Category Archives: General medieval

The Three Orders’ Houses: a model on the ground

Somehow I was out doing things yesterday and forgot to write a blog post, sorry, but for once I do have time in the week, so I will make it up now.

The yard at Embsay station on 27th June 2021

What your blogger was looking at yesterday instead of his computer

Here is something about as delayed as even my various crazy backlogs can make something. This was prompted by reading something in the British Library in 2012, back when we could do that thing, and in my notes on it I even then made a note to blog about it; but I didn’t in the end process those notes until late 2017. At that point I laid down a stub to complete later, and now, four years on, here we go. All of this is ironic, because in 2012 I was for once reading something pretty new from Catalonia, an intriguing piece of settlement archaeology discussion by the medieval archaeologist to whom perhaps I owe the most favours in the world, Professora Imma Ollich i Castanyer, about the Catalan monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes.1

Monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes

Sant Pere de Rodes from its most impressive side, which is to say, the one that’s mostly there; image by Pixel – own work, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Now, that is an inaccurate over-simplification that I should immediately correct. The article, like much of Professor Ollich’s work, is mostly about my favourite study area, the comarc of Osona, and it is a fairly major argument with a basic paradigm of the social history of the tenth and eleventh centuries. This holds that, however you like to explain it, rural settlement in Catalonia was mostly dispersed and only loosely territorialised in the tenth century but by the end of the eleventh had nucleated into reasonably-defined villages. The favourite explanation hitherto has been feudalism, of course, working either through violence compelling people to group together for safety or through aggressive lordship pressing people together to intensify their farming, around either churches or castles depending on the agency, and no, neither of those are completely logical chains of events as I’ve laid them out but for some people they make sense, even now the proponents of those ideas are dead.2 This process is usually referred to as incastellamento, as coined by Pierre Toubert who first observed it in Lazio, is not yet dead and has in recent years suggested that he was probably partly wrong, or encellulement, as coined by Robert Fossier so as to get away from a dependence on castles, and it has been very widely played with, debated, contested and challenged, at least outside Catalonia.3

But this is the scenario on which Professor Ollich’s observations land like a series of well-mannered munitions. She argues that, once you have a decent picture of this area’s, and therefore quite possibly any nearby area’s, settlement patterns, it’s way more diverse than just dispersed or nucleated. She winds up developing a typology that has seven categories, including settlements around churches, settlements around castles, settlements with both (like Tona, where I have of course been and been photographed) and settlements around neither, the first three of which can be split into ones where the settlement predated the supposed focal point or points and ones where it didn’t. Only two or three of these seven types conform to the dominant paradigm, so even if it turns out still to have been numerically dominant, which Professor Ollich doesn’t think it was in Osona, that paradigm at least needs to give up some room to alternatives. It’s one of those arguments that makes such clear sense that once you’ve read it it’s hard to go back, and is a welcome attempt to provide something in place of the theory one’s out to demolish.

Sant Andreu de Tona and the Castell de Tona

Sant Andreu de Tona and the Castell de Tona, as made a tiny bit more famous by my book

But, despite its importance, that isn’t the thing that I thought, nine years ago, I should blog about. That was Professor Ollich’s final example, which is, as promised, Sant Pere de Rodes, out in coastal Empúries way to the north-east. She picks on Sant Pere because it gives her several of her types of settlement in close proximity and shows how an obvious focal point doesn’t necessarily do what the paradigm expects to settlement development. The monastery was first here, and its tangled history is more than we can go into here; suffice to say that there is an argument about whether, as its documents claim, it was founded in a wasteland location or if it was deliberately sited on Roman remains instead, and of course it could probably be both and curious treasures have allegedly been found there that might provide more esoteric explanations and we could go on. But right now I shan’t; you just need to know that in the ninth century someone started a monastery there, in the tenth century some of the local counts decided to make it their pet monastery and by the eleventh century it was, as they say ‘kind of a big deal’.4 But it didn’t ever pull a village round itself. Instead, a village that was almost certainly related grew up somewhere quite close by, at Santa Creu. It was then fortified in the eleventh century, so looks like an independent effort, but its major market and lord must still have been the monastery. Furthermore, there was also a local castle, eventually, at Verders, and that had its own church so could in theory also have gone it alone. But because they were all here they perhaps prevented each other from becoming the major force in the locality. The Google Map below sows them in relation to each other. In the end, the monastery, the oldest, was also the longest lasting, but then it was also way rich, at least for a while, so perhaps that isn’t surprising.

