Category Archives: Frontiers

An argument for Merovingian control in Álava

So, I promised there would be more academic content soon, and I think this is some of it, though there might be room for debate. You see, we’re still back about four years in my academic life here, in October 2017, at which point something happened which I had never before experienced, which was… research leave. It was only one semester, and I had to finish four articles in it, but still, it was a bit of a shock to the system, as I had to learn how to manage unstructured time again.1 Probably the below has nothing to do with anything I was supposed to be doing, but I’m going to explain my happening on it as part of that learning process and just tell you about it.

Agustín Azkarate-Olgaun

Professor Agustín Azkarate-Olgaun of the Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea

So, in a fairly obscure volume of proceedings from a conference in Galbiate, Northern Italy, in 1991, there is a paper by Basque archaeologist Agustín Azkarate Garai-Olaun called “The Western Pyrenees during the Late Antiquity: Reflections for a reconsideration of the issue”.2 I’m not sure why he decided to publish this in English, but I’m glad he did or when noting the contents of the volume I might not have bothered to skim it. Having done so, though, this is what I found, summarised as bullets:

  1. We know very little with any security about the history of the ‘Wascons’ (as he unfortunately chose to translate Vascones) in late Antiquity, because writers about them tend just to repeat stereotypes about obstreporous barbarians who wouldn’t toe political lines (pp. 179-180).
  2. Since the fifth century saw them attacked by Romans, Sueves then Visigoths, all coming through the Western Pyrenees, the Basques must have been involved in things (pp. 180-183).
  3. Nonetheless, the first real textual whisper we get of their existence after the collapse of Roman government is a Visigothic royal campaign against them in 581, followed by many more, after a few of which we also start to have records of Basque raiding and even settlement in south-western Gaul, in the patch, indeed, which is now Gascony (pp. 183-184).
  4. However, archaeologically, these violent settlers are basically undetectable; they did not apparently use a distinctive material culture which can be recognised in finds or organise settlement in any distinctive way (pp. 184-185), BUT!
  5. A cemetery at Aldaieta, close to Vitoria, has instead shown, as well as quite a variety of burial rites, weaponry and dress fittings of decidedly Frankish types, rather than the Visigothic ones which the Visigothic sources’ claims of dominion might lead one to expect (pp. 184-186). So, what’s up with that?
  6. Well, others have noted place-names south of the Pyrenees based on the word ‘Frank’, and the pseudonymous Frankish chronicler Fredegar reports sixth-century Frankish campaigns into the Iberian Peninsula as far south as Saragossa, and even Frankish rule of the northern province of Cantabria under a duke actually (and suspiciously) called Franco; but in general no-one much from either side of the Pyrenees in the modern era has thought this at all likely and have pointed to the lack of material evidence which might support it (pp. 186-188).3
  7. So, obviously, Aldaieta looks a lot like that material evidence, as does further burial evidence from a cemetery in Pamplona, where the excavator classed the goods as Merovingian (i e. Frankish) and everyone who’s written about it since has called them Visigothic, and another then-unpublished site called Buzaga adds to this sample (pp. 188-190).
  8. So, maybe this is how come the Basques could keep chasing off the much-more-powerful Visigoths: they had Frankish back-up (pp. 190-191)! He promises more support for this soon (p. 191), and I have not come across it but the man has published a lot, I haven’t read it all, perhaps it’s out there. But this is enough to think with.

It’s an unusual argument: I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else contend that the Merovingian Franks had any control in the Iberian Peninsula, though he has cites for others. But there are things one can line up with the idea. Gregory of Tours records a number of sixth-century Frankish campaigns bound for the Peninsula. They didn’t all get there, but it was still evidently Frankish campaigning space.4 It would also make a certain amount more sense of the Carolingians’ repeated attempts to intervene over the Pyrenees, which have never really fitted with their expressed idea of renovatio regnum francorum, ‘renewal of the kingdom of the Franks’, if some of that territory had in fact previously been claimed by Frankish kings, and an ongoing idea of that kind might even explain the otherwise rather odd apparent obeisance on the part of King Alfonso II of Asturias to Charlemagne recorded by the Royal Frankish Annals in 798, odd because as we normally understand things their territories didn’t meet so you’d think Alfonso could cheerfully ignore Big Chas across the mountains.5

An early medieval belt-buckle found in the Basque cemetery of Buzaga, now in the Museo Romano Oiasso

All the images I can find of the Aldaieta excavation are full of skeletons, perhaps naturally enough given it was a cemetery dig but still perhaps not what you need with your possibly-breakfast reading. Instead, here is an early medieval belt-buckle found in the Basque cemetery of Buzaga, now in the Museo Romano Oiasso.

On the other hand… Gregory’s reports, unlike Fredegar’s, don’t imply any Frankish success in establishing a presence south of the Pyrenees; indeed, as Azkarate notes, what Gregory implicitly records is Basque settlers pushing north, not Franks south. It might be that the Merovingians set out to reverse that, but no-one says so. The Carolingians intervened in plenty of places that didn’thave old Frankish claims and always found a justification, and by the time they did it the government on the other side was even foreign and hostile of religion, though the Basques were not and still got hurt badly by the Carolingian efforts.6 Furthermore, the argument that the Basques would have needed Frankish support to throw off Visigothic overrule looks weaker when one remembers that they threw off Carolingian overrule long after the Visigoths were gone (though by then, we could probably use other evidence, including burials at Pamplona again, to suggest that they may have had Muslim back-up…7 The Asturian appeals to the Franks have by now been plausibly put in the context of long-term contests for the Asturian kingship, which may have been split down party lines over exactly the issue of ties to the Franks and, perhaps, consequent choices of Christian sect according to ‘Mozarabic’ Adoptionism led from Toledo and ‘Frankish’ or ‘Roman’ Orthodoxy led from Aachen, and that may be enough to explain both Alfonso II’s sending a tent to Charlemagne and some Frankish-looking architecture in Oviedo.8

An early medieval belt buckle and weapon fittings from burials at Aldaieta, Basque Country

Actually, I tell a lie, here is some of the Aldaieta kit, apparently on display at the Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseum Mainz, or at least on their website (linked through)

But all that is textual argumentation, you may say, and Azkarate was presenting archaeological evidence, as he points out, indeed, “archaeological data which is often more truthful given its involuntary nature” (p. 180), so hasn’t he still got a point? Well, obviously, material culture is portable, and anyone can use it unless there is some restriction, economic or social, on doing so. I’m conscious that in England there are good cases of proven-locals buried with ‘Germanic’ weapons, that on the eastern Frankish border there have been found Saxons with Thuringian kit and that in the territories of the Avars, to judge by their chosen dress fittings, as someone put it at a seminar I was at once, ‘men are from Bavaria and women are from Byzantium’.9 This stuff is chosen, that’s the point; pots don’t mean people and Frankish weapons do not have to mean Frankish occupation, rather than Frankish arms sales, or raided Frankish armouries, since even arms sales would tell us about contact and a power balance; I’m not sure, given their concern about exporting weapons to the Vikings, that the Franks would have been kitting out Basques when they had to fight them nearly as often.10 But that is to look back from the Carolingian period and its concerns onto the Merovingian one, whose kings surely had their own ideas (and no Vikings).

So at the end I’m not sure. I’ve never seen anyone else pick this up; but given where this came out, in a conference volume almost all of which is Italian-focused, would anyone else who needed it have found it? I didn’t come across this by deliberate search, I know that much.11 Obviously a lot hangs on the ‘ethnic’ identification of these weapons and grave-goods, and they were all a small number of the burials in their cemeteries, which again opens up questions about who carried (or at least was buried with) weapons in these societies. I’m no kind of archaeologist, barely know my Salin from my Saxon, so I shouldn’t be allowed to pronounce, really. But I wonder if there is anyone reading who has a better idea, or fewer scruples…


1. To be completed: Jonathan Jarrett, “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (2018 for 2017), pp. 514–535; idem, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: Cereal Yields in Early Medieval Europe and the 2:1 Misapprehension” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67.2 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28; idem, “Keeping it in the Family? Consanguineous Marriage and the Counts of Barcelona, Reviewed” (forthcoming) and idem, “Miles or militia: war-service and castle-guard in tenth-century Catalonia” in English Historical Review (forthcoming). Actually completed: Jarrett, “Middle Byzantine Numismatics”; idem, “Coinage in the Western World at the End of the Roman Empire and After: Tradition, Imitation and Innovation” in Journal of Ancient Civilizations Vol. 34 (forthcoming); “Nuns, Signatures and Literacy in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, for Michelle Armstrong-Partida, Dana Wessell Lightfoot and Alexandra Guerson (edd.), Women and Community in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia (Lincoln NB 2020), but rejected from that volume and only later accepted to be published in Traditio Vol. 74 (Cambridge 2019), 125-152; and Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages”. Some difficult meetings followed those relevations… But we’ll tell that story, or not, as we get there.

2. Agostin Azkarate Garai-Olaun, “The Western Pyrenees during the Late Antiquity: Reflections for a reconsideration of the issue” in Gian Pietro Brogiolo and Lanfredo Castelletti (edd.), Il territorio tra tardoantico e altomedioevo: metodi di indagine e risultati (Firenze 1992), pp. 179–191.

3. The Fredegar reference is equivalent to J. M. Wallace-Hadrill (ed.), The Fourth Book of the Chronicle of Fredegar with its Continuations, translated from the Latin with introduction and notes (London 1960), XXXIII (p. 21), though I don’t have access to that and get the reference from Roger Collins, The Basques, 2nd edn (Oxford 1990), pp. 91-92, who gives the translation as: “He [King Sisebut of the Visigoths] won Cantabria, previously held by the Franks, for the Gothic kingdom; a duke named Francio had conquered Cantabria in the time of the Franks, and it had long paid tribute to the Frankish kings.” For me this raises the question, when the heck was ‘the time of the Franks’ from Fredegar’s perspective? But for most other people it has raised the question of whether Cantabria must mean Cantabria as we know it or whether it could include modern-day Álava (Collins, Basques, pp. 91-92). For Azkarate’s purposes, however, it doesn’t matter, since he’s focused on Álava.

4. Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (London 1974), III.9 (pp. 170-171), III.29 (pp. 186-187), VI.41 (p. 375), VIII.28 (pp. 456-457) and VIII.30 (pp. 459-460), of which only the first, second and fifth were actually more than plans.

5. On the Carolingian ideological pitch, as evinced by the man who actually secured their transpyrenean territories, Louis the Pious as King of Aquitaine, see Josef Semmler, “Renovatio Regni Francorum: die Herrschaft Ludwigs des Frommen im Frankenreich 814-829/830″ in Peter Godman and Roger Collins (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (Oxford 1990), pp. 125–145. On Charlemagne and Asturias, try Roger Collins, “Spain: the Northern Kingdoms and the Basques, 711-910” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History Volume II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 272–289, DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521362924.014, pp. 279-280. He only gives it a paragraph but that is really about all the evidence by itself is worth.

6. Quite a debate has developed in recent years about the Carolingian motivations for intervening in the Iberian peninsula. Compare Jonathan P. Conant, “Louis the Pious and the Contours of Empire” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 22 (Oxford 2014), pp. 336–360, Daniel G. König, “Charlemagne’s ›Jihād‹ Revisited: Debating the Islamic Contribution to an Epochal Change in the History of Christianization” in Medieval Worlds Vol. 3 (Vienna 2016), pp. 3–40, and Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, “‘Those same cursed Saracens’: Charlemagne’s campaigns in the Iberian Peninsula as religious warfare” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 42 (Abingdon 2016), pp. 405–428.

