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Ethnogenesis for every occasion

I now want to turn back for a post to the text I was reading at about this time last year, the De Administrando Imperio of Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus. I’ve already said something about the composite and confusing nature of this text, but I want here to look a little bit more closely at some of its internal contradictions, and that with particular regard to the variation it offers in national origin myths.1 This is clearest in the Balkans, and the interpretation of Constantine’s information there is a tricky matter, as is almost anything in the Balkans really. One can see why this is with no trouble: since 1918, and then again since 1992, there have been a number of different recognised nationalities there competing for space with each other and for either freedom or support from bigger powers to help them in that competition. Explaining all this has naturally enough resulted in work to establish the roots of the nationalities concerned in their desired home area, and Constantine seems to help with this as the stories he provides seem to testify, if not to actual events (though some would claim that they do), at least to long-established beliefs available to a tenth-century enquirer about what had happened when these various peoples arrived centuries before.2

Wikipedia map of early Serbian settlements in the Balkans

For example, this Wikipedian map claims that it is ‘mostly according to the De Administrando Imperio’, but I bet that you could construct another that would make Croatia the bigger territory, also ‘mostly’ on the basis of Constantine’s information…

In particular, our ailing emperor is the first source we have to use a word that is cognate to the modern ‘Croat’ for some of these people, and to distinguish the area inhabited by such Croats from other areas inhabited by Slavs. (He is also, I should say, fascinating about the innumerable separated ex-Roman peoples who were left along the coast by the Byzantine retreat, and their journey into ethnicity is one I would like someone to do more with–but of course, they became part of other people’s identities in the end, so don’t get their own history.3) It’s not just Balkan scholars who have leapt at this text, of course: scholars of the Russians and Hungarians, all working without the aid of home-grown historical writing this early, have also seen in Constantine’s apparent lack of editing some hope that the materials he preserved represent the authentic popular memory of authentic Slavic, Rus’ or Magyar informants, even if sometimes passed through Greek-literate intermediaries.4 Efforts to push back the date of the information he records may also have the same ultimate motives; thus Francis Dvornik developed a complex hypothesis about the Balkan material by which reports from officials dating from no later than 912 were compiled around 944 by Constantine and then combined with a newer but Slavic (and “truer”) story about the origin of the Croats around 952, all from clues within the text.5 I’m not going to say he was wrong, either, but really all we can say for sure is that Constantine had all the material he used by 952.

Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS grec. 2009, fo. 3r

The opening page of the earliest mansucript of the De Administrando Imperio, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS grec. 2009, fo. 3r. The thing on the left is some tables from the Letter of Pythagoras to Laïs, which was later bound into the same codex.

He was also presumably not working without some editorial purpose, but sometimes it is very hard to perceive. He gives three accounts of the arrival of the Croats in the Balkans, in fact, none of which fully agree and one of which is internally self-contradictory. In the first place, he tells us that all was peaceful south of the Danube till the Romans crossed it one day in a spirit of adventure and, finding “unarmed Slavonic nations, who were also called Avars”, there, raided them fairly thoroughly and then garrisoned the Danube so as to go on doing that, whereupon the Slavs (“who were also called Avars”) decided that this had to stop, apparently armed themselves, ambushed a Roman detachment and then got through the frontier pass at Klis under their captured standard, whereafter they sprang upon Salona and established themselves there, and all the Romans of the land fled to the coastal cities where they remain.6 Now, not only do we know that this is not true—Slavs served in the Avar military effort but the peoples are distinguished fairly consistently by Roman authors, Salona took years to fall, in the seventh century (whereas Constantine later says this happened 500 years before his date of writing in 952!), and so on—but Constantine had different information too, in the form of the Chronicle of Theophanes that he quotes extensively and, indeed, from whose author he even claims descent.7 But this is the story he tells this time, and although several morals can be seen in it it’s hard to know exactly which one Romanos II was supposed to take from it: that the Balkans were lost because of Roman greed? that the Slavs are fierce, cunning and capable of deceit? or that modern-day Kotor, Dubrovnik, Split, Trogir, Rab, Bekla and Osor were all places that could still be claimed as Byzantine possessions?8

