Archaeologist, 2nd edn. (London 1988), pp. 201-217 at pp. 205-206. Links in the text go to the online version of Pepys’s Diary.

An unobserved model of Byzantine economic development

After reimmersing myself in the literature of frontiers back in summer of 2017, I deduce from the blog stubs I left for myself that I must then have made a proper attempt to read Michael Hendy’s The Byzantine Monetary Economy.1 This is a monster tome which was supposed to be one of three and still contains a vast amount of material whose relevance to the exact topic is hard to see, but which also throws out important points and valuable insights as if they were incidental; it really needed an editor, but the legend goes that Hendy told Cambridge University Press that if they changed a word of it he’d cancel his contract with them, and somehow they wanted the book badly enough that this cowed them. So it went out as he wanted it even though it’s hard to understand, as a reader, why that was. In any case, despite being thirty-plus years old it’s still important and, I guess because I was by now writing up the work that would become my ‘Middle Byzantine Numismatics’, I set out to read it.2

Cover of Michael Hendy's Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985)

Cover of Michael Hendy’s Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985)

One of the major controversies in which Hendy repeatedly intervened during his rebarbative scholarly life was that of the importance of commerce to the Byzantine Empire, both economically and ideologically. Most people have been at least ready and in some cases downright keen to see the emperors as wanting to grow their commercial economy, even though they are sometimes hard-placed to explain why. For Hendy, however, this was anything but a given, and he saw the primary purpose of the coinage, for example, as to enable the tax system and the payment of the army, not to facilitate market exchange. Without wanting to spoil the book for you, he in fact went on to argue that the Byzantine Empire resisted commercialisation to the point that this became the reason that the Italian city-states with which they reluctantly dealt were able to out-compete them and drain the empire’s resource westwards.3 I do personally find him persuasive on this general score, I admit, but of course he was publishing under Thatcher and no-one was interested in anti-commercial scholarship as the 1980s boomed and academics were settling into how we justify the Great Divergence without having to give up our global predominance.

Nonetheless, he began, or nearly began, with a stab at economic modelling as applied to past societies that I think bears thinking with even now. It should be said that Hendy was just as prepared as his rivals to build elaborate hypotheses on shaky figures—he spent seventy pages here on reconstructing the Byzantine imperial budget, largely on the basis of eighteenth-century Ottoman figures, for example—but he obviously thought his were better, because he liked to attack others’ anyway. As witness, on p. 7 he has a set at someone who had applied Fisher’s Equation to the debasement of the Byzantine coinage in the eleventh century.4

Graphic description of Fisher's Equation of Monetary Quantity

If you’ve not met Fisher’s Equation, here is a summary representation, linked through to a pretty clear explanation; I would try myself, but this post is already pretty long and in-depth economics will not help…

Because he never wrote anything briefly when you would like him to have, I summarise how Hendy dealt with this rather than quote. Firstly he admitted that we probably do now have a decent grip on how that debasement unfolded, in which, ironically, he was probably wrong.5 He then admitted that in an economy where there was effectively no credit, and therefore no elasticity in the money supply, restricted as it was by available precious-metal, the application of Fisher ought if anything to be simpler than in a modern economy. But because the coinage was not, as he saw it, a commercial instrument and not made in quantities intended for it to be one, and was thus distributed not where trade required it but where soldiers and state operatives spent it; because transport was slow and its costs away from water very high, with consequent limits on what could be traded and how far; because, “the producer was almost invariably the distributor and/or the seller”; and because a really substantial part of the empire’s wealth was owned by the emperor, a few landed magnates and the Church, and thus immobilised…

“In the light of all these circumstances separately or in combination, and despite wide-ranging claims to the contrary, it is at least questionable whether the application of Fisher’s Equation has much, if any, relevance to the situation, and whether the pre-conditions necessary for its operation in any chronologically and geographically uniform, and in any detailed, fashion existed.”6

And you can see from that both why Hendy is little quoted, if much cited, and how his book ran to 773 pages. Even so, there are still bits one wants to quote on themes like this…

“These observations… are intended to suggest that it is on the one hand unacceptable for the numismatist, in accounting for some monetary phenomenon, to connect it with a contemporary ‘economic crisis’ (for the basic distinction between a financial and an economic crisis is one that is scarcely ever made), the existence of which is asserted through reference to another such assertion, which turns out to be based on a statement in George Ostrogorsky’s History of the Byzantine State – however distinguished that author, and however valuable that work. But they are also intended to suggest that it is on the other hand equally dangerous, that is dangerous enough to be unacceptable, for the numismatist, in accounting for some other monetary phenomenon, to insert it into a precise mathematical interrelationship evolved in the light of modern monetary theories and conditions. In general, if in no other sense, the result is thereby lent an entirely spurious air of precision and authority, and the nature and mode of operation of the ancient or mediaeval monetary economy involved is effectively never questioned.”7

You see what I mean by now, I guess. Part of me wants to yell “hurrah” and the rest is saying, “Wait, where was all this going again?” and “Could that maybe have been shorter, with fewer subclauses, or else in more than three sentences?” and unhelpfully unsympathetic things like that. I suppose that the general point here is that a model that is never tested against data or accurately set into context can never be proven or disproven.8 Of course, as I say, that didn’t stop Hendy coming up with his own, and what I want to do with the rest of this post is extend one of them for fun. You see, having got to that bit quoted above where he concluded that Fisher’s Equation wasn’t going to work here, he tries to explain the state’s resort to debasement by other means, for which the chief reason was its inability to extract very much money from its leading aristocrats. (He elsewhere argues that the wealthiest Byzantine magnates could severally possess enough to come close to equalling, in their total worth at least, the entire state budget, and while the comparison relies on the accuracy of his reconstructed budget, the figures for aristocratic wealth, at least, are contemporary ones.9) To their wealth, however, there was little alternative, given the probable insufficiency to make up the gap of what could be got from overtaxing the peasantry—which anyway tended simply to drive them into dependency upon those untouchable aristocrats instead.10 Sorry: once you start trying to think with Hendy it’s apparently difficult not to write like him. I’ll fight it.

This got me thinking, anyway, and what I thought is that it has implications which Hendy did not draw out. The tenth century was a time of recovery for the Byzantine Empire, territorially and militarily speaking, but by the end of it, nonetheless, the state was nearly bankrupt. (That is usually put down to Alexios Komnenos’s loss of Anatolia, but he inherited the financial situation, he didn’t create it.11) This would be exactly that distinction between economic and financial crisis Hendy was griping about, I guess. So, OK, let us suppose, as part of another of these untestable models, that, say, the top 5% of the Empire’s population was effectively immune from serious taxation, but that the rest was not. In that case, wealth that accrues to those possessors was effectively amortised from the state’s resources. If the economy grows in such a way that the aristocrats do well out of it, as it seems to have done in the Byzantine tenth century, the figures might work out in such a way that the population overall got richer but the state still got poorer. Now, obviously, one solution might indeed be to try and boost the commercial side of the economy and make up the difference on tolls and sales tax, but since the big aristocrats were essentially autarkic, or could be, that would not liquefy their wealth back to where the state could siphon it off again. So instead, the solution that probably works best for the state is actually to slow the economy down, to encourage deflation and to generally attack the value of wealth until the status differential between the aristocracy and the state has been restored. In that case, overtaxing would not be a desperate tactic to which a bankrupt government was forced despite the damage it must cause to the productive sector; that damage would actually be the point and overtaxing the whole strategy.

Base-silver trachy of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos struck at Thessaloniki in 1081-1092, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5532

The expedient to which the state had been reduced: a supposedly silver trachy of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos struck at Thessaloniki in 1081-1092, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B5532

In all of that case, then, it could be very much in the interests of a state constructed as we’ve just imagined to hurt its own economy, in order to be able to appropriate more of what was left. Perhaps that is in fact what Alexios I was doing when he reformed, causing what must have been great expense and considerable monetary shortage, that duff coinage!12 It’s obviously not a very capitalism-compatible model, but I think it’s where Hendy was pointing. That he didn’t get there may have as much to do with the arrangement of the book—in which, within six pages from here, he was having to say, “It may be thought that I have wandered far from the customary or even proper preserve of the numismatist, in discussing such questions as erosion, predominant forms of land-use, and twelfth- and thirteenth-century frontiers – and so, perhaps, I have…”—as any capitalist sympathies of his own.13 I’m not even sure it matters what he was ideologically, because what concerned him was how this other society had worked. The political climate of the age may be why no-one else picked up this idea, and maybe I would not have spotted it lurking before 2008 either. But what are we doing this study of the past for, if not to find alternate ways for human societies to do things? I’m not saying this one’s an obvious winner—though I often have to remind my students when they write about the inevitability of the Empire’s decline that it lasted more than a millennium, however variable its health in that time, so its ways of managing politics and change might still work out better than ours—but at least it is one of those alternatives that we are now, maybe, able to see and think with.


1. Michael F. Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985).

2. Jonathan Jarrett, “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (2017), pp. 514–535, which uses Hendy quite a lot.

