Category Archives: Currently teaching…

Chronicle II: October to December 2015

Somewhat to my surprise, I have now reached the second of the what-was-going-in-my-life round-ups I was promising to use as the anchor of the new blogging programme here at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe, back in, er, February. It wasn’t supposed to take eight months to record what had happened in three, but as you’ll have observed there was a fair bit of hiatus and strife in there, and I hope that we can pick things up a bit now. There’s only one way to find out, anyway, and thus we now reach the point where I try and give some impression of my first semester employed at the University of Leeds. The first thing that needs to be said about that is that my new colleagues were absolutely lovely, and guided me through new offices and routines with cheerful generosity; it all unrolled a great deal more easily than it could so easily have done while I found my feet. To try and explain what I was actually up to, however, probably needs breaking down into headings, and the obvious ones would be teaching, what we might generally class as extra labours, seminars and similar, research work and, lastly, life more widely; I’ll say the least about the last, but it holds the rest together. So here we go. Continue reading

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15,000 more coins to play with

This post is a step or two out of order; I originally stubbed it in December 2015 and would, if everything were normal, have intended it for seven or eight posts down the line. But it occurred to me that I had also referred to various successes with publications and grants that I probably ought to mention while they’re still even near fresh, rather than queue them out of my usual dogged commitment to chronology; and then I totted up the grants and realised that the ones I had to start with were to do with the Brotherton Library Coin Collection, and that without this post you, dear readers, would have no idea what that was. So here we are!

The Reading Room in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, including readers

The Reading Room in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, including readers, photo from Leeds’s website

So obviously you will remember, because I am still writing about it, that between 2014 and 2015 I was Interim Curator of Coins at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, which involved me doing exhibitions, outreach and general work with a collection of just over 15,000 coins and items of paranumismatica. But I put all that behind me, excepting lagging publication commitments, when I came to the University of Leeds, who had hired me as a historian of the early Middle Ages, not as a numismatist. Admittedly, I had tried to set up an undergraduate module using the coin collection in Leeds Museums Discovery Centre, but due to staff shortage there that was never possible. But just as I thought I might be through with numismatics again, someone here asked me, “has anyone told you about the coin collection in the Library?” And it turned out, wouldn’t you know, there is a collection here of just over 15,000 coins and paranumismatica, just waiting for someone to do exhibitions, outreach and general work with…

A copper-alloy sestertius of Emperor Nero struck at Rome in 65 AD, Brotherton Collection, University of Leeds, uncatalogued

A copper-alloy sestertius of Emperor Nero struck at Rome in 65 AD, Brotherton Collection, University of Leeds, uncatalogued; obverse…

A copper-alloy sestertius of Emperor Nero struck at Rome in 65 AD, Brotherton Collection, University of Leeds, uncatalogued

… and reverse, photographed by me for teaching last year

Now in some respects the timing of this was perfect: not only did it mean that I could in fact run that module the next and indeed this year on local resources alone, it also came a short while after the collection, which had for a long time been without a clear place in the University’s organisation, had been definitively placed in the care of the University’s Special Collections team. But they had no numismatics expertise in-house, and then there came I, a man who had quite literally written the book(let) on the care of coin collections (with really quite a lot of uncredited help).1 And so, while I couldn’t do much for the Library myself, not alongside my other responsibilities, one thing I could do was apply for money for someone else to do that work.

A copper-alloy forty-nummi of a type which has been suggested was struck by the occupying government of the Syrian provinces of the Byzantine Empire during their occupation by the Persians at the turn of the sixth and seventh centuries

I think this is an unusual one, a copper-alloy forty-nummi of a type which has been suggested was struck by the occupying government of the Syrian provinces of the Byzantine Empire during their occupation by the Persians at the turn of the sixth and seventh centuries. Here the obverse, fairly normal but a bit blocky and unclear of identification…

Copper-alloy forty-nummi struck during the Persian occupation of Syria 615-27

…and reverse, unobjectionable except for a jumbled mint-mark that just can’t be Byzantine. Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, no. not available to me but it does have one now. This is one of the cases where I’ve been able to improve on a previous identification. There aren’t many!

