Category Archives: Currently reading…

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

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

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

Early woodcut image of Ravenna

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

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

Ruins of the Byzantine city walls of Cherson

Ruins of the Byzantine city walls of Cherson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chahabil stupa in Nepal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enough to slow us down before drawing hasty conclusions!

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

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

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

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

The Monasterio de San Benito de Talavera

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. See n. 2 above.

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

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

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

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

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

The power of coincidence

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Problems of comparative global history

[This post was basically written in November 2014 and queued, and is presented here with a light dusting of updated relevance but basically from the position I was in then, not now, hopefully still worthwhile.]

As recent posts will probably have made clear, I am something of a novice at thinking about global history as a field. As with a lot of things I didn’t cover at undergraduate level, I have had to work to see what is worthwhile about it; my initial feeling, not entirely dispelled, was that a lot of what is called global history would be better described as “explaining a place to Occidental Anglophones that is outside their cultural tradition”. I would now admit that a lot of people identifying as global historians are actually striving to do something more meaningful than that, and the things that they attempt are potentially pretty major.

World map drawn by Gerard van Schagen in Amsterdam in 1689

World map drawn by Gerard van Schagen, quite the name and quite the artist, in Amsterdam in 1689, and now the masthead for a great many global history courses and the Toynbee Prize, none of whom seem to bother attributing it! A full version of it is available on Wikimedia Commons, linked through.

Of course, they must by nature be big. Something’s not a global phenomenon if it only happens in one place, and as we’ve previously discussed it also needs to be connected not just to be coincidence, a particular problem for the low-connectivity scenario of the early Middle Ages. It seems to me that evaluating whether something is ‘global’ thus ineluctably means comparison; even if this thing looks like that other thing, are the causes the same, do the different backgrounds invalidate the resemblance, and so on? (Think if you like, of the attempts to match up European seigneurial lordship and the society of the fifteenth-century samurai under the banner of ‘feudalism’.1) It also probably needs to be big in time, simply because short of meteorite impact or volcanic action on a huge scale, very little can affect the whole globe at once without being very slow and therefore necessarily long-lasting if it’s to have that effect. The different contexts in which these changes must play out to be comparable also seem to me to dictate fairly high levels of abstraction, so that small-detail phenomena will be much harder to match as well as less observable. You also have to look at things that your comparanda actually have to compare, which since most cultural factors didn’t resemble each other very exactly before globalisation, leaves you choosing things that can be described vaguely enough to match up.2 So I think that most would-be global comparison must be longue durée. At this rate it becomes hard to say much that has a lot more grip on its metaphorical tyres than “agriculture starts or changes” or “a technology diffuses now”.

Drawing of Don Quixote charging at a windmill

A medievalising reference to two new forms of technology at once, the couched lance and the mechanical windmill! Thankyou Cervantes for such a relevant commentary…

This post, like the last one on such issues, was occasioned by reading S. A. M. Adshead’s T’ang China: the rise of the East in world history, and it must be said that he strives for a good deal more complexity than this in his explicitly comparative scheme.3 The book, having spent a chapter tearing apart his opponent’s schema, then does four chapters which each take a particular sphere of social development, describe the T’ang version of that sphere in detail and then compare to India, Byzantium, the world of Islam and the Latin West at about the same time (which is to say 500-1000 CE). The four spheres are politics, by which he seems basically to mean development and efficiency of the apparatus of state (or states), economy (meaning standard of living, economic activity, both production and distribution, and the extent of purely financial operation), society (by which he mainly means family structures and marriage, graded more or less according to the extent of initiative and space of action left to women) and intellect (by which he means both scientific and philosophical innovation and sophistication). These are, arguably, all things that one can at least attempt to assess in all these societies or groups of societies, so that seems like a model worth abstracting. My essential question here is whether the uses of the model, both as designed and applied, preset its results so much as to remove its value as an empirical framework of comparison.

Diagram of grid-group cultural analysis

A grid-group diagram, just for reference, linked to a really enthusiastic but clear write-up by Dustin Stotz

The terms of Adshead’s assessment are at least always explicit, and they are rarely as simple as being a single analogue scale. Instead, he rather favours something quite like grid-group analysis, with two axes of comparison allowing one to place a society in one of four quadrants or move between them over time. Here is an example:

“[China’s intellectual development under the T’ang] may be assessed by reference to a grid composed of two axes, one horizontal from paradigmatic to syntagmatic, the other vertical from categorical to critical. The grid provides four registers of intellectual activity: paradigmatic-categorical, categorical-syntagmatic, syntagmatic-critical, critical-paradigmatic. The contrast paradigmatic/syntagmatic is between, on the one hand, intransitive, self-referent, declaratory thinking such as mathematics, myth, music or other art forms and linguistic syntax; and on the other hand, transitive, other-referent descriptive thinking in theories and hypotheses, as may be found in science, scholarship, theology and metaphysics. The contrast categorical/critical is between prior, first-order thinking, whether about paradigms or syntagmata, and posterior, second-order thinking, whether in the intransitive arts or in the transitive sciences. The degree of complexity, or intellectual depth, may be measured by the number of registers in which intellectual activity is taking place, while the degree of pluralism may be measured by the number of alternatives within each register.”4

This nicely exemplifies the problem Adshead’s book gives me. I don’t feel that this structure is anywhere near justified by its references: mathematics would jump categories the minute one applied it, music that was meant to make money or was written to excite patriotism also doesn’t fit, scholarship surely exists in all these modes, and in any case is this really enough to contain the full range of human intellectual endeavour? But even if the answer is, ‘almost certainly not’, that doesn’t necessarily stop this being a framework that one can, with a certain amount of forcing, fit over most societies. So does that actually do any good? If one could somehow patch the terms of reference, would it be better, or do we just run up against the fact that outside categories don’t always work when drawn into a foreign context? Does it help, for example, to say that the British Empire in the nineteenth century had a much more active land market per capita than the Maori of New Zealand when in-depth work suggests that that Maori did not consider land to be alienable, and so disposed of it on utterly different terms?5 One can certainly make the comparison, but is it not effectively to penalise the Maori in the balance for not playing the Western game?

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

T’ang China in its international, but still intracontinental, aspect: Emperor Taizong gives an audience to Ludongzan the ambassador of Tibet in 641. Yen Li-pen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

In Adshead’s case, of course, the aim is to show T’ang China ahead in all scales, and so the terms of reference are ones in which it excels: indirect taxes, bureaucracy, management of resources, variety of marriage forms, religious and cosmological plurality and philosophical competition. I suspect that one could, if one did not accept these terms, come up with a set that favoured Byzantium or Islam just as heavily and that could just as easily be assumed to be good—citizen military involvement, governmental centralisation, religious unity and coherence of intellectual culture, for example—and thus find China seriously wrongheaded in its priorities. India tends to lose out on all Adshead’s scales of achievement, and that reminds me of an Internet conversation I saw once in which one westerner was being horrified at poverty in India: they said something like, “India’s population has multiplied by five in the last fifty years and the percentage of people in poverty hasn’t changed a bit!” To which, someone else said, “So they’ve multiplied the number of people using their resources five-fold and still managed to maintain the level of wealth in the economy? Sounds like a success story to me!” The figures may be basically fictional but the terms of the assessment really do matter, you see… I think that Adshead’s initial attempt to compare T’ang China to the USA of 2004 shows where his categories are coming from, but that only increases the likelihood that some of the parties in this comparison would have rejected them. That rejection of a value set would still be historical, but if the conclusion is that T’ang China being better at these things made it the most significant world power of the early Middle Ages, quite apart from the difficulty already pointed out of whether or not anywhere was a world power in so weakly-connected a world, since they did not really affect each other, we really have slid very smoothly from data to value judgement without clearly justifying the values (except by their use in showing Frank’s rival book wrong).