3. Hendy, Studies, pp. 221-251 on the economic bases and 554-602 for the trade situation.

4. Ibid., pp. 157-220 for the budgetary reconstruction and pp. 613-618 for a worked-out comparison to the Ottomans, on the basis of the same figures he used to construct the Byzantine budget, a circularity he doesn’t seem to have considered. The person who had misapplied Fisher’s Equation is not named by Hendy, but it’s pretty likely that he was referring to Cécile Morrisson, “La dévaluation de la monnaie byzantine au XIe siècle : essai d’interpretation” in Recherches sur le XIe siècle, Travaux et Mémoires du Centre de recherche d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance 6 (Paris 1976), pp. 3–47, reprinted in eadem, Monnaie et finances à Byzance : Analyses et techniques, Collected Studies 461 (Aldershot 1994), chapter IX, which does indeed apply Fisher to the eleventh-century valuation and which Morrisson was still defending as such an application in eadem, “Money, Coins and the Economy” in Paul Stephenson (ed.), The Byzantine World (London 2012), pp. 34–46 at p. 41 n. 33.

5. Hendy, Studies, p. 3; but Cécile Morrisson, J.-N. Barrandon and Jacques Poirier, “La monnaie d’or byzantine à Constantinople : purification et modes d’altérations (491-1354)” in Morrisson, Claude Brenot, Jean-Pierre Callu, Barrandon, Poirier and R. Halleux (edd.), L’or monnayé I : purification et altérations de Rome à Byzance, Cahiers Ernest Babelon 2 (Paris 1985), pp. 113–187, the same year demonstrated that the debasement had in fact begun at a lower level in the late tenth century and that the eleventh-century tipping point was an illusion presented by the written sources.

6. Hendy, Studies, p. 5.

7. Ibid. p. 7.

8. For me, the archetypal case of this is Keith Hopkins, “Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire (200 B.C.–A.D. 400)” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 70 (London 1980), pp. 101–125, which is so obviously and openly founded on no evidence except the author’s own expressed preconceptions that I don’t understand how it got published, let alone became a standard reference.

9. Hendy, Studies, pp. 201-220.

10. See Peter Frankopan, “Land and Power in the Middle and Late Period” in John F. Haldon (ed.), The Social History of Byzantium (Chichester 2009), pp. 112-142.

11. The politics are best retold in Peter Frankopan, The First Crusade: the call from the East (London 2012), pp. 42-70, but on the finances specifically, see, with care, Cécile Morrisson, “La Logarikè : réforme monétaire et réforme fiscale sous Alexis Ier Comnène” in Travaux et Mémoires du Centre de recherche d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance Vol. 7 (Paris 1979), pp. 419-464, repr. in eadem, Monnaie et finances, chapter VI.

12. The more normal position on this is summarised, with references, by Alex Nobes, “The economic and monetary policy of the Byzantine Empire under Alexios I Komnenos” in Rosetta Vol. 11 (Birmingham 2011), pp. 56–71, online here, good work for an undergraduate journal. However, I disagree with him (and indeed Morrisson, “La Logarikè”, on which he rests here) that Alexios’s coin and tax reforms increased state revenue fourfold; I’ve run those numbers as best I can and I’m pretty sure that they come out meaning that he managed to return the levels of taxation to roughly pre-debasement levels by shifting them onto originally supplementary levies that were now paid in the new coin, rather than the debased valuations of the old core taxes; but the roughly thousand-fold increase in notional tax liability that resulted probably amounted to a slight decrease in overall revenue, that’s how bad things had got. So the reform’s purpose can’t have been just that, or you wouldn’t bother, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t have been deflationary as well as stabilising.

13. Hendy, Studies, p. 13.

A mistaken impression of an embassy to Córdoba

This is a post that arose from the 2017 International Medieval Congress, believe it or not, and it’s about a literary motif that crops up in a couple of my sources of resort. The basic shape of it is that someone said something in a paper at the Congress that made me trot out an old theory of mind in discussion and they had, kindly but clearly, to point out a reason that that theory was wrong. And then a week or two later, once back from Lleida, I did a tiny bit of looking into it, with that occasional luxury to follow threads that summers used sometimes to permit, and found that on the one hand was I considerably more wrong than I had thought, but on the other hand that maybe no-one has before combined the sources I now apparently know about. That last probably isn’t true, but at least I can perform putting the pieces together for you all.

Illustration of Notker the Stammerer

St Gall illustration of Notker the Stammerer, from Wikimedia Commons

So, let’s start where I started, with the Gesta Karoli by the Frankish monk Notker. This supposed biography of Charlemagne was written for one of Charlemagne’s grandsons, Charles the Fat about whom we have spoken here, and really contains very little factual information at all; it’s basically a set of kingship parables for the young Charles, using Charlemagne as its ideal monarch.1 One of these stories is about a Byzantine embassy to Charlemagne, and its basic thrust is this. Charlemagne was supposedly trying to make a point to the ‘other’ emperor about the mistreatment of some of his envoys, so had had the incoming delegation escorted by the longest possible route so that their money ran out, then brought them to Aachen.2

“When the envoys finally arrived, [Charlemagne’s masters of ceremonies] ordered the official in charge of the stables to sit on a lofty throne in the midts of his ostlers, in such pomp that it was impossible to believe that he was anyone else but the emperor. The moment the envoys saw him, they fell to the ground and wanted to worship him… Those who were present said: ‘That is not the emperor! That is not the emperor!’ and hit them to compel them to move on.’

This gimmick is replayed several times, with the Count of the Palace, then the Master of the King’s Table, then his steward, each one more splendidly caparisoned than the last, but eventually they finally get taken to the boss man:

“Charlemagne, of all kings the most glorious, was standing by a window through which the sun shone with dazzling brightness. He was clad in gold and precious stones and he glittered himself like the sun at its first rising.”

He is leaning on the originally mistreated envoy, and abject apologies and grovelling therefore ensue, moral victory for the Franks and the clear model to follow is established. As I say, there’s no real sign that this happened but the story is a good one.

Safavid miniature illustration of Ibn al-Arabī with students

16th-century Persian miniature illustration of the philosopher Ibn al-Arabī with some students, author unknown – http://www.ibnarabisociety.org/articles/treasureofcompassion.html, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Now, I must have read that story first as an undergraduate, but then I had nothing to connect it to and it wasn’t till I first taught the Carolingians some years later that I came across it again and by then it struck a chord in my memory because of my having since read, I think in the fundamental work about the first autonomous Catalan counts and how they got that way, Ramon d’Abadal’s Els primers comtes catalans, a very similar story.3 This story was, Abadal thought, about an embassy of the counts of Barcelona, my boys, to Córdoba in the reign of the first Andalusi caliph, ‘Abd al-Rahmān III, perhaps around 950, and in the story the same trick is played on the ambassadors. This time, however, the punchline is different, because after falling on their faces before officials enough times they are finally brought to the presence of the caliph, who is seated on a wooden stool, ‘in a white robe worth less than four dirhams’, in a room otherwise empty apart from a copy of the Qu’rān on a stand, a sword on another, and a small brazier busily aflame, and he tells the terrfied envoys that they have a choice between the authority of the first or death by the second and consumption in the third.4 Result, abject grovelling and all caliphal terms gratefully accepted, moral victory for Islam and the model is established, and so on.

So when I first made this association I had to wonder if there was a connection, and once I speculated about the possibility that, in an earlier embassy which we know brought down a chronicle of the Frankish kings to Córdoba, either a copy of Notker travelled too or else that that chronicle, of which we only have the barest abstract, contained this story from Notker.5 I still think this was an ingenious solution, but as it turns out there is a much much simpler one which makes me very likely to be wrong, and this is what I found out about at the IMC, because it turns out the instances I knew of this story were not the only ones. In his paper, Professor Stefan Esders had made passing reference to another, and when I quizzed him about later he said that he’d got it from a conference paper by one Jacek Banaszkiewicz, whom he believed was publishing it.6 Actually, it turns out that paper was already out, but it’s in Polish and so I cannot claim to have fully absorbed it.7 Still, the basic thrust of it is possible for me to pick up by grabbing at recognisable terms and references. Professor Banaskiewicz is interested because another of the users of the story is the pseudonymous chronicler Gallus, who uses a slightly different version in which Emperor Otto I of the Germans comes to visit King Bolesław I of Poland and is so dazzled by the reception that he hands over his imperial diadem to the Polish ruler. The way this plays to validate the Polish kingship and its own wider claims is pretty obvious. However, Banaskiewicz also finds the story in the Chronicum Salernitanum, in which it’s Charlemagne visiting Duke Arechis II of Benevento, and this time the dance with a long diversion and officials set up to look like the ruler is in place. And there are further, later, instances too. At the very end of the paper he introduces Notker as an older version, but the underlying trope as he sees it is very much older, being the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon in the Biblical book of Kings (Kings 1:10).

Medieval manuscript illustration of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

Medieval manuscript illustration of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, from the 15th-century Speculum Humanae Salvationis, image public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Now, the Biblical story does not have the increasing levels of false identification thing going on, but the Ancient History Encyclopedia quickly tells me that it acquires them in some later Jewish and Islamic versions, and as Banaskiewicz is mainly concerned to show, it’s not an uncommon device, so the interesting question now perhaps becomes how Notker got hold of one of those versions, or what the common source is. In any case, though, it’s no longer necessary to draw the link from him to Córdoba; the Arabic writer in question, the Andalusī philosopher Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad Ibn al-ʿArabī, could obviously have picked up the trope more locally, though his inversion of it is still quite original and cute. However, my being wrong sadly didn’t end there…

You see, having got Professor Esders’s message and done my first bits of digging, I went to a book I hadn’t had when I previously made the connection between Notker and Ibn al-Arabī, the invaluable little anthology of Arabic sources which refer to Catalonia edited and translated by Dolors Bramon. The extract is there, of course, because she is a thorough scholar, but with it came several notes that forced me to rethink again.8 You see, no other Arabic source, let alone any Christian one, records this embassy; it doesn’t name the participants, like all of Ibn Hayyān’s records based on the work of people who had actual court archives do, and the outcome seems to imply the conversion of the ambassadors to Islam, which definitely wasn’t required of any of the Christian rulers in the Iberian Peninsula even at the height of the Umayyads’ aggressiveness there. For all of these reasons, in 1974 Fernando de la Granja had concluded that the whole thing was probably just a literary construction, placed in the reign of ‘Abd al-Rahmān III because Ibn Hayyān and so on made that the obvious context for such a meeting.9 In other words, they think it’s fictive. Bother.