The bit that follows immediately doesn’t make this much clearer:

“Since the reign of Heraclius, emperor of the Romans, as will be related in the narrative concerning the Croats and Serbs, the whole of Dalmatia and the nations about it, such as Croats, Serbs, Zachlumi, Terbouniotes, Kanalites, Diocletians and Arentani, who are also called Pagani… But when the Roman Empire, through the sloth and inexperience of those who governed it and especially in the time of Michael from Amorion, the Lisper, had declined to the verge of total extinction, the inhabitants of the cities of Dalmatia became independent, subject neither to the emperor of the Romans nor to anybody else, and, what is more, the nations of those parts, the Croats and Serbs and Zachlumites, Terbouniotes and Kanalites and Diocletians and the Pagani, shook off the reins of the Empire of the Romans and became self-governing and independent, subject to none. Princes, as they say, these nations had none, but only ‘zupans’, elders, as is the rule in the other Slavonic regions. Moreover, the majority of these Slavs were not even baptised, and remained unbaptized for long enough. But in the time of Basil, the Christ-loving emperor, they sent diplomatic agents, begging and praying him that those of them who were unbaptized might receive baptism and that they might be, as they had originally been, subject to the empire of the Romans.”

Of course Basil II obliged, and his rather messy wars of conquest in the area are overlooked, as indeed is the earlier mission to these areas under Saints Cyril and Methodius.9 At one level the immediate political point of this is obvious: all these peoples are ours, by their own decision, and they owe us both liberty and Salvation, the latter no doubt having implications about authority over the local churchmen. But the claims made on the way are really curious: the whole area was in Byzantine hands until the reign of Michael II (820-29)? and became that way under Heraclius (610-41)? Most modern histories would regard Heraclius’s as the reign in which these areas were lost!10 Furthermore, Constantine seems to know that at some other level, because after a long run through the topography and history of the ‘Roman’ coastal cities, which is to me what this chapter is really about, he finds another way in the next chapter. First he retells the story about the Avars (definitely them this time) hitting back at Roman raiders and getting into Roman territory under false colours then taking Salona with the same trick. Then he goes on:

“Only the townships on the coast held out against them and continued to be in the hands of the Romans, because they obtained their livelihood from the sea. The Avars, then, seeing this land to be most fair, settled down in it. But the Croats at that time were dwelling beyond Bavaria, where the Belocroats are now. From them split off a family of five brothers, Kloukas and Lobelos and Kosentzis and Mouchlo and Chrobatos, and two sisters, Touga and Bouga, who came with their folk to Dalmatia and found the Avars in possession of that land. After they had fought one another for some years, the Croats prevailed and killed some of the Avars and the remainder they compelled to be subject to them. And so from that time the land was possessed by the Croats, and there are still in Croatia some who are of Avar descent and are recognized as Avars. The rest of the Croats stayed over against Francia, and are now called Belocroats, that is, white Croats, and have their own prince; they are subject to Otto, the great king of Francia, of Saxony, and are unbaptized, and intermarry and are friendly with the Turks. From the Croats who came to Dalmatia a part split off and possessed themselves of Illyricum and Pannonia; they too had an independent prince, who used to maintain friendly contact, though through envoys only, with the prince of Croatia.