7. José Antonio Faro Carballa, María García-Barbarena Unzu and Mercedes Unzu Urmeneta, “Pamplona y el Islam: Nuevos testimonios arqueológicos” in Trabajos de arqueología Navarra Vol. 20 (Pamplona 2007), pp. 229–284. There’s also the fact that the Arabic sources in the Peninsula for this area seem to think that the Kings of Pamplona were under pact to the Emir, which could very easily have been true: see Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, La dawla de los Banū Qasī: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus Estudios Árabes e Islámicos: Monografías 17 (Madrid 2010), pp. 194-198.

8. Julio Escalona, “Family Memories: Inventing Alfonso I of Asturias” in Isabel Alfonso Antón, Hugh Kennedy and Escalona (edd.), Building Legitimacy: Political Discourses and Forms of Legitimacy in Medieval Societies, The Medieval Mediterranean 53 (Leiden 2004), pp. 223–262.

9. England: Janet Montgomery, Jane A. Evans, Dominic Powlesland and Charlotte A. Roberts, “Continuity or Colonization in Anglo-Saxon England? Isotope Evidence for Mobility, Subsistence Practice, and Status at West Heslerton” in American Journal of Physical Anthropology Vol. 126 (Washington DC 2005), pp. 123–138, cf. Heinrich Härke, “‘Warrior graves’? The background of the Anglo-Saxon weapon burial rite” in Past & Present no. 126 (Oxford 1990), pp. 22–43, though to be fair to Härke his views have shifted in the light of critique, and idem, “Anglo-Saxon Immigration and Ethnogenesis” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 55 (Reading 2011), pp. 1–28, is probably a better reflection of them, if less relevant. For the Saxon-Thuringian example see Patrick Geary, “Rethinking Barbarian Invasions through Genomic History” in Magyar Régészet / Hungarian Archaeology (Autumn 2014), pp. 1–8. A less anonymous reference for Avar material culture could be Falko Daim, “Avars and Avar Archaeology: an introduction”, trans. Ingrid Bühler, in Hans-Werner Goetz, Jörg Jarnut and Walter Pohl (eds), Regna and gentes: the relationship between late antique and early medieval peoples and kingdoms in the transformation of the Roman world, Transformation of the Roman World 13 (Leiden 2003), pp. 463–570.

10. On the Carolingian bans on weapon export, the reference I most easily have is Anne Stalsberg, “Herstellung und Verbreitung der Vlfberht-Schwertklingen: Eine Neubewertung” in Zeitschrift für Archäologie des Mittelalters Vol. 36 (Bonn 2008), pp. 89–118. On the Basques getting away from their rule, see Collins, “Spain”, pp. 284-289. As for the fact that goods transfer need not mean trade, of course you have all got bored by now with me citing Philip Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: A Critique of the Evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123–140, but it’s still really important.

11. It must be admitted that Professor Azkárate has tried addressing other audiences: while looking for images for this post, I found out about A. Azkárate Garai-Olaun, “Francos, Aquitanos y Vascones: Testimonios arqueológicos al Sur de los Pirineos” in Archivo Español de Arqueología Vol. 66 (Madrid 1993), pp. 149–175, online here, which is very much the same argument as idem, “Western Pyrenees”, and Agustín Azkarate, Aldaieta: necrópolis tardoantigua de Aldaieta (Nanclares de Gamboa, Alava), Memorias de yacimientos alaveses 6 (Vitoria 1999).

Historians to remember

It is a distressing habit that seems to be developing on this blog where it is deaths that bring me out of a hiatus. Of course, there would be no such habit if there were no hiatuses, but the times are not good for that. Maybe that will get more explanation next post, whenever I can do that, but in the meantime, I shouldn’t go the whole holiday and post nothing, even if what must be posted is kind of awful. It is also delayed: this has been on my deck since February, when news of one significant death reached me and the person who’d told me then let me know about the five other major medievalists the reaper had claimed the previous month, and there were such among them that I knew I would have to write something next post instead of whatever I had planned. And finally, here we are.

My rules for giving someone an obituary on this blog are not very worked out. In general it is because, whether I knew them or not, their work has touched mine somehow or been the foundation of something I’ve done. In this, I persist in the blog’s basically self-serving purpose that it’s all about me somehow, I suppose, but to be fair, if I reported on deaths even of people I didn’t have much connection with, firstly it’d become a pretty grim blog and secondly I’d hardly be able to say much of use about them. Thus it is that I will not be saying more here about the late Jean-Marie Martin, leading expert on the society of the Italian area of Apulia on its journey from Byzantine through Lombard, Arab and Norman rules, or Jean Richard, eminent historian of the Crusades, than those notices, except to observe that apparently Richard, whose work I’ve put on many a reading list without myself giving it the attention it surely deserved, was only two weeks short of his hundredth birthday, and to provide links under their names to places where you can read more.1

Giles Constable, photographed by Randall Hagadorn

Giles Constable, photographed by Randall Hagadorn for Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study

Then come two about whom I have more to say, but still did not know. Firstly, Giles Constable, 91 at his death, and by that stage he had been Professor of Medieval History at Harvard and Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study, serving between times as Director of the Dumbarton Oaks Library and Research Collection in Washington DC, despite having been born in London. His was so productive a career it would hard to sum it up, and sufficiently long that I currently work with a doctoral grand-pupil of his. Wikipedia currently singles out his work on the key Benedictine reform abbey of Cluny, which I wrote about here long ago, on its abbot Peter the Venerable, a major figure in European theology and religious and intellectual life, and on twelfth-century thought in general, and certainly when making reading lists on Cluny or the twelfth-century Renaissance, I have always made sure as recent a dose of Constable as I could find was in there. That’s mostly because of reading bits of his work as an undergraduate myself, and finding that it carefully and clearly opened window after window on my understanding of the world he described.2 But what I still mainly cite him for is a short and brilliant article that did a similar thing for my understanding of the motivation of medieval monastic forgers, and sometimes for his work on monasteries’ claims to Church tithes, both of which are in that category of things which people still cite from decades ago because no-one has written a better thing on the subject.3 He seems to still have been working up to about 2016, at which point he’d have been 85 or so; may we all hope for so much…

Ronnie Ellenblum

Ronnie Ellenblum, from his Academia.edu page, which of course, does not record his death

Not active for as long, because only 68 when struck by a fatal heart attack, was Professor Ronnie Ellenblum. A more controversial figure, whom again I never met, every one of Ellenblum’s books seemed to upset a consensus, on how involved Frankish settlers were in the landscapes of the Holy Land where the Crusades brought some of them, on how much those Crusaders were willing to learn from their Muslim opponents in terms of fortifications and strategy (rather than the other way round), and more recently and noticeably, on the power of climate change to tip societies’ survivability over the edge.4 All of this, as you can probably tell, was born out of a deep acquaintance and close contact with the land in his native Israel. He also taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which by itself put him beyond some people’s pales. I did not know about that issue when, as was recorded here, I read a short piece of his that was effectively the entire impetus of my Rethinking the Medieval Frontier project, but that was, in a more direct way than usual, his fault; from my wrangling with that book chapter came all the conversations that brought the agenda for that project into being.5 If I had ever met him, I’d have thanked him for that, as well as being embarrassed about how little the project yet had to show for itself; now I will never be able to.

Cyril Mango at the American School at Athens

Cyril Mango at the American School at Athens

Then we reach the ones I did in fact know, at least a bit. The death whose news sparked off the exchange I reported above was that of the one I knew less well, Professor Cyril Mango. I met him twice, I think, at the Medieval History Seminar at All Soul’s College Oxford both times, and when I say met, I mean sat at a table while he talked, or while his wife Marlia Mundell Mango talked for him because, even then, he was very ill. Farflung Byzantinist colleagues would ask me if Cyril Mango was still alive when they were in contact with me for completely other reasons, so widely known was this, but the news was important because he truly was a ‘giant in the field‘, who had been responsible perhaps more than any other single scholar—and there really weren’t many in this competition when he began—for bringing the history and culture of the Byzantine Empire into a wider Anglophone awareness. This was not because he was a populariser, though I don’t think he had any shame about writing for a public, but because despite being extremely learned in his subject matter he remained able to communicate it to outsiders whilst still being recognised by insiders. The result was that, if someone in the UK owned one book not by John Julius Norwich about Byzantium, Mango was probably either the author or a contributor, but also that if one went on to study Byzantium, he was in all the experts’ references too.6 The field has been oddly quiet about his departure from it, perhaps because it had been expected for so long, and I’m sure there are people from his 92-year-long life who could give him a better write-up than I can—indeed, several already have—but for now I hope this does him at least some justice.

[The only pictures of Professor Michael Clanchy I can find which show him as I remember him are attached to things written by his daughter about his death, which was apparently preceded very narrowly by his wife’s, and they’re painful reading and I would feel bad stealing the pictures. The obituaries linked below have pictures of him in happier times.]

And then lastly, and for me saddest because I knew him best, there was Michael Clanchy. Since he worked mostly in the same kind of fields as Giles Constable, and especially on the intellectual ferment around the creation of the first university in Paris and one of that ferment’s principal products, the philosopher, theologian and leading candidate for history’s worst boyfriend Peter Abelard, you might wonder why I knew Michael Clanchy at all, and then be surprised at how many papers of his, including one (before the blog) which was both his inaugural and retirement lecture, I’d been to. But, investigating, you would quickly then discover that that lecture was given at the Institute of Historical Research in London, one of my academic homes, and although he really only tuned in the eleventh century in terms of his own work, he was a regular at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, because he found everything interesting as far as I can see. Consequently, because kindness returns kindness, people used to go to his stuff as well, but this was also because he made it all so interesting. His biography of Abelard may still be the only work that manages to make the man interesting personally as well as significant intellectually, as well as at least halfway comprehensible to the non-expert, not least because as its title suggests it is about far more than just Abelard.7 But as far as I know, excellent though that book is, especially if accompanied by his revision of the Penguin translation of Abelard’s and Héloïse’s letters, it only had the one edition, unlike the one that most people had heard of Michael Clanchy for, From Memory to Written Record, which argued for a fundamental shift in the way people used and stored information over the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and in which by the third edition, under pressure from those who knew England before the Conquest better than after (and better than he did), he was beginning to extend that thinking backwards into a new way of thinking about how writing was being used then that I’m not sure anyone has really picked up.8 And there’s an article of Michael’s from 1970, even, that still gets cited, another of those things that are just too good to replace.9 But it is his kindness for which he might deserve to be remembered best. I don’t know how many conversations I had with him in the IHR tea-room in which he not just professed but maintained an interest in what I did, even once or twice asking very junior me for advice on early medieval archives, none of which, since he could never teach me and our periods barely even met at the edges, he needed to do. I will of course remember him for his work, but I will also remember those conversations and be thankful for him. I can picture him trying bashfully to shrug off the praise, and of course, again, I shan’t ever get to deliver it, but also again, I hope this is something.

I need to rethink what I am doing with this blog, again, since the backlog and the available time obviously don’t work together. I will try and do some of that rethinking for the next post, but even if that doesn’t sound thrilling, at least it more or less must be more cheerful than this one. Thanks for still reading and I hope to write more soon.