The very episode, depicted in Dionisio Baixeras Verdaguer, ‘Abd al-Rahman III Receiving the Ambassador at the Court of Cordoba’, 1885, Universitat de Barcelona, image allegedly public domain via the Ancient History Encyclopedia

Now, there is actually some evidence to suggest that ‘Abd al-Rahmān did play court ceremonial like this, as something vaguely similar appears in the tale of another ambassador to the court, The Life of John of Gorze, which has the long-delayed ambassador finally meet the caliph alone in a space only adorned with fountains, but he has a reclining bench rather than a stool and John told his biographer that was the custom.10 For that reason, it doesn’t seem as if this tale is a clone of Notker or indeed of the Bible, and I’m inclined to think the caliph really did use such presentational tricks, but of course he and his advisors may also have known the story! This would then be life imitating art. All that said, however, there’s no really sound evidence for the actual embassy detailed, or rather left undetailed, by Ibn al-‘Arabī, and I probably have to delete it from my list of data about Count-Marquis Borrell II. That will only hurt my ego, rather than my arguments, so that’s fine.

However, there are a lot of pieces to this jigsaw now. Banaskiewicz knows Notker, Gallus, the Chronicon Salernitanum and some more stuff besides, but not the Arabic version of the story. He also doesn’t cover the Biblical story’s development as far as I can see, and the sources I can quickly find for that don’t realise that there are medieval tropes of it. Meanwhile, de la Granja seems not to have known and Bramon shows no sign of knowing that there is a Biblical tradition behind the story, and they don’t mention the Latin analogues. Right now, as far as I know, it is I, I alone, who have all the pieces of the puzzle! Well, and now you, of course. But we can keep a secret, right… ?


1. Here accessed from Einhard and Notker the Stammerer, Two Lives of Charlemagne, trans. by Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Classics, L213 (Harmondsworth 1969); I know the newer translation by David Ganz is better, but right now this is the one I can reach…

2. Ibid., II.6.

3. Ramon de Abadal i de Vinyals, Els primers comtes catalans, Biografies catalans: sèrie històrica 1, 2nd ed. (Barcelona 1965), pp. 316-317.

4. Although I now have Abadal to hand, the account here is paraphrased from the version in 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), §396.

5. The chronicle was carried by Bishop Godmar II of Girona, around 940, and is recorded for us in the Meadows of Gold of al-Mas’ūdī, which is accessible only in very abridged English as El-Mas’ūdī, Historical Encyclopedia, entitled ‘Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems;’ translated from the Arabic, transl. Aloys Sprenger, 1 vol (London 1841-), online here; the whole thing is in French, as Maçoudi, Les prairies d’or : Texte et traduction, edd. C. Barbier de Meynard and Pavet De Courtelle, 9 vols (Paris 1861-1877), all on the Internet Archive, but I admit I did not go look for this anecdote there and have it right now from Bramon, De quan érem o no musulmans, §400.

6. Professor Esders’s paper, by the way, was S. Esders, “The Synod of Erfurt: Ottonian and Mediterranean Politics in 932”, paper presented at the International Medieval Congressm University of Leeds, 5th July 2017.

7. Jacek Banaszkiewicz-Pokorny, ‘„Na koronę mego cesarstwa! To, co widzę, większe jest, niż wieść niesie”. Mechanizm fabularny „wizyty Saby u Salomona” w średniowiecznych realizacjach kronikarsko-epickich (Kronika salernitańska, Kronika Galla, Pèlerinage de Charlemagne, Galien Restoré)’ in Agnieszka Teterycz-Puzio (ed.), Na szlakach dwóch światów: Studia ofiarowane Profesorowi Jerzemu Hauzińskiemu (Słupsk 2016), pp. 365–382. I have to thank Professor Esders for sending me an English version of the paper he saw, without which I’d not have got far with this.

8. Bramon, De quan érem o no musulmans, §396.

9. Fernando de la Granja, “A propósito de una embajada cristiana en la corte de ‘Abd al-Rahmān III” in al-Andalus Vol. 39 (Madrid 1974), pp. 391-406, cited in Bramon, De quan érem o no musulmans, p. 291 n. 111.

10. I’ve actually done my own translation of this text for my students, which may even some day be published, but until then there is most of the relevant bit in Colin Smith (ed.), Christians and Moors in Spain, volume 1: AD 711 – 1150 (Warminster 1988), no. 14.

A Defence of Osona at Lleida

So, where are, or rather were, we now? On inspection, actually, almost immediately I had survived the 2017 IMC I was away again on a jet-plane. This time it was to a place I’d never been, the city of Lleida, and what was taking me there was that I was on the panel examining one of the city’s university’s doctoral students, Elisabet Bonilla Sitja.

Volum 1 of Calaix 6, Arxiu Capitular de Vic, open to show internal arrangement

Within volum 1 of Calaix 6 of the Arxiu Capitular de Vic

This situation had been some time in the building, in fact. I first met Elisabet when I was in Oxford, when she did a term visiting so as to work with Chris Wickham, and at that point it became clear to each of us that we were perhaps the only people in the world who cared about trying to do something new with the charters at Vic, as seen above. At that stage she was still working on her MA thesis, which went well, and when I next ran into her, in Barcelona as documented here, she asked then if I would be willing to be on her thesis panel when it came to it, as she and her supervisor thought that having one foreign scholar who could speak for her in the English-speaking world would probably be useful, and so did I, so I said yes.1 And now, finally, that obligation had come due and so there I was in Lleida, having spent the interlude between then and Leeds reading a thesis as carefully as I could in the time available…

Cover of Elisabet Bonilla Sitja's doctoral thesis

Cover of Elisabet Bonilla Sitja, ‘Percebre i relacionar-se en els comtats d’Osona i Manresa durant la primera meitat del segle X’ (Ph. D. thesis, Lleida, 2017).

Now as you may remember I was by now just about not a stranger to doctoral examination, but only in the UK, where the system is quite different from that in Catalonia. In the UK, there is one examiner from the home institution and one from outside, they independently read the thesis and reach a decision on it pending the viva voce (i. e. oral) examination, meet to compare notes and then examine the candidate in person to be sure that it is in fact their work and to establish whether they can explain or defend the weak or curious bits, and on the basis of that the final recommendation is made. In Catalonia, instead, firstly everything is much more public. This panel was three people, and I have since been on one of five, and while they do make the final decision in private between themselves, before that happens each member makes a speech about the thesis, raising all the questions they want, to a gathering of the department and whomever the candidate has invited, and then the candidate has to give a speech in return, the actual defence, and then they make the decision and announce it. This all takes a while. There is also a secret ballot over whether the thesis passes summa cum laude—unless everyone votes in favour, it doesn’t. It’s a little arcane compared to the British experience, at least if you’re working in your fourth language, and pretty gruelling for the candidate, I’d imagine, especially as at least in Catalonia the candidate is then supposed to buy the panel lunch! Elisabet managed that last obligation by having her family bring in a huge and generous cold collation and set it up in a seminar room, which was fine by me, but before we’d got that far I had had to ask what the heck was going on in any of three languages several times.

New building work around the old(er) cathedral in Lleida

This was the first picture I took in Lleida, which gives you an impression of a city under work… More on this next post, but here is some scene-setting

But I managed, and of course Elisabet passed, since we all agreed that the thesis was excellent.2 And it also gave me the chance to meet my co-markers, Jordi Bolòs i Masclans, the internal for Lleida, and Aymat Catafau of Perpignan, both of whose work I had used a lot of before this time and both of whom were extremely nice and generous.3 It also left me with most of a day spare in Lleida, indeed, and that will generate a photo post that’s coming up next. But mainly it was a development step, in which I learnt a new process, made better contacts in my area of study and got to feel like a professional and expert for a while, and also help someone who deserved it, so I recount it with happiness even now. It all went well and as it should have gone.


1. That thesis being Elisabet Bonilla Sitja, ‘Aproximación al estudio de la vida y mentalidad altomedieval: La Plana de Vic, 872-936’ (M. A. thesis, Universitat de Lleida, 2011).

2. And that thesis being Bonilla, ‘Percebre i relacionar-se en els comtats d’Osona i Manresa durant la primera meitat del segle X’ (doctoral thesis, Universitat de Lleida, 2017), online here.

3. To pick but one piece each, Jordi Bolòs, ‘Paisatge, poblament i societat a Catalunya entorn de l’any 1000’ in Imma Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el Seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la fi del 1r. mil·leni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 254–283, and Aymat Catafau and Claudie Duhamel-Amado, ‘Fidèles et aprisionnaires en réseaux dans la Gothie des IXe et Xe siècles : Le mariage et l’aprision au service de la noblesse méridionale’ in Régine Le Jan (ed.), La royauté et les élites dans l’Europe carolingienne (début IXe siècle aux environs de 920) (Villeneuve de l’Ascq, 1998), pp. 437–465, have both been common cites of mine for quite a while.