'Dolazak Hrvata na Jadran' ('The Coming of the Croats to the Adriatic Sea'), painted in 1905 by Oton Iveković (d. 1939)

‘Dolazak Hrvata na Jadran’ (‘The Coming of the Croats to the Adriatic Sea’), painted in 1905 by Oton Iveković (d. 1939) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. This, we might regard as a positivist reading of our source…

“For a number of years the Croats of Dalmatia also were subject to the Franks, as they had formerly been in their own country; but the Franks treated them with such brutality that they used to murder Croat infants at the breast and cast them to the dogs. The Croats, unable to endure such treatment from the Franks, revolted from them, and slew those of them whom they had for princes. On this, a large army from Francia marched against then, and after they had fought one another for seven years, at last the Croats managed to prevail and destroyed all the Franks with their leader, who was called Kotzilis. From that time they remained independent and autonomous, and they requested the holy baptism from the bishop of Rome, and bishops were sent who baptized them in the time of Porinos their prince.”11

So are you following? These people, who the previous chapter had been Byzantine subjects since at least 641, have now been independent ever since they threw off Frankish rule, in what is presumably a reference to the rebellions against Louis the Pious and his régime in Pannonia of the 820s.12 They were also baptised by Roman missionaries at about that time, but last chapter were still pagan in the reign of Basil II (886-912). Interestingly, they move as a family group with hangers-on: this really is something like a tribal migration as Constantine tells it, and that seems to be because whoever was telling it was aware of a family of princes with particular claims to the over-rule of connected peoples. In other words, where the previous chapter looked like a statement of a Byzantine political position, this looks much more like a Croat one, although it presumably still had a use for Constantine. My guess would be that this was the abrogation of any claim the Franks might make to the control of these people, voided by illegitimate brutality, just rebellion and right of combat. So again we can see a purpose, but then there is a third version…

“The Croats who now live in the region of Dalmatia are descended from the unbaptized Croats, also called ‘white’, who live beyond Turkey and next to Francia, and have for Slav neighbours the unbaptized Serbs. ‘Croats’ in the Slav tongue means ‘those who occupy much territory’. These same Croats arrived to claim the protection of the emperor of the Romans Heraclius before the Serbs claimed the protection of the same emperor Heraclius, at that time when the Avars had fought and expelled from those parts the Romani whom the emperor Diocletian had brought from Rome and settled there, and who were therefore called ‘Romani’ from their having been translated from Rome to those countries, I mean, to those now called Croatia and Serbia. These same Romani having been expelled by the Avars in the days of this same emperor of the Romans Heraclius, their countries were made desolate. And so, by command of the emperor Heraclius these same Croats defeated and expelled the Avars from those parts, and by mandate of Heraclius the emperor they settled down in that same country of the Avars, where they now dwell. These same Croats had at that time for prince the father of Porgas. The emperor Heraclius sent and brought priests from Rome, and made of them an archbishop and bishop and elders and deacons, and baptized the Croats; and at that time these Croats had Porgas for their prince.”13

So, in this version it’s not at all clear who controls the territory into which our migrants, again with a named prince, move. It’s waste, because the Romani have moved out; it’s Roman, because the Slavs come to Heraclius to get their permission to settle; it’s Avar, because the Avars have to be chucked out of it… But the important thing is that it’s Heraclius who decides, both on the settlement and on the Christianization; the pope’s rôle is reduced to ancillary of the emperor, and the mission of Cyril and Methodius is again apparently just too embarrassing or compromised to mention. This, alone of the three, looks like a fudge to match the previous stories and Byzantium’s claims to the contrary with the chronology of what actually happened, as far as we can tell, that the area fell under local control after Heraclius pulled out the troops to fight against Persia and that the papacy sent a mission into Dalmatia in the year of Heraclius’s death, although to recover relics and ransom captives rather than to convert Slavs.14 These may indeed have been things that were remembered at Split, which later claimed to have been made an archbishopric at about this time.15 The point, again, would seem to be that whoever was in control here it certainly wasn’t the Franks, but the papacy’s relegation to imperial auxiliary, actually truer than you might think given that Pope Martin I was imprisoned for some time in Constantinople for non-cooperation with the emperors, might also have had a special bite by the point where control of the Balkans and its bishoprics was once more on the Byzantine agenda.16