1. For Martin, the work for which he was famous beyond Apulia was probably his first book, which made that area well-known to a wider audience, J.-M. Martin, La Pouille du VIe au XIIe siècle, Collection de l’École française de Rome 179 (Rome 1993), but I confess, it is one of those I know I ought to have read, and actually what I know him for most is his contribution to Pierre Bonnassie’s Festschrift, “Quelques réflexions sur l’évolution des droits banaux en Italie méridionale (XIe-XIIIe siècle)” in Hélène Débax (ed.), Les sociétés méridionales à l’âge féodal (l’Espagne, Italie et sud de France Xe-XIIIe s.). Hommage à Pierre Bonnassie, Méridiennes 8 (Toulouse 1999), pp. 339–344. Richard is easily most famous for The Crusades, c. 1071–c. 1291, transl. Jean Birrell (Cambridge 1999), one of the only textbook histories of the Crusades that gets beyond the Fourth one.

2. Embarrassingly, I now can’t work out what work it was that I was then reading; I apparently didn’t make notes on it, and several of the obvious things came out too late. It could, just about, have been, G. Constable, Three Studies in Medieval Religious and Social Thought: The Interpretation of Mary and Martha; The Ideal of the Imitation of Christ; The Orders of Society (Cambridge 1995), then very new, and may more likely have been idem, “Renewal and Reform in Religious Life: Concepts and Realities” in Robert L. Benson (ed.), Renaissance and Renewal in the Twelfth Century(Cambridge MA 1982), pp. 37–67, but one could also mention Constable, The Reformation of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge 1996) or idem, The Abbey of Cluny: A Collection of Essays to Mark the Eleventh-Hundredth Anniversary of its Foundation, Abhandlungen Vita Regularis: Ordnungen und Deutungen religiosen Lebens im Mittelalter, 43 (Münster 2010), as only two. For me especially, there’s also the quite out-of-area Constable, “Frontiers in the Middle Ages” in O. Merisalo (ed.), Frontiers in the Middle Ages, Textes et études du Moyen Âge 35 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 3–28.

3. Constable, “Forgery and Plagiarism in the Middle Ages” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 39 (München 1983), pp. 1–41; idem, Monastic Tithes from their Origins to the Twelfth Century, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 2nd Series 10 (Cambridge 1964).

4. Respectively, Ellenblum, Frankish Rural Settlement in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Cambridge 2003); idem, Crusader Castles and Modern Histories (Cambridge 2007) and idem, The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean: Climate Change and the Decline of the East, 950–1072 (Cambridge 2012).

5. Ronnie Ellenblum, “Were there Borders and Borderlines in the Middle Ages? The Example of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem” in David Abulafia and Nora Berend (edd.), Medieval Frontiers: concepts and practices (Aldershot 2002), pp. 105–118.

6. While it doesn’t cover his whole œuvre by any means, I guess one has to mention Mango, Byzantium: The Empire of New Rome (New York City, NY, 1980), idem, Le développement urbain de Constantinople, IVe-VIIe siècles, Travaux et Mémoires du Centre de recherche d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance, Collège de France, Monographies, 2, 2nd edn (Paris 2004) and idem (ed.), The Oxford History of Byzantium (Oxford 2002). Even that omits a number of critical source translations and a vital textual anthology of sources for Byzantine art, idem (ed.), The Art of Byzantine Empire (New York City NY 1972), and I could go on.

7. M. T. Clanchy, Abelard: a medieval life (Oxford 1999).

8. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066-1307, 3rd edn (Chichester 2013); one should probably also mention his England and its Rulers, 1066–1307, 3rd edn (Oxford 2006).

9. Clanchy, “Remembering the Past and the Good Old Law” in History Vol. 55 (London 1970), pp. 165–176.

A frontier comparison no-one’s made

In the aftermath of the workshop on frontiers recently described, I seem for a while to have flung myself back into relevant reading on the field. Now, if you work on the Christian-Muslim frontier in the Iberian Peninsula – which I do – then sooner or later you will run up against someone writing about the quintessential and indeed semi-legendary Iberian frontiersman, Rodrigo Díaz or el Cid, usually as epitomising the way in which that frontier worked.1 Likewise, if you work on the Christian-Muslim frontier in Byzantine Anatolia – onto which subject I have been known to venture – you will sooner or later run across someone writing about the quintessential but actually legendary folk hero Digenes Akritas as if he also somehow typified that border zone.2 And once you’re watching either field, every few years or so you’ll see someone trying to compare the two.3 I have developed quite strong views by now about why that is a waste of effort, and I will write about them here before long, but this is not that day. Instead, this post was prompted by my reading about something that looked like a much better point of comparison, but about which no-one seems to know (except, obviously, the person from whose work I got it, Sara Nur Yıldız).

Political map of Anatolia c. 1300 CE

Political map of Anatolia  1300 CE, by Gabagoolown work, licensed under CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

The text in question is known as the History of the Karamanids, by someone we only know by a pen-name, Şikari.4 The Karamanids ruled the southern part of Cilicia when they ruled, and at the height of their power, which came very close to their end, their control stretched over a considerable area. The map above shows them under pressure from the Mongols in a world where lots of polities were their size; the one below gives the full extent, a full extent that would soon be abrogated by a somewhat shortsighted attempt to bounce the now-substantial power of the Ottomans out of the crucial city of Konya. Nonetheless, for a while they were major players.

Political map of the Eastern Mediterranean around 1450 CE

Political map of the Eastern Mediterranean around 1450 CE, by MapMasterown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

But the world picture that Dr Yıldız draws from the History comes more from the earlier patch, which she describes as follows:

“We are confronted with a frontier devoid of central control, a no-man’s land dominated by fortresses and those who held them, petty warlords operating in a world of fleeting political and military loyalties and fluid, often unstable, vassalage relations. Power is played out between fortress lords of various ethnic backgrounds, whose loyalty is demanded and bought by those ruling from the faraway centres. Although fortress lords in the frontier region theoretically ruled in the name of a greater sovereign, whether it be the Seljuk sultan or the Armenian king, in practice they operated independently. The sultan, in Şikari’s account, although the power at the centre with large forces at his disposal, is a less than powerful ruler on the frontier. At most, he can only hope to coerce the various fortress holders along the periphery into nominal loyalty. The sultan, at the same time, is obliged to keep the various local rulers from attacking one another, primarily in order to avoid the difficult situation of having to choose between defending one vassal over another….5

And this sounds awfully familiar. This is not the land or politics of el Cid, of course, where big armies led by kings or people of that weight are a regular feature and the hero’s achievement is to become one of them. This is instead the land of Digenes, where there is an emperor and there is a sultan and you might meet them but you never aim to equal them, you just want your little patch of border where no-one else dares to challenge you.6 In the tenth century, as we saw long ago, when the Byzantine emperor was back in the ascendant, you might have to deal with him in order to secure that relative autonomy against your fellows.7 But by the time of which Dr Yıldız is writing, that kind of power had receded. It would return with the rise of the Ottomans, of course, and that would end that, but still, this is the kind of source material with which I underpin my James-Scott-like sense that a lot of political communities would rather aim for autonomy than connectivity.8 The area is good turf with which to do that, and Nik Matheou, among others, has done so.9 (I mention Nik not least because he is the person I’ve seen actually applying Scott to this area and period, but Dr Yıldız also gives a good account of the vexed historiography of Armenian autonomy in this area.10) So, why is there so much ink used on comparing Digenes Akritas, which is actually set in Anatolia in a period not too far from this text, to the foreign and rather different Poema del Mio Cid when there’s this much better comparator so close by?

First page of the manuscript of the History of the Karamanids

The first page of the manuscript does admittedly make the prospect of working with it a little offputting… Image from “Karamanname of Şikari /History of the Karamanids (Mid-16th century)” in Janissary Archives for 15th October 2015, linked through

Well, there are lots of good reasons this text is not more widely used. The primary one of these is that it’s in Seljuk Turkish and is preserved only in one mid-16th-century manuscript, in Konya (ironically), which was only edited in 2004.11 As a result, I myself obviously know nothing that’s in it except through Dr Yıldız’s report. Secondly, it’s a history of a single Turkmen dynasty who were removed from power by the time of the manuscript; so even its original readership was probably pretty small, wherefore, I suspect, only the single copy surviving. Thirdly, as Dr Yıldız puts it in a footnote:12

“Şikari’s History of the Karamanids, significant for being the only internal work dealing with Karamanid history, has been dismissed as unreliable by historians of Anatolian Turkish and Ottoman history. The work is characterized by an idiosyncratic mix of history and legend, and contains much tendentious, chronologically absurd, and anachronistic material. The circumstances as well as the date of this work’s composition remain unknown, although internal textual evidence suggests that it was produced some time in the mid-sixteenth century, with much of its contents possibly based upon an earlier source dating from the late fourteenth century.”

This is, of course, the luxury of having other sources; if this were all that survived from the zone and area I expect more would have been made of it, as witness Digenes Akritas. Still, you can see why people haven’t prioritised getting it into the discourse. Even Dr Yıldız only adds it as a kind of epilogue to a chapter which is mainly about Armenian Cilicia. I can also see why, given the opposed historiographies and nationalisms, it might still be a while before we get scholars of Greek literature reaching for Turkish pseudo-history as comparative material or scholars of Turkish political history looking to Greek literature either. Still, I very much wish there were an English version of this text, as I personally would go a-plundering in it…

Since I can’t, however, all I can do from here is speculate and wonder. In particular, I wonder what political control actually was in such an area. Did the Karamanid lords take tax? They presumably didn’t farm or raise livestock themselves, so they must have had some means of appropriating surplus, and they raised armies, but did they raise them through obligations laid upon their population or by paying the troops from tax? Did they hold courts of justice? Did people bring quarrels to them? Outside their towns, did anyone know who they were? Or were they actually surviving on the kind of local solidarity that means that everyone knew who they were locally even if the Sultan or King of the Armenians might struggle to pick them out from their fellows? What kind of power did those greater lords have here? Was it only as much as they could persuade the Karamanids to wield for them or were they alternative power sources that the wily subjects could use to limit the Karamanid grasp in the way that the lords of Taron had used the Byzantine emperor against their family rivals? Were the Karamanids’ towns centres and the countryside periphery, or were they nomad lords of whom the towns were somewhat terrified? Why did they want Konya, for state-building or simply because it was a source of tolls and jurisdictional revenue? Were they aiming to place themselves as indispensable local partners for the bigger players here or did they aim to push themselves up to the point where the bigger players couldn’t displace them? (Are those questions even different?) There is a lot I could do here even with a “semi-historical Turkish work”, “ultimately based on oral traditions.”13 Short of acquiring a suitably-interested Turkish-reading Ph. D. student, I can’t see how I do in fact do it… But the world’s full of interesting things all the same, isn’t it?


1. For the basic story of el Cid, see even now Richard Fletcher, The Quest for El Cid (London 1990); for a recent and useful treatment of him as frontiersman see Pascal Buresi, “Frontière politique et appartenance religieuse dans la Péninsule Ibérique : les communes frontalières et le phénomène des « Cid » (XIe-XIIe siècles)” in Henri Bresc, Georges Dagher and Christine Veauvy (edd.), Politique et religion en Méditerranée : Moyen Âge et époque contemporaine (Paris 2008), pp. 137–163.

2. For the actual text, see best John Mavrogordato (ed.), Digenes Akrites, edited, with an introduction, translation and commentary (Oxford 1956), though there are other translations (and even a graphic novel). For a reasonable example of someone using him as an archetype, see Ralph-Johannes Lilie, “The Byzantine-Arab Borderland from the Seventh to the Ninth Centuries” in Florin Curta (ed.), Borders, Barriers, and Ethnogenesis: Frontiers in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 12 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 13–22.