Now, I will talk about that in a future post, but first, how come the University has an orphaned coin collection at all, and what’s in it? Well, it’s not quite unknown: expert diggers in databases could already find out something of its history and the early British and English portions have even been published, although more was acquired after that was done.2 And in fact the history is composite, as these things so often are; while Lord Brotherton himself, the man behind our oldest library and the extremely significant collections therein, did not dally with coins, in 1918 the then-Department of Latin acquired itself a small set for teaching purposes, in 1949 the Yorkshire Archaeological Society presaged the eventual donation here of all its collections with a Roman coin collection, and in 1954 the rather fabulous Winchester Collection, which is where the funding story will come in, arrived here. Substantial anonymous gifts followed thereafter but the real difference was made by Mr Paul Thackray, of the same Thackrays as our local Medical Museum, who added 11,000 or so coins to our holdings in the early 1990s. Now, probably two-third, maybe even three-quarters, of all this is Roman, and almost all base-metal, although it’s an extremely good collection as far as that goes, with lots of varieties. There are also good representations of Chinese coins, including some genuinely rare items I am told, and of local merchants’ tokens, and a good set of modern world coins I want to convince my modernist colleagues to start using too. But there is also a small but precious selection of medieval and Byzantine items, and on them I have built my course. There is, indeed, more than I have fully discovered and some very interesting Eastern and Indian stuff, all of which is out of my competence, and two cabinets of Roman Provincial, which should definitely interest somebody, even if not me.3 Thankfully, even now we have actual hired help in place for cataloguing, though they won’t be able to do it all. But the potential is definitely here for people to do lots more with it, and it is a potential on which, as I shall describe in that near-future post, we have already started to deliver…


1. Jonathan Jarrett, Coins in Collections: their care and use (Cambridge 2009), now sadly out of print and unobtainable but obtained, thankfully, by Leeds just before that became true.

2. In Elizabeth Pirie, Ancient British and later coins to 1279 in the Yorkshire Museum, York, the City Museum Leeds and the University of Leeds, Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles 21 (London: Oxford University Press, 1975).

3. That Roman Provincial coinage should be interesting more people has recently become clear partly because of the ever-growing database of it at the Ashmolean Museum but also because George Watson, “The system of coin production in Roman Asia Minor: new thoughts on an old problem”, in Maria Caltabiano et al. (edd.), XV International Numismatic Congress Taormina 2015: Proceedings (Messina 2018), pp. not yet known to me, has started to make it clear that there are systems to its production about which we had previously not suspected, making it a key to the administration of the Roman East we didn’t know we had. So I want someone to do something with our boxes of it… Any would-be research students, do get in touch

What’s (Been) Going On

I stubbed this post in April last year, meaning then to tell you at least in outline what was happening in my life and with this blog. As the fact that it’s now most of a year on from that and that this post is being written in Turkey, you will guess that actually things are not much quieter, but they are better than they have been and I do have hopes that some kind of blogging can resume here. So this post is about what that might look like, and says something about how things got this way.

The path to this point (has not all been easy)

So. Obviously we all know that in October 2015 I got a job as Lecturer in Early Medieval History at Leeds, and at that point the blog was a little bit more than a year behind. Now, because I had not been around to advertise my new modules because I was then still working somewhere else, two of them did not recruit enough students to run, so in my first year in post I was teaching less than I expected. That said, I was still teaching on, er, two large-scale first-year courses, one second-year one I’d built myself and two graduate skills courses, plus a couple of guest appearances, all of which was new prep, and I put, um, 4 grant applications in in that time as well (of which I got 2, one of which is why I am right now in Turkey and the other of which saw me co-curating a numismatic exhibition at the end of the next year—plus ça change…). For a while I was also, of all things, enrolled on a MOOC by way of learning my way round an admin role which I subsequently demitted, so I was busy enough. But I was still blogging and still reading a bit. Nonetheless, I am told by my partner that in the second semester all this plus marking turned me into a grey joyless sink of exhaustion, in part presumably because I’d had minor surgery just before Christmas 2015 and was still recovering; one of our cats getting run over also didn’t help.

