Category Archives: Currently teaching…

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.

Publishers, copyright and the prevention of research-led teaching: a thought experiment

Being a year behind with the blog means, naturally, that things linked to the academic year come round again as I get as far as blogging about them, and in this instance the spur is making reading digitally available for students, which has propelled me into ranting again about how daft the way we publish is. I have one particular point in mind, so I will try and keep the post on target, but I’m not promising that other things that make me cross won’t turn up in footnotes. So, this is a post about how we make our research available to students for teaching purposes.

When I started teaching in 2003 the digital thing was quite new. I was the first user in that department of some new software they had of the sort that would come to be called a Virtual Learning Environment, a clunky slow thing called Sentient Discover that still worked better than Blackboard five years later (though as I’m now working with it again, I have to admit that Blackboard has come a long way since I first met it). At that point, though, there was neither file-space nor hardware available within such an environment to digitise materials from hard copy; Oxford simply aimed to provide sufficient hard copies, and so digitising actual readings is something I only really started to do at Birmingham. This post started off as a thought when I came to be doing it again the next year, to supply students on a big survey course with access to materials that a hundred-plus people would need in the same week.1

Copyright symbol

Obviously there are copyright implications about scanning stuff and sticking it online, even behind a firewall. It struck me while thinking this post out that academics’ somewhat offhand relationship to copyright is in some ways only to be expected; we almost never get paid from sales of what we write, we usually don’t in fact own copyright in it, that being either granted to a publisher and, if we’re lucky, licensed back to us, or else held by our employers.2 Consequently copyright, intended to protect the livelihood of authors, is actually of no direct monetary benefit to us, whereas it is very often in the way of our reading or accessing other information which we need to work. This is of course why there is an Open Access movement and Creative Commons licensing and various other alternatives set up by those who believe information should be free, but the fact of the matter is that lots of it ain’t. And so copyright applies to these materials, and the law in the UK is pretty clear: assuming that it’s not an exception (published outside the EU or out of copyright) you can photocopy up to five per cent of a volume or one single article or chapter, whichever is the larger, once only, for your own use (and you may not circulate that or pass it on to someone else), and you can scan the same amount of something and place it in a private digital repository as long as the managers of that repository are tallying it and making appropriate royalty payments to the Copyright Licensing Agency. I believe the rules in the USA are similar, but I’m not a lawyer and even this much may be wrong. Anyway, we now reach the thought experiment.

Often, in interviews, I have been asked how my research enhances my teaching, how I incorporate my research into my teaching, and so on, and research-led teaching is a phrase that has become almost hackneyed in the UK in the last decade or so. I have got a lot better at answering this kind of question over the years but it was always a problem for me, because I work on Spain, which is not very interesting to the average UK student, and most of my source materials are in non-Classical Latin and not available in translation. So it struck me early on that one excellent answer to that question would be, “I use this volume of translated documents that I myself have published for exactly this purpose!” And suddenly last year I realised that because of the way we publish, that is in fact not an excellent answer at all.

Consider. Let’s say that I convince some press that charters are, in fact, where medieval studies is at, and that if they publish a volume of charters translated by me it will be hoovered up by university teachers everywhere who want to use something that isn’t chronicles or literature and therefore by default the readings of the élite. So I translate the documents, they are published, my university duly buys a copy or few, and I want to set it for a course. Let us say that that course recruits fifteen students, and that I am not either willing or allowed to require that the students buy a copy each, no matter how much good it would do my royalties money (if we assume that the press I managed to persuade was such a one as pays them). I still have to make required readings available digitally, however. How much of this, my own work, can I therefore set to my students? Why, no more than five per cent, of course!

So, by publishing that material, I actually lock most of it away from the use for which I intended it. There are only two ways round this that I can see. One is to publish with a press that will publish it as an e-book and license that in terms that allow lots of people to access it at once. These are not in fact common license terms, precisely because they are constructed so as to minimise the number of books you need to buy; it shouldn’t surprise us when companies like Routledge sell e-books with licenses that mean that only one person in a university can use them at once, they are in the business of selling books!3 The other, of course, and by far the simplest and the most use to the world at large, is just to put the stuff on the open web, but this is a path with no reward in terms of professional recognition, for reasons both sound and stupid; it wouldn’t have to pass peer review, on the one hand, so is hard to rate, and on the other some people still don’t think databases count as real publication. Such a volume is something I actually want to publish, but it absolutely does my head in that somehow things have got to the point where if I picked the wrong press, actually publishing it is about the worst thing I could do in terms of making that material accessible to students…