The cathedral of St Domnius, Split

The cathedral of St Domnius, Split, potentially source of a lot of Constantine’s confusion but itself also a testimony to the complexities it was trying to reconcile: the octagonal nave began as the mausoleum of Emperor Diocletian (284-307), who was of course a persecutor of Christians…

So what is to make of all this contradiction? Obviously there were different stories in circulation by the tenth century about what had happened in the seventh, which is not surprising. As we have them here, however, all of them can be read as serving a Byzantine political agenda: in the first case, the uninterrupted claim to the coastal cities of the Romani is the key, no matter what else it means admitting, but it is also worth asserting religious sponsorship of the Slavic peoples in those cities’ ecclesiastical orbits; in the second place, the key point is probably that any claim that the ‘Franks’ (which by Constantine’s time was the Ottonians for all functional purposes) could raise over the northern Balkans had been voided by their ancient conduct and the Croats’ brave resistance; in the third place, the point is that the peoples of this area hold their lands by imperial concession and that their Christianity ultimately also has such an origin. This probably makes it dangerous to assume that any of this stuff is reaching us unspun; Constantine may indeed have had local informants informing his sources, but what we have here is a selection of material to a purpose; you have to assume that if it had not served that purpose it could have been adjusted to do so.

But, you may say, it’s still a contradictory mess. How could Constantine put this stuff together and expect it all to work? Well, it works to its purpose, doesn’t it? If we think he was actually interested in recording the history of these peoples, we’re probably right, but this selection of the material he had was not being made for that purpose, but to underpin Byzantine diplomacy. This is a lot clearer in a much earlier part of the book that deals with how to handle excessive demands for treasure from barbarian ambassadors (apparently a common problem). Compare the above and the claims I have argued they probably support to this:

“Should they ever require and demand, whether they be Chazars, or Turks, or again Russians, or any other nation of the northerners and Scythians, as frequently happens, that some of the imperial vesture or diadems or state robes should be sent to them in return for some service or office performed by them, then thus you shall excuse yourself: «These robes of state and the diadems, which you call ‘kamelaukia’, were not fashioned by men, nor by human arts devised or elaborated, but, as we read in secret stories of old history, when God made emperor Constantine the great, who was the first Christian emperor, He sent him these robes of state by the hand of His angel, and the diadems which you call ‘kamelaukia’, and charged him to lay them in the great and holy Church of God, which… is called St. Sophia; and not to clothe himself in them every day, but only when it is a great public festival of the Lord… Moreover, there is a curse of the holy and great emperor Constantine engraved upon this holy table of the church if God, according as he was charged by God through the angel, that if an emperor for any use or occasion or unreasonable desire be minded to take of them and either himself misuse them or give them to others, he shall be anathematized as the foe and enemy of the commands of God, and shall be excommunicated from the church… And mighty dread hangs over them who are minded to transgress any of these divine ordinances. For one of the emperors, Leo by name, who also married a wife from Chazaria, out of his folly and rashness took up one of those diadems when no festival of the Lord was toward, and without the approval of the patriarch put it about his head. And straightway a carbuncle came forth upon his forehead so that in torment at the pains of it he evilly departed his evil life, and ran upon death untimely….»”17

That, judging by the wife, would be Leo IV (775-780), whose wife Eirini (797-802) was famously from Khazaria and apparently counted as one of his bad decisions, but obviously real history is not the concern here; what is concerned here is what sounds both impressive enough and ancient enough to shut up your peremptory barbarian visitors. There are I think, after putting this post together (it was originally supposed to be about migration, would you believe?), that we have to see the various Croat origin myths in the same way. Yes, so they contradict each other; who cares? You’ll only be using one of them when you need historical backing for the claim of the moment, choose the one that fits! This text is not a set of historical accounts, for all that it is often used as one; it is a grab-bag of historical justifications for claims the emperor might need to make in negotiations. “Oh no: we appoint the archbishops of Salona, no matter what this new pope may say. It’s been that way for hundreds of years.” “The Croats? Yes: valuable subjects! Did you know that the Bulgars have never ever defeated them? The Christ-loving Heraclius was right to let them settle in the Empire after the Franks betrayed God’s trust over them.” And so on. None of it has to be true; it had to be useful, and could have been crafted to be so. This goes some way to redeeming Constantine from some of the charges of boozy slapdash editing I was vaguely raising last time, perhaps, and makes us think harder about what his use for history really was. The pity for us is that as I have been saying for many many years, to use history is pretty much the same as to misuse it…


1. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii, ed. Gyula Moravcsik & transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, new edn., Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 (Washington DC 1967, repr. 1993).

2. Critical appraisals in Florin Curta, The Making of the Slavs: history and archaeology of the Lower Danube Region, c. 500-700 (Cambridge 2001), pp. 64-66, and John V. A. Fine Jr, When Ethnicity Did Not Matter in the Balkans: a study of identity in pre-nationalist Croatia, Dalmatia, and Slavonia in the medieval and early-modern periods (Kalamazoo 2006), pp. 23-26. For a more traditional reading see Francis Dvornik, “Cc. 29/1-53, 217-295; 30-36” in Romilly J. H. Jenkins (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperio: a commentary (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 2012), pp. 93-142 at pp. 93-101. Curta provides references to more modern pro-national readings of the text. As with some of the Catalan issues with which I work it’s rather uncomfortable here that all the voices denying these modern nations their ancient roots write in English (although not always only in English) and the pro-national opposition stays in the local languages, but some indication of the market for the old-fashioned reading might be found in the existence of K. Y. Grot (transl.), Izvestiya Konstantina Bagryanorodnogo O Serbah I Horvatah I Ih Rasselenii Na Balkanskom Poluostrove (n. p. 2013).

3. I’ve no idea what’s good to read on these coastal cities, but a quick search brings information to me on these: Ivo Goldstein, “Byzantine rule on the Adriatic (in Dalmatia, Istria and on the Western Adriatic): possibilities for a comparative study” in Acta Histriae Vol. 7 (Koper 1999), pp. 59-76; Ivan D. Stevovic, “Byzantium, Byzantine Italy and cities on the eastern coast of the Adriatic: the case of Kotor and Dubrovnik” in Zbornik radova Vizantoloskog Instituta Vol. 39 (Beograd 2001), pp. 165-182, DOI: 10.2298/ZRVI0239165S (no longer maintained); and Nenad Fejic, Dubrovnik (Raguse) au Moyen-Age : espace de convergence, espace menacé (Paris 2010).

4. Dvornik, “Cc. 29/1-53, 217-295; 30-36“, pp. 96-101, 112-114 & 118, esp. 114; Gyula Moravcsik, “Cc. 37-42” in Jenkins, Commentary, pp. 142-156 at pp. 143 & 145-146, esp. 146, does the same thing for Hungary and Dimitri Obolensky, “C. 9“, ibid. pp. 16-61 at pp. 19, 25-26 & 40-42, esp. 42, does it for the Rus’.

5. Dvornik as in n. 4 above, “truer” at p. 101.

6. Constantine, De Administrando Imperio, c.  29, ll. 13-49.

7. See Curta, Making of the Slavs, pp. 139-140; Fine, When Ethnicity Did Not Matter, pp. 22-23. Constantine’s claim to be descended from Theophanes is at De Administrando Imperii, c. 22, ll. 77-82.

8. These cities are all named in Greek ibid., c. 29, ll. 50-53; I take the Croatian names from Dvornik, “Cc. 29/1-53, 217-295; 30-36“, pp. 106-110.

9. On Basil II see Catherine Holmes, Basil II and the governance of Empire (976-1025) (Oxford 2005); for Cyril and Methodius I’m kind of still going on Alexis P. Vlasto, The entry of the Slavs into Christendom: an introduction to the medieval history of the Slavs (Cambridge 1970), and there must by now be something better, but I don’t know what it is. Any suggestions?