The Parkinson Building, University of Leeds

The office building where this story mainly takes place, the Parkinson Building, University of Leeds, its grandeur equalled only by the unpredictability of its upstairs water supply. By Tim Green from Bradford [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Now, come October 2016, I had been able to advertise my own courses, so the two that were dormant had recruited and now had to run for the first time. In addition to that, I co-led an overhaul of our medieval survey course, which is taught to the whole cohort, and I also co-convened our intensive palæography course. What this all meant was that, more or less by accident, I was now teaching across 10 modules and running 6, only 2 of which were repeating in the same form as the previous year and 2 of which were entirely new, one involving collaboration with our Library’s (brilliant) Special Collections team and the other, a full-year module, involving lots of translation of primary material on what quickly became a week-to-week basis. I also put in 3 more grant applications and got 2, and was of course now also dealing with the work coming from the previous ones… I was also now studying for and putting in for Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy, which I got, and Fellowship of the Royal Historical Society, which I also got. I mentioned the numismatic exhibition already. Oh yeah, and I bought a new house and moved halfway through all of this! The new house is much much better and a great delight, but the commute is longer and of course moving is never easy, especially when you’re buying in a chain.

Study right at Exley Hall

The other place this was all (by now) happening, my half of our study at home, complete with me at work in it and the (new) junior cat trying to work out why

In the classroom, again, the second semester was heavier than the first. By the middle of it, unable to progress anything outside teaching and working more hours than I ever have to keep that going, I had to tell my press that I could no longer deliver my next book in the foreseeable future, and shortly after that I hit a crisis point that meant that something had to be done. My bosses were personally sympathetic and quick to act, and I also owe thanks to my union representative and Chris Wickham, who were both vital support. Anyway, the main positive result of all this (apart from the successful funding bids) was that an application I’d made for a semester of study leave was approved; the secondary positive result was that despite everything I got a teaching commendation, for which I must mainly thank my students, and I suppose the third one was the HEA Fellowship. For the study leave I had targets that amounted to finishing an article-length piece of work every month—which I did do—so blogging time was still hard to find. And now study leave is over, I’m still on probation and I’m back to teaching, with what is for now a lighter teaching load, but still enough to mean that a short-lived attempt at weekly blogging has stumbled. Obviously (obviously!) the blog is not my first priority, but it is a priority, so what can happen with it?

The state of the blog, present and future

Well, if we take a look at the blog as it currently sits, it is upwards of 700 posts going back more than a decade, and its sheer mass on the web means that it continues to draw at least some traffic even if I do nothing with it, which is quite gratifying. I have at least been able to keep up with comments and I think some kind of community remains aware when I post, and to you folks also I am very grateful. But we have this silly double structure of ‘sticky’ front-page posts that I wanted you to know about straight away, as opposed to the regular posts emerging blinking from the backlog, and I have literally sixty more stubbed, and in some cases part- or all-written, from up to three years ago, which I was determined to post in order between my normal seminar reporting. Even with as little detachment as I can manage, this has become a structure of lunacy that can’t be maintained. On the other hand, I really miss the interaction and sense of having a public, and the constructive and amusing response to half-formed ideas I could get here; as a sandbox, as well as a public face, blogging has seemed a worthwhile exercise to me ever since I worked out what I really thought it was for, and I want to get it going again and keep it there. I have also, I admit, used the fact that I have a blog on which to publicise my endeavours in a couple of my funding bids, and it’s probably not wholly honest if I can’t shout about my successes here as well as via Leeds press releases.

So, most obviously, the seminar and conference reporting cannot continue as it once did. That may prove something of a relief to those who were covered, though I know some people liked it, but it just took so long, and in any case I’m now outside the so-called Golden Triangle so can’t report on it to those likewise outside as I used to. On the other hand, I don’t want just to jump-cut three years of my life, especially since as the narrative above tells you, they have been busy and full of things and successes on which I would ideally have reported with glee. And there are all these posts stubbed which belong in that time. So, I have a plan and it looks like this:

  1. The ‘sticky’ posts will all be unstuck when I next post, and return to their places in the stream; there should be no more of them.
  2. I will start a new series of posts called ‘Chronicle’ or something like that, in which I just record what was going on in my life academic in chunks of a month or two at a time, in as summary a form as I can manage, mainly to give chronology to the whole effort but also by way of presenting some kind of a record of what the transition into full-time long-term academia, with which I know I’m not the only one who has struggled, looked like (and looks like) from here. That will continue till I reach the present day, and I’ll adapt the size of them so that I am gaining on that goal each time I post.
  3. In between those posts I will insert shorter focused pieces on the things in each chronicle chunk that merit their own reporting, or which were stubbed at that sort of point, and so there’ll still be something here other than me trying to make my diary entertaining.