1. FIRST RANT. Last year I was, of course, curating coins, so this teaching I did as contract staff for the Department of History. I don’t want to single Birmingham out here, because as far as I know their system for paying temporary teaching staff, often postgraduates, is usual, which is to say that it’s the system I’ve been paid with everywhere else I’ve done it or, in fact, better. The pay is by the hour, paid for contact time and an additional hour of preparation time for every classroom hour. That prep time, of course, is meant also to cover all the other work of teaching, which is to say marking, delivering feedback, answering e-mails and attending meetings with other staff, so in effect it all disappears. There is also a structural assumption that you know enough to teach a subject which is often explicitly not enacted. By this I mean that if you are new to a topic and have also got to do the reading, or even just refresh yourself about something you last read ten years ago, that hour is very quickly gone, with no other class prep done at all, but obviously it is expected that you will in fact learn enough to teach that hour anyway. So, maybe you’re more efficient than me, but I find that even now a classroom hour on a course that’s new to me takes me between two and three hours to prepare, and then there’s all the admin., so really one is getting paid at something like a third or a quarter of the rate per hours worked that one is in fact offered, all of which brings it very close to and even below minimum wage. Of course, universities largely couldn’t afford to deliver seminar teaching any other way, which is a system problem for which I don’t blame their staff, though I do blame staff who don’t recognise these economics. But therefore, when you are course leader for such a course, with five or six people being paid like that teaching for you, don’t expect them to do your photocopying or digitisation for you as well. You’re the one being paid a full-time wage: do what you’re paid for. I intend to stand by these words now that I am in fact the one being paid, of course, but it really does annoy me when people leading such courses don’t consider what their TAs actually get paid for.

2. The second rant would be about people who don’t realise they’ve signed away these rights and then protest about how unfair it is when the people to whom they’ve signed them stop them making free with what are no longer their own writings. Read your contracts.

3. I instance Routledge because these were indeed the terms under which they had licensed Dorothy Whitelock (ed./transl.), English Historical Documents volume I: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), to Oxford when I taught there.

Seminar CXCIV: who was afraid of the end in millennial England?

We have already recently mentioned the scholarly debate over whether or not there was a particular fear of the the world associated with the year 1000 in the Middle Ages, and that I was teaching a course on such matters in Birmingham this last spring. Thus, when I gathered that Professor Catherine Cubitt was giving the Royal Historical Society’s Public Lecture on 7th February 2014 with the title “Apocalyptic Thought in England Around the Year 1000”, I made sure I ws there, both because of the theme and because Katy is always interesting. Because of the reading for the course, I was one of the people in the audience who knew a lot of what she was saying, but by no means all and I came away with many new thoughts.

Having written all this and starting the search for links and images, I discover to my delight that the lecture was in fact recorded, so you can watch it uourself and see how fair I'm being! And it's worth the watch, if you like such things, and not just for the Steve Bell cartoon visible in the clip here...

Getting at whether writers, and by this given the sources we mean churchmen, obviously, were really worried about the imminence of the end of time and the Final Judgement is complicated by the fact that it’s a really obvious preaching tool. While Richard Landes and others may be right that for some people, the Final Judgement was a happy promise that although they’d been beaten down on all their lives by over-privileged people on horses living in halls, God would eventually, and perhaps soon, set things right, certainly the sermons we have from this era, a genre in which England is unusually rich, think that their hearers needed to be afraid, because time for repentance and mending their ways might be running out.1 This is fire-and-brimstone preaching at its most immediate, I guess, and it requires a peculiar two-handed approach: the End must be close, close enough that the signs are evident, but also there must still be time to make things better or it’s too late to preach. The result is that the Apocalypse becomes always imminent but never here, and in this respect we could have just the same debate about Pope Gregory I around 600 as we could have about, say, Abbot Æfric of Eynsham around 1000, whose list of events that should be read as showing the end times being in progress went back to the first century!2 If there was genuine worry about these issues, it’s both hard to separate from the utility of the trope for moral reformers (the basic conclusion of my students that term) and possible to find whenever we have the right kind of evidence.

London, British Library, MS Harley 3271, showing the text of the Tribal Hidage and the opening of the Grammar of Æfric of Eynsham

I can’t show you a picture of Æfric, but I can show you an eleventh-century writing of his name in this manuscript, London British Library MS Harley 3271, at the head of his treatise on grammar, weirdly facing a text of the Tribal Hidage