Now, apart from the neat demonstration that the basic model just isn’t complex enough to handle the actual variation of human activity, and the encouraging thought that nonetheless we might still be able to build an adequate one (this is a big mantra of mine these days), the obvious thing that struck me here is that it’s a settlement archaeology demonstration of that old eleventh-century trope about medieval society being divided into three orders, those who fight, those who work and those who pray. Because, look, here’s where they all lived: a castle, a village and a monastery! It should have been the perfect arrangement, at least for someone like Adalbero of Laon. As it is, I imagine they actually disputed with each other like cats and dogs, and that our records would (if Sant Pere’s charters hadn’t mostly been lost) show that the Church mostly won even if it actually didn’t, but the point is, here they all are, almost as if it was real. That is very definitely not the theory Professor Ollich set out to address, and I don’t mean to make any claim that my observation actually, you know, means anything, but once I’d thought it I had to say it, even if I do so nine years (and one day) late…

1. Imma Ollich i Castanyer, “Arqueologia de la Catalunya feudal i prefeudal: Poblament i territori. El model teòric de la Comarca d’Osona” in Jordi Bolòs (ed.), La caracterització del paisatge històric, Territori i societat: el paisatge històric. Història, arqueologia, documentació 5 (Lleida 2010), pp. 399–465.

2. The most obvious progenitors of this idea locally would be Manuel Riu, “Hipòtesi entorn dels orígens del feudalisme a Catalunya” in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals Vol. 2 (Barcelona 1981), pp. 195–208, and, of course, Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe si`cle : Croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail, Sèrie A, 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols. A fairly recent acceptance of it can be found in Juan Antonio Quirós Castillo, “Early and High Medieval ‘Incastellamento’ in Northern Iberia: Fortified Settlements in the Basque Country and Upper Ebro Valley (9th–12th Centuries)” in Neil Christie and Hajnalka Herold (edd.), Fortified Settlements in Early Medieval Europe: defended communities of the 8th-10th centuries (Oxford 2016), pp. 192–204.

3. Some later takes on the idea, led indeed by Toubert, in Miguel Barceló and Pierre Toubert (edd.), L’incastellamento: actes des recontres de Gérone (26-27 novembre 1992) et de Rome (5-7 mai 1994), Collection de l’École française de Rome 241 (Rome 1998); Toubert’s most recent re-evaluation in “L’incastellamento: Problèmes de définition et d’actualisation du concept” in Sandra Pujadas i Mitjà (ed.), Actes del Congrés Els Castells Medievals a la Mediterrània Nord-Occidental celebrat a Arbúcies, els dies 5, 6, i 7 de març de 2003 (La Gabella 2003), pp. 21–35. For Fossier still doing his thing, see Robert Fossier, “The Rural Economy and Demographic Growth” in David Luscombe and Jonathan Riley-Smith (edd.), The New Cambridge Medieval History, volume IV, c. 1024–c. 1198 (Cambridge 2004), 2 vols, I, pp. 11–46. More recent demolition efforts in †Riccardo Francovich, “The Beginnings of Hilltop Villages in Early Medieval Tuscany” in Jennifer R. Davis and Michael McCormick (edd.), The long morning of medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 55–82.

4. For the monastery’s early history, at least, see Montserrat Mataró i Pladelasala and Eduard Riu-Barrera, “Sant Pere de Rodes: un monasterio condal en la periferia del extinguido imperio carolingia (siglos X y XI)” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cultura antes del románico (siglos IX y X): 16 diciembre 1999 – 27 febrero 2000, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Palau Nacional-Parc de Montjuïc (Barcelona 1999), pp. 236–242, transl. as “Sant Pere de Rodes: a large monastery under the countship on the edge of the Carolingian empire (10th – 11th centuries)”, ibid., pp. 536-539.

Fishers of men

This is a post that began in a drunk conversation with one of my oldest academic friends (whom I will not shame by naming, but whom you could potentially help out quite a lot by adding your name to this petition). That conversation was also four years ago, and I’m choosing to claim that that, not the beer, is why I can’t quite remember how we got onto this—my guess would be that this was during a few days I spent staying with them while using a local academic library to finish the paper which became my article ‘Nuns’ Signatures’, and that I was just pulling interesting-looking books off my friend’s shelves—but somehow we came upon a picture of this sculpture.