Again, however, there lurks within this the possibility still that a comparative exercise done like this, with maybe different terms of reference and maybe even three-axis comparisons in some spheres, might actually enable truly global comparison. It’s quite hard to tell with Adshead’s attempt what the potential of the method really us, however, because the data he uses outside China is so shaky. His range of references for the Latin West is quite broad, but with Islam there is a great deal of early Patricia Crone in the very occasional references, including some stuff that I think she might now modify, and the only cite for India is John Keay’s India: a history, and that only for the political section; for the others there is just nothing to show whence the dismissal of India’s success comes from.6 (I have no particular interest in championing India here, I should say, it’s just very clearly got the worst of Adshead’s attention.) The Latin West is pretty well favoured; there’s a range of serious and detailed works, often quite modern, in several languages, and while I personally cringe somewhat at seeing Richard Fletcher’s book on Anglo-Saxon feud used as a cite for information on the size of York in the year 1000, at least he had read it. One might expect at least that much attention to all the areas compared, though!

The Pancha Rathas at the shore temple site of Mahabalipuram, said to be seventh-century

Actually as we have said before now quite a lot was plainly going on in India, especially in the South, in our Middle Ages but it’s awfully hard to date precisely. Here the Pancha Rathas at the shore temple site of Mahabalipuram, said to be seventh-century and so T’ang-contemporary, but on what basis I have no idea… “Mamallaratham” by ThiagupillaiOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

The treatment of Byzantium gives me a mean suspicion of what might be going in both here and in the far-better-covered China, however. The political cite of reference for the Byzantine Empire is that very old chestnut, Dimitri Obolensky’s The Byzantine Commonwealth, which will make some readers groan I know; why doesn’t Adshead at least use a more up-to-date textbook like Treadgold’s A Concise History of Byzantium or something more analytical like a Cambridge History or two? (The ones for China do turn up.) And the answer is that elsewhere he does, Treadgold at least, but not for the politics, where he has a particular view about the stasis of Byzantine political theory, of course compared unfavourably to a supposed Chinese reconception of government in new circumstances, that Treadgold would not allow him to support.7 The same thing is probably going on with the cites of Crone’s old work, I guess; times may have moved on but that would ruin the argument… And this is all very well for the power of the argument but of course in historical terms, or rather computing ones, it’s garbage in, garbage out; the comparison can’t be valid if it’s founded on information selected especially to make the comparison work, rather than an earnest attempt to find out the scholarly consensus on an issue.

So at the end of this I am very undecided about this book. I am certain that I don’t want to accept the premise that T’ang China was briefly a leading world power, in any of these measures, but I don’t know whether to accept the assessment of it by those measures; I am also certain that the comparison has not been fairly managed, but feel that a comparison by means like this could still be a way of making global-scale comnparison actually dig into something of meaning. Could we use these tools to build something better? I wonder…


1. The most developed example of this I know is Joseph R. Strayer, “The Tokugawa Period and Japanese Feudalism” in John W. Hall and Marius Jansen (edd.), Studies in the Institutional History of Modern Japan (Princeton 1968), pp. 3-14, repr. in Strayer, Medieval Statecraft and the Perspectives of History (Princeton 1971), pp. 63-89, to which cf. Elizabeth A. R. Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe” in American Historical Review Vol. 79 (Washington DC 1974), pp. 1063-1088, online here, repr. in Lester K. Little & Barbara H. Rosenwein (edd.), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 148-169, and indeed Susan Reynolds, “The Use of Feudalism in Comparative History” in Benjamin Z. Kedar (ed.), Explorations in Comparative History (Jerusalem 2009), pp. 191-219, repr. in Reynolds, The Middle Ages without feudalism: essays in criticism and comparison on the Medieval West, Variorum Collected Studies 1019 (Farnham 2012), VI.

2. As ever my go-to statement of the requirements that comparative history must meet is Chris Wickham, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, DOI: 10.2307/3679106, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226.

3. S. A. M. Adshead, T’ang China: the rise of the East in world history (London 2004).

4. Ibid. p. 131. His note references Claude Lévi-Strauss, L’Homme Nu, Mythologies IV (Paris 1971), pp. 575-586, which is perhaps where I should really be looking for his tools…

5. The place I actually read all this, apart from the great old internet of course, is Claudia Orange, The Treaty of Waitangi (Wellington 1987), so I hope it’s credible.

6. John Keay, India: a History (London 2000), cit. Adshead, T’ang China p. 55 n. 14. There is simply nothing else cited for India in the later comparative sections, and no other works relating to it visible to me in the Bibliography.

7. D. Obolensky, The Byzantine commonwealth: Eastern Europe, 500-1453 (New York City 1971), cited Adshead, T’ang China, p. 60 n. 22, vs W. T. Treadgold, A Concise History of Byzantium (London 2001), published by Adshead’s own publishers and cited Adshead, T’ang China, p. 96 n. 37. I suppose it’s only fair to admit that the Cambridge History of Byzantium did not actually yet exist when Adshead wrote; it is now Jonathan Shepard (ed.), The Cambridge History of Byzantium (Cambridge 2007) and is really useful. But the field had not stood still until its emergence!

Musing on connectivity and world systems apropos of T’ang China

[This post is one of two I wrote in November 2014 and then queued, expecting to be cutting down my backlog sooner than I actually have. I still think they’re worth posting, but they have ‘legacy issues’. I’ve gone through to try and update the references to what was then my current work and teaching but may have missed a few. Try to read it in the past!]

Birmingham, as you already know by now, is very keen on its global history. Even its medievalist historians are as many or more non-European in focus than European, so that while I was there I was essentially the only pre-900 European teaching cover outside of English, Drama and American and Canadian Studies and Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology, where the Late Antique and Byzantine people hang out. What this means, apart from anything else, is that the medieval outline courses have quite a spread, and thus it was that in November and December I found myself teaching China and the Silk Roads for the first time. As you can imagine this took a bit of a run-up, and in that run-up I was reading, among other things, Samuel Adshead’s T’ang China: the rise of the East in world history. Now this is a book that would make many a historian fairly sceptical about world history, although it was apparently written as a riposte to another book even more of that kind.1 It is also, however, very clever, and it made me think.

Cover of Samuel Adshead's T'ang China: the rise of the East in World History (London 2004)

Cover of Samuel Adshead’s T’ang China: the rise of the East in World History (London 2004)

First the scepticism, just to get that out of the way. Using what seems to be a quite old-fashioned narrative of political coups and the successes and failures of the succession of Chinese rulers with achieving peace or reform,2 the book attempts to make the case that T’ang China was the leading world power in its day, and it is deliberately and extensively comparative (including, in the introduction, to the modern USA). The terms of this assessment are unapologetically Whiggish: the ultimate goal is a developed state apparatus and national consciousness and this is assumed good for so much of the book that it makes my hippy protestor personality quite cross; the whole thing is an assessment of various states against an unquestioned standard of patriotic liberal bureaucracy and commendation of their progress towards that or condemnation for their inability to do so. And yet even within this the cleverness: why is that the good? Because it enabled peace, Adshead at one point implies as if it’s self-evident, and to maintain that peace required a well-resourced and flexible state.3 Well, we could argue about that, but it’s a case, and he doesn’t require this state to be unified: as he sees it some decentralised configurations of both China and the comparators worked better.4 His criteria for comparison are very carefully chosen, though possibly also too broad to be useful and much narrower ones seem mainly to be deployed for most of the detailed analysis. I will write more about this, but just now it’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to question the idea of a world system on which the whole thing rests.