Nonetheless, there is a lot of this stuff, relatively speaking, from tenth- and early-eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon England, and it’s easy enough to see why: the country was beset by Viking attacks it was not managing to resist, the kingship of Æthelred II (978-1016) was increasingly paralysed by poor leadership and treachery, and things were not getting better despite an increasingly desperate moral agenda at court.3 Here again we have the problem that one of the people who was most involved in that agenda, Archbishop Wulfstan II of York, was also very fond of the Apocalyptic message as a preaching tool, seen most clearly in his Sermon of the Wolf to the English, apparently first written after the worst had happened and the king had been driven out but redone several times after that. Since he also helped draft Æthelred’s later laws and perhaps his unusually verbose and ‘penitential’ charters, that the voice of the state has an urgent tone of repentance about it is not surprising.4 The agenda was probably not cynical, either: Æthelred’s charters seem almost to be searching for what he and his people may have done wrong in their different pleas for forgiveness: yes, the imminent Last Judgement, but also various saints he might have offended, the soul of his murdered brother, his mother’s curse… he was apparently a haunted man and whatever Wulfstan’s concerns were, they found a ready audience with the king.5

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.38, otherwise known as Sawyer 876, a charter of Æthelred for the abbey of Abingdon from 993

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.38, otherwise known as Sawyer 876, a charter of Æthelred for the abbey of Abingdon from 993 very full of apologies for the king's earlier mistreatment of the abbey

Nor was it just Wulfstan that used this stuff, either; we’ve mentioned Ælfric and there are various anonymous homilies preserved that also like the Last Days as a trope. Furthermore, for what it may be worth, Wulfstan himself seems to have been concerned about this all his life, in his earliest works before he was part of the government and even still after Æthelred’s succession by Cnut and the consequent end of the Viking menace.6 The End was still coming! Katy’s conclusion was therefore that, even if such thinking and preaching served a moral and reformist agenda and was being used to that end by its propagators, there were still a lot of those, sufficiently many and widely-disseminated (especially in the laws) that people at large would have been much exposed to this rhetoric. (I think now of the rhetoric of the term ‘recession’ and how that is used as a critique of the establishment, too, whatever its empirical truth.)

The <em>Sermo Lupi ad Anglos</em>, Sermon of the Wolf to the English, in its manuscript habitat

The Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, Sermon of the Wolf to the English, in its manuscript habitat (though I’m afraid i don’t know which manuscript)

As the first questioner noted, this did not entirely address the question of whether there was much popular take-up of the idea that End was near, and Katy conceded this, saying that Richard Landes has made this such a difficult question that it couldn’t be addressed in this forum. (My students would generally come to the conclusion that it can’t really be addressed at all.) Jinty Nelson noticed, and I later made sure my students did, that the English rhetoric of the End is quite, well, Insular, in as much as it doesn’t partake of any of the developing Continental and Byzantine traditions about the role of a last emperor in clearing the way for the End, even though (as I pointed out) Æthelred did sometimes use the Greek imperial title basileus in his charters; the sources are Revelation and St Augustine and not very much more.7 Another point I tried to raise (because there’s nothing so dangerous as a man with a little knowledge, I suppose) was around the laws: unlike the various sermons, and charters whose audience was a single court assembly then a monastery thereafter, the laws represent official disseminaton of this rhetoric, or so we assume. (I did privately wonder if Patrick Wormald’s work on the manuscripts allowed us to conclude that actually half of this stuff never left Wulfstan’s office in Worcester and represents only the versions he would have liked to send out.8) Katy replied that she felt that the Apocalyptic rhetoric has to be read into the laws, rather than being there explicitly, and indeed this was what I later found with my students. That was a good course, and the lone group that took it did their best with it; looking back, though, I realise that this lecture must have set a number of the places whither I wound up trying to guide them…


1. I’m leaving aside here the point made by both Landes, often, and Katy here that a long tradition of literature starting with Christ Himself in the Gospels held that the date and time of the End could not be known, and that any attempt to calculate it was to defy Christ. This is true and much reiterated, including by Katy’s sources, but the post is long enough already! Some obvious references at the outset, however, are Richard Landes, Andrew C. Gow and Daniel C. Van Meter (edd.), The Apocalyptic Year 1000: Religious Expectation and Social Change, 950–1050 (Oxford 2003), where Malcolm Godden’s “The millennium, time, and history for the Anglo-Saxons”, pp. 155-180 is most immediately relevant; compare Edwin Wilson Duncan, “Fears of the Apocalypse: The Anglo-Saxons and the Coming of the First Millennium” in Religion and Literature Vol. 31 (Notre Dame 1999), pp. 15–23, a basic introduction to the issues, and Simon Keynes, “Apocalypse Then: England A.D. 1000” in Premyslaw Urbańczyk (ed.), Europe around the Year 1000 (Warsaw 2001), pp. 247–270.

2. We found on the course that Bernard McGinn (ed./trans.), Visions of the End: Apocalyptic traditions in the Middle Ages (New York City 1978; 2nd edn. 1998) was an indispensable source of primary material, including if I remember some of Gregory the Great’s writings on this issue, but see on him also Robert Markus, “Living within Sight of the End” in Chris Humphrey & Mark Ormrod (edd.), Time in the Medieval World (Woodbridge 2001), pp. 23–34. For Ælfric a good starting point is Pauline Stafford, “Church and Society in the Age of Ælfric” in Paul E. Szarmach & B. F. Huppé (edd.), The Old English Homily and Its Backgrounds (Albany 1978), pp. 11–42.