Hay, flax, chickens and cash

A University and College Union picket outside the University of Leeds on World Book Day

A University and College Union picket outside the University of Leeds on World Book Day, managing to pursue both causes at once, from the Leeds UCU Twitter feed

Despite our still being on strike, it has been oddly hard for me to block out time for blogging these last few days, partly because of well-timed family celebrations but also because I have been taking the chance to fulfil promises that work had prevented me from answering. This means, for example, that I spent almost all of yesterday rewriting and editing numismatic scholarship for people in China, all of which would make my managers despair if I did it on work time rather than marking assessments or finishing one of the two articles I’m supposed to be prioritising just now in the time I can’t protect. This writing has actually involved some of my better work, I think, and I look forward to sharing it with you when it comes to fruition. Today, however, I want to go back to late October 2016, before the workload mentioned a few posts ago had completely smothered me, when I was apparently still reading Italian estate surveys in preparation for the supposedly-final version of my eventual article on early medieval crop yields.1 The aim here was simply to make sure that I wasn’t missing any data from which such yields might be derived—Georges Duby did, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake while setting out why he was wrong—but one can’t help noticing things as one reads, even if they don’t end up being especially useful…2

View of the medieval centre of Verona, from Wikimedia Commons

View of the medieval centre of modern-day Verona, by Jakub Hałunown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Thus it was that I was reading a partially-preserved list of renders and dues once belonging to the bishopric of fair Verona.3 You may remember, if you go far enough back with this blog, me getting all excited about the potential of the similar records from San Salvatore di Brescia to reveal not just local peculiarity and human interest stories (though plenty of them) but also the actual recording process—they were using a form, which otherwise we suppose Charles Babbage to have invented!4 The level of standardisation was surprisingly high, though it could accommodate personal variation all the same. At Verona, we have a different situation. The record, which probably dates to the mid-tenth century and survives on four-of-we-don’t-know-how-many pieces of parchment sewn together, is actually quite variable and doesn’t have the kind of formulaic language. It’s not that it’s not all by the same people, but just that they didn’t have the same kind of desire to keep it exactly consistent, and who’s to say they weren’t happier for that? But patterns do emerge, all the same, perhaps because certain areas of the bishopric’s property had arrived in lumps, with different terms for each batch.

A modern-day agricultural landscape outside Verona

A modern-day agricultural landscape outside Verona

The overall picture looks roughly as you’d expect: the normal estate rendered a third of its wine production, a quarter of its grain, paid a few deniers on Saint Zeno’s day and owed some other stuff, flax, linen, hay, beans, chickens and eggs, fish or whatever, depending on the estate and what it had, presumably. In many cases the tenants did a few days’ labour on the bishopric’s own land too. Certain bits stand out for oddity: some estates had to render particular sorts of cereal, for example—millet and sorghum in San Vito di Castilione, wheat, rye and millet in Bonerigo and wheat, fava beans, rye, millet, panic and sorghum in Arcila, since you ask—whereas most of the rest just rendered “grain”.5 A very few places rendered partly in hay, presumably only at some times of the year; the interesting thing there is that they all render to the same place, not the cathedral but an estate centre at Legnago. Did the bishopric have a stock-raising operation there which needed a lot of animal feed?6 A lot of places rendered in flax, but the state it arrived in varied: raw flax was acceptable from some places, but others had to render prepared flax and some actual woven linen.7

Flax fields near Bergamo

Modern flax growing near Bergamo

Apart from the delightfully variegated texture of human endeavour across the Veronese landscape which this gives us, it also makes it clear that the bishopric of Verona was a commercial operation in a commercial world, whatever the historiography would wish to tell you about the dates we can use such words.8 Much of what they were getting in was provisions, for sure, and they might have had a lot of people to feed even beyond the cathedral canons; the urban Church was what there was in the tenth century by way of poor relief, after all.9 But I don’t think they can genuinely have needed quite that much linen all by themselves, which implies that they were selling it as material for the textile industry for which the area would be famous later on. There’s nothing surprising about that, either, because the number of renders in cash show that there was obviously a money economy of some sort in operation and if they could in fact spend those coins, then others must have been able to buy as well, or what would the good of the coins have been to them?10 None of this seems very odd, perhaps, but it is nice to be able to show it for definite.

Ottonian denaro from an Italian mint, perhaps Verona

Some of that same cash, a silver denaro of Emperor Otto I struck perhaps at Verona in 962-973, Münzen Sänn, 3731900816, now in a private collection

Furthermore, the overall pattern was not controlled; the cathedral wasn’t turning certain parts of its property into specialist provision, or I think the picture would be very much more differentiated. What they mainly wanted was wine, grain, chicken and eggs and money, and those were probably also partly for sale (because yes, you can sell cash, it’s something banks do, we just don’t call it that when they do it). Where there are signs of specialisation, therefore, it’s probably fair to guess that they had been set up by the people who’d owned the land before it came to the cathedral, which is to say that this kind of economic optimisation had been a lay pursuit too for a little while by circa 950. I’d have to work harder to prove this, and I suspect it’s already been done, but with this kind of material, it can be, you see.

Medieval statue of Saint Zeno of Verona, from Wikimedia Commons

Saint Zeno, as depicted in a later medieval form still on display in Verona. (He was from modern-day Morocco, according to legend anyway.) Image by Mattanaown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The goods may have been for sale, then, but they were also for show. Remember that a lot of this stuff was to be brought to the cathedral on the feast day of its patron saint, Zeno (12 April, apparently). I imagine there was a feast, too, and perhaps the tenants got to eat some of what they had brought, but mainly, I imagine, they all saw each other paying up and were inescapably reminded who their lord was, how powerful he was and how much help he could draw on if he needed to (or you needed him to). A very few places also rendered single lambs, and just as I did at Brescia I wonder if those were to be delivered at Easter, but I can’t prove that whereas the big gathering on Saint Zeno’s Day looks pretty undeniable. It’s not quite conspicuous consumption, but one could call it conspicuous stockpiling, I guess, and the audience may have been the city population who might need the bishop’s charity in the tough months before the harvest as much as the tenants who had, presumably, still kept most of what they’d grown or raised. One could link this to the ancient role of bishops as civic patrons or remember that the English word for ‘lord’ comes from an Old English word hlaford meaning ‘loaf-giver’, but either way the person who can feed the poor when the poor need him is in a powerful position, and that’s what this ceremony must have set up in Verona.11

I can’t do anything especially novel with any of this, and the document didn’t have the smoking guns of crop yields for which I was searching. If I’d been one hundred per cent focused on the research outcome, I’d regret having read this estate survey. As it is, though, even though I will probably never really need to know anything about how tenth-century Verona hung together and what its citizens for sale saw in their marketplace, I have a quite lively mental picture of another corner of tenth-century Europe all the same, and that will do nicely for me, thankyou!


1. Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1–28.

2. The yields he missed were in Andrea Castagnetti (ed.), “S. Tommaso di Reggio” in Andrea Castagnetti (ed.), Inventari altomedievali di terre, coloni e redditi (Roma 1979), pp. 193–198, discussed even before publication in Vito Fumagalli, “Rapporto fra grano seminato e grano raccolto nel politico del monastero di S. Tommaso di Reggio” in Rivista di storia dell’agricoltura Vol. 6 (Firenze 1966), pp. 360–362, just too late for Duby’s big works. See Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages”, p. 25 for discussion.

3. Castagnetti (ed.), “Vescovato di Verona” in Castagnetti, <u<Inventari altomedievali di terre, pp. 95–111.

4. The Brescia materials are printed in Gianfranco Pasquali (ed.), “S. Giulia di Brescia”, ibid., pp. 41–94. As for Babbage, the claim rests upon Charles Babbage, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (London 1832), pp. 114-118, online here.

5. Castagnetti, “Verona”, pp. 107, 106-107 and 108 for the specific cases.

6. Ibid., pp. 103-104.

7. For example, linen from a half-colonica held by Atto in Cennserava and one colonica belonging to Tonono in Castolisine (ibid., pp. 104 and 106), prepared flax from another of Atto’s colonicae in Cennserava (ibid. p. 104), but raw flax from one of Legnago’s dependencies (ibid. p. 101), with many more examples available.

8. I refer of course to Robert S. Lopez, The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950‒1350 (New York City 1971), for whose narrative we seem here to be slightly early.

9. On poor relief you could see Peregrine Horden, “Poverty, Charity, and the Invention of the Hospital” in Scott Fitzgerald Johnson (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity (Oxford 2012), pp. 715–743.

10. This isn’t even that new an idea: the best cite I can immediately pick up for it is Gino Luzzatto, “Changes in Italian Agrarian Economy (from the Fall of the Carolingians to the Beginning of the 11th Century)”, trans. Sylvia L. Thrupp, in Thrupp (ed.), Early Medieval Society (New York City 1967), pp. 206–218.

11. On bishops and cities, try Claudia Rapp, “Bishops in Late Antiquity: A New Social and Urban Elite?” in John H. Haldon and Lawrence I. Conrad (edd.), Elites Old and New in the Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East: Papers of the sixth Workshop on Late Antiquity and Early Islam, Byzantium and the Early Islamic Near East 6 (Princeton 2004), pp. 149-178.