Map of the 8th-century world from Wikimedia Commons

The world we’re considering as a system, in a not-too-bad map of the 8th-century situation from Wikimedia Commons; click through to their big version. The Maori probably shouldn’t be in New Zealand yet, everything in Africa or the Caucasus really massively overstates our knowledge, but it gets the general idea across. Mostly, note how far even this expanded China is from everything else…

Again, this is certainly something Adshead has thought about; in fact, the whole first chapter is a point-by-point takedown of the idea of world system as propounded by his opponent and its substitution with a subtler, better-featured one that accommodates more variety and different causal factors. But it still rests on the idea that everywhere was connected; otherwise, we are just holding these various powers up to an artificial standard, since how can their competition be historical if the competitors knew nothing about each other? To get round this, Adshead firstly makes great use of the power of coincidence, rises and falls and ideas whose time comes in two or more places in roughly the same era, and indeed invokes Kondratieff-like ideas of cyclical social development without ever explicitly identifying his thoughts with them (and indeed lampooning his opponent for doing so too much).5 But he also ramps up every possible mention of contact and connection, often to a quite improbable degree: whether or not the various Christian communities that left the Byzantine Empire eastwards after Chalcedon can all be classed as Nestorian (hint: they cannot) they can only really have constituted a persistent cultural network if they remained connected, which there is no hint that they did. And so on. (I don’t honestly see why Adshead uses the term ‘Nestorian’ at all, except that it is widely done; he would get as much mileage and more accuracy just from ‘Christian’.)

The famous 'Nestorian Stele', a Christian monument of 781 found in the seventeenth century at Daqin

For example, here is the famous ‘Nestorian Stele’, a Christian monument of A. D. 781 found in the sixteenth century at Daqin. Christian it plainly is, albeit customised to be understandable in Buddhist or Taoist and even Manichæan terms; but what makes it Nestorian? It doesn’t actually mention, you know, Nestorius, and the Trinity is not discussed in the kind of detail that would let one assign its author to a Christological position. It is obviously linked to Syria: not only does it say that’s where its ‘Illustrious Religion’ came from (though excitingly it references Xuanzang for details of what and where Syria actually was, quite fantastic) but it is also lettered down the sides in Syriac. But it’s not like Nestorians was the only Christians ever to leave Syria…

Adshead is far from alone in this, of course; it’s the core assumption of global history that there is a world in the first place, rather than many different areas joined only by mostly-uncrossed oceans, and it’s one of the problems in conceptualising a Global Middle Ages, as we’ve seen, that the Middle Ages doesn’t easily fit that requirement. But the problem of exaggerating contact goes on at a smaller level: it is for example the core of the argument between scholars like Michael McCormick, arguing that the early medieval economy was articulated by long-distance trade and its development, and Chris Wickham arguing that long-distance trade was always economically marginal and that long-range connections are not historically causative in the early Middle Ages.6 McCormick arguably ignores agriculture, Chris arguably downplays plague to non-existence, but the problem is still at the point of quantifying connection, because arguably we can’t.

The sixth-century sarcophagus of Yu Hong from Jinyuan in Shanxi province

An example of connection which many would find inarguable, the sixth-century sarcophagus of Yu Hong from Jinyuan in Shanxi province, evidence because of how extremely Persian its hunting scenes look. But we’ve seen that somewhere else, no? And so what is the connection, what was moving? People, carpets, metalwork? And how far, and over how long? Had anyone involved in this actually been to Persia? It is not established

When I find myself in these arguments, which given my collaboration with Rebecca Darley I tend to, I am mostly ready to accept the minimalist point of view, though I will sometimes attempt the saving argument that long-distance trade may have been marginal but it really mattered to those in political charge.7 The trouble with that is that it only works where those rulers are very small-scale, otherwise landed revenue and the proceeds of office far escape whatever political leverage the monopoly on shiny things from abroad can give such people, and it’s telling that I mainly instance sixth-century Western Britain because nothing larger would work.8 But occasionally I remember an argument that Mark Blackburn, may he rest kindly, used to use about tenth-century England and Scandinavia.

Anglo-Saxon coins on display in Stockholm Royal Armouries Museum

Anglo-Saxon coins on display in Stockholm Royal Armouries Museum, including a really lovely Æthelred II ‘Lamb of God’ type, but I digress, dear reader, I digress…

You may know that there are vast amounts of Anglo-Saxon coin of the reigns of Æthelred the Unready and Cnut in Scandinavia, which is traditionally associated with the fantastic amount of Danegeld paid to Viking seamen during those reigns.9 You may also know that by that time the English coinage was periodically renewed, so that we have quite a tight chronology for its various issues. That means that we ought to expect that the preservation in Scandinavia would privilege the issues in circulation when the Danegelds were taken but actually they don’t, there is no difference in those years’ coins’ presence in the hoards. Mark saw no other explanation than that there was enough other traffic of coin across the North Sea, despite the political climate, that the huge Danegelds, which it used to be argued must have stretched the country’s resources to its limit, don’t even register in the greater flood.10 And presumably it wasn’t either one-way or just Scandinavia, but anywhere else that Anglo-Saxon coins wound up coming into kingdoms, they would have been melted down and restruck as local issues so we just don’t see it. And sometimes I wonder how true that could be in other spheres, with perishable or consumable goods, labour rather than goods travelling, and so on.

Map of the various Silk Routes

The trouble with mapping disconnection is that it looks so much like connection until you realise how few people if any we can show ever went the full length of that long red line

For my immediate purposes, however, the question is probably one of scale. (Isn’t everything?11) England to Denmark is not very far. Byzantium to China was. If lots travelled the short distance, it does not magically make those long distances shorter. Given that we now pluralise Silk Roads precisely because what was once seen as an arterial routeway is now seen as a mostly-contiguous series of shorter-range connections along the whole of which almost no-one probably ever travelled, this seems a very germane concern. But it does great damage to the idea of a world system (or, in Adshead’s initially preferred terminology, a world order) if contact over that distance was attenuated. You can go and say things like:

“Though ongoing world institutions, and with them world history, only began in the thirteenth century, they were preceded by temporary, non-enduring world institutions whose coexistence created world orders… One such institution was T’ang cosmopolitanism: the intense interest in things and people foreign exhibited by the court at Chang’an, which, along with the attractions of China, brought an unprecedented influx of non-Chinese to the Middle Kingdom, both from other parts of East Asia and from Western Eurasia…. It was rooted in the intellectual register but it had repercussions in politics, economics and society. It was accompanied by military interventions by Chinese forces in territories beyond East Asia: in northern India, Persia, Transoxiana, the Himalayan interface, and parts of Southeast Asia still more Indianized than Sinified. Chinese consumer goods, notably ceramics, reached the eastern coast of Black Africa [sic!]. Chinese accidental voyagers may have travelled along the Kurosiwo current via the Aleutians and the north Pacific drift to the pre-Columbian America, though no Chinese Columbus returned to report on the Inside Passage from Juneau to Seattle. T’ang cosmopolitanism reached out to the world to an extent only paralleled in Chinese history by what has been happening in post-Maoist China….”12

… it does mean that the critical historian is entitled to ask, “Maybe, but what difference did it make?” I am already getting the idea here that China being outward-looking was quite a big deal when viewed with Sinological hindsight, not least because of the implication that if the centre could cross its own national borders then, like al-Andalus, it was probably in good enough shape to actually exert itself there for once, but because so much of its subsequent history has been seen as a defence of Chineseness against any suggestion that anything foreign could be as good or beneficial, an assumption which when challenged by the colonial powers finally brought down much of what such historians recognise as China.13 But really, if all but a tiny fraction of populations in any of the polities involved did not know that these other places and peoples existed, had never seen goods or people from them and would certainly never go there, then the places that they had heard of and did know from such travel of persons or objects must be a whole order of magnitude more likely to have any impact upon them. Adshead’s claim for the T’ang, once explored, is no more than that, for a very short time during their wider ascendancy, they pushed Chinese influence out far enough to actually touch several parts of the rest of the world. I don’t dispute (all of) the contacts, but those contacts were nonetheless very weak, surely too weak to bear the weight of a world order in which what any one part did might affect some or all of the others. What Adshead seems to mean by world order is actually precedence, but again, although this may be European isolation from the East speaking, the implied competition seems like one that the competitors hardly knew existed, let alone put any interest into.