10. Summary of recent debates is available in Mitko B. Panov, “Reconstructing 7th century Macedonia: some neglected aspects of the miracles of St Demetrius” in Istorija: Journal of History Vol. 47 (Skopje 2012), pp. 93-115.

11. Constantine, De Administrando Imperio, c.  30, ll. 60-90.

12. My understanding here comes largely from the Royal Frankish Annals as presented in Bernard Scholz & Barbara Rogers (transl.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories (Michigan 1972), pp. 35-125 with commentary pp. 2-21, s. aa. 818-823, topped up with Miljenko Jurkovic and Ante Milosevic, “Split. Croatas y Carolingias: arte y arquitectura en Croacia en la alta edad media” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña Carolingia: arte y cultura antes del Románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 165-170, transl. as “Split. Croats and Carolingians: art and architecture in the early Middle Ages”, ibid. pp. 501-504.

13. Constantine, De Administrando Imperio, c.  31, ll. 3-25.

14. On the dating of the withdrawal, see Curta, Making of the Slavs, pp. 169-189. The papal mission is mentioned in the Liber Pontificalis, but I learn that from Dvornik, “Cc. 29/1-53, 217-295; 30-36“, pp. 125-126, and haven’t been to look.

15. Ibid.; this time the source is held to be reflected in the thirteenth-century History of Split by Thomas the Archdeacon, apparently published as Thomas Archidiaconus, Historia Salonitana, ed. Franjo Racki, Monumenta spectantia historiam Slavorum meridionalium (Scriptores) 26.3 (Zagreb 1894), but again I’ve not been to look and Thomas surely had his own agenda.

16. The easiest study on Pope Martin I’s troubles is probably Bronwen Neil, “Commemorating Pope Martin I: His Trial in Constantinople” in Studia Patristica Vol. 39 (Leuven 2006), pp. 77-82. On the situation in the Balkans in Constantine’s era see now Jonathan Shepard, “Equilibrium to Expansion (886–1025)” in idem (ed.), The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire (Cambridge 2008), pp. 493-536, doi: 10.1017/CHOL9780521832311.020 at pp. 503-518.

17. Constantine, De Administrando Imperio, c.  13, ll. 24-66.

Merchants in clerics’ clothing

Sorry: marking, a conference overseas and the finality of the semester’s teaching have kept me too busy to be active here; it’s not really catching up, is it? Still: if you were keeping an obsessive eagle eye on what I say on this blog, which presumably only I actually do, you might have noticed that by taking some affable and underresearched swings at David Bachrach’s recent book a few posts ago, I have moved into the posts promised in my catch-up post of last July that even now hangs at the bottom of the sticky announcement posts on the front page, and the new step towards Byzantium is also part of that. While reading Constantine VII, however, I was also reading the work of Mark Handley, a long acquaintance of this blog, and you can see from the catch-up post that I had high praise for it, and one tiny niggle.1

Photograph of a seventh-century funerary inscription from Capel Llanilltern, Wales

Photograph of a seventh-century funerary inscription from Capel Llanilltern, Wales, though not material for Mark since there’s nothing there to identify the deceased as non-local.2

The praise must come first, of course. Mark makes almost of all his contentions almost inarguable by virtue of having a well-managed database of evidence, in this case of inscriptions from right across the late Roman and early medieval Mediterranean, from which he selects those dealing with people who are identified in some way as being out of place, foreign, or else merchants or travellers, a sample of 621 people overall, and he uses this to test the many generalisations that are out there about such groups, like the predominance-to-exclusion of Syrians (or Jews) in Mediterranean maritime trade of the period, about directions of travel and foci of movement and so on. Some surprising things come out of this: for example, the largest sample of such inscriptions outside of Rome itself comes not from one of the other big maritime entrepôts but from Salona in the Balkans, which Mark admits he himself had not expected.3 Quite a lot of things come out of it that conflict with the views of other scholars too, and they get deliciously definite rebuttal in the extensive footnotes. I really do recommend this book as a scholarly read, I enjoyed it thoroughly. But of course, it being me, I do have a niggle.