Burning the Law in Tenth-Century Castile

In today’s post I want to enlist the readership’s help in tracing a factoid. [Edit: and you have helped me find it! Thankyou to Psellos, whose help is now clear in comments. I've left the post as was otherwise, though.] This is something I came across in the book by Eugene Mendonsa I wrote about a few posts ago, which seemed to me most unlikely, and for which I then spent a little effort trying to trace to a source. I failed, but it’s not just my fault; I’ve run into many citational dead ends that shouldn’t be such, and since the effective source seems to be popular tradition, I wondered if anyone out there knows about it? Here is the quote from Mendonsa:1

“Reliance on written documentation to confirm repression was unique to Catalonia in Iberia. For instance, in neighboring Castile, Count Fernán González was so adamant in retaining traditional oral customs that he had all copies of the Liber Iudicum he could find in his country burned in the Cathedral of Burgos.”

As usual with Mendonsa’s book, as I said last time, there is no clear source for this,. The most likely thing in his chapter bibliography looks to be E. N. van Kleffens, Hispanic Law until the end of the Middle Ages, with a note on Continued Validity after the Fifteenth Century of Medieval Hispanic Legislation in Spain, the Americas, Asia, and Africa (Edinburgh 1968), but I don’t have access to that and Hathitrust’s search gives no instances of ‘burn’, so I’m not sure. There are obvious reasons to doubt such a claim, anyway. Here are the ones I could quickly think of:

  1. The Liber Iudicum, otherwise known as the Visigothic Law, was very much still in use in Castile in the thirteenth century, when it was translated by royal order into the text we now know as the Fuero Juzgo, so Fernán González’s Fahrenheit 451 episode couldn’t have been very effective.
  2. Almost anything written later on about things Fernán González did are shot through with legend, but those legends usually include him issuing a fuero of his own for Castile, the point being to separate it from royal legislation, not to reinforce orality.2
  3. The Forum Iudicum would have been older than any oral customs in Castile, since it predated the Muslim conquest of the Visigothic kingdom.
  4. The bishopric of Burgos was only revived in 1075, Castile was a county not a country, and we could go on, but I did this for Mendonsa once already and don’t need to again.

So instead I did some searching, and what I found can be grouped under two headings, writing that you’d think would mention this episode but significantly doesn’t, which is to say pretty much anything I could quickly open that mentions Fernán González in an actual tenth-century context but also works on actual law in medieval Castile, and then very venerable works that do mention this episode but only in passing. (There’s also an unreferenced mention in an almost unconnected Wikipedia article in Spanish whose English version omits it, just to complete the picture.) The most obvious of the first sort of works I’ve already referenced, but first of the second is nothing less than Amerigo Castro’s The Spaniards: An Introduction to their History, part of his side of the long-running polemic with that unfriendly but impressive figure, Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, about what the real nature of Spanishness was.3 In its English version, on p. 512, Castro was made to say:

“Whether it is based on actual tradition or mere legend, it is a significant fact that those Visigothic laws were burned in Burgos by the Castilians as a sign of protest against the kingdom of León to which they were subject.”

This is exactly the kind of statement that means I tend to prefer Sánchez-Albornoz to Castro despite the former’s own particular problems – “whether it is based on… tradition or… legend, it is a significant fact”! – but the main thing of relevance here is that there is no citation. But it didn’t entirely surprise me when I picked it up again in the work of those two’s mutual senior, Ramón Menéndez Pidal, who in 1943 and 1944 wrote, in the same words both times:4

“Una tradición muy respetable cuenta que, al conseguir su autonomía los castellanos, reunieron todas las copias de ese Fuero Juzgo que pudieron hallar por su tierra y las quemaron en Burgos.”

As ever, my Castilian isn’t my strongest language, but I make that more or less:

“A very respectable tradition records that, in order to secure their autonomy, the Castilians gathered all the copies of this Fuero Juzgo that could be found in their land and burnt them in Burgos.”

Pretty much a match! So I guess that, while Menéndez Pidal wasn’t Mendonsa’s source, he was probably quoted by whatever that source actually was. But what was Menéndez Pidal’s source? “Una tradición muy respetable”, without reference, isn’t a lot to go on, and Menéndez Pidal is as far back I can trace it. So, over to you folks: does anyone else know this tradition, and if so, where it might have started?


1. Eugene L. Mendonsa, The Scripting of Domination in Medieval Catalonia: an anthropological view (Durham, NC, 2008), p. 130.

2. Two fairly modern examples: Michael P. McGlynn, “The Seven Laws of Fernán González: Castile’s Tenth-Century Legislative Beginnings” in Confluencia Vol. 25 (Greely 2009), pp. 93–100, where it would have been relevant almost anywhere, and María Angustias Alba Bueno and Manuel Rodríguez García, “La muerte en el Fuero Juzgo y tipos de enterramientos en el Reino Visigodo de Toledo” in Estudios sobre patrimonio, cultura y ciencias medievales Vol. 18 (Granada 2016), pp. 81–106, online here, where p. 82 runs quickly through the afterlife of the code with no mention of this.

3. Amerigo Castro, The Spaniards: an introduction to their history, transl. Willard F. King & Selma Margaretten (Berkeley, CA, 1971), translation of his España en su historia or La realidad histórica de España as it became in later editions. On the debate between him and Sáanchez-Albornoz a still-useful guide is Jocelyn N. Hillgarth, “Spanish Historiography and Iberian Reality” in History and Theory Vol. 24 (Oxford 1985), pp. 23-43.

4. Ramón Menéndez Pidal, “La Castilla de Fernán González” in Boletín de la Commisión Provincial de Monumentos de Burgos Vol. 22 (Burgos 1943), pp. 237-254, online here, at p. 242, and idem, “Caracter originario de Castilla” in Revista de estudios políticos Vol. 13-14 (Madrid 1944), pp. 383-408, online here, at p. 390, as I say in more or less the same words; I guess when you’re effectively writing for a Fascist dictator about how his province of birth was historically destined to provide the future rulers of Spain, you maybe cut a few editorial corners in favour of speed of production…

Chronicle V: July-September 2016

Hilary Benn MP addressing pickets at the University of Leeds, 2nd December 2019

Hilary Benn MP addressing pickets at the University of Leeds this morning

Some negotiations are afoot, but the strikes continue, and so I am free to write you more blog. Let’s, as I promised yesterday, look back now to happier times, to wit the summer of 2016, for my next Chronicle post. Admittedly, despite the recent rush, the last one of those three-month slices was a bit more than three months ago, but hopefully this one, covering as it mainly does the summer vacation, will catch things up a bit. So, what did this UK academic do with his summer before he was all unionized and on strike?

Teaching

Well, you’d think teaching stopped over the summer, and of course it mostly does in as much as the undergraduates go home for a bit, but in actual fact as I look through the old diary it is obvious how one never quite gets clear. I got through July with only one Ph. D. supervision, for the visiting Chinese student I’ve mentioned, and in August I saw him again, for the last time, plus one of my postgraduate mentees, but I also spent an hour and a half in an empty classroom recording a canned lecture for our first-year medieval survey module I was taking over, so I was obviously also doing teaching planning. Then in September, as well as a meeting with a different postgraduate mentee, I did a taster lecture for prospective undergraduates, had various meetings to coordinate the upcoming year’s teaching and then in the last week of September of course normal undergraduate teaching began again, with me running three modules, including that whole-cohort survey and my all-new two-semester Special Subject, which had needed an immense amount of translation doing for it, and on the last day of that week I also had to do a transfer interview for one of our doctoral candidates. All of this, course, needed preparation previously. So, given that, I’m not sure I actually took that much time off from teaching in the summer. I certainly did have some actual time off, and I will show you photographs from it as well, but there was no point when teaching was all finished and could be put away. One of my lessons from that summer was that I needed to construct one of those, and I’ve been trying and failing ever since…

Other Efforts

Well, actually quite a lot of this time was spent house-hunting, for reasons I won’t go into, but I was also now starting that coin cataloguing project with an undergraduate that I’ve mentioned here before, which also meant a meeting every few weeks, and also some larger coordination with Special Collections about the further development of work on the coin collection, which at this point I was still also slowly inventorying for an afternoon a week when I could. So coins were definitely a feature of these three months. By September I was also undergoing training, because one of the things in the year ahead of me was my eventually-successful application for Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy, not a simple process at first. But here things were fairly light, which is how it should probably be during an academic summer.

Other People’s Research

Obviously, summer also means no seminars, but on the other hand, also obviously to those of us in the circuit, July also opens with Leeds’s own International Medieval Congress, so I definitely saw some other people talk. It was also my first one as staff, and I suppose that even after three years’ delay that may still make it worth blogging separately. That was actually my only conference that summer, however, so even here things were lighter than they might have been.

My Own Research

All the which, therefore, would lead you to suppose that I must mostly have been doing research. And sure, while the look of my diary is mainly house-hunting and (believe it or not) a holiday, there are also a lot of blanks which must have been so filled. I was presenting at the IMC in my Rethinking the Medieval Frontier strand, but of course that was (almost) done by the time July started. I must have been reading for ‘Outgrowing the Dark Ages’, because I had drafts of it done in June and October that this time must have made the difference between, and I also turned round a new version of my old piece ‘A Likely Story’, then as now still on its way to publication. Closer examination however reveals that what I was probably doing most of was trying to work out how many of Borrell II‘s relatives I could track down. (The answer, should you be interested, was 66 whom he could actually have met, not including relatives by marriage, whom I probably should have included, but, well, if the book ever emerges you’ll see there were reasons not to bother.) This involved getting deep into the early work of Martin Aurell, whom you may just know proposed long ago that the ninth- and early-tenth-century comital family of Catalonia was seriously and incestuously interbred.1 Let us suffice here to say that on closer examination of the sources I disagree, and that as long-term readers may remember there were just a lot of women called Adelaide in that area at that time, some of whom are not in fact the same as each other. By the end of the summer I was sure that this now needed to be a separate article, but I was not yet in a position to extract it, and I have to admit, have got little closer since then (though I did at least finish Aurell’s book, some two years later). So that was apparently where the rest of the summer went. Looking at that, I shouldn’t feel bad, really; I redrafted one piece for publication and did some serious work on an article and a book, which ought to be good enough for three months. Nonetheless, my life would have been easier in the following year if it had been more.