1. S. A. M. Adshead, T’ang China: the rise of the East in world history (London 2004), written mostly vs. Andre Gunder Frank, Re-Orient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley 1998).

2. My first reading for this course was Bodo Wiethoff, Introduction to Chinese History: from ancient times to the Revolution of 1912, transl. Mary Whittall (London 1975), because I happened to have bought it on sight in 2008 because of suspecting I might some day have to teach China and now that day had come, and although obviously since Adshead has more detail since he is covering in a book what Wiethoff covered in part of a chapter, the basic narrative of rise, contacts, barbarian pressure and civil disconnection, fall and coups is not substantially different. I don’t know if a newer story is told by anyone else, however.

3. Adshead, T’ang China, p. 51:

“Ennin portrays a well-ordered bureaucratic state: permits and permissions were required, but officials were reasonable and courteous if hidebound by red tape. China was definitely one country, though the northeast enjoyed devolution. There was little endemic social violence from bandits or local bosses and, until the transient persecution of Buddhism and foreign religions in 845, no state-induced totalitarian violence… China was still a superpower. All in all, by the middle of the ninth century the political system had reached a new equilibrium. Contracted in space but expanded in sophistication, it still provided the most advanced government in the world.”

4. Ibid., pp. 52-55, culminating in p. 55:

“Here, though the comparison is with China, it is not thereby assumed that the Chinese ideal of a single, bureaucratic imperial state is the criterion of political progress in all circumstances. More pluralistic paths of development may be more in accordance with the propensities of other milieus or with the imperatives of modernity.”

5. Ibid., p. 19: “Here, it may be observed that Frank goes beyond the views of Kondratieff himself….”

6. Michael McCormick, The Origins of the European Economy: communications and commerce AD 300-900; Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005).

7. This is a very Western materialist perspective of course, basing kingship’s power on its ability to control a flow of shiny things to its followers, but better scholars than me have used it, including Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), pp. 311-319 & 357-368 or Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monographs (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 83-93.

8. Tintagel is the key here: huge by sub-Roman British standards, with connections stretched over hundreds of miles, and about the size and importance of any ruinous caravanserai in Arabia or hillfort in Eastern Europe. Still cool though; see Charles Thomas, Tintagel, Arthur and Archaeology (London 1993) and now Rachel C. Barrowman, Colleen E. Batey & Christopher Morris, Excavations at Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, 1990-1999 (London 2007).

9. See D. M. Metcalf, “Large Danegelds in Relation to War and Kingship: their implications for monetary history, and some numismatic evidence” in Sonia Chadwick Hawkes (ed.), Weapons and Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 1989), pp. 179-189.

10. Annoyingly, I don’t think Mark actually published this, but some hints towards it can be found in D. M. Metcalf, “The Fall and Rise of the Danelaw Connection, the Export of English Coins to the Northern Lands, and the Tributes of 991 and 994” in Kenneth Jonsson and Britta Malmer (edd.), Sigtuna Papers (Stockholm 1990), pp. 213–223.

11. Julio Escalona, “The Early Middle Ages: a scale-based approach” in idem & Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Scale and Scale Change in the Early Middle Ages: exploring landscape, local society, and the world beyond, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 9-29.

12. Adshead, T’ang China, p. xiii.

13. I get my perspective on al-Andalus here from Eduardo Manzano Moreno, La frontera de al-Andalus en época de los Omeyas, Biblioteca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991); for China I’m still working with Wiethoff, Introduction to Chinese History, esp. pp. 71-167.

Liturgy, coins and buried saints in 870s Barcelona: Bishop Frodoí of Barcelona reexamined

I’m sorry as usual about the gap between posts here; my excuse this time, apart from the treadmill of lecture preparation (which is actually teaching me stuff and making me think, as subsequent blog will eventually show), is that this post actually required research, because not least I know that one of the regular readers has written around this topic and I wanted to make sure I knew what they’d said before I charged in. The background to this post is a conversation at the Ecclesiastical History Society conference in 2014, when people were encouraging me to come to next year’s meeting, whose theme was translation. Someone making the point that for the Ecclesiastical History Society that could as well include the ‘translation’ of saints’ relics from one site to another got me thinking about Saint Eulalie of Barcelona, and from there I was tempted to try and intervene in the messy but inescapable historiographical circle that seems to orbit her early medieval cult. In the end, I never did offer the paper, but I did a bit of reading around it and realised all the problems afresh, consulted some of the primary evidence and wanted to express my uncertainty about what people have written. That meant I had to read more of it and now, here we are and I’ve written what’s nearly a paper anyway. But let me explain the problem.

Crypt of Saint Eulalie in cathedral of Santes Creu i Eulàlia de Barcelona

Crypt of Santa Eulalia” by Bernard GagnonOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Saint Eulalie, to whom the cathedral of Barcelona is jointly dedicated and where her remains are held to rest in the very snazzy Gothic sarcophagus above, was supposedly martyred under the auspices of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, as are a great many martyrs whose stories are only known from much later. After suffering various and eventually lethal tortures her body was laid to rest in Santa Maria de les Arenes, which was subsequently rebuilt into the rather lovely Santa Maria del Mar, on which more in a future post. According to the narrative of Eulalie’s own translatio, her remains were hidden in 713 when the city was about to fall to the Muslims, and only recovered at some point before 878 (perhaps 877), when Bishop Frodoí of Barcelona and the visiting Archbishop Sigebod of Narbonne made a determined search which came up with nothing, and then Frodoí made a return visit and was divinely guided to the spot where her body was. She was duly moved to the bishop’s cathedral of Santa Creu, with a certain amount of difficulty eventually overcome, and now the cathedral is Santes Creu i Eulàlia.1 So far so conventional, right?

Interior of the cloister of Santes Creu & Eulàlia de Barcelona

Interior of the cloister of Santes Creu & Eulàlia de Barcelona

Now, the earliest manuscript of the translatio is fourteenth-century, and the ninth and tenth centuries are periods that just don’t generate saints’ lives from Catalonia as far as we know, so it is likely that this was written up rather later than the events, but there is some reason to believe at least the chronology of the story.2 Sigebod and Frodoí were contemporaries and a royal precept for Frodoí of 878 mentions the saint’s remains at the cathedral, the first text to do so.3 Frodoí had been bishop of Barcelona since at least 862 but Sigebod archbishop only since 873 so if that detail’s right the window is actually quite tight. The problem is Frodoí, and the translatio is tied into this problem. Now, if you can find anything to read about Bishop Frodoí of Barcelona (attested 862-890), it will probably say three things:

  1. he was a Frank appointed by Charles the Bald;
  2. that he found the body of Saint Eulalie;
  3. and that he oversaw the change of the liturgy in Barcelona from the old Hispanic rite of worship to the Gallo-Roman one favoured by the Franks.