3. Here the most obvious thing to cite is none other than Catherine Cubitt, “The politics of remorse: penance and royal piety in the reign of Æthelred the Unready” in Historical Research Vol. 85 (London 2012), pp. 179-192, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2281.2011.00571.x.

4. I discover now in searching for stuff to support this post that there is now plotted Andrew Rabin (ed./transl.), The Political Writings of Archbishop Wulfstan of York (Manchester forthcoming), which looks very useful.

5. Here, meanwhile, the obvious cites are now Levi Roach, “Public Rites and Public Wrongs: Ritual Aspects of Diplomas in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century England” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 19 (Oxford 2011), pp. 182–203 and idem, “Penitential Discourse in the Diplomas of King Aethelred ‘the Unready'” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History Vol. 64 (Cambridge 2013), pp. 258–276, and in case that doesn’t seem coincidental enough, I should mention that the lecture was preceded by a recitation of new fellows of the Society, of whom Levi was one! So the world remains tightly bound, unlike, as Wulfstan was fond of emphasising, Satan (see William Prideaux-Collins, “‘Satan’s bonds are extremely loose’: apocalyptic expectation in Anglo-Saxon England during the millennial era” in Landes, Gow & Van Meter, Apocalyptic Year 1000, pp. 289-310.

6. See Patrick Wormald, “Archbishop Wulfstan and the holiness of society” in David A. E. Pelteret (ed.), Anglo-Saxon History: basic readings (New York City 1999), pp. 191-224, repr. in Wormald, Legal Culture in the Early Medieval West (London 1999), pp. 225-251; Joyce Tally Lionarons, “Napier Homily L: Wulfstan’s eschatology at the close of his career” in Matthew Townend (ed.), Wulfstan, Archbishop of York: the Proceedings of the Second Alcuin Conference, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 10 (Turnhout 2004), pp. 413–428.

7. For the wider scene the most neutral introduction is probably Simon MacLean, “Apocalypse and Revolution: Europe around the Year 1000” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2007), pp. 86–106; for the Byzantine tradition, try Paul Julius Alexander, The Byzantine Apocalyptic Tradition (Los Angeles 1985), perhaps updated with Paul Magdalino, “The Year 1000 in Byzantium” in idem (ed.), Byzantium in the Year 1000 (Leiden 2003), pp. 233–270. Æthelred had the title basileus used for him in a full forty-three of his charters, which you can make the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England list for you here; it is often basileus of Britain or even of Albion, too, which makes me wonder if it wasn’t a reaction to the Kings of the Scots’ increasing use of the title of King of Alba.

8. Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the twelfth century, 1. Legislation and its limits (Oxford 2003); see also idem, “Archbishop Wulfstan, eleventh-century state-builder” in Townend, Wulfstan, pp. 9-27.

Link

An insider’s view of Lichfield cathedral

Special Subject Field Trip to Lichfield Cathedral, 19th March 2014: Swords, Hoards and Overlords: Anglo-Saxon England and its Neighbours in the Age of Bede

One of the two courses I ran at Birmingham last year was a two-term option on early Anglo-Saxon England, taken up to more or less the death of Bede. I got handed that remit as part of my contract negotiations and if it had not already been advertised, I think I’d have stretched it to reach King Alfred, but it was still fun, I had an excellent group for it who remained interested throughout, and the person who had designed the initial offering, none other than Peter Darby, had built in two slots for field trips. The first of those was to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to get up close to the Staffordshire Hoard, but the other had not been fixed, so I cast about and thought of Lichfield Cathedral. This was a splendid idea: the chapter did a great job with us, including not just making sure we saw more bits of the Hoard, the St Chad’s Gospels and the Lichfield Angel, but letting us in places others might not get to go. And, since we had been awarded money to cover the travel, the School of History and Cultures demanded a student report on it that they could use for publicity on a specially-created blog, and one of my students, Alex Tweddle, bravely stepped up to write it around my photographs. It took a little while to go online: I didn’t help by thinking it would be best to send the relevant person actual HTML and a ZIP folder of image files, in whose use I then had to train them… It still shows the signs, alas. But since April it’s been up!

Dilbert cartoon for 9th November 1995

I always think of this cartoon in such moments, but had forgotten its medievalist reference point…

Alex’s text is almost embarrassingly fulsome but I’m quite pleased with the photos (one choice one set as header), and it was a marvellous opportunity, so perhaps you’d like to go and have a look?