Whitby harbour and Whitby Abbey seen from the North Yorkshire Moors Railway service into the town

Whitby harbour and Whitby Abbey seen from the North Yorkshire Moor Railway service into the town, and about as close as I got to anything medieval on this trip, but sometimes that’s OK

What does this all tell us, then? Firstly, I guess, looking back, I was tired and fraught, but that was largely the stress of having to move house again, and my partner bore most of that weight. Even that was not all bad – I got a much better sense of West Yorkshire from going looking at many places – but also, I suspect I was still probably working full days most of these weeks, at least those where I was not actually on leave (and then sometimes in North Yorkshire, as above). I just don’t seem to have finished the summer with that much to show for it, and I think that has to be down to the lack of actual downtime and the need to have new teaching ready for the coming year. In fact, I wasn’t really ready, but I didn’t know that then.


1. Specifically, Martí Aurell i Cardona, “Jalons pour une enquête sur les stratégies matrimoniales des Comtes Catalans” in Frederic Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium Internacional sobre els orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), 2 vols, I pp. 281–364, online here; Martin Aurell, Les noces du comte : mariage et pouvoir en Catalogne (785-1213), Histoire ancienne et médiévale 32 (Paris 1995); and idem, “Pouvoir et parenté des comtes de la Marche Hispanique (801-911)” in Régine Le Jan (ed.), La royauté et les élites dans l’Europe carolingienne (début IXe siècle aux environs de 920) (Villeneuve de l’Ascq 1998), pp. 467–480.

Is it him or is it me? Accuracy, disciplinary expectations and Borrell II

University and College Union pickets dispersing at the Parkinson Building, University of Leeds, 29th November 2019

University and College Union pickets dispersing at the Parkinson Building, University of Leeds, 29th November 2019

I know I’ve made this point by now, but because I, like many other UK academics, am still on strike today, you can have another blog post, because if I were working I could not do this and would have to squeeze time out of Sunday to blog instead. This is another thing I first wrote in mid-2016, when I still had time to read, and as you will see it promises further instalments. In fact, I never wrote those, because the experience I describe below did not improve, but I think it still raises some questions that are worth thinking about, not least, “what should I have been reading instead?” Anyway, here it is, in the unaltered voice of 2016.

Cover of Eugene Mendonsa, Scripting Domination in Medieval Catalonia: an anthropological view (Durham NC 2008)

Cover of Eugene Mendonsa, Scripting Domination in Medieval Catalonia: an anthropological view (Durham NC 2008)

I have read pretty much what there is to read on Count Borrell II of Barcelona by now, as anyone who has hung around this blog for a while would expect, but I have been trying while writing the story of his life to patch any gaps even so. Into this window of opportunity has wandered a book I first heard of when it must have been very new, The Scripting of Domination in Medieval Catalonia: an anthropological view, by Eugene L. Mendonsa.1 The preface to this was free on the web in 2009 or so, and I showed it to my anthropologist of resort to ask whether it seemed sensible to them. After all, I repeatedly talk down medieval historians for using outdated anthropology and ignoring newer stuff; if an anthropologist has written a book about exactly my study area and period, I should not be ignoring it! My referee thought that from what she could tell it seemed OK, and so eventually I found a copy at a price I didn’t mind, bought it and started reading it. This post was occasioned, as it will seem by the time it gets through the backlog to go up, by my reaction to the first substantive chapter.

It would be mean to say that the first chapter makes me wish I’d not spent the money, but it is surprising to me in a number of ways that are probably justifiable without being mean. The book sets out in the preface explicitly to use anthropological thinking to understand how élites in medieval Catalonia kept themselves that way by the social and symbolic structures they created to impose and to justify domination. You can see why this sounds exactly like something I need in my toolkit. However, to go about this the author does a really extensive recapitulation of the political and social history of the area of Catalonia, skimming the Roman, Visigothic and Carolingian periods and getting down to detail in the comital era and proceeding on to the civil wars of the fifteenth century, in three lengthy chapters. In the first chapter at least, no anthropology is cited at all, and while there is analysis along with the narrative it’s derived fairly straightforwardly from historians’ work. I can’t see from a quick skip ahead that this changes much in the subsequent two chapters either, and these three historical ones are together 165 pages of a 226-page book, all in.

So in some sense this is exactly what I wish people would now do, which is use the medieval period as material for new historical anthropology. On another level, however, it is not how we normally do history at all. Some of that is a matter of presentation. There are no footnotes or endnotes, for example, just a list of references at the end of each chapter. That might be OK, and all the things I’d expect to see there in English are there although far far fewer in Catalan or Castilian. However, the text is peppered with quotations, and there’s no way to link these quotations to the works in the reference lists. I’m pretty sure that’s not standard academic practice in any discipline.

Also, lots of it is just factually wrong. Some of that is by virtue of not knowing the disciplinary conventions, I admit, and some of it is because our author likes to come up with snappy phrases for things that might make handy shorthands to a lay audience while looking very odd to medievalists; he refers to ‘Sword Power’ a lot to mean rule by force, for example, which is dramatic to the point of oddness but not wrong in a factual sense. But there is factual error too. The bit that made me choke most was to see the phrase, “Charlemagne’s other son, Bernard of Septimania”; I have no idea what you have to read to get that impression but I very much doubt it was in any of the works in the reference list.2 But when he gets to the sack of 985, our author disappears into a fog of error:

The disaster hit during the reign of Count Ramon Borrell (948-992). Most of the inhabitants were either killed or enslaved. The count fled into the Pyrenees.

The failure of the Francian kings to help the count of Barcelona fight off the advance on the Marca Hispanica of Emir Al-Mansur caused the count to turn to the powerful Cluny Monastery for political support and then to become a vassal of the Holy See.

Al-Mansur died in 1002 and the threat passed. Nevertheless, ties to the Franks had been effectively severed and Count Borrell looked more to Rome during the remainder of his reign…”3

I’ll just knock these out:

  • Ramon Borrell ruled 990-1018.
  • We now think that casualties at Barcelona were serious but far from total, and that parts of the city defences were not even taken, but I’m not sure it’s fair to expect Professor Mendonsa to know that even if it was first suggested in 1982.4
  • Borrell II (945-993), who actually met this attack, did not as far as we know flee to the Pyrenees, though any record about what he did is some years later and only says that he fought al-Mansur’s army, lost and failed to defend the city.5
  • Al-Mansur was not an emir.
  • Neither Borrell nor Ramon Borrell his son had any contact with Cluny, but when the counts of Barcelona did it did not bring them political support in any material fashion.6
  • I’m pretty sure no count of Barcelona was ever a vassal of the Holy See; was that even a thing that happened before Gregory VII?7
  • Borrell did go to Rome, but in 970, well before the attack of 985; that actually seems to have put him personally back in touch with the kings of the Franks.8

The real pedant in me also wants to point out that Borrell II ruled from 945 to 993, but that might again be unfair; most books you could find that even mention him don’t realise that the date of his death has been corrected in local scholarship, and fewer still date from his documented first use of the comital title rather than the death of his father.9 However, since Professor Mendonsa also gives his dates as as 954-992 later on, when he talks of him issuing the first known charter in Catalonia (he means franchise charter, which is almost OK) and then has him in a genealogical table as “Ramon Borrell II, 966-992”, the date apparently because of his brother Miró dying in 966 but the rest hard to explain, it’s really not just lack of currency with local scholarship that’s the problem here.10 The big question is going to be: can an argument emerge, in the twenty-seven pages of the book dedicated so to doing, that still works when the historical foundation it’s set upon is so full of holes? How much about events does one have to know to be able correctly to diagnose social processes? If Professor Mendonsa does in fact have insights that seem good to me, will they be in any way safe to use, given not least that a historian going back to this book from my citation will likely be just as horrified by these errors as I am? These are questions which I suppose I can only answer by finishing the book, and I will, but I’m not sure, all the same, that this is a fair reflection of what anthropological approaches could do with this material…


1. Eugene L. Mendonsa, The Scripting of Domination in Medieval Catalonia: an anthropological view (Durham NC 2008).

2. Ibid. p. 9.

3. Ibid. pp. 10-11.

4. Gaspar Feliu, “Al-Mansur, Barcelona i Sant Cugat” in Acta Historica et Archaeologica Mediaevalia Vol. 3 (Barcelona 1982), pp. 49–54, online here; more broadly, Feliu, La presa de Barcelona per Almansor: història i mitificació. Discurs de recepció de Gaspar Feliu i Montfort com a membre numerari de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica, llegit el dia 12 de desembre de 2007 (Barcelona 2007).