It will, indeed, usually link all these things: he was appointed to deal with the liturgical independence, so needed to be a Frank, and this was so unpopular that we find him poking round Santa Maria de las Arenes looking for some way to increase his standing and show God’s backing for his plans.4

Diner de transició supposedly of Bishop Teodoric of Barcelona (904-922)

Diner de transició supposedly of Bishop Teodoric of Barcelona (904-922), according at least to Martí Hervera S. L. in 5 July 2011, but they have the supposed tomb the wrong way up and didn’t sell it, so what did they know?

The other thing that whatever you’re reading may also say is that Frodoí was responsible for the beginning of independent minting in Barcelona. This also winds up being connected, because the reason that the particular coin type in question is assigned to him is that it may (or may not) show the tomb of Saint Eulalie.5 There at least we have the coins, and we also have a concession to his see of the right from King Louis II (877-879), though many such concessions exist that we can’t show were ever used.6 But for the first three points, and particularly the first and third, evidence is really very hard to find, and without them the basic interpretation of the second, in its fourteenth-century post facto write-up, becomes very shaky indeed. There is one key piece of evidence that is usually dragged into this, the records of a council at Attigny in 874 at which Frodoí and his see were most of the business dealt with, but if you look at it without these preconceptions it’s not at all clear to me that it supports this case, as I’ll show below.7 Instead, all of the suppositions cling to each other for mutual support but lack a solid footing. I started into this post because I’d just re-read the Attigny record and realised this afresh, but if I want you to believe my scepticism I need to tackle points (1) and (3) first, and I might as well also set out my stall about the coinage as I go.

The Palais de Charlemagne at Attigny

Lacking a more relevant image. I searched for the palace of Attigny and it turns out firstly that something survives called that, and secondly it was built in the sixteenth century but looks weirdly like whoever built it knew the Lorsch Torhalle. Doesn’t it? I guess, with no knowledge, that this is a rebuild of a palace gatehouse from before people could remember… “Palais de Charlemagne d’Attigny” by Adri08Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

So, was he Frankish? The only evidence for this that is ever adduced is his name, which is basically unparalleled in Catalonia. “On devine dejà par son nom qu’il était originaire d’une région germanique de l’empire”, wrote Anscarí Mundó without citation in 1971, for example.8 This is a dangerous thing to say from a local context; it may not look like a local name, sure, but that doesn’t tell you where it is from. But these days, we can check this thanks to the Nomen et Gens project. As it happens, they lump the name in under Chrodoin and have no cases of it spelt with an initial F. They have 65 cases of it spelt otherwise, but almost all of them are from Wissembourg, only two not and those two are someone acting as a scribe for a royal charter at the same sort of time, end of the seventh and beginning of the eighth centuries. The Wissembourg occurrences also feature a number of scribal appearances as notarius and so on, and so there is at least a starting possibility that these are in fact all the same guy.9 Even if not, it’s obviously not a common name anywhere as far as we can tell except maybe the modern Saarland two centuries before our bishop comes to notice, and he spells and pronounces it differently. So I’m calling suspicion on that conclusion; we obviously can’t say where Frodoí was from, we can’t even say where his name was from but if we could that wouldn’t prove anything, and while he did have dealings with Charles the Bald and his son Louis the Stammerer, so might any bishop of their kingdom have during the messy civil war of the era, in which Barcelona, famously (at least for old readers here) and unlike more ‘Germanic’ areas closer to the court, stayed loyal to the kings. So while I don’t say that Frodoí wasn’t a Frankish reformer, the evidence is weak apart unless we allow the liturgical change to be part of it.

Then, because I want to do the liturgy last, the coinage. This is pinned to Frodoí by the so-called tomb of Saint Eulalie—but if that’s what that symbol really is it would also work for any bishop of Barcelona after him (like Teodoric above). King Charles the Bald (840-877) had reformed the coinage of the West in 864 and this seems not to have been carried out in Catalonia, suggesting to some that they were already doing their own thing, but that still doesn’t mean that they had to start their own at the reform date; perhaps they just weren’t minting at Barcelona in 864 and when they resumed, perhaps in the 890s, Charles’s specifications were a dead letter.10 So the reasons to suppose they’re Frodoí’s are basically his association with Saint Eulalie, which his successors would have shared, and that assuming that that is what that coin shows, and that otherwise Barcelona would have had no coin in production, which is just horror vacui. Furthermore, if these coins are Frodoí’s, it messes somewhat with point 1, because they show him ignoring royal instructions rather than carrying them out despite opposition, and this from a man who would visit the Carolingian court at least twice more thereafter. So I do think, on balance, that they are more likely to be later.11

Crypt of Santa Eulàlia de Barcelona

A different shot of the crypt, this one chosen because you can just see the supposed original tomb in it, because it is stashed at the back of the crypt, here just visible between the pillars of the Gothic one in which the saint now resides. the crypt is kept locked and this is as good a camera angle as one can get on it, I know having tried. It’s really frustrating. This photo is by vinpet942 on Panoramio and used under their Creative Commons license.

So the translatio and the liturgical change are the crucial diad that anchors the rest of this, and you’ve seen what the evidence for the translatio is: a fourteenth-century copy of a text maybe little earlier (since it regards the cult as well established) which has some details in it that look right but could have come from the 878 charter. It’s not implausible but it’s not a lot and it certainly doesn’t mention liturgical reform. So what’s the evidence for that? Well, all too often it is just that Frodoí was a Frankish royal appointment and therefore must have danced to the conformist tunes of the Carolingian cultural project, but as we’ve seen the evidence for that is non-existent, if those coins are his he seems to have been willing to ignore royal legislation when it suited him and anyway we no longer believe so fervently in uniformity as a goal of the Carolingian project anyway.12 One other thing that has been linked is an apparent rebuild of part of the old cathedral of Barcelona at around this time, but although that could be significant it is also circular: the evidence for dating the works to Frodoí’s rule is that we ‘know’ he was instrumental in changing the liturgy, so we can’t really then use the cathedral works as proof that he did so!13 Is there nothing better? And to this, those who know this area will probably already be saying: of course there is, there’s the synod of Attigny in 874! And indeed there is, so let’s have a look at it. It survives as a capitulary, so it’s already conveniently in sections which can be summarised.14

  1. Bishop Frodoí reports that a Cordoban priest called Tirs has set up shop in a church, within the Barcelona city walls but without episcopal authorisation, and managed to appropriate two parts of the city’s tithe from the congregation he’s attracted; here are a whole bunch of canon law citations and cites from the laws of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious about how this is wrong (which actually comprise two-thirds of the document); since it’s a long way and dangerous to bring these people from the March (even though Frodoí had made it, but moving on), King Charles delegates dealing with this to his marquis in the area.
  2. Frodoí also demands that he should get back the ministry of the castle of Terrassa, which ‘by the insolence of the priest’ (presumably still Tirs) has been acquired by ‘the faction of Baió’; there are several council rulings about why that’s wrong too.
  3. Lastly, Frodoí also reports that a Goth called Madeix has taken over the church of Sant Esteve in Barcelona and turned it over to the ‘conversation of rustics’ and another Goth called Requesèn has grabbed the field of Santa Eulàlia, and both of them claim they have these things by royal precepts; the king thus being implicated, he sends missi to investigate this and they are to send a report to the court; if it turns out that these Goths do in fact hold by royal grant, then those grants are to be sealed and sent back to the king too, and examined according to the law so that he can see how they lied to get them and cancel it.

And that’s it. Now, do you see anything about liturgy in there? I mean, it is clear that Frodoí has problems; large parts of his congregation would rather go and listen to some fly-by-night from the south, who seems to be able to reorganise ecclesiastical property at whim, while Frodoí’s church’s property is being nibbled at by people who seem at least to have royal connections, but, even if I put the full text in here you’d see nothing about liturgy.