And maybe that will work! I hope that I can post most weeks, probably on Sundays, and that that ought actually to work down the backlog. I guess we’ll see how it goes? I’m very conscious that my previous promises of a return to blogging have, like prophecies of the end of the world, all so far proved false, but hopefully this is easier to bring about than Apocalypse. Assuming the horsemen don’t arrive, therefore, see you soon! And thanks for continuing to hang round A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe!

From the Sources XIV: the Raffelstetten Inquest on Toll

Jumping out of the chronology of my backlog for a moment, as I settle into my largest ever teaching load this term I am very glad to be re-running at least one course, my Rule and Reform under Charlemagne and his Successors. Even that has changed, however, and it has just struck me that the changes mean that I will not this year be doing a seminar using the Raffelstetten Inquest on Toll. So I have the translation I used last year sitting around doing nothing, and I thought it could just as usefully go up here where others may be able to use it. What, you may patiently be asking, is the Raffelstetten Inquest? And fair enough if so, because you’d have to be quite deep into Carolingian history to catch even mentions of it.1 There is a quite reasonable Wikipedia page at the time of writing, but even that doesn’t provide a translation, because as far as I can see there isn’t one.

We are talking about more or less here, Raffelstetten being on the southern shore behind the Ausee, the lakelet at centre left; note that this is still a place where stuff is stuck across the river, though I don't know for what reason...

So, briefly, Raffelstetten is in modern-day Austria in the town of Asten, on the Danube river, and in about 900 it was on the very edge of the freshly-fragmented Carolingian Empire. To wit, it was on the edge of East Francia, under the rule of a king we now know as Louis the Child, son of King Arnulf, himself illegitimate son of King Carloman II, son of King Louis the German, son of Emperor Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne. Louis ruled 899-911 and was the last Carolingian ruler of anything we could really call Germany, and between 903 and 906 his officials turned up at Raffelstetten, which was at this time a toll station for goods moving up and down the Danube, and recorded for the king what regulations were in force there. This, as you can imagine, is gold-dust for economic historians of the period, who usually have almost no data about types or volumes of trade except what they can intuit from other forms of evidence, but here we have a government actually demonstrating that it attempted to control bulk exchange across its borders.2 But, when you look at it, it does begin to appear that their priorities were not necessarily ours, and that was why I was using it to teach with. So, let me put it before you and see if you see what I see.3

Inquisition on the Tolls of Raffelstetten

Let the industry of all of the orthodox faithful, present indeed and future, know that the request and demand of all the Bavarians, namely the bishops, abbots and all of the counts, who were making journeys into eastern parts, had reached King Louis [the Child], saying that they were constrained and coerced by unjust toll and unfair exchanges in those parts. Hearing this with benign ears he, indeed, according to the custom of the kings his ancestors, ordered Margrave Arbo, along with the judges of the easterners, by whom let this be recorded, that he should look into the toll laws and the custom of toll; and he gave power to his messengers Archbishop Theotmar [of Salzburg], Burchard Bishop of the Church of Passau and Count Otachar, to correct this justly and legitimately in his place. And these are the people who swore about the toll in the county of Arbo: the vicar Walto, the vicar Durinc, Gundalperht, Amo, Gerpreht, Pazrich, Diotrich, Aschrich, Arbo, Tunzili, Salacho, Helmwin, Sigimar, Gerolt, Ysac, Salaman, Humperht, another Humperht, Englischah, Azo, Ortimuot, Ruotoh, Emilo, another Durinc, Reinolt, the vicar Eigil, Poto, Eigilo, Ellinger, Otlant, Gundpold, another Gerolt, Otperht, Adalhelm, Tento, Buoto, Wolfker, Rantolf, Kozperht, Graman, Heimo. These and other men, who were nobles in these three counties, having been interrogated (after swearing the oath) by Margrave Arbo in the presence of Archbishop Theotmar and Burchard Bishop of the church of Passau, with Count Otachar sitting with them, in the court in the place which is called Raffelstetten, reported on the toll places and the custom of the toll that used most justly to be paid in the times of Louis and Carloman and the other kings.