The Papil Stone in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

The Papil Stone in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, image from Canmore

What this is is one face of the Pictish symbol stone from Papil, Shetland.1 It’s not in Shetland any more, where only a replica remains, because it was carted off to the National Museum of Scotland, but I suppose more of my readership may therefore have a chance of seeing it some day. Anyway, the other face has a cross and interlace on it, but it’s this one that drew my altered attention, partly of course because of the odd cowled figures and the lion, but mainly because of these guys.

The birdman figures on the replica of the Papil Stone, Shetland

The birdmen on the lowest register of the modern replica of the Papil Stone, on site in Shetland, photo by J. Dimitrescu, copyright not stated so hopefully this is OK linked through to their excellent site

Now, it will not surprise you to know that scholarship is a little divided on just what might be depicted here. Early (modern) plague doctors seem to be ruled out by the bird feet, the axes and maybe also the human head of which they appear to be sharing custody. Especially since these guys are in the lower register of a three-panel picture, with the upper one being plausibly things of Heaven (a cross, cowled figures with crooks), the middle one being, well, a lion, not sure what to do with that but definitely a thing of Earth (or of Zion, I admit), the easiest answer might seem to be demons of some kind, playing with a member of the doomed dead. But if so, it’s quite a local kind of demon, you’d have to admit; this is not your standard beast with forked-tail and horns iconography.2

[Edit: revisions from here on have attempted to do something about the tone, which unfortunately managed, while trying to make my theory sound as silly as it deserves, to make the work on which it rested sound silly as well. That was not my intention at all; that work got an award from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and is online for you to peruse if you want a serious study of the stone. My actual argument, such as it is, remains the same.]

Well, I got no further with this thought that night, but the next day something suddenly struck me. You see, some scholars of early medieval, and especially, Germanic art, have some very artful interpretations of it in which, though an image seem to us weird as hell (perhaps literally), it may actually be a really cunning Christian reference.3 (I suppose a demon would, kinda sorta, be a Christian reference, but I mean more directly Biblical than that.)

As it turns out, I am not the first person to wonder if this can be done with this stone. There is other stonework from this site which seems to show monks, and this has led various people to theorise (not unreasonably) that there was a monastic settlement here and (less reasonably maybe) that this is therefore a scene from the Life of St Anthony, arguably the proto-monk and certainly regarded as such by many a medieval community. In this episode from the Life the saint-in-training was, and I quote a recent article about this stone, “tempted by women disguised as birds who whispered into his ear.”4 I’m not going to wonder right now what the heck was going on in Anthony’s personal desert (or relate this to the fact that birds are also supposed to have brought him food), I’m just going to note that, as I learn from the same article where several instances are pictured, this episode turns up on Irish sculpture quite a lot, so it’s not an unreasonable thing to suppose in this case. Except for the bird feet.

West face of the Castledermot South Cross

West face of the Castledermot South Cross, at Castle Dermot, County Kildare, Ireland, showing the Temptation of St Anthony one panel up from the base; photograph by Liam Murphy, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

For reasons of those feet, therefore, and also quite a number of other reasons (such as that Anthony is pretty much always shown as a whole human being, and not an isolated head between two figures carrying axes), the author of that article, Dr Kelly Kilpatrick, wisely rejects the Antonian hypothesis. Instead, she argues that the stone shows, “a common ideal of mythological war-like creatures in Pictish tradition, paralleled by written descriptions of Irish battlefield demons”, and instances at least four more of these characters, or at least beak-headed humanoids carrying weapons, on stones scattered across the old Pictish territories.5 (I say at least because I’m not sure whether or not I think Rhynie Man really belongs in the set, being more human though definitely scary, a kind of beweaponed Pictish bogeyman. There are English parallels to him I’ll blog about separately that have much more benign interpretations.) So case closed? Well, perhaps. In fact, if we’re being serious, then yes, I think so, really; the parallels seem fairly clear (as you can see for yourselves), are based on a thorough knowledge of the corpus of stones and it fits with a wider theory Dr Kilpatrick is offering about Pictish beliefs which I need to hear more of. But you didn’t come here to be serious, surely!