Now, it may be that liturgy is implied: it has been correctly observed that a priest from Córdoba at this time would be trained in the Hispanic rite still, and maybe this is why he had such an attraction to Frodoí’s flock, but if so in this lengthy complaint about all the things he was doing wrong, it never comes up; instead, his independent operation in the face of the diocesan bishop’s authority is the be-all and end-all of the ruling, some of which is actually supported from Visigothic councils! The other hidden factor that may be here is that Terrassa had once had a bishopric of its own, at Egara, swallowed into Barcelona by the Frankish reorganisation. This gives some context as to how a priest could set up there, presumably in the late antique complex of Sant Pere, Santa Maria and Sant Miquel de Terrassa below, and defy a bishop; but Tirs was working inside Barcelona, where it seems decently obvious Frodoí had almost no power, so while it’s likely that that’s in there somewhere, it’s not clear how.

What we can safely say from this document, then, is that in 874, very few people in Barcelona were willing to listen to their bishop, and were entertaining alternatives; it may be that that is because he was forcing upon them an unpopular but apparently somewhat delayed change of liturgy, but if so that isn’t what he asks for help with; it may because he was a foreigner, and ‘Goths’ do seem to be part of the problem, but Tirs was presumably hardly less so and you know what I think Goths are here anyway.15

Panoramic view of the three churches of Egara at Terrassa.

Panoramic view of the three churches of Egara at Terrassa. “Egara. Conjunt episcopal” by Oliver-BonjochOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

So, really, you have already to believe that liturgy was an issue for Frodoí’s episcopate before you can see it here. So what is the basis for believing that there was a Carolingian attack on the Hispanic liturgy? Good question, to which the answer is basically that that liturgy goes away. There is no legislation against it as such, and in fact really no texts that mention it other than booklists. Now, from those, you can do something: the late Anscarí Mundó long ago argued, from the manuscripts he knew so well but cited so rarely, that the window of change is 785xc. 1000. He thought it was probably early in that window, by reason of it being unlikely that any imported personnel would know or use the Hispanic liturgy, so that with the steady replacement of local priests by immigrant ones or ones trained by the cathedrals of immigrant bishops, the Hispanic liturgy would be less and less used, and he listed the immigrant bishops and observed a near-total dropout of evidence for the copying of texts of the Hispanic liturgy over the ninth century.16

This all makes sense to me, and it is also roughly how I think charter formulae were changed, but where I differ from Mundó is in how much compulsion I think was involved and how total this replacement was. Booklists of course tend to be in the wills of people who had lots of stuff, and it’s at the lower levels that I think we see more interesting things. For example, do you remember my writing about Bishop Nantigis of Urgell and the non-heretical priest Adeudat, who in 901 had an ordo toletanum, a Toledan priest’s service-book, to give to his church at Guils de Cantó? It’s among a bunch of other service books which would probably have been Latin rite, but nonetheless he passed it on and Bishop Nantigis didn’t stop him doing so.17 This far out, having a priest who was able to carry out the ministry at all was probably more important than exactly which service they used. Probably in most cathedrals or old mother churches there would have been a copy, probably increasingly battered and hard to replace, for the rare occasions when the priests from there officiated at such places. And that’s in the early tenth century, pace Mundó.

Part of a leaf from a Hispanic-rite breviary from fourteenth-century Toledo, Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS 10110, fo 2r

Part of a leaf from a Hispanic-rite breviary from fourteenth-century Toledo, Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS 10110, fo 2r, borrowed from Ainoa Castro Correa, “Codex of the month (IX): Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, ms 10110″. Littera Visigothica (October 2015), http://litteravisigothica.com/codex-of-the-month-ix-madrid-biblioteca-nacional-ms-10110 with thanks

So, if in fact there wasn’t an effective Carolingian campaign to stamp out the Hispanic liturgy, but a slow and opportunistic replacement of it instead, where does this leave Bishop Frodoí? Not obviously Frankish; not visibly any kind of reformer; extremely unpopular for a time at least in his episcopal city and with only grudging support from local secular authority; backed to the hilt, nonetheless, by the king whose orders some numismatists would have us believe he ignored; and held later, but not in contemporary evidence, to be the finder of Saint Eulalie’s relics. And that might well still be true, or at least I don’t think there’s any obvious reason to disbelieve it and plenty of signs that needed whatever support he could get; but I think any attempt to bring liturgical reform into the reasons he was disliked is just basically unfounded! And that means that everything that is founded on that belief is also in trouble…


1. The stock reference for all this is Ángel Fabrega Grau, Santa Eulalia de Barcelona: revisión de una problema histórico (Roma 1958), online here, which prints the source text pp. 151-155; the revised date of 877 is suggested in Joan Vilaseca Corbera, “Sant Vicenç i Santa Eulàlia, la cristianització del culte a Apol·lo i la política internacional carolíngia de la segona meitat del segle IX” in idem, Recerques sobre l’Alta Edat Mitjana Catalana (II) (Terrassa 2013), pp. 1-95 at pp. 64-65, and he certainly shows that it can’t easily have been 878. I should also mention that I owe my copy of this work to the generosity of the author; thankyou Joan, it has made me think!

2. Fabrega used Archivo de la Catedral de Barcelona, MSS 104, 105 & 108 which are early-fourteenth to early fifteenth-century in his estimation.

3. That precept printed as Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia II: els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 2 & 3 (Barcelona 1926-1952), 2 vols, Barcelona: Esglésie Catedral de Santa Creu II.

4. I think this must come from Fabrega, but I first met it in Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, “La moneda barcelonina del segle X. Altres novetats comtals” in Acta Numismàtica Vol. 38 (Barcelona 2008), pp. 91-121 at pp. 94-95, without citation, which is how I’ve usually met it since, as e. g. in J.-F. Cabestany, “El culte de Santa Eulàlia a la Catedral de Barcelona (S. IX-X)” in Lambard: estudis d’art medieval Vol. 9 (Barcelona 1996-1997), pp. 159-165, online here, last modified 8th February 2007 as of 20th June 2009, where the only relevant citation is to Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, Els primers comtes catalans, Biografies catalanes: sèrie històrica 1 (Barcelona 1958, repr. 1980), which doesn’t in fact support the claims.

5. Crusafont, “Moneda barcelonina”, p. 96, again without citation; Miquel Crusafont, Anna M. Balaguer and Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambrdge 2013), p. 73, however says the first publication of the idea is Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, Numismàtica de la Corona Catalano-Aragonesa medieval (785-1516) (Madrid 1982), p. 31; cf. Joaquim Botet y Sisó, Les monedes catalanes (Barcelona 1908-1911), 3 vols, I p. 189, Xavier Sanahuja i Anguera, “La moneda de Barcelona al segle X segons les troballes Epsanya-1 i Espanya-2 (925)” in Acta Numismàtica Vol. 36 (Barcelona 2006), pp. 79-113 at p. 94 and Jonathan Jarrett, “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia: coinage, counts and economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London: Royal Numismatic Society 2010 for 2009), pp. 217-243 at p. 220, all of which argue that a modification of the Carolingian ‘temple’ reverse type seems more likely.

6. For the concession see n. 3 above; for unused minting concessions in the area see Jarrett, “Currency change”, pp. 224-225.

7. The Attigny record is printed in Abadal, Catalunya Carolíngia 2, ap. VII, among other places.

8. A. M. Mundó, “Les changements liturgiques en Septimanie et en Catalogne pendant la période préromane” in Cahiers de Saint-Michel de Cuxa Vol. 2 (Codalet 1971), pp. 29-42 at p. 38.