Funerary stone of the priest Opila at Sant Pere de Vilamajor

Funerary stone of the priest Opila at Sant Pere de Vilamajor, again out of Mark’s compass but one of these things that I have actually seen

The niggle is in some ways a danger of database work as much as anything else. Obviously to make it usefully sortable, searchable and organisable you want your data as atomised as possible, and this makes fields that contain more than one sort of data difficult. If one has categories into which a datum, be that a person or whatever, needs to be fitted, it is sometimes hard to let it go into more than one category; otherwise it winds up getting double-counted. Perhaps something like that explains this:

“Secondly, the evidence gathered here firmly indicates that many Syrians, and indeed others from the East attested in the West, were not engaged in commerce. Many 5th-c. Syrian solders were commemorated at Concordia; two Syrian priests are known from Salona; a Syrian sub-deacon is known at Tomis; Flavia Marthana, a nun from Antioch, is commemorated at Bolsena; a Syrian primipilarius is known in Gigen; and the woman Eusebia from Syria had lived in Trier 15 years before she died in 409. A Syrian lawyer was commemorated at Kallatis, and a Syrian stone-worker at Sofia. We should not add a ‘dot’ on a map to indicate a Syrian ‘trader’ when Agnellus of Ravenna states that the first 16 bishops of Ravenna were Syrian, when a Syrian autocephalous bishop attended the second council of Seville in 619, or when the Syrian Johannes helped Gregory of Tours with some Greek texts. Not all Syrians in the West were traders.”4

You may be wondering what needs explaining here, since this is pretty obviously methodologically right in summary, and many of these people are clearly not traders. But were none of them? You see, this puts me in mind of a story from Catalonia, as so many things do. In 1018 the chapter of Barcelona received a substantial bequest of cloth from a Flemish merchant called Robert who had fallen ill at the city while on a voyage, and made an emergency will for the good of his soul before dying, this largely at the behest of a Barceona canon by the name of Bonnuç. This actually got the chapter into trouble, because a few days later Robert’s brother turned up to reclaim the goods, and in the end the canons had to pay him off to be allowed to pray for his brother’s soul and keep at least some of the bequest. But the interesting thing from our immediate point of view is that Bishop Æci also made a gift of cloth for the merchant’s soul, and he had bought that cloth from none other than Bonnuç, who suddenly appears to have been Robert’s contact in the city, at least by the time Robert’s final deal was closed.5 So does Bonnuç go into our notional database as a cleric, or as a trader?

The Miracle of St Eligius by Sandro Botticelli, now in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The Miracle of St Eligius by Sandro Botticelli, now in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Clerics are in general a potential problem with this sort of categorisation, in fact. As a sometime numismatist I think rapidly of Bishop Eligius of Noyon, Saint Eloy, who was a goldsmith before he came to the Church and who seems to have continued to dabble thereafter.6 And at roughly the same time, as Mark himself notes:

“Gregory of Tours, Hist. 7.30 and 10.25, record a Syrian merchant Euphronius at Bordeaux and another Syrian merchant Eusebius becoming bishop of Paris, respectively.”

The latter is actually 10.26 and Gregory says no more about the guy than that he was a merchant and a Syrian by race (“negotiator genere Syrus”), and that he was elected by bribery.7 Do we know anything else about the guy? I don’t think, in any case, we should assume that this precludes him nonetheless being in holy orders, or indeed precludes him continuing trading once appointed. The more I look at the Catalan Church the more I see deacons with day-jobs being involved members of the chapters of cathedrals precisely because of those day-jobs, and yet the more I look at churches in other areas the less unusual the Catalan one seems to be.8 Mark may have accidentally provided me with more evidence for this! I’m sure that in outline and in most of his detail he’s right, and I don’t by any means want to restore the Syrian people’s historiographical monopoly on early medieval sea travel, but it is as I say the devil of database work on people that they won’t stay in the categories we set up for them.