  1. Ships, indeed, which from the western regions, should afterwards have come out at the wood of Passau, and should wish to beach at Rosdorf or anywhere else and make trade, should give a half-drachm in toll, that is 1 scoto; if they should wish to go downriver to Linz, let there be paid three half-modii per ship, that is three scafils of salt. For slaves and other things let them pay nothing there, but afterwards have license for beaching and trading as far as the Bohemian forest, wherever they shall wish.
  2. If anyone from Bavaria should wish to move his salt to his own house, and the ship’s steersman affirms this with an oath, let them pay nothing, but go without trouble.
  3. If moreover any free man should have carried out a legitimate trade, paying or saying nothing there, and then this shall have been proved, let him be tolled for it both by ship and by goods. If moreover any slave perpetrates this, let him be bound there, until his lord comes and pays off his fine, and afterwards let him be permitted to leave.
  4. If moreover Bavarians or Slavs of that same country should have entered the selfsame region to obtain victuals with slaves or horses or cattle or other furnishings of theirs, let them buy what things are necessary without toll wherever they should wish in the selfsame region. If moreover they should have wished to cross to the selfsame marketplace, let them go halfway across the shore without any constraint; and in other places of the selfsame region let them buy what things they are able to without toll. If it please them better to trade in the selfsame marketplace, let them give the prescribed toll and let them buy whatever they should wish and however much better they can.
  5. On the salt paths, moreover, which cross the river Enns by the legitimate street, let them pay a full scafil at Url and let them be forced to pay nothing further. But let the ships there that are from the Traungau pay nothing, but cross without tax. This is to be observed with respect to the Bavarians.
  6. The Slavs, indeed, who came out from the Russians or from the Bohemians for purposes of trade, let them have marketplaces wherever [they want] on the bank of the Danube or wherever in Rotthales or in Ried, two lumps from one mule’s load of wax, of which both shall be worth 1 scoto; from one man’s load a lump of the same price; if indeed one should wish to sell slaves or horses, 1 tremissis from one female slave, similarly from 1 male horse, 1 saiga from a slave, similarly from a mare.
  7. Also of salt-ships, after they shall have crossed the Bohemian forest, let them have license to buy or sell or beach in no place before they arrive at Ebersburg. There from each legitimate ship, that is one which three man sail, let them pay 3 scafils of salt, and let nothing further be exacted from them, but let them reach Mutarim or wherever shall then have been constituted the salt-market at that time; and let them pay similarly, that is 3 scafils of salt, and no more; and afterwards they shall have free and secure license to sell and buy without any comital fine or the restraint of any person; but however much better a price the buyer and seller should wish to give for their property between themselves, let them have free license in all things.
  8. If moreover they should wish to cross to the marketplace of Marahorum, let them pay 1 solidus per ship, according to the estimation of the market at that time, and cross freely; on returning, moreover, let them be forced to pay nothing legitimate.
  9. Let merchants, that is, Jews and other traders, wherever they should come from in this same country or other countries, pay the just toll as much for slaves as for other goods, just as they always did in the times of previous kings.

There are many things that interest me about this document, but I don’t really have time to dig into them just now; there’s a lecture that needs finishing. So, just a list of talking points, maybe.