3. I’m sure I’ve seen it done more than this, but two cases that I have stored are Ioannis Kioridis, “The wife’s prayer for her husband in the Cantar de mio Cid and the Escorial version of Digenis Akritis” in Scandinavian Journal of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies Vol. 1 (Stockholm 2015), pp. 65–80, and Marina Díaz Bourgeal and Francisco López-Santos Kornberger, “El Cantar de Mio Cid y el Diyenís Akritas (manuscrito de El Escorial). Un estudio comparativo desde el legado clásico” in Estudios medievales hispánicos Vol. 5 (Madrid 2016), pp. 83–107.

4. Covered in Sara Nur Yıldız, “Reconceptualizing the Seljuk-Cilician Frontier: Armenians, Latins, and Turks in Conflict and Alliance during the Early Thirteenth Century” in Curta, Borders, Barriers, and Ethnogenesis, pp. 91–120 at pp. 114-119, details on the text at p. 115 & n. 107.

5. Ibid., p. 117.

6. This is very much my own reading of the text; cf. Lilie, “Byzantine-Arab Borderland”, pp. 18-19.

7. Recounted in Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De administrando imperio, ed. Gyula Moravcsik, trans. R. J. H. Jenkins, Corpus fontium historiae Byzantinae 1, 2nd edn (Washington D.C. 1967), c. 43 (pp. 188-199).

8. Referring to James C. Scott, The art of not being governed: an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia (New Haven CT 2009), online here.

9. Admittedly Nik hasn’t actually published his work on the Armenian Zomia yet, but I think it will be in the volume of papers arising from the 50th Sping Symposium of Byzantine Studies on which I reported a while back.

10. Yıldız, “Reconceptualizing the Seljuk-Cilician Frontier”, pp. 93-113 with pp. 93-94 explicitly covering historiographical approaches.

11. Şikârî, Karamannâme: Zamanın kahramanı Karamanîler’in tarihi, ed. Metin Sôzen & Necdet Sakaoğlu (Istanbul: Karaman Belediyesi, 2005), online here.

12. Yıldız, “Reconceptualizing the Seljuk-Cilician Frontier”, p. 115 n. 107.

13. Ibid., p. 115.

Fomenting New Islands Ideas

Staying where it was relatively safe in mid-2017, the workshop I’ve just described was only the first of three days’ funded activity, which Dr Luca Zavagno and I had scheduled to allow him to do everything we’d been given money for him to do in the UK in a single trip. Whereas the previous day’s work had been on my Frontiers project, we now turned to Luca’s one, The World of Byzantine Islands. Here we’d planned two things in Leeds, the first being a kind of consultation workshop with the most obviously interested medievalists on Leeds’s staff, and the second being a graduate seminar the day after. Actually, in retrospect, I think we might better have planned to do these the other way round, as the way the latter worked was that Luca effectively presented his project in a twenty-minute paper and then invited discussion, whereas in the former the presentation was much quicker, as for peers; I think that in theory he’d have got better discussion for the staff having had the extra day to think about his project having seen the fuller presentation. However, I say only in theory, because actually we got very little take-up for the graduate seminar – my own fault for late publicity as much as anything – and so it became an extension of the already-active discussion from the previous day. So maybe it all went as well as it could have done. Anyway, to write about it now probably means reprising Luca’s project brief, and then picking up on the same kind of points of interest as I did in the previous Frontiers post. There is inevitably some overlap, because several of the same people were involved and thinking with what they’d done the previous day, but I don’t think that was a bad thing either…

So, Luca has of course written about his own project and you can see the brief for it here. Plus which, we have subsequently published on it, together even, and you could also read that.1 Because of all that I’ll be ultra-short here. Basically, Luca is contending with an established historiography that sees the islands of the Mediterranean as a frontier zone of the Byzantine Empire, and that largely in the sense of a defensive bulwark, peripheral, cut off and generally hostile, both to outsiders to the empire and, sometimes, to outsiders from within the empire.2 Luca, whose research in this area started on Cyprus and has now spread, is however aware of an increasingly busy amount of archaeology which suggests that most of the Mediterranean islands remained quite vibrant, both in terms of their connection with the wider empire and of their own ecologies, economies and political self-determination within the imperial sphere.3 Where this leaves Luca is arguing that the islands, and particularly Cyprus, Sicily, Sardinia and the Balearics, maybe also Crete and Malta, all of which were Byzantine long after the land-ward coastlines that would be lost to Islam had been, were not an edge or somehow a central part of a landward territory but a kind of third space, whose characteristics he is now trying to define.4

View of the Mediterranean from the Castell de Santueri, Felanitx, Mallorca

View of the Mediterranean from the part-Byzantine Castell de Santueri (not this part, I suspect), in Felanitx, Mallorca, once a seat of Byzantine island government; image from Mallorca Tourist Guide, no copyright stated

So in the first of these workshops, as I say, Luca gave us less of this than he would in the graduate seminar the next day, I think because he didn’t want to exclude any approaches. As a result, he found himself in the midst of a kind of all-comers ideas tennis, in which the other players, apart from myself, were my colleagues Dr Alan Murray, who had been in on the previous day’s session too and who knew Luca independently, and Professor Emilia Jamroziak, then-Director of the Institute for Medieval Studies at Leeds, as well as Dr Rebecca Darley of Birkbeck, University of London, who is an affiliate of the IMS but was also the third partner in Luca’s project. (Alan and Rebecca also came along to the graduate seminar the next day, but I’m going to concentrate here on the workshop, because it’s there that, going back over my notes, I can see the roots of a lot of things the project ended up generating, and it thus helps to explain a bit what it is that we academics actually get out of the travelling to talk to each other that we’ve largely had to give up this year. I’m not sure if we could have got the same results though video-conferencing, I will admit…)

So. Because Luca had left relatively little defined, we spent the first part of the discussion trying to establish what made good parameters for the project. The high medievalists wanted to know what it was about Luca’s 7th- to 9th-century timeframe that made sense, which is of course the Byzantine-Islamic transition in the islands; but that meant working out what that transition was for the islands and when it happened to them. Even the conquest dates of some of them are not very clear, but there were arguably bigger, slower changes afoot anyway. Rebecca, for example, argued (following Chris Wickham) that the critical change in the government of the Mediterranean in late Antiquity was not that of Islam but of the Vandal capture of North Africa in the early 5th century and the Persian one of Egypt in the very early 7th, both of which broke tax spines that maintained Roman capitals (Rome and Constantinople respectively) and ended the Roman mare nostrum.5 Luca pointed out that the islands didn’t necessarily fall out of imperial orbits when the coastlines did, not least because of their role as naval bases, which tended to maintain other features of control too.6 Nonetheless, we coalesced around the idea that cultural change might have been happening at different times and in different directions from place to place, or even the same things happening for different reasons, such as settlement moving off the coasts, which could be either because fewer people were coming to these places across the sea, making trade less viable a living and port cities less useful (as may have happened in Malta) or contrarily because more people were coming by sea and they were dangerous (as is supposed to have happened in the Balearics—but see my subsequent article on that…).7

The citadel of Mdina, Malta

The citadel of Mdina, Malta, another erstwhile site of Byzantine island government, image by 5-five-5, copyright not stated, linked through

With the idea of variation sort of established, I tried to apply that favourite intellectual jemmy of mine, scale, to try and group the variations and thus be able still to say something general about the change.8 It seemed to me that not all the Mediterranean islands could have had the same range of options in the period: some were too small to defend themselves, and some too big to be closed off from seaward access. I still think this is important, but in fact in the subsequent publication, it was Rebecca who really took this point and made it useful, whereas I kind of dropped it, so I’m not sure how much credit I can take.9 Still, it is interesting to review the notes and see the sharing of ideas that generated those papers which became articles; as I say, it maybe justifies the whole endeavour…

Perhaps the most interesting idea, though, at least for me, came from none of the project partners but from Professor Jamroziak, who rightly said that none of the categories by which we seemed to want to define ‘islands’ managed to include all Luca’s test cases terribly well and that we seemed to need a new definition or category. If not, he might have to deal with the possibility that things which were not, geographically, islands, still shared all the important characteristics of them. This really sparked thoughts for me, as I started coming with Byzantine landward fringe settlements that might fit. I should have thought of the various city-states down the Adriatic coast, like Ragusa or Dubrovnik, which was still basically an independent town in the tenth century as Emperor Constantine VII records, but what I actually thought of was Byzantium’s Crimean outpost at Cherson and the Islamic military colony at la Garde-Freinet, near modern Saint-Tropez.10 And you can see that this sank deep from what I ended up writing for the project.11 I don’t think I really gave Emilia the credit she was due for that thought in that piece, though; so, belatedly, I do so now. She started that hare, and my thanks to her!

Old city of Dubrovnik, Croatia

Old city of Dubrovnik, Croatia, site of Byzantine coastal government but for a long time linked to Byzantium only by sea; ‘island’? Image by Diego Delso, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

By the end of this workshop, then, we’d all more or less prevailed upon Luca to develop a more variegated model of change in his study area, to reconsider his chronological scope and to rethink his optimistic view of connectivity as always being sufficient to have much effect on society or, if it did, always being positive. This last argument was still going on in the publication, indeed, but the use of the workshop was pretty clear and when Luca’s book on all this emerges you’ll be able to see where we were any help!12 This was not by any means what we spent most of that grant money on—in fact, we weren’t even able to spend all we’d got and had to give some back—but if I’ve shown you how it might have been usefully spent even so, then my purpose here is achieved, for today anyway…


1. Luca Zavagno, Rebecca Darley and Jonathan Jarrett, “Editorial” in Al-Masāq Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 129–139, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1596645.

2. Perhaps centred upon Elizabeth Malamut, Les îles de l’Empire byzantin, VIIIe‒XIIe siècles, Byzantina Sorbonensia 8 & 9 (Paris 1988), 2 vols.

3. For Luca’s work on Cyprus see Luca Zavagno, Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (ca. 600-800): an island in transition, Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies 21 (London 2017).

4. See for an early take on these issues Luca Zavagno, “‘Islands in the stream’: toward a new history of the large islands of the Byzantine Mediterranean in the early Middle Ages ca. 600 – ca. 800” in Mediterranean Historical Review Vol. 33 (Abingdon 2018), pp. 149–177, DOI: 10.1080/09518967.2018.1535393; now see Zavagno, “‘No Island is an Island’: The Byzantine Mediterranean in the Early Middle Ages (600s-850s)”, The Legends Journal of European History Studies, Supplement 1 (Tokat 2020), pp. 57-80, DOI: 10.29228/legends.44375, and between the two one can set Zavagno, “‘Going to the Extremes’: The Balearics and Cyprus in the Early Medieval Byzantine Insular System” in al-Masāq Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 140–157, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602375.

5. Based on Chris Wickham, ‘The Other Transition: from the Ancient World to Feudalism’ in Past & Present no. 103 (Oxford 1984), pp. 3–36, DOI: 10.1093/past/103.1.3, revised in Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400–1200 (London 1994), pp. 7–42.

6. On the navy in the period see most obviously Salvatore Cosentino, “Constans II and the Byzantine navy” in Byzantinische Zeitschrift Vol. 100 (Berlin 2008), pp. 577-603, DOI: 10.1515/BYZS.2008.577.

7. Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates? ‘Islandness’ in the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet” in Al-Masāq Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101 at pp. 199-204 for the Balearics and pp. 218-220 for Malta, largely based on Nathaniel Cutajar, Core & Periphery: Mdina and Ħal Safi in the 9th and 10th Centuries, ed. Godwin Vella, Medieval Malta 1 (Valletta 2018), for my copy of which I must thank the author.