9. It doesn’t seem to be possible to link to a search in Nomen et Gens, but it’s easy enough to run; I searched for ‘Frod%’ without quotes. The Wissembourg Chrodoin occurs or Chrodoins occur in Karl Glöckner and Ludwig Anton Doll (edd.), Traditiones Wizenburgenses: die Urkunden des Klosters Weissenburg (661-864) (Darmstadt 1979), doc. nos 36, 45, 46, 169, 186, 194-196, 202, 213, 218, 224-227, 232, 239, 244, 247, 256, 257, 261 & 265 and Theo Kölzer (ed.), Die Urkunden der Merowinger, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Diplomata regum Francorum e stirpe Merovingica) I (Hannover 2001), 2 vols, doc. no. 1. What d’you reckon, Alan?

10. Compare Miquel Crusafont, “Nou tipus carolingi de Barcelona de Carles el Calb: el diner de Barcelona fins a R. Berenguer I” in II Simposi numismatic de Barcelona (Barcelona 1980), pp. 47-55 to Simon Coupland, “The early coinage of Charles the Bald” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 151 (London 1991), pp. 121-158, reprinted in Coupland, Carolingian coinage and the Vikings: studies on power and trade in the 9th century, Variorum Collected Studies 847 (Aldershot 2007), IX, at p. 126; it’s not very often Simon Coupland’s missed a coin, but on this occasion…

11. In this respect I now differ from Jarrett, “Currency Change”, pp. 219-220.

12. See Stuart Airlie, “The Cunning of Institutions” in Jennifer R. Davis & Michael McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 267-271.

13. Cabestany, “El culte de Santa Eulàlia”, tries the logic I argue against here.

14. See n. 7 above.

15. I follow Jesus Lalinde Abadia, “Godos, hispanos y hostolenses en la órbita del rey de los Francos” in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium internacional sobre els orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), 2 vols, also published as Memorias de le Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols 23 & 24 (Barcelona 1991-1992), II pp. 35-74, online here.

16. Mundó, “Changements liturgiques”.

17. Cebrià Baraut (ed.), “Les actes de consagracions d’esglesies del bisbat d’Urgell (segles IX-XII)” in Urgellia: anuari d’estudis històrics dels antics comtats de Cerdanya, Urgell i Pallars, d’Andorra i la Vall d’Aran Vol. 1 (Montserrat 1978), pp. 11-182, doc. no. 14.

From the Sources XI: wets and measures

This is a leftover from my reading of the Wendy Davies lecture that I already blogged about while just about still in Birmingham, but I felt it was worth a post of its own, because it is (as so often in this series) about something I thought was a really interesting charter. Without further ado, I’ll give you the translation (Latin is in the reference footnote) and then try and explain why I think so, if I haven’t already convinced you!

“In the name of the Lord. This is a charter of recognition that was written and corroborated by the order of the most serene lord Prince Ramiro and of all the bishops and the crowd of catholic persons about to corroborate below, so that it should have binding character throughout the ages. Therefore: a quarrel arose between Abbot Baldered and his brothers and men of the tithing of Saint John in Vega, Gondemar and his heirs, about the aqueduct whence the mills of the brothers were powered and which they were holding in lordship. And afterwards, downstream from their mills, they were holding lordship over the water for the mills belonging to the selfsame Gondemar and his heirs, as per what they were holding as heredity from long ago, since their grandfathers and great-grandfathers had taken over that stream and held lordship over it; and their milling mills a flood of the rivers Bernesga and Torio together removed, and they built other mills further down that stream, next to the aforesaid river. When they had completed that work, maliciously, the same Abbot Baldered and his brothers rose up against them. Wherefore, with both parties laying claims in our presence and that of the bishops and judges, we sent faithful men from our council, they being: Recemir Decembriz, Abbot Vidal, the priest Pelagio and the priest Apsidio and many others who were there. And they orderd collectors to be set up in the flow of that water to measure the height of it, and below they broke down that construction which the brothers said was impeding their mills and starving them of water. And afterwards, the water flowed until the ninth hour, standing at just the same level, so showed the markers, just as they had been set up, the same amount of water and not diminished a bit, wherefore we ordered Gundemar and his heirs to have those mills and that water as they were holding it previously. Truly, another year, the brothers again raised a plea against those men, maliciously, wherefore we again sent the following faithful men so that they might determine whether they were presenting any impediment to the mills of the brothers: the judges Abaiub, Leander, Maurello and many others. And the already-said faithful men found, just as on the first occasion, that the brothers were acting maliciously against those men, and that nothing was presenting an impediment to them. Now, in the third year in which this quarrel has arisen between those people, we, with all the gathering corroborated below, have assigned to Gundemar, with his heirs, the selfsame water from the mills of the brothers as far as their mills. Thus, when the brothers shall warn them about their restoration of that upper construction or their direction of the water, they may avoid it without any excuse of a survey; and let them together have that water, for their use, without any molestation. For if now or from now on anyone shall raise any quarrel or attempt to bring any accusation, just so much shall he pay to the royal purse 500 solidi, just as he shall lose his right and property in the selfsame water.
“Recorded on the 7th day of the Kalends of July, in the era 976 [25th June 938 A. D.]
“Under Christ’s name, Quixila, by the Grace of God bishop. Under Christ’s name, Bishop Frunimio. Under Christ’s name, Ovecco, by the Grace of God bishop. Recemir Decembriz.
“Abaiub, judge, confirms; Maurello, judge, confirms; Leander, judge, confirms. Monio Nuniz confirms; Vermudo Nuniz confirms; Diaz, archdeacon, confirms; Gundisalvo, deacon, confirms. Assur, deacon, confirms; Piloto, Abbot, confirms; Fredenando confirms; Olemundo confirms.
“Fortis, scribe, recorded. ()

This is a fairly tangly story, so it may be worth breaking it down a bit. If I read it right, these are the stages:

  1. In the distant past, Gundemaro’s ancestors cleared the land around a stretch of the river Bernesga in Vega and thus laid claim to the use of the water there, and set up mills on it.
  2. Either previously or later, the monastery of Valdevimbre (as it happens, the text doesn’t identify it) acquired rights to the water higher up the river and had mills of their own up there.2
  3. Next, a flood of the Bernesga and its tributary the Torio wiped out Gundemaro’s family’s mills, so they built more in a safer place downstream of the monastery’s mills, and put in an aqueduct that diverted water from the river to their mills.
  4. The monastery didn’t like this, and Abbot Baldered and his monks raised a suit against Gundemaro and family claiming that the new construction was interfering with the monastery’s mills, apparently despite the fact that those were above it on the river.
  5. So King Ramiro sent a team of enquiry who set up markers in the river, presumably near the monastery’s mills, and gauged the water level before and after destroying Gundemaro’s family’s new aqueduct, and they found that it changed not at all, as one might have expected, whereupon King Ramiro found in favour of Gundemaro and said that he and his heirs could carry on as before.
  6. So one assumes that they rebuilt, whereupon the monastery raised suit again, and another team, this time of judges, went out to Vega again and found that there was still no interference going on with the monastery’s mills and told them to shut up.
  7. The document we have dates from the third year in which the monastery had raised this claim, and this time King Ramiro has had enough, and says that there will be no further survey, that Gundemaro and co. are to have the river between the monastery’s mills and their own without any possibility of further dispute and that anyone who raises such a dispute will pay a 500-solidi fine and lose any claim they may have to the river.