  • The tolls really only concern a few sorts of goods, salt most of all but also slaves and wax, horses too, and these are the only named goods. It seems clear that other stuff is being traded, but the state cares much less about it; these are the things for which toll levels are set.
  • Those tolls are to be paid in kind, where the goods are salt or wax, but otherwise in cash, except that none of the words used for that money, semidragma, scoto, tremissis, solidus, saiga, are actual Carolingian coins. (Solidus might just be, but it’s unlikely; none had been struck for nearly a century.) It’s not actually clear what people are paying in, but presumably at least some of the time it must have been goods to the agreed value of these units we can’t identify, as it says, “by the estimation of the market at that time”, iuxta estimationem mercationis tunc temporis. Pursuing that point a little distance usually makes peoples’ heads spin. How do we know what a pound, dollar, or whatever, is worth? Is that what’s happening here? And so forth.
  • There are ethnicities in play here, but they are not legal categories. There are Slavs on both sides of the river, and those from ‘Bavaria’ as it is here counted have the same rights as the Bavarians, those from Rus’ and Bohemia (the former being a long way to travel!) have different ones. Certainly, it seems to be better to be a Bavarian in these exchanges, but that’s unsurprising given that that’s the side that is running the toll station, and it seems to have been the erosion of that special status that led to the enquiry in the first place, so it obviously wasn’t what everyone wanted.
  • It is repeatedly stressed that if people can cut a better deal than these terms give them elsewhere, good luck to ’em. It’s interesting therefore that enough of them felt it was still worth coming to these controlled marketplaces. This tells us something about the opportunities for trade in this world. As with emporia in the West somewhat earlier, these tolls seem only to be practical if buyers were so few that sellers had to go where they were even if it cost them something to do that.
  • Another reason for the focus on this place, and for the prominence of salt in the details here, may be that a major route for salt seems to have crossed the Danube here (see no. 5 above), which is presumably why the toll station was where it was (which is, you’ll notice, never actually specified—Raffelstetten is just where the enquiry was held). The idea that salt moved along fixed routes is one we find elsewhere, but I’m not sure anyone’s really thought about why; if it cost you to go these ways, why not go others? The cost must presumably have been quite carefully balanced.4
  • Lastly, for now, that last clause is interesting, isn’t it? I can see how it could be read as evidence that Jews were dominant in long-distance trade, but to me what it actually seems to say is that there was a class of (professional?) traders, mercatores, among whom Jews were a recognised category, and indeed that all Jews here concerned could be assumed to be such traders, but that these people were actually separate from the normal business operations up and down the Danube here, even though people were apparently trekking all the way from the modern Ukraine to traffic. Is the difference here between people who live by trade and by people who trade what they make or get by other non-market means? If so, what does that do to our picture of early medieval trade, if it mostly wasn’t traders doing it? Yes, I know, generalisation from a single datum, but it’s such an interesting one…

I should leave it there, anyway, but I could go on, and one place I’m conciously not going is into the chronology and whether you’d have seen something like this if you’d been at, say, Frankfurt, a century before. Instead, I invite you to, if you like, and maybe put it before students and see what they see. Enjoy!


1. I first found out about it from François-Louis Ganshof, “Note sur l’« inquisitio de theloneis raffelstettensis »” in Le Moyen Âge : revue d’histoire et de philologie Vol. 72 (4e Séries Vol. 21) (Bruxelles 1966), pp. 197-224, which I was reading just because I had the volume out in order to read something else entirely (probably Lina Malbos, “L’annaliste royale sous Louis le Pieux”, ibid., pp. 225-233) and checked the contents page. I wish there was still time to do this with every volume I borrowed from a library, because you learn so much by doing it…

2. I’m thinking here, of course, of Michael McCormick, The Origins of the European Economy: communications and commerce 300-900 (Cambridge 2001), of which whatever you may think of it it can fairly be said the bulk of its evidence is not actually about trade.

3. Usually in these posts I give the original text in a footnote, but since here that original text is Alfred Boretius & Victor Krause (edd.), Capitularia regum Francorum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Legum sectio II: Capitularia regum francorum) (Hannover 1897, repr. 2001), 2 vols, II no. 253, which is online here, I won’t as you can just check it yourself. The translation is all my own and if you spot any errors please do say so!

4. There is some work on salt roads in England at least; I know of John Maddicott, “London and Droitwich, c. 650-750: trade, industry and the rise of Mercia” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 34 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 7-58, but there must be stuff for the Continent I haven’t found too. On emporia, I suppose we still see Richard Hodges, Dark Age Economics: the origins of towns and trade AD 600-1000, 2nd edn. (London 1989) but a quick search now produces Sauro Gelichi & Hodges (edd.), From One Sea to Another: trading places in the European and Mediterranean early Middle ages. Proceedings of the International Conference, Comacchio, 27th – 29th March 2009 (Turnhout 2012), which I didn’t know about and should obviously look at.

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.