8. My tools here come from Julio Escalona, “The Early Middle Ages: A Scale-Based Approach” in Julio Escalona and Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Scale and Scale Change in the Early Middle Ages, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 9–30, DOI: 10.1484/M.TMC-EB.3.4766.

9. See Rebecca Darley, “The Island Frontier: Socotra, Sri Lanka and the Shape of Commerce in the Late Antique Western Indian Ocean” in Al-Masāq Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 223–241, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1604930 at pp. 239-241.

10. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii, ed. Gyula Moravcsik & transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, rev. edn., Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 (Washington DC 1967; reprinted 1993 and 2008), cap. 29 (pp. 122-139) covers the various cities of the Dalmatian coast, including Ragusa, and for what it’s worth cap. 53 (pp. 259-287) gives an extensive and mostly legendary account of Cherson.

11. Jarrett, “‘Nests of Pirates’?”, pp. 212-218.

12. It should be coming out pretty soon as Luca Zavagno, The Byzantine Insular World: beyond the periphery (Amsterdam forthcoming).

Looking Back on a Ferment of Frontier Ideas

I am on holiday today, more or less at the order of my top boss, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds who has mandated two extra days’ leave for all of us because of the hell-year we may at some point be able to say we survived. Let us not right now look at the implications of reducing the working days of a workforce whose work is itself not diminished, but instead let me take the chance between bouts of much-delayed house-cleaning to see if I can’t knock out another backlogged blog post. Looking through my old papers, I find that if we stick to the programme of events from 2017, pretty much the next thing that I did of importance after the trip to Lleida was the first of a series of events connected with the two grants I was then holding, and in particular a workshop from my Rethinking the Medieval Frontier project. This was tremendous fun, but it’s also something I already wrote about at the time, as part of the publicity work for the project itself. So there is already not just a blog post for you to read about it, but the actual digest of the meeting I sent round the group afterwards; and if you are yourself deeply concerned about frontiers I think those are still worth a read. But, I could also say something here that catches some of the interesting ideas that didn’t make it into the other post or the digest, so I will.

Sant Bartomeu del Grau viewed from Sant Andreu de Gurb

The masthead of the Rethinking the Medieval Frontier website, one of my Catalan photos showing, as it happens, Sant Bartomeu del Grau viewed from Sant Andreu de Gurb

Before I do that, rather than make you read a whole separate blog post to find out what this one’s about, it seems reasonable at least to describe the nature of the event. Basically, it was the classic academic talking shop: get the best people you can think of to discuss a theme into a room together with coffee and pastries, having first given them a prompt to think with in the form of an agenda document, and let rip. When things flag, add lunch, then more coffee and carry on. Finally, take the survivors out for Thai food, bid them goodbye and take all their ideas home to cackle over and plot with! My notes from this are an interesting thing to try and decode, because I knew I was going to have to sum up and try to bring the group into consensus about what to do next in the second part: as well as some kind of record of what was being said, they have my spider-trails of connections between asterisked points, which I must have been adding live, and additional marginal scribbles in capitals of things I wanted to throw back into the discussion later. And, as I say, there are things in there which didn’t get taken forward but which are still worth laying out to look at. But first, I should identify the speakers. In order of appearance in my notes, we were:

  1. Dr Alex Metcalfe, University of Lancaster, specialist especially in Muslim and Norman Sicily, thinks a boundary is a space between spaces whose definition differs between cultures;
  2. Dr Andy Seaman, Christ Church Canterbury University, specialist especially in the archaeology of post-Roman Britain, more interested in the spaces lying between other things that aren’t demarcated at all;
  3. Dr Luca Zavagno, Bilkent University, specialist especially in the islands of the Byzantine Mediterranean and thus most interested in islands as frontier interspaces;
  4. Dr Hajnalka Herold, then of the Unversität Wien but now the University of Exeter, specialist in Avar archaeology and archaeometry, interested especially in the edges of nomadic empires and the language of frontiers;
  5. Dr Jonathan Jarrett, University of Leeds, about whom you probably already have your ideas;
  6. Professor Naomi Standen, University of Birmingham, specialist especially in ninth- and tenth-century China and the polities on its edges that contended for inclusion or exclusion from the Sinosphere, and keenest to stress the human agency of the populations who live in ’em in making frontiers real or meaningful;
  7. Dr Alan Murray, University of Leeds, specialist especially in the Crusades in the Baltic and the Holy Land, and interested especially in the way the edges of Christendom were expanded, claimed and labelled in such efforts;
  8. Dr Emma Cavell, University of Swansea, specialist especially in the Anglo-Norman Welsh Marches and most interested in the space they and other frontiers gave to women to act in unusual and powerful ways;1
  9. Dr Álvaro Carvajal Castro, of the Universidad del País Vasco, participating via Skype until it became impossible and a specialist in state formation and the use of history in ninth- and tenth-century Asturias-León, although also in other places, and for whom local-level boundaries were the specific hook for us.

So that was the team: what did we all come up with? Well, for the summary of that I can best direct you to the other post and the digest, but here’s what you might call the bonus tracks. Had you ever thought about these questions and ideas?

  • Is the sea a frontier or a space between them? If it’s a frontier, is it one of the ‘no-man’s land’ unclaimed zones which we all seemed to have in our patches at times, or does its maritime nature make it different? (Credit: Alex and Luca)
  • How important is the difference between a border between two roughly equal powers, a symmetrical frontier, and an asysmmetric one where one side is the dominant party? Is there a smooth transition between these states or a scale difference, and if the latter, where does it tip? (Credit: me and Emma in dialogue and Alex musing on it later.)
  • Control of frontier zones does not only extend horizontally: as well as modern claims to airspace, fishing rights, salvage, mining and treasure trove all involve claims on what is downwards… (Alex).
  • What would have happened if rather than the binaries that dominated much of our discussion, and in the end my digest, we had followed Naomi’s prompt to think in trinaries, geographical or political or cultural, barrier or bridge or locality, open or closed or permeable? My notes add in brackets, “a line that doesn’t exist but which you can still be on the wrong side of”, but this doesn’t seem to relate to Naomi’s point so either I was tiring or I can’t now reconstruct the exact spark-plug here; I still quite like that formulation, but Naomi’s prompt seems to go to other and more useful places…

Given the number of ways these and the other questions we were working with could be answered, I both do and don’t understand one of the other things which kept coming up in these discussions, to wit the question of whether we as historians (and archaeologists) could do what I’d declared as the mission of the project and actually generate ‘theory’. I was by a long way the most optimistic about this, but I don’t see why. Obviously we had a lot of difference both in questions and answers, but if by some awful situation we’d been compelled to come up with a 5,000 word-statement of our agreed findings, it was pretty clear what it would have contained; that’s where the digest came from. Isn’t that theory, then, given that it was not empirical findings about any one place alone?

Notes from the Rethinking the Medieval Frontier workshop

My trying to keep track in a way that would give most graphologists some cause of worry

The most I could push my learned colleagues to was that we might generate some models, but what is theory but an assemblage, not even a very big one, of models? When I think of the really big-name sociologists and anthropologists whom medievalists like to use, very few of them, if any, worked collaboratively and they usually didn’t have more than one study population (although, while maybe only Pierre Bourdieu was explicit about also using his own society as a comparator, I think they all did that as well).2 We had about ten different study populations across eight centuries and most of the Northern Hemisphere, and were collaborating to establish commonality and usefulness; that looks like a better basis for theorisation to me! We’ll cheerfully steal those people’s ideas, or those founded on nothing but white male intellectual self-reflection, but we don’t believe we can make our own.3 And yet, look at the other blog post and the above. A roughly consensus set of answers to some of those questions would be theory all right, surely. And that is still what this project, if I get to pick it up again, is aiming to produce: some actual theory about how frontiers work in non-state, non-industrial, low-tech contexts that might be surprisingly applicable in other places, maybe even the ones we’re in now…


1. For example, the noble spymistresses located in Emma Cavell, “Intelligence and intrigue in the March of Wales: noblewomen and the fall of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, 1274-82” in Historical Research Vol. 88 (Oxford 2014), pp. 1–19, about a version of which you can read here.

2. I suppose I am mainly here thinking of Pierre Bourdieu, ‘The Forms of Capital’, trans. Richard Nice in Marxists Internet Archive, 2016 online here, but for more on the relevant theme, see Richard Harker, “Bourdieu – Education and Reproduction” in Richard K. Harker, Cheleen Mahar and Chris Wilkes (edd.), An Introduction to the Work of Pierre Bourdieu: the practice of theory (Basingstoke 1990), pp. 86–108. What little I myself have done with Bourdieu has at least been frontiers-related, in the form of Jonathan Jarrett, “Engaging Élites: counts, capital and frontier communities in the ninth and tenth centuries, in Catalonia and elsewhere” in Networks and Neighbours Vol. 2 (Binghamton 2014), pp. 202–230, about which you can read and maybe already have read here.

3. Not that there isn’t stuff to be done even with Derrida’s most self-polarised thinking, as witness Sarah Stanbury, “Derrida’s Cat and Nicholas’s Study” in New Medieval Literatures Vol. 12 (Turnhout 2010), pp. 155–167, about a version of which you can read here, but when I think how much I see done by medievalists with Derrida, as opposed to say, the Chicana female socially-based reflection of Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands / la Frontera: the new Mestiza, 4th edn (San Francisco 2012), I do wonder whether the fuss is just about his genius and maybe not at least slightly because he ‘seems’ like a secular intellectual authority figure whereas she ‘seems’ like a marginalisable spiritualised anti-racist protestor. Maybe even ‘shrill‘. Anyway. Probably I have a lot to learn. In fact, certainly. Whether it’s about this, we’ll maybe someday see.

Reporting on the International Medieval Congress of 2017

I’m sorry for another long absence. Teaching in the time of Covid is just doing me in, and largely for reasons of our beloved government. History at Leeds are currently teaching online, to which we switched at pretty much the last minute possible. Prior to that we had been getting ready for mixed face-to-face and online teaching, because the Office for Students had indicated that they might support fees refunds for students offered only online teaching. However, we obviously knew that we’d have some students who could not come in, because of being infected or shielding or whatever, and so there had to be online provision as well, which had to be as good as the face-to-face in some unmeasurable way that, if we didn’t manage it, could also result in fees refunds. So at least we had it ready, if some of us more than others, but in addition to this we simultaneously had new legislation that is nothing to do with the pandemic, about making digital resources maximally accessible to the disabled, according to the W3C’s rules; that’s now English law, and again if we don’t do it we can expect fines, at least in theory. What this all means in practical terms is that quite a lot of the last week has gone on correcting closed captions for my and other people’s pre-recorded or live-recorded lectures, and this has been a relatively good week, or I wouldn’t be writing at all; the last three were worse… So here we are.

Leeds IMC 2017 banner image

So, for all those reasons I can’t do my normal scale of justice to a report of a conference from three years ago, even though it was a good and big one. Indeed, the idea of being among that many fellow academics with something worthwhile to say seems almost impossibly distant right now, and indeed my own involvement in it was unusually small, suggesting that I was short of time to organise something decent. I certainly can’t do my usual list of papers attended. But I will try and address the conference’s main theme a bit, because a number of people did make me think differently about it with their contributions; I will also light on four sessions in particular that I thought were notable for one reason or another; and I will give a few snippets of reflection on other single papers, and hopefully then there’ll be something interesting to read even if the whole conference can’t be here.