There’s loads to interest me here, from the purely diplomatic to the deeply personal. In the former category, I like the way that the scribe Fortis makes the document refer to what will be written on it later; if that’s straightforward, it implies that he was drafting it at the gathering in response to the royal verdict, but it seems to have been a full formal document anyway; we only have it through Valdevimbre’s cartulary, now in the Archivo de la Catedral de León, but the fact that the witnesses are roughly, but not perfectly, divided into columns by category even in the copy implies that some such arrangement was also present in the original, otherwise I’d expect the first column to have four and the last three, not the other way around. I also note, just in passing, that one of the judges has an Arabic name, and that we know that another witness, Recemir Decembriz, was son of another such person, December iben Abolfeta, even though his own name is unfaultably Gothic.3 Read me an ethnicity from those if you dare!

The monastery of Valdevimbre's buildings seem to be long gone, but for orientation, I think we're here, not at the main confluence of the rivers but slightly further up the Bernesga where the artificial channels cross the fields from the Presa to drain into it. People are still doing the same thing here...

More interesting, perhaps, but less resolvable: why did the monastery keep raising this spurious suit? It seems clear that they thought that Gundemaro was a problem for their water rights, and in most of the medieval Iberian peninsula—not Catalonia so much, which is a lot wetter than the rest of the peninsula, Galicia excepted—rights to the use of water and irrigation are a big deal so this is understandable in principle.4 But even if there was initially some reason to believe that Gundemaro and co. were dipping into water in the monastery’s stretch of the river, they choose a stupid way to contest this, saying that their mills are affected by a structure that must, surely, have been below those mills in the river and so tapping only water that the monastery’s mills had already spent. But they manage to get this checked twice, and try again, so presumably they thought there was some chance that the royal inquest might find in their favour, despite the first one having used Science! to prove them wrong. (Because that is, is it not, testing of a hypothesis by experiment.) I don’t understand why.

But to me, given my habitual concerns, the most interesting question of all is: why do we have this document? The monastery lost, repeatedly. What good did preserving that fact in their archive, and indeed copying it up for the cartulary a few centuries later, do them? If they had ever produced this in court it could only have gone badly for them. The only thing I can think of is that they were genuinely concerned that Gundemaro’s family would start tapping the monastery’s water, protected by their apparent good standing with the royal court, and that even this document, which not only set but seemingly shrank the rights they could claim in the river, was better than having no record of their rights at all. In which case, where did they get those rights in the first place, and why was this a better document than nothing? The only answers to these questions I can think of all suggest that the monastery was in fact at a disadvantage here, that despite our usual assumption that he who keeps the record has the power and that the Church always held the whip hand in disputes, Valdevimbre was up against some fairly immovable local bigwigs here and was hoping, somehow, to get the court to stand up for them against their opponents. They seem to have picked a stupid way to do it, but maybe it was the only way they had. In short, though this looks like a rare case in which we have a record of a greedy and assertive ecclesiastical institution being defeated in court, I suspect that the way we have the record may actually imply that they were not the aggressors…


1. Emilio Sáez (ed.), Colección Documental del Archivo de la Catedral de León (775-1230): I (775-952), Fuentes de la Historia Leonesa 41 (León 1987), doc. no. 128:

KARTULA AGNICIONIS QUOD FECIT RANIMIRI PRINCIPIS DE PLACITUM QUOD ABUIT BALDEREDUS ABBA ET SUOS HEREDES
In nomine Domini. Hec est kartula agnicionis quam iussu serenissma domni Ranimiri principis uel omnium episcoporum ac cetu catholicorum, subter roboraturis, conscripta ac roborata est, ut tenorem iugi abeat per secula. Igitur orta fuit intencio inter Balderedus abba et suis fratribus et homines de collacione Sancti Ihoannis, in Uega, Gondemaro cum suos heredes, propter aqueductum unde molendina fratrum molebant et dominata tenebant. Et post, sub ab eorum molendina, dominabant ipsa aqua ad suos molinis ipso Gondemaro cum suos heredes, secundum eam quam abebant hereditariam ab antiquo, ut abprehenderant eam aquam et dominauerunt eam suis auis et trysauis; et suos molinos molentes, amouit eos inundacio fluminis Uernesga cum Torio mixto, et super ipsam aquam edificauerunt alios molinos subtus, secus flumen predictum. Quum factum hac completum illum abuissent, maliciose, insurrexerunt aduersus eos idem Balderedus abba et sui fratres. Unde, in nostra presencia uel episcoporum et iudicum, asserentes utraque partes, misimus ex concilio fideles, hii sunt: Recemirus Decembri, Uitalis abba, Pelagius presbiter hac Aspidius presbiter et aliorum multorum que interfuerunt. Que preuiderunt in decursione ipsa aqua fieri papillos et metire ipsa altitudinis aqua ac ruperunt subtus illa presa que dicebant quia inpediebat et inaquabat molina fratrum; et postquam, decursa est aqua usque in oram nonam, stantem in ipsa mensura equaliter, sic apparuerunt ipsas stacas, sicut eas perxerant, equale aqua nec in modico minuante, unde iussimus abere ad ipso Gundemaro et suos heredes suos molinos et ipsa aqua ut primitus abebant. Equidem et in altero anno, iterum supposuerunt uocem contra eos homines fratres, maliciose, unde et alios fideles misimus que probarent si eis aliquid inpediebant ad molina fratrum: iudices Abaiub, Leander, Maurellus cum alios multos. Et inuenerunt, sicut et primi, iam dicti fideles, quia maliciosa agebant fratres aduersus eos homines, et nullum eis inferebant inpedimentum. Ad uero, nos, cum omni cetu subter roboratis, anno tercio ex quo orta fuerat inter ipsos ipsa intencio, ordinauimus abere ad ipso Gundemaro, cum suos heredes, ipsa aqua de molina fratrum usque ad suos molinos. Ita quando eos admonuerint fratres pro ipsa superiora presa restaurare uel aquam domare, sine aliqua excusacione mense auertant; et abeant cunctos ipsa aqua, pro sua utilitate, sine ulla molestia. Quod siquis amodo uel deinceps uocem subposuerit aut aliquam calumpniam temptauerit inferre, quomodo pariet post partem regis solidos D, velud kareat uocem et suam proprietatem in illa aqua.
Notum die VII kalendas iulii, era DCCCCa LXXa VIa.
Sub Christi nomine, Cixila Dei gratia episcopus-. Sub Christi nomine, Frunimius episcopus-. Sub Christi nomine, Ouecco, Dei gratia episcopo. Recemirus December.
Abaiub iudex conf. Monio Nuniz conf. Assuri diaconus conf.
Maurellus iudex conf. Vermudo Nuniz conf. Piloti abba conf.
Leander iudex conf. Didacus archidiaconus conf. Fredenandus conf.
Gundisaluus diaconus conf. Olemundus conf.
Fortis scriba NOTUIT (signum).

2. On Valdevimbre you can see César Álvarez Álvarez, “El monasterio de Valdevimbre (siglos IX-XII)” in Manuel Cecilio Díaz y Díaz, Mercedes Díaz de Bustamante & Manuela Domínguez García (edd.), Escritos dedicados a José María Fernández Catón (León 2004), 2 vols, I, pp. 41-64.

3. The December family are tracked in Victor Aguilar Sebastián & Francisco Rodríguez Mediano, “Antroponimia de origen árabe en la documentación leonesa (siglos VIII-XIII)” in Manuel Lucas Álvarez (ed.), El Reino de León en la Alta Edad Media VI, Fuentes de la Historia Leonesa 53 (León 1994), pp. 497-633.

4. See classically Thomas F. Glick, Irrigation and Society in Medieval Valencia (Cambridge MA 1970), still in print.