5. Feliu, Presa, pp. 18-19.

6. The obvious place to go when Professor Mendonsa was researching this might still have been the various papers on Cluny in Spain collected in Charles Julian Bishko, Spanish and Portuguese monastic history, 600 – 1300 (London 1984) or even, if one were inclined to look at local literature first, Anscari M. Mundó, “Moissac, Cluny et les mouvements monastiques de l’est des Pyrénées du Xe au XIIe siècle” in Annales du Midi Vol. 63 (Toulouse 1963), pp. 551-573, online here, but given recent comments on the blog I can hardly fail also to mention Lucy K. Pick, “Rethinking Cluny in Spain” in Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies Vol. 5 (Abingdon 2013), pp. 1–17, DOI: 10.1080/17546559.2012.758443 or indeed Karen Stöber, “Cluny in Catalonia”, ibid. Vol. 9 (2017), pp. 241–260, DOI: 10.1080/17546559.2017.1292426. Professor Mendonsa, of course, couldn’t have used these latter two.

7. Ian S. Robinson, “Gregory VII and the Soldiers of Christ”, History Vol. 58 (London 1973), pp. 169-192.

8. 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, again obviously not available when Professor Mendonsa wrote, but it’s not as if I was using unknown evidence.

9. Cebrià Baraut, “La data i el lloc de la mort del comte Borrell II de Barcelona-Urgell” in Urgellia Vol. 10 (Montserrat 1990), pp. 469–472.

10. Mendonsa, Scripting of Domination, pp. 15 & 21.

Two fields, three fields, four fields, five…

Today is one of those occasions when I need to correct, or at least update, something I wrote here years ago, and this time the subject is that ever-enthralling one, crop rotation. Don’t hide it, I know you’ve all been waiting for more on this… That said, last time I wrote on it there followed quite the conversation and people still wind up there from search engines, so I guess there may be interest there, in which case it’s quite important that they know that the research for (ahem) my recent article on early medieval agricultural productivity revealed that that post was badly behind the times. Thus, an update.

Organic winter wheat growing with red clover in an experiment by the Moses Organic Project

Organic winter wheat experimentally growing with red clover, image from Katja Koehler-Cole, “Research evaluates green manures as fertilizer in organic soybean-winter wheat-corn rotation” in Organic Broadcaster Vol. 23 no. 5 (Spring Valley WI 2015), pp. 9 and 12, online here, p. 9

So, firstly, what am I even talking about? Well, you may be aware that when you’re growing stuff in the ground for food, the earth only gives of her best for a short time before the land needs refreshing with the various nutrients that make stuff grow well. Historically, there have been two basic ways of dealing with this decline of productivity in the soil: either you give up on it and go and clear somewhere else to farm (slash-and-burn agriculture), or you let the land lie for a bit till it’s built up the things you need again, possibly encouraging that process by growing something different (like legumes) that fix nitrogen in the soil. This practice we call fallow. Now, in the traditional kind of literature that last time I was writing about, it used to be considered that in Iron Age and ‘primitive’ agricultures, if fallow was done at all, it was done one-year-on-one-year-off, so that if you had two fields, one of them was growing and one of them was lying fallow and then next year you switched them over, a two-field system. The alternative, to which European civilisation at large slowly supposedly switched, is a three-field one in which one field is growing a crop that needs all year to grow, such as wheat, one is growing a less exhausting spring crop such as barley or oats, and the third is lying fallow, which means that each year you’re getting two crops not one and are thus more productive and less dependent on a single harvest.1 And in that long-ago post I was wondering if that change might have underlain the apparent increase in economic power that seems itself to have underlain the various social changes of tenth- and eleventh-century Europe that we still sometimes see called ‘the Feudal Transformation‘. OK? Now read on…

So, predictably, deeper reading told me two things. Firstly, I was by no means the first person to think of that causation, something which really I knew and should have remembered (but sometimes, of course, one learns these things so deeply that you forget that you ever had to be taught them—this is how patriotism and stereotypes usually work…).2 Secondly, and inevitably, things were more complicated than that. In order to write my article, as I think I mentioned already, since it was principally aimed at destroying an argument of Georges Duby’s (an argument, mark you, which rested on arithmetic that completely ignored the need to fallow growing land even though that was the immediately previous thing he had written about in the relevant book…), I wanted to make sure that what he’d written in the 1960s he’d never in fact gone back on before his death in 1996.3 In fact he hadn’t, really, but this led me onto a special issue of a journal he’d helped to found, Études rurales, celebrating, reprinting parts of, but also updating his work.4 And there I found two articles that changed my picture.5

What does the new picture look like, then? Well, firstly, the basic progress from two-field to three-field is, predictably, deeply questionable. Our information is more limited the further back one goes, obviously, but it doesn’t look as if there was ever a time when you can’t find people doing either or even both, depending on what they were growing where.6 This comforted me in a way, since unlike the equally lame argument about the heavy plough, this one wasn’t even technological determinism, where once the right invention had been made the world changed but without it could not; for the two-field/three-field progress to be made a whole world of people whose lives rested on the fields had to have collectively been too stupid to think of this different way of managing them, despite all the work we have on the later Middle Ages that is obsessed with medieval peasants as rational economic actors planning for survival…7 Even now, in some areas of the world, with some crops, two-field systems yield better than three-field ones that can just exhaust the land more, and of course the imperatives of the market can alter everything, so that old argument also basically relies on the absence of market forces. All of this belongs to the world of Lopez’s so-called Commercial Revolution, in which capitalism was effectively born in the cities of high medieval Italy and Flanders and before that no-one had ever thought of doing anything for profit, and it’s time we managed to think outside that teleological box in which, like the heavy plough or indeed money, once capitalism’s invented no-one can possibly not do it.8

Ruins of the TEmplar Commandery of Ruou

Ruins of the Templar Commandery of Ruou, image by Edouard-RainautTravail personnel, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

But the other thing I now understand is that a two-field/three-field binary was never going to be enough. For a start, it ignores the supposedly ‘primitive’ slash-and-burn method, which is effectively a one-field system that moves, and where the land is always fresh and at its most productive. If you have the space and don’t mind being a bit nomadic, this is the most productive system there is, so why wouldn’t you? But equally, some land just needs more time to recover from agriculture. Fourteenth-century render lists from mountain estates that paid into various Templar commanderies whose records survive—records that Duby himself first put to use, so he did know—show some farmers running a four- or even five-field system across their scattered and marginal lands, with most of their land fallow most of the time. Other examples also exist, but these are the one that made me stub this post.9

And, of course, there is and was nothing to stop someone using several of these systems at once. Only the other day, for reasons I won’t bother you with, I was being towed around a farm in a tractor’s trailer with the owner explaining to the assembled gathering how he was, effectively, running part of a four-field system in the middle third of this large field to maximise vegetable crops, while running a two-field one in the field next door for different vegetables and growing cereals on a decent part of the rest of the farm, presumably on a two- or three-field rotation. Those weren’t the terms he used, but it’s what they amounted to. This was an organic farm, too, so not using modern chemical means of boosting soil productivity.

Modern polyculture in a single field

Another example of such modern polyculture, from “Crop Rotation”, Farm and City Centre, 15th September 2016, online here

In short, farmers can vary their practice a lot. The fact that really big Church estates of the early and high Middle Ages preferred things more uniform than that probably tells us more about their desire to be able to count their dues properly than of their keen eye on market productivity, therefore; as so many top-down states have discovered over time, if your first goal is for your farmers to grow a lot, rather than to organise how they grow it, then the best thing to do is to let them decide how to do it themselves. Of course, that probably means you have less idea of what they’re growing and how much of it you are owed; the estate managers, too, make their own choices, but once again, they aren’t necessarily capitalistic ones. This shouldn’t surprise us; but it did me, perhaps it will also you, and maybe that surprise explains the historiography that meant my article needed to be written in the first place. I continue to think that might be an important piece of writing…10


1. This traditional narrative can still be found all over the Internet (I’ve linked an example above), but in the posts I’m referring to I was getting it from Helmut Hildebrandt, “Systems of Agriculture in Central Europe up to the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 275–290. You could also get a more introductory version from, say, Norman Pounds, An Economic History of Medieval Europe, 2nd ed. (London 1994), which is about as up to date as such textbooks get even now.

2. In fact, the obvious person to whom to draw back the idea was none other than he whose work my article was written to oppose, Georges Duby, at first in his “La révolution agricole médiévale” in Revue de géographie de Lyon Vol. 29 (Lyon 1954), pp. 361–366, but more systematically and accessibly first in idem, “Le problème des techniques agricoles” in Agricoltura e mondo rurale in Occidente nell’alto medioevo, Settimane di Studio del centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo 13 (Spoleto 1966), pp. 267–284 and in the book that was subsequently translated as idem, Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West, transl. Cynthia Postan (London 1968).

3. As close as he came was a note in his engaging little academic autobiography, Georges Duby, L’histoire continue (Paris 1991), p. 97, that he now accepted that he had not known enough about agricultural systems when he wrote the above works, but he stopped short of saying what he’d then have changed.

4. Philippe Braunstein (ed.), Georges Duby, Études rurales 145-146 (Paris 1997), online here.

5. Those being Benoît Beaucage, “Les Alpes du Sud en 1338 : Sur les traces de Georges Duby”, ibid. pp. 113–132, online here and Mathieu Arnoux, “Paysage avec cultures et animaux : Variations autour du thème des pratiques agraires”, ibid. pp. 133–145, online here, though Maria Ocaña i Subirana, El m&ocute;n agrari i els cicles agrícoles a la Catalunya vella (s. IX-XIII) Documenta 1 (Barcelona 1998) and Bruce M. S. Campbell and David Hardy, “The Data” in Three Centuries of English Crop Yields, 1211-1491, online here, subsequently helped confirm it and I was subsequently pointed to Jean-Pierre Devroey and Anne Nissen, “Early Middle Ages, 500‒1000” in Erik Thoen, Tim Soens, Laurent Herment, Michael Kopsidis, Per Grau Møller, Jankh Myrdahl, Alexandra Saebznik and Yves Segers (edd.), Struggling with the Environment: Land Use and Productivity, Rural Economy and Society in North-Western Europe, 500‒2000, 4 (Turnhout 2015), pp. 11–68, which might now be the best place to start for the few who can afford the book.