Otherness

The conference theme was Otherness. As usual, many papers continued as normal without paying much attention to that, but there were certainly plenty that did pay attention, some (as the academic media made abundantly clear for the next few days) with less care than others. A rapid trawl through my notes looking for the asterisks that mean something struck me at the time note a couple of things here, about how the category of Other is philosophically constructed and about how it is then put to social use. The idea that a community or interest group establishes its identity by means of identifying something that it is not and then defining against it is now a pretty established one in sociology and history has not been as slow as it often is to borrow this bit of theory, but as so often when you use theory to reflect on the past it bounces back looking different…

Two sharp points about this came out of two of the keynote lectures on the first day, for me, which is as it should be I suppose, but they were these. Firstly, Felicitas Schmieder, talking about “The Other Part of the World for Late Medieval Latin Christendom”, made the point that invocation of ‘the Other’ is inherently a binary system that can support only two categories: there’s Them, and there’s Us, and no room for anyone not to be either. Earlier in the day Nikolas Jaspert, talking about “The Mediterranean Other and the Other Mediterranean: perspectives of alterity in the Middle Ages”, had made a similar point, which I think is about scale (as so many things are); invoking competing mercantile élites as a case, he pointed out that, for example, the Venetians and Genoese might well have been each other’s ‘other’ at times but when a Muslim city (or indeed Constantinople) rose against Italian merchants, they were the same from the mob’s point of view and indeed right then probably each other’s; so both perspective and size of the lens matter a lot when we make these categorisations from where we now stand with respect to the medieval (or any) past. Much later in the conference, Rebecca Darley, in a response to a session about ‘Writing the Other in the Middle Ages, III: discovering new knowledge of the world‘, pointed out that for some medieval people everything was inside the group, her example being the unknown author of the Christian Topography, a sixth-century author determined to prove theologically that the Earth was flat in surface and constructed in the image of the Biblical Tabernacle, and who therefore has to encompass everyone on it as part of God’s scheme, even the Persians for whom he plainly had little but disdain. Detecting othering may sometimes therefore miss the point…

The world map from the Christian Topography of Cosmas

The world map from the Christian Topography of Cosmas. “WorldMapCosmasIndicopleustes” by Cosmas Indicopleustes, 6th century – “Les Sciences au Moyen-Age”, “Pour la Science”. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

There were also three sharply-pointed examples of othering being used as a political tactic; in fact, I’m sure there were more but these ones talked to me because of referencing contexts that I interest myself in. Firstly, in the second keynote of the conference, entitled “Drawing Boundaries: inclusion and exclusion in medieval islamic societies”, Eduardo Manzano Moreno posed that contentious document, the so-called Covenant of ‘Umar, as a marker of a change of direction within Islam, from a position that, like the Christian Topography‘s theology, could potentially include everyone in the world, to one which would actually prefer to slow assimilation to Islam, maintaining an Other so as to preserve the superior position of the in-group.1 Subsequently, Nik Matheou, speaking about “Armenians in East Roman Cappadocia, c. 900–1071: settlement, the state apparatus, and the material reproduction of ethnicity”, invoked James Scott’s idea of the Zomia to classify rural populations in Armenia during a phase of Byzantine control as being subjected, by the laying out of an administrative structure but also by church-building, to an ‘Armenian’ identity they might well not have felt had anything to do with them, since it was largely being imported by a foreign power; in that respect at least this version of ‘Armenian’ identity was an Other constructed around these people.2 I found the argument here possible but remembered the deliberate production of an Armenian identity in a foreign space less than a century later and wondered if, assuming those groups were in fact uncontrolled, the Byzantine construction of Armenian-ness was necessarily the first which had been imported there.

Obverse of a silver tram of King Levon I of Armenian Cilicia struck in 1198-1219, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/MED/AR/1

Obverse of a silver tram of King Levon I of Armenian Cilicia struck in 1198-1219, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/MED/AR/1, which you will notice if you look is lettered in Armenian and represents the king, somewhat Byzantine-like, but fundamentally on a throne made of lions, a bit of a unique iconographic departure…

Lastly, and furthest off my normal map, Reinier Langelaar, in a paper called “Tales of Foreign Descent in Tibetan Ruling House Genealogies”, made the point that in zones of particular cultural coherence—like medieval Tibet—a hint of difference might actually distinguish one usefully from ones’s competitors, which was, he thought, why so many would-be ruling families in the area attempted to claim some kind of outsider descent. Quite what the advantages of such distinction might be I needed more time to work out, but it was at least a positive spin on Otherness that some other papers were finding it harder to find.

Stand-Out Sessions

Not every session I might remark on here would stand out for good reasons, but quite a few did and it seems nicest to concentrate on those. Simplest to pick out was a round table on “An Other Middle Ages: What Can Europeanists Learn from Medieval Chinese History?” Naturally enough, this was essentially composed of some people who work on China who wanted the rest of us to realise that China is cool and useful to think with, and some people who thought that sounded great but had no idea how to start, especially if they don’t read Chinese as most scholars of the European Middle Ages don’t. (Wǒ huì shuō yīdiǎn, yīdiǎn zhōng wén… now, but I couldn’t then and I certainly can’t read it. Yet.) That was itself not too surprising – the language barriers exist and so does Otherness – but I don’t think I’ve ever been in a round table where so many people contributed, from all over the discipline, Sinologists, Byzantinists, late medieval Italianists, high medieval Germanists, high medieval Englishists (Anglologists?) and several more I couldn’t identify, all there because one way or another they did want to know more. I may later look back and see a sea change as having started here.

After that, and much much closer to my home interests, was a session entitled “10th-Century Uses of the Past, II“—I’d missed the first one—in which Simon Maclean, no less, managed persuasively to set the epic poem Waltharius into the context of the struggle between the last Carolingians and upcoming Ottonians in the middle tenth century, in which the dedicatee of the poem, Bishop Erchembold of Strasbourg was deeply involved; this did, as Simon said, explain why he might have laughed.3 Elina Screen then looked at the history of the monastery of Prüm, important to her as the burial place of her great subject, Emperor Lothar I (ruled 817-55, kind of) and best known to us through the Chronicle of one of its abbots, Regino (which indeed Simon has translated) and the monastery cartulary, the so-called Liber Aureus.4 Regino is famous for his gloomy opinion of the Carolingians, whose collapse of power he lived through, partly in exile; the Liber Aureus however makes a huge deal of them, and Elina suggested that a lot might be explained if we notice that Regino was apparently unable to extract any donations from the Carolingian kings and that his specific relationship with the royal family might have been one of the reasons his tenure as abbot didn’t work out, in which case we might want to be careful about generalising from him!

There were also two sessions on another bit of my tenth-century world, mainly Galicia, that overlapped a bit. The first, entitled “Ladies and Lords in 10th and 11th-Century Iberia: rivalries, factions, and networks“, featured Lucy K. Pick, in “The Queen, the Abbess, and the Saint’s Body: Faction and Network in 10th-Century Galicia”, recounting the use made by Queen Elvira of León of the body of Saint Pelagius, supposedly a boy martyr killed because he would not submit to the homosexual lusts of the future Caliph ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III. Although there certainly were some Christians put to death for denouncing the Prophet in tenth-century al-Andalus, this story is probably not true (despite what Wikipedia currently says); but it was put to serious work positioning the queen and her husband King Ramiro I as heads of the resistance to Islam in a Leonese court world then quite divided by faction.5 I’ve always wondered why that cult became such a big deal, given its likely fictionality, and some kind of home context for it—Pelagius was claimed as a local boy from Galicia—would certainly help with that.

The questions in the other session, “Iberian Monasticism, II: Early Middle Ages“, involved quite a discussion about Galicia, indeed, which another of the papers in the first one, by Rob Portass, had also featured. In this one, Rob resisted the idea that Galicia was a frontier, wanting I guess to frame it as a centre of its own, and Jorge López Quiroga and Artemio Manuel Martínez Tejera maintained that basically everything in the north of early medieval Iberia was a frontier space because of its vulnerability to attack from the south. The context was that Rob was contending for a movement of ideas rather than people to explain material-culture similarities between south and north, and the others were still basically looking for fugitive Mozarabs from the south with heads full of architecture they wanted to keep, and I don’t really know how we solve that.

Last in this list of sessions that struck me was one of two whole sessions, quite early on, on the Alans, one of the more obscure but long-lived migratory peoples of the early Middle Ages, called “Bringing in the Alans, II: Society and Economy of Alania“. Apparently Turkic of language and best known around the Caspian Sea, some people so considered were already up on the Rhine by the early fifth century and some settled in Gaul, eventually to become the source of some really quite overstretched historiographical claims.6 Two of the papers in the session, “Alans in the North Caucasus: settlement and identity”, by Irina Arzhantseva, and “Population and Society in the Sarmatian and Early Alanic North Caucasus: the cemetery of Klin-Yar (near Kislovodsk, Russia)”, by Heinrich Härke, were mainly about identifying Alan settlement in one of the zones to which these people supposedly migrated, which was a bit pots-means-people to be honest, but the third one, Nicholas Evans‘s “Alans on the Move: a case study in the archaeology of mobility”, despite coming out of the the same project as Härke’s, stood out for mentioning the Alans who stayed behind, still to be a factor in Caspian-era politics in the ninth century and dealings with the Khazars, and apparently looking quite different in material-cultural terms. The fact that all these people were called Alans by outsiders really became the question that was getting begged for me here.

Individual notes

Also, two things that don’t really fit anywhere else. In a session I will actually write about separately, “The Transformation of the Carolingian World, III“, Charles West, in a paper he had written with Giorgia Vocino called “Why Shouldn’t Judges Get Married? An Ottonian Perspective”, noted in passing that Emperor Otto III owned a copy of a commentary on the Codex Justinianus, the sixth-century Roman lawcode that was supposedly forgotten in the West until the twelfth century but which, as we’ve seen here before, wasn’t, at least in Rome, where Otto III also hung out.

Then lastly, there was my paper. I might have organised more sessions on frontiers, but I had been hoping to do something with the proceedings from the previous year and hadn’t really felt I could ask people to contribute more things with which I could not promise to do anything. So I wound up accepting an invitation to participate in a session being run by a friend of a friend, entitled, “Writing the Other in the Middle Ages, I: Travellers and their Cultural Preconceptions“. This was, as is so often the case for me, the morning after the dance, and my paper was called “Hagrites, Hagarenes, Chaldeans and Saracens: Missing Muslims on the Spanish march, 800-1000”. This wasn’t really much to do with travellers, but picked up on the scholarship I’ve mentioned here once or twice on people with Arabic names in tenth-century León, the very people about whom that debate over cultural transfer or physical migration already mentioned mainly arises, and tried to replicate it for Catalonia.7 And what I basically found is that you can’t; despite a much denser sample of charter evidence, there are all of 13 such persons in the documents I could check, as opposed to maybe 300 in the Leonese stuff. It is possible that, not having access then to the documents from Barcelona, I was missing out the capital to which, as in León, such migrants might have flocked, but the order of difference is still significant, and furthermore, I do now have the Barcelona documents and on a very quick run through the indices just now I don’t think they would add more than three or four.8 So that is something which might need explaining, but I think it must show support for the idea of a very low level of Islamization or Arabicization during the eighty-odd years in which the future Catalonia was in fact Muslim-run, no matter what some people would have you believe.9

Books!