1. M. Handley, Dying on Foreign Shores: travel and mobility in the late-Antique West, Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplement 86 (Portsmouth RI 2011).

2. It is V. E. Nash-Williams (ed.), Catalogue of Early Christian Monuments of Wales (Cardiff 1950), no. 214, for those that care about such things.

3. Handley, Dying on Foreign Shores, p. 97, with detail pp. 78-82.

4. Ibid., pp. 83-84, with the copious references to inscriptions in his appendix cruelly elided here.

5. The documents are now best printed as Josep Baucells i Reig, Àngel Fàbrega i Grau, Manuel Riu i Riu, Josep Hernando i Delgado & Carme Batlle i Gallart (edd.), Diplomatari de l’Arxiu Capitular de la Catedral de Barcelona: segle XI, Diplomataris 37-41 (Barcelona 2006), 5 vols, online here, doc. nos 121 & 125. The canonical study is Philippe Wolff, “Quidam homo nomine Roberto negociatore” in Le Moyen Àge Vol. 69 (Paris 1963), online here, pp. 129-139.

6. Bishop Dado of Rouen, Vita sancti Eligii, ed. Wilhelm Levison as “Vita Eligii episcopi Noviomagensis” in Passiones vitaeque sanctorum ævi Merovingicarum, ed. Bruno Krusch, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) IV (Hannover 1902, repr. 1997), online here, pp. 669-742, transl. Jo Ann McNamara as “Life of St. Eligius of Noyon” in Thomas Head (ed.), Medieval Hagiography: an anthology (New York City NY 2000), pp. 137-168, a fuller version without notes online here.

7. Handley, Dying on Foreign Shores, p. 84 n. 104. The source is Gregory of Tours, Libri decem historiarum, edd. Bruno Krusch & Wilhelm Levison as Gregorii Episcopi Turonensis Libri Historiarum X, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) I.1 (Hannover 1937-1951, repr. 1992), transl. Lewis Thorpe as The History of the Franks (Harmondsworth 1974, many reprints).

8. See Paul H. Freedman, The Diocese of Vic: Tradition and Regeneration in Medieval Catalonia (New Brunswick 1983), online here, pp. 21-25; cf. Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 122-125.

Learning from an ailing emperor

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

Ivory depiction of Constantine VII being crowned by Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Ibid. c. 51.

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

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

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

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

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

What if Widukind was wrong about warfare?

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

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

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

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

Roman walls built into later structures at Regensburg, Germany

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

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

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

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

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

Reconstruction drawing of the Slavic fortress at Brandenburg

Reconstruction drawing of the Slavic fortress at Brandenburg

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

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

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

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

Portrait bust of M. Tullius Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero, no less

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

Portrait denarius of Charlemagne as Emperor (812x814)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Theory under Siege

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

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

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

Interior view of the restored Romanesque city walls at Worms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Money of post-Viking Brittany

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

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

Our mystery coin

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

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

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

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

Google map of Brittany

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Early woodcut image of Ravenna

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

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

Ruins of the Byzantine city walls of Cherson

Ruins of the Byzantine city walls of Cherson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Examples of all these in Brown, “‘Gesta municipalia'”, but on the fake trials, Scheinprozesse, see most of all Chris Wickham, “Land Disputes and their Social Framework in Lombard-Carolingian Italy, 700-900” in Davies & Fouracre, Settlement of Disputes, pp. 105-124, rev. in Wickham, Land and Power, pp. 229-256; there is more work to be done finding such cases for sure outside Italy, though see Jonathan Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2005 for 2003), pp. 229-258, for at least one.