6. On this, to Devroey & Nissen, “Early Middle Ages”, add Alexis Wilkin and Jean-Pierre Devroey, “Diversité des formes domaniales en Europe Occidentale” in Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire Vol. 90 (Bruxelles 2012), pp. 249–260, online here, or Marie-Pierre Ruas, “Aspects of early medieval farming from sites in Mediterranean France” in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany Vol. 14 (New York City 2012), pp. 400–415.

.7 Most obviously now David Stone, Decision-Making in Medieval Agriculture (Oxford 2005), but long-term readers may also remember me having a go at C. T. Bekar & C. G. Reed, “Open fields, risk, and land divisibility” in Explorations in Economic History Vol. 40 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 308-325, DOI: 10.1016/S0014-4983(03)00030-5.

8. Referring to Robert S. Lopez, The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950‒1350 (New York City 1971); as for money, for examples of cultures where it might not be much use see Dagfinn Skre, “Commodity Money, Silver and Coinage in Viking-Age Scandinavia” in James Graham-Campbell & Gareth Williams (edd.), Silver Economy in the Viking Age (Walnut Creek 2007), pp. 67–92. Basically, money needs to be easily available, or the transactional costs of actually getting the means of payment render it uneconomical.

9. Beaucage, “Les Alpes du Sud”, modifying both Duby, Rural Economy and Georges Duby, “La seigneurie et l’économie paysanne : Alpes du Sud, 1338” in Études rurales Vol. 2 (Paris 1961), pp. 5–36, online here.

10. Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (2019), pp. 1–28.

More Muslim invader genetics, but better

This is one of those posts with a long history suddenly brought into the light. I stubbed this in 2016, having just then found the article on which it is focused, but it relates to an older post of mine about a different article from 2008, so we are digging back a bit. And digging is the operative word, because what this post is about is three bodies that were excavated in Nîmes in 2007, whose erstwhile owners appear to have been the first Muslims in the area of modern France whom we can document archaeologically. A bold claim, you may think, though obviously somebody has to be, but the excitement here would be that they appear to date from the pretty brief period in which Nîmes was actually Muslim-ruled, more or less A. D. 719 to 737.1

Porte de France, Nîmes

The obvious thing to illustrate here would be the bodies, of course, but that might be a bit insensitive, so instead here’s a view through the Roman gate of Nîmes quite near to the burial site, the Porte de France. Image by Bruno Fadat — Collectif des Garrigues, CC BY-SA 4.0, licensed through Wikimedia Commons

Given my long record of scepticism of surprising claims by scientifically-focused archaeologists who don’t consult with historians (or when they do, don’t give them authorial credit), which this team seemingly didn’t, you might expect me to be about to challenge this, but actually in so far as such a claim can be demonstrated, I think they’ve done it. The bodies were uncovered lying on their right sides with their heads to the south-east, more or less the direction of Mecca, with a small niche at one side of each grave, and this matches what they can say about Muslim burial elsewhere, including more or less the same time in the Pyrenees thanks to an Islamic cemetery uncovered a few years ago in Pamplona.2 Christian burial would usually be on the back, heads east, and even the local pagan burials would usually have been face-up. So, that they were buried as Muslims rather than as Christians seems reasonable to me. Likewise the dating: they got radiocarbon samples from each skeleton, ran their tests against a good recent calibration curve and they came out centred on the beginning of the eighth century, which could hardly be better. And they also did genetic testing on DNA from tooth pulp, and one haplotype (I’m out of my depth with this terminology here still) and one Y-chromosome feature they detected, as well as a skeletal deformation, are common in modern African populations and vanishingly rare in modern French ones.3 So.

“Geographic repartition of the Y-chromosome lineage E-M81 characterised on the SP7080, SP7089 and SP9269 human remains”, from Yves Gleize et al., “Early Medieval Muslim Graves in France: First Archaeological, Anthropological and Palaeogenomic Evidence” in PLoS One Vol. 11 (San Francisco 2016), e0148583, fig. 4, with its own DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0148583.g004

It’s not that I have no quarrels with this piece, obviously; I remain myself. But relatively, they’re small. Firstly, I wish the authors didn’t finish by deciding that the men (for all three probably were men) were probably “Berbers”, because that’s a modern term and gets you into some awkward assumptions about ethnic continuity that otherwise this article does pretty well avoiding.4 At the time people from North Africa would probably have been called Mauri by their hosts in Nemausus, ‘Moors’ to us, and for all we know, they might have disagreed and thought themselves Vandals or Romans or who knows what, or alternatively they might have been doing their best to pass as Arabs, with all the social cachet that brought in the early Islamic world. That brings us to the second point, which is that old one, their skeletons don’t preserve their minds and just because we have a historical framework into which these men fit doesn’t mean we understand who they were. The authors of the article are alive to this to an extent: they say it would make sense if these men were soldiers but they show no skeletal features that would substantiate that guess, and other people also moved with Muslim armies.5 But there is also a Christian burial lying between our three, which the article authors tell us (without any evidence provided, this time) is also seventh- or eighth-century.6 Well, OK, that’s a long window, and if he or she was buried there in 650 and our Muslim men were buried in 725, or else the Christian followed them in in 775, then probably no connection really, or even necessarily any knowledge by whoever came second that the first burial had happened. If they are associated, though, which at least spatially they are, then we have to consider the possibility that whatever these Muslim men were, this Christian person also was, at least to those who chose where he or she should be buried, and that warns us that we might not be seeing the aspects of these people’s identity that most mattered. What can you tell now about someone from their choice to be buried or cremated, after all? Or about someone’s lifetime religious beliefs if they’re buried in a war cemetery?

Map of the medieval town of Nimes, with a zoom on the excavations area that revealed the Muslim burials SP7080, SP7089 and SP9269 (analysed in the present study) and the burial SP8138

“Map of the medieval town of Nimes, with a zoom on the excavations area that revealed the Muslim burials SP7080, SP7089 and SP9269 (analysed in the present study) and the burial SP8138”, from Gleize et al., “Medieval Muslim Graves”, fig. 2, DOI:nbsp;10.1371/journal.pone.0148583.g002

Oh yeah, that’s the third thing, the cemetery. The authors are circumspect about this, but it doesn’t seem really to have been one. The ground in question contained, as they say early on, “about twenty medieval and modern graves scattered across the countryside”. If we use the smallest spread over time that those words, strictly applied, make possible, and suppose that these burials are the earliest and the latest were from only just A. D. 1500, that would still only mean on average a burial every forty years, ‘scattered’.7 The site was inside the old Roman walls, and seems once to have been occupied, since Roman building stone had to be moved out of one grave, and it was close to a road, but I still think we mean more ‘abandoned ground’ than ‘organised burial plot’. The authors flannel and say that burial didn’t happen in centralised places yet, but I know the paper they cite for this and its author says that churchyards are late, not any kind of cemetery burial, and there were actually lots of early medieval cemeteries before churchyard burial became usual.8 This pretty obviously isn’t one, though. The authors admit that the burial location raises questions, but demand to see it as inclusion in the community in a complex way; I am less sure.

Nonetheless, this is a useful article; I’ve already taught with it twice since I stubbed this post, in fact, and undergraduate history students can get the point of it. What, however, makes it ‘better’ than the 2008 article I mentioned at the start? Well, there’s several things that give me more confidence in this one’s findings. Most obviously, we are dealing here with historic material, not modern DNA, and even if the historic DNA can only be compared with modern people’s at least the points of comparison are more or less known. Secondly, there is corroborating information; the chance of their being right about what they have just from the DNA is already higher here than with the 2008 study, but the radio-carbon dates clinch it, for me. The range of possible interpretations is so much more closely confined. The two studies weren’t, of course, trying to do the same thing really, but they were using some of the same techniques and for me this is just a safer use of them if what you want to do is history (or indeed archaeology). Still: I do wish they’d actually included a historian as part of the team…


1. Yves Gleize, Fanny Mendisco, Marie-Hélène Pemonge, Christophe Hubert, Alexis Groppi, Bertrand Houix, Marie-France Deguilloux, Jean-Yves Breuil, “Early Medieval Muslim Graves in France: First Archaeological, Anthropological and Palaeogenomic Evidence” in PLoS One Vol. 11 (San Francisco 2016), e0148583, online here.

2. Ibid., p. 2, citing J. A. Faro Carballa, M. García-Barberena Unzu, M. Unzu Urmeneta, “La presencia islámica en Pamplona” in Philippe Sénac (ed.), Villes et campagnes de Tarraconaise et d’al-Andalus VIe-XIe siècles :la transition (Toulouse 2007), pp. 97–139.

3. Gleize et al., pp. 6 for the radio-carbon and pp. 6-7 for the DNA.

4. Ibid. p. 9.

5. Ibid. p. 8.

6. Ibid. p. 6.

7. Ibid. pp. 3-4.

8. Ibid. p. 9, citing Elizabeth Zadora-Rio, “The making of churchyards and parish territories in the early-medieval landscape of France and England in the 7th-12th centuries: a reconsideration” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 47 (2003), pp. 1-19, DOI: 10.1179/med.2003.47.1.1, which I actually got to see given live, the second seminar I ever blogged in fact. As I said, this post has a long history…