Oh, also, it would not be a Leeds IMC report if I didn’t also report on books. The world’s second-biggest medievalist bookfair is a dangerous thing when you are paid for being an academic, and I came away with this list:

  • Norman H. Baynes, Byzantine Studies and Other Essays (Westport 1974), I admit I’m now not sure why;
  • Neil Christie and Hajnalka Herold (eds), Fortified settlements in early medieval Europe: defended communities of the 8th-10th centuries (Oxford 2016), because by and containing friends and papers I’d been to in previous years;
  • Janina M. Safran, Defining Boundaries in al-Andalus: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Islamic Iberia (Ithaca 2015), largely because I had been telling students to read it without having done so myself and wanted to know why, having done so, they never seemed to cite it for anything;
  • Mark Whittow, The Making of Orthodox Byzantium, 600–1025 (Basingstoke 1996), because it’s great; and
  • Patrick J. Geary (ed.), Readings in Medieval History, 1st ed. (Peterborough 1991), because it’s the archetypal sourcebook except for all those other older ones and has a wider idea of what sources might be than they do.

Even this seems to speak somewhat of being subdued, doesn’t it? And of course, I haven’t read them, not so much as opened two of them except to get them into Zotero. Oh well… But I did have fun at the conference, even if I was exhausted for a lot of it. It just seems a very long time ago now!


1. It has been established since 1930 that the Covenant of ‘Umar probably does not date, as it seems to claim, from the reign of Caliph ‘Umar I (634-644 CE), but perhaps from that of ‘Umar II (717-720), for which see A. S. Tritton, The Caliphs and their Non-Muslim Subjects: A Critical Study of the Covenant of ‘Umar (London 1930), online here except in China, but the article in which I first read about it, Norman Daniel, “Spanish Christian Sources of Information about Islam (ninth-thirteenth centuries)” in al-Qanṭara Vol. 15 (Madrid 1994), pp. 365–384, raises doubts about even that, pointing out that no-one in al-Andalus ever seems to have been aware of it, which suggests that it should come from the ‘Abbāsid period of rule in the East, not the Umayyad one.

2. Scott’s relevant work is James C. Scott, The art of not being governed: an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia (New Haven 2009), online here, but you can hear Nik’s application of it here if you like.

3. There is still no better account of that sporadic contest between a failing and a rising royal dynasty who shared claims on some territories than Rosamond McKitterick, The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, 751-987 (London 1983), pp. 305-339; one day either I or Fraser McNair, or, most worryingly as a possibility, both of us, will have to write one…

4. For the Chronicle, therefore, see Simon MacLean (ed./transl.), History and Politics in Late Carolingian and Ottonian Europe: The Chronicle of Regino of Prüm and Adalbert of Metz (Manchester 2009); for the cartulary, you have to go to H. Beyer, L. Eltester & A. Goerz (ed.), Urkundenbuch zur Geschichte der Mittelrheinischen Territorien, band I: von den ältesten Zeiten bis zum Jahre 1169 (Koblenz 1860; reprinted Aalen 1974), which has most of the documents in.

5. On this story see Ann Christys, Christians in al-Andalus (711 – 1000) (Richmond 2002), pp. 88-101; there were certainly martyrs in the reign, as witness C. P. Melville and Aḥmad ‘Ubaydlī (edd.), Christians and Moors in Spain, Volume III: Arabic Sources (711–1501) (Warminster 1992), pp. 38-43, but perhaps not as many as have been claimed; see Christys, Christians in al-Andalus, pp. 80-88 and 101-107 for critical review.

6. Meaning Bernard S. Bachrach, A History of the Alans in the West (Minneapolis 1973) and his pathfinder work for that book, idem, “The Alans in Gaul” in Traditio Vol. 23 (Fordham 1967), pp.476-489, reprinted in idem, Armies and Politics in the Early Medieval West, Collected Studies 405 (Aldershot 1993), chapter III.

7. Such work being mainly Victoria Aguilar Sebastián and Fernando Rodríguez Mediano, “Antroponimia de origen árabe en la documentación leonesa (siglos VIII-XIII)” in El reino de León en la alta edad media VI, Fuentes de Estudios de Historia Leonesa 53 (León 1994), pp. 497–633, Sebastián, “Onomástica de origen árabe en el Reino de León (siglo X)” in al-Qanṭara Vol. 15 (Madrid 1994), pp. 351–364 and Rodríguez, “Acerca de la población arabizada del reino de León (siglos X y XI)”, ibid. pp. 465–472, now added to by Richard Hitchcock, Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain: identities and influences (Aldershot 2008), pp. 53-74.

8. They now being published as Ignasi J. Baiges i Jardí and Pere Puig i Ustrell (eds), Catalunya carolíngia volum VII: el Comtat de Barcelona, Memòries de la Secció Històrica-Arqueològica 110 (Barcelona 2019), 3 vols, my copies of which I owe to the great generosity of Professor Josep María Salrach.

9. Most recently, Ramón Martí, “De la conquesta d’al-Andalus a la majoria musulmana: el cas dels territoris de Catalunya (segles VIII-X)’ in Pilar Giráldez and Màrius Vendrell Saz (edd.), L’empremta de l’Islam a Catalunya: materials, tècniques i cultura (Barcelona 2013), pp. 11–35.

A trip across the pond some time ago

I don’t know about you, but in the current medical and economic climate, I am finding my identity as a researcher quite hard to maintain. As Dirk Gently would have put it, its waveform has collapsed. I have been letting correspondence about research projects and plans drop, just because I can’t see through to a point where they will be practical again, and I was already doing this before the pandemic to be honest. I am also, concomitantly, finding it increasingly hard to engage with the research that people are still managing to do, or at least present, like the recent virtual International Medieval Congress, which I didn’t attend. I mention this mainly because it’s one reason I’ve found it hard to get round to writing this post about the 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in 2017; I was there and I learnt things and I had fun, although I wasn’t really presenting anything new, but it seems very far from what matters now. But maybe that means it’s important to retain, and in any case it did happen, however unlikely that large a gathering now seems. So here we are, an account. Continue reading

Frontiers Day at the 2016 International Medieval Congress

When, two posts ago, I recounted what still seemed worth recounting of the first three days of the 2016 International Medieval Congress at Leeds, you may have noticed that because of now being employed by the host university, I was involved in a lot more sessions as moderator than in previous years. This is the deal I get as staff, effectively; I can go to the Congress for free, because they can hardly charge me for coming to work, but they expect me to do my bit to keep it running. So my timetable for the Congress is now a lot more preset than you’d ordinarily expect. But on the last day of the 2016 edition, though my timetable was entirely fixed, it was down to me, because that was when the sessions I’d organised for my Rethinking the Medieval Frontier project happened, and since that was my doing and I was in them all it seemed worth giving them their own post.

1510. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, I: Control and Authority in the Iberian Peninsula, 5th–10th Centuries

There are only three regular sessions on the last day of the Congress, and none of them are the slots you’d choose; the first one is early morning after the dance, so attendance is weaker and more woebegone than usual, and by the third, which is after lunch, most people have already set out for home. The second one is better than those, but still thinly populated. I couldn’t have planned for this, except out of bloody-minded certainty that I’d get the hangover slot, which has happened to me at a quarter of my IMCs (I have just counted) and two-thirds of my Kalamazoos, but as it happened I put the most Iberian-focused of my three sessions first, with me in it, and so hangover slot again it was but at least I had there most of the people I actually wanted to hear it. The more-or-less-willing participants and their titles were these:

  • Sam Ottewill-Soulsby, “The Long Frontier: The Ebro Valley from the 5th to the 9th Centuries”
  • Sam started us off with the intelligent argument that the Christian-Muslim frontier on the Ebro valley from the eighth to eleventh centuries has an obvious, religious, dynamic to it but actually the area had been a frontier space for long before that, repeatedly in rebellion against the rest of the Visigothic kingdom when that was going, in rebellion against its own Muslim superiors when Charlemagne first led an army into it, and before long also in rebellion against his son Louis the Pious. There was something about the space that made it a unit that was hard to control from a distance, and Sam saw this as a brake on bigger changes that might want to affect it. I would have liked more on the last bit, but the main point was a sharp one that I have continued to think with.

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Heartland and Frontier from the Perspective of the Banū Qāsī”
  • This paper’s task was firstly to synthesize in English the quite large amount of recent scholarship there has been about the archetypal Muslim frontier warlord family, the Banū Qāsī, which was slightly embarrassing as the man who’d written much of that was in the audience to hear me repeating him back to himself.1 Its point in the session was that the Banū Qāsī, with a position in that same hard-to-control space from which the Umayyad Muslim régime couldn’t easily displace them, so that they could only control it through them, and strong links to the nascent Basque kingdom at Pamplona which made the Banū Qāsī the sole agents of peace on that northern frontier, meant that they could choose where the frontier was—on the northern border of Pamplona when they were working for the régime, and on the south of the Ebro zone when they weren’t, switchable with a simple agreement. Their own frontier status was what made them powerful, and in the end, I argued, while the central régime wisely promoted an alternative family step by step into an alternative option for them, they also displaced the Banū Qāsī by aggressively marking the frontier to their south; once the family were placed outside, they lost their position as brokers for their northern allies and thus any value they could bring southwards.

  • Albert Pratdesaba, “Battlefront Ter-Llobregat: Traces of Carolingian Forward Operating Bases in Catalonia”
  • Lastly in this first session, Albert, whom I’d met on my then-recent trip to l’Esquerda where he was then digging, got us down to the ground of this frontier we were all three discussing, looking for place-names of fortification on the Carolingian edge and matching those that have been dug up to any wider patterns going. At all of l’Esquerda, Roca del Pujol and Savellana they’ve found post-holes that could have supported a wooden guard-tower, such as which they have subsequently attempted to reconstruct at l’Esquerda.2 The initial Carolingian line of defence is now quite closely mappable, if these places are indeed on it, and while there’s a danger of circularity here the more places they dig and find stuff that matches, the less dangerous that guess will get.

The reconstructed watchtower at l'Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Catalunya

The reconstructed watchtower at l’Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Catalunya


Because I was in it I don’t have notes on the discussion, which is sad. My memory is that all went well, but that the audience was definitely larger for the second, late-morning session.

1610. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier II: Defining and Dissolving Borders in the Late Roman and Byzantine Empires

Although my own frontier of reference is indubitably in the Iberian Peninsula, the ones that have arguably generated the most thinking other than those of modern nation-states are those of the Roman Empire.3 When it became clear we had three papers offered, all of which were about how people in the Empire, in its Roman or later, ‘Byzantine’, phases, understood and strove to define its borders, it was obvious that they belonged together. These were they:

  • Thomas Kitchen, “Fatal Permeability: the Roman Frontier in Late Antiquity”
  • Tom, a friend of mine from back in Cambridge, had been coaxed into returning to the academic sphere for this paper and completely justified my certainty that this would be good by laying out for us a subtle thesis in which Roman borders, geopolitical or social both, were usually very clear but meant to be permeable, with legitimate ways for people and ideas to cross them and be accepted on the more Roman side, even if they retained roles and origins from outside. Tom’s argument was that it’s visible in the writings of contemporaries that this permeability exposed the Empire to identities and sources of status alternative to its own hierarchies with which it became less and less able to compete, often embraced on a temporary basis to survive a certain crisis but never again adequately rivalled by what survived of the older Roman patterns. The most emblematic one of those changes is the adoption of kings where an emperor had once ruled, but it wasn’t the only one and might have been one of the last. The writers of our sources still saw the empire around them, as they walked the same streets and did business in the same buildings, but we can see in their works the changes they wanted to ignore. This was one of those papers that set the audience all thinking whether their own teaching versions of this story could exist alongside this one or needed changing; it seemed clear to everyone that he must be at least sort of right. I was very pleased by this outcome.

  • Rebecca Darley, “Trading with the Enemy across the Byzantine-Sasanian Frontier”
  • This paper had grown out of Rebecca’s persistent encounter with an idea that the Persian Empire was deeply invested in controlling and profiting from international trade.4 She went after the best-documented border, that with the Roman/Byzantine Empire, and argued that the sources we have, especially the treaties between the powers reported in Byzantine histories, saw this border as closed and trade across it as a problem, which might feed either of resource or information to a mistrusted enemy. Even the most optimistic communications between the two empires don’t discuss trade as an outcome of their peace, and there isn’t actually any proof that either state took toll at its borders with the other. Highly-placed people whom they could track, like ambassadors, were allowed to do some business on the side, but otherwise they wanted trade happening in certain places under careful watch, if at all. It could always be dispensed with, though: Rebecca pointed to Emperor Justinian I’s blockade of Lazica as an effective sanction on a place that relied on imports, but one which had arisen because of a Persian conquest that was itself possible because of an imperial governor having previously established a monopoly on several of those imports, i. e. excluding the operation of other traders, apparently using state power but to private ends.5 Trade was, in other words, not worth it for the state even where, as here, there was literally a captive market, and so it was done on the side even when the state did it. Rebecca argued that we should see these empires as more or less suspicious of and hostile to commerce, rather than reading modern global capitalism back onto their operations.

  • Alexander Sarantis, “The Lower Danube Frontier Zone, 441-602”
  • On the other side of the same Empire, meanwhile, and touching also on Tom’s paper, came Alex Sarantis, looking at the Byzantine border along, and sometimes across, the Danube. He viewed this border in a way that sat between the two other speakers, being a site of local interaction around fortresses but not moving much across it any distance, though some, and being home to a highly militarised, somewhat less civil, Roman culture that nonetheless still stopped at the actual front-line, with roads and cities behind and decentralised rural settlement before. This border was a space with a hard line at one edge, therefore, and a fuzzy one at the other, and as far as they could do so the Romans aimed to soak up and stop movement, both military and commercial, within the space between those lines rather than letting it escape into the Empire. And this more or less worked! The barbarian groups who arrived there all went west in the end, because the border was closed to them.

Two of the questions I had initially posed to the speakers of these sessions, in a sort of agenda document (which you can read here), were whether their borders of concern were open or closed, and whether people crossed them. The response in the two Byzantine cases here seemed clearly to be, ‘closed, but people crossed anyway even though it was risky, and the state could close them properly for short whiles’, whereas Tom had seen the Roman ones as ‘open, with limits’. Modernity suggests that it’s really hard for a state actually to close a border, but our Byzantine sources here are really thinking in terms of bulk trade, ships full of salt rather than a few chickens from a village on the ‘wrong’ side for grandma’s birthday—as so often, scale is a factor—and I can’t help feeling that if all three were right, the Byzantine Empire might here have learnt from its western progenitor’s errors.6 Anyway, there was clearly more to be got from getting these people talking to each other!

Entrance to the citadel of Berat, in modern Albania, from Wikimedia Commons

Entrance to the remains of the Byzantine citadel at Berat, in modern Albania, with a thirteenth-century church guarding rather older fortifications. Image by Jason Rogers – originally posted to Flickr as Berat, licensed under CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1710. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, III: Frankish Frontiers, Internal and External

Then, after lunch, fell the slot that nobody wants, in which nonetheless I had three brave speakers and, actually, more audience than I’d feared, because several of the earlier speakers and some of the audience stayed to hear more. I guess we were doing something right! And the beneficiaries of this were these:

  • Arkady Hodge, “The Idea of Aquitaine in the Early Middle Ages”
  • This was a longue durée study of an edge-space for a great many polities, running from the Phoenicians up to the Carolingians, and arguing that while there was quite possibly some consistent core identity here its edges were defined differently by each successive over-power that ruled it, and that its position on the edges of those powers let it alone to remain unchanged in ways that other more central provinces couldn’t. As is often the case with Arkady’s work, it drew on such a broad frame of reference that I wanted to check half a dozen things I’d never heard about before, but it certainly made comparison easier because of that breadth.

  • Jakub Kabala, “Rewriting the Border in Carolingian and Ottonian Historiography”
  • Kuba, our furthest-flung international guest star this time, arguing that borders are mainly mental constructions upon space, decided to look at the same border, the one of the East Frankish kingdom with Slavic-speaking polities, through two sets of eyes, one that of the Carolingian recorder of the Royal Frankish Annals and the other that of Thietmar of Merseburg.7 The Annals also have the advantage of going through progressive rewrites as they were adopted as the cores of other texts, and Kuba saw the border becoming clearer in each rewrite, a linear division in development. For the Ottonian writers, however, the border is indefinite, with even Germany only coalescing an edge when barbarians throw themselves against it. He thought that this might be because by then Poland, being on the way to Christianization, represented the outer edge in a way that the Carolingians hadn’t had available, but I thought it might be seen as an attempt to claim an open frontier, into which the Ottonians still hoped to expand as the Carolingians increasingly hadn’t.8

  • Niall Ó Súillheabáin, “Building Power on Feudal Frontiers: the Case of Landric of Nevers”
  • Lastly, after these two wide-ranging studies, we ended with a micro-study of an internal frontier, with the Nivernais sitting on the edges of both Burgundy, by the 980s more or less separate from the developing France, and of its old master kingdom in the west, but having also been held in subordination to Aquitaine against both in the recent past. Niall took us through the history of the area’s rulers and their contested loyalties until in the 990s our boy Landric became the first count of actual Nevers, a sort of independence with his own following of locals and a station of enough respect to broker deals between outsiders who thus accepted him as their equal. Nevers managed to become such a space because it could successfully be converted into a buffer everyone around it needed more than they needed the conflict that controlling it would have meant.

The final formal discussion, naturally, spent a while considering whether internal and external frontiers worked the same way, which our sources also seem to be unsure about, but for me mainly emphasised how our sources will tend, naturally enough, to redefine how a border worked according to their particular needs. That is only as much as to say that a critical approach to our texts is needed, and at the end of this session we were well equipped to provide that for each other. Thereafter the session decamped to the bar, where I think the informal discussion was even better. If Catalonia ever starts making whisky it will be because of us, take note…

Futbol Club de Barcelona Scotch Whisky

Still made in Scotland, sorry, doesn’t count

So that was 2016, that was the second year of these sessions and by the end of it we’d had 15 papers on such issues, all quite good. The previous time I attempted anything like that there was a book of the papers out within two years of us finishing; you might ask what’s going on this time. Well, I have had some money for the project, but what I ain’t had is time, and I have also repeatedly had to put work on this aside for higher-profile publications. It is still my intent to get one or two volumes of essays out of Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, not least because some of the people on these panels both deserve and need the exposure, but I’ll have to get external money before that can happen. The rub is that to get that money I’d ideally have some results to show from the project so far… and there, the Catch-22 of modern academia. But, as future posts will occasionally note, the absence of results or even a decent research plan doesn’t preclude people getting quite large grants, so that will have to be the hope for now. Even if I don’t manage to get things up to date here, the project blog on the Leeds website will reflect it quickly when there is any such news to report, and there is more that has already happened that needs reporting here, but as with All That Glitters, something will have to change before I can do with these projects what should be done, i. e. publish them. I continue to work towards that change…


1. That being Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, author of La dawla de los Banū Qasī: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus, Estudios Árabes e Islámicos: Monografías 17 (Madrid 2010).

2. I. Ollich-Castanyer, A. Pratdesaba, M. de Rocafiguera, M. Ocaña, O. Amblàs, M. À. Pujol & D. Serrat, “The Experimental Building of a Wooden Watchtower in the Carolingian Southern Frontier”, Exarc.net, 25th February 2018, online here; for more on the site and area in English see now Imma Ollich-Castanyer, Montserrat Rocafiguera-Espona and Maria Ocaña-Subirana, “The Southern Carolingian Frontier in Marca Hispanica along the River Ter: Roda Civitas and the Archaeological Site of l’Esquerda (Catalonia)” in Neil Christie and Hajnalka Herold (edd.), Fortified Settlements in Early Medieval Europe: defended communities of the 8th-10th centuries (Oxford 2016), pp. 205–217.

3. I’m thinking here especially, as so often, of Edward Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, from the first century A.D. to the third 40th Anniversary edn. (Baltimore MD 2016), opposed by Charles R. Whittaker, Frontiers of the Roman Empire: a social and economic study (Baltimore MD 1994). As you can tell from that, sadly, Luttwak’s work has shown better holding power…

4. This seems more or less to begin with David Whitehouse and Andrew Williamson, “Sasanian Maritime Trade” in Iran Vol. 11 (London 1973), pp. 29–49.

5. The primary source here is Procopius, printed in Procopius, History of the Wars, Books I and II, transl. H. B. Dewing, Loeb Classical Library 61 (London 1914), online here, II.XV.

6. For modern cases, see for example Sahana Ghosh, “Cross-Border Activities in Everyday Life: the Bengal borderland” in Contemporary South Asia Vol. 19 (Abingdon 2011), pp. 49–60, or Margaret E. Dorsey and Miguel Diaz-Barraga, “Beyond Surveillance and Moonscapes: An Alternative Imaginary of the U.S.–Mexico Border Wall” in Visual Anthropology Review Vol. 26 (New York City NY 2010), pp. 128–135.

7. Translations in Bernhard Walter Scholz and Barbara Rogers (edd. & transl.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, Ann Arbor Paperback 186 (Ann Arbor MI 1972), online here, and Thietmar of Merseburg, Ottonian Germany: the chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg, transl. David Warner (Manchester 2001).

8. On such language the best recent thing seems to me to be Juan Carlos Arriaga-Rodríguez, “Tres tesis del concepto frontera en la historiografía” in Gerardo Gurza Lavalle (ed.), Tres miradas a la historia contemporánea (San Juan Mixcoac 2013), pp. 9–47.

Leeds International Medieval Congress 2016, reflected upon from a distance

Somehow Action Short of a Strike still looks a lot like a really hard week—the contract I’m working to doesn’t have fixed hours—so I find myself blogging very late on a Sunday. Both because of that and because of the topic, I don’t want to write a long post (though when I say that it never works, not least because of parentheses like these…): what can there be to say about a conference three years ago? On the other hand, in so far as this blog is my academic record, I don’t want to miss it out: I was there, I did things I hope will matter, and I was for the first time able to host friends for it at the house then ours in Leeds, so it was a sociable occasion worth remembering. Indeed, I made quite a few new friends at Leeds 2016, looking back, so some sort of record is needed. I’ll restrict it, however, to a list of the papers I went to and limited commentary where I have some memory or good notes, and I’ll put it behind a cut so as not to bore those who think this a touch too obsessional. If I don’t feature your paper, please blame my memory, not your content; it was a long and tiring conference, as it always is. But I will take the last day in a separate post, because it was sort of a conference within a conference for me, for reasons that will become obvious in that other post. So this is 4th to 6th July 2016 in my world, as it unfolded… Continue reading

Aside

Marking is over for the season, and suddenly a whole fleet of tiny toy boats that had been submerged by its extent bob back to the surface of my academic bathtub, or something. (I’m sorry, I’m not actually completely well … Continue reading