So, instead, let’s try and replicate my 2017 leap of hangover logic. Dr Kilpatrick has certainly seen more of these figures on the stones than I have, even after a lockdown tour of symbol stones I did last summer, but still I wonder if she is right when she says of these figures, “Apart from the beaks, they have human hair, and human-like facial features, including incised eyebrows.”6 Let’s have a close look at one of those heads…

Head of a grey heron

Head of a grey heron sighted at Waterfield Meadow in 2014, image by C. Butterfield from NatureSpot

Papil Stone birdman head

Head of one of the Papil Stone birdmen

What if they’re not eyebrows but eyestripes, it’s not hair but a crest? I think that whatever these creatures are, they have heron heads. Now, for those of you whose native lands may not be blessed with the noble heron (though that’s not many), they are fishing birds, which spend most of their lives looking hunched and uncomfortable ankle-deep in lakes, but every now and then unfold in a lightning quick spearing action which brings up a fish almost every time. And it was when I decided that the sculptor here was thinking herons that inspiration suddenly struck, in the form of a verse of Scripture (a thing which really very rarely happens to me):

And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. (Matthew 4:19)

Need I even say more? What are these beings if not fishers of men? Look, they’ve been caught right in the act by our carver. In which case, not demons but apostles! Apostles with bird feet. There may be some iconographic details still to be worked out in this theory, I admit. Until then Dr Kilpatrick may be your best guide…7

1. I don’t have any of the standard catalogues to reference here (though see n. 4 below) but the stone is briefly described, analysed and illustrated in George Henderson and Isabel Henderson, The Art of the Picts: sculpture and metalwork in early medieval Scotland (London 2004), pp. 156-157 & fig. 228.

2. I don’t actually know how old the horns, pitchfork and forked-tail iconography of devils and demons is, but I suspect it’s later than medieval as I can’t think of any medieval examples. No time to check now though, sorry!

3. The winner in this particular contest, not just in quantity of suggestions but their ingenuity, is definitely Anna Gannon, The Iconography of Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage, Sixth to Eighth centuries (Oxford 2003).

4. Kelly A. Kilpatrick, “The iconography of the Papil Stone: sculptural and literary comparisons with a Pictish motif” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Vol. 141 (Edinburgh 2011), pp. 159–205, online here (p. 167).

5. Ibid., pp. 167-180.

6. Ibid., pp. 163-164.

7. Though it will take a lot to convince me that these demons do not have heron heads! And from there we could spin all kinds of theories about landscape and cosmology… I would not be the first person to pitch such theories, either, there being Martin Carver, “Early Scottish Monasteries and Prehistory: A Preliminary Dialogue” in Scottish Historical Review Vol. 88 (Edinburgh 2009), pp. 332–351, but for that very reason I might for now leave it to him…

Thoughts on two exhibitions

By one of those occasional happy chances which look like coincidence but are actually probably consistent foci of interest, I’ve had this post intended for ages to follow the previous one, even before I fully realised the previous one was about a cemetery excavation and so would involve me using or not using photos of skeletons. And one commentator has even obligingly passed comment on the fact that I mentioned making that choice. Well, this post is about that very issue. This arises out of my having been to an exhibition which also raised that very issue, but that trip followed very hard on another exhibition opening which we’ve already mentioned, so I’m going just to mention it again first of all and then get onto the big issue for the day. That will involve one, slightly blurry, photo of skeletons, which I have put below a cut, so please don’t press for ‘more’ if such things distress you (already).

The Winchester Coin Cabinet in the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

The Winchester Coin Cabinet, in the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

So, we are at this point in very early October 2017 in terms of my backlog, and it was then that the project I had raised money for called Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet came to fruition and we opened both its physical exhibition and the virtual one that goes with it.1 I’ve talked about both of these before, and how they are very much mostly not my work but that of Leeds student, then undergraduate, now doctoral, Emma Herbert-Davies, so I won’t repeat that story here. However, for value added, I can at least explain how it came to be that the physical exhibition is deep in the Brotherton Library in the entry corridor outside Special Collections, where only people with library access can see it. You see, back in the 1990s when the rather extensive University of Leeds coin collection was in its first phase of care and curation under Christopher Challis, there was a wall display case outside the Library barriers, and it had been used for regular, but quite small, coin displays. Now, the case is still in position, and we had initially hoped to use it for this, but it turned out that it isn’t alarmed, and while that may have been OK in the 1990s it wasn’t going to pass security and insurance muster now. So we replanned for the current location, which has given us about twice as much display space, admittedly, but not where the actual public can see it. On the other hand, it’s also meant that no-one has yet seen a need to change it, so if you can get into the Brotherton Library, you can go see our exhibition still!

The Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet exhibition, curated by Emma Herbert-Davies and Jonathan Jarrett, in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

The exhibition in place: photo by Emma Herbert-Davies and used by permission

But the exhibition which is this post’s real topic I went to see a few days after our one opened, and was nothing to do with the University. It was in Leeds City Museum, and it was called Skeletons: Our Buried Bones.2 It was a single gallery, and the centrepiece displays were twelve skeletons, which had been gathered from collections in London, Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford, in the latter two cases university collections but not, perhaps thankfully, in Leeds’s case. (The London ones came from the Wellcome Collection.) The point of the exhibition was mainly to showcase the different things and personal histories which archaeologists and forensic scientists could learn about the people whose bodies these had been, using just their bones. On that score, I will freely admit, it was extremely well-done, pitched at a low enough level to be comprehensible and a high enough one to sound scientific, and with some fascinating stories to reconstruct, such as…

  • … the Iron Age man and woman with a life of labour and disease behind them who were buried together in a small mound near Wetherby!
  • … the Black Death victim from one of the mass burials in Spitalfields, London, who turned out to have an arrowhead embedded in his spine in what must have been a seriously painful old war wound!
  • … the fifteenth-century woman buried at All Saints York who may have been an anchoress there but also turned out to be suffering from not just severe osteoporosis but syphilis! [Edit: some excellent discussion about this in comments; we begin to think that the anchoress is not guilty here, in so far as guilt is even appropriate to apportion…]
  • … the casualty from the Battle of Towton whose assailant didn’t know or care when to stop: the body had been, “struck by a poleaxe, leaving square injuries in his skull, stabbed in the right shoulder, and decapitated.”3

And of course all these stars of the show were actually physically there, laid out clinically in glass cases with careful explanations of how their histories had been deduced, suitable pointers to things like the arrowhead, and handy display panels around the walls about the sites where these people had been found and the wider archaeological context of which they came to form part. It was really very well-curated. And the one photo below the cut is as close as I’m going to showing you any of it. Continue reading

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).


Finding the Medieval in Rome V: Fixing a Hole in a City Wall

This gallery contains 9 photos.

This is the last of the Rome 2017 photo posts, and then as promised last week, some more properly academic content will at last materialise. But right now, I hope you can forgive some more photographic antiquarianism. On the last … Continue reading

Some words for Richard Sharpe

I seem to have spent quite a lot of last year not hearing about people dying. I guess the specifics of personal mortality were getting lost in the global version, and I also wasn’t looking at news very much, but still, there are those I would have expected to hear about somehow that I didn’t, and such a one was Richard Sharpe, Professor of Diplomatic at Oxford, who died suddenly of a heart attack all the way back in March 2020. I found out last week.

The late Professor Richard Sharpe, in life

The late Professor Richard Sharpe, in life; the image is all over the web but I borrow it from the Cultures of Knowledge obituary linked through since, perhaps ironically, they mention no copyright.

I didn’t know Richard very well, but I did know him. We first met, as with about half my academic contacts really, when he was presenting at the Institute of Historical Research, in 2002, on intellectual contacts in very early medieval Northern Italy, when I was much too junior to say anything much to such an eminence. It would have been fine, I subsequently learned, not least because he was back there again in 2006 to present a paper about a putative daughter of King Harold II of England (he of Hastings fame), who of course survived her father into the reign of the man who defeated him.1 That got a bit of a conversation going, as I recall, and then a few years after that I was in the same institution as him, in so far as Oxford is one institution, and considering whether or not to get him to lecture on the Celtic parts of the early medieval British syllabus. (I didn’t get him to, though I don’t now remember why.) Before I was gone from Oxford, we’d been thrown together by someone going on leave and thus making us supposedly the two most qualified people to run the Norman Conquest Special Subject that year. That’s where I really first had dealings with him. He was tremendously helpful and energetic and made me feel very much as if I were the person who knew what was going on, which compared to him could hardly have been further from the truth; but we got on fine and it ran OK. I think I ran into him twice after that, once at a paper in Cambridge and once again at the IHR, and thus (as it has transpired) ended our acquaintance. Still, his death has shocked me somewhat, not least because he was an active man in robust health bar one deaf ear, and everyone else seems to have been just as shocked when it happened, I imagine not least himself.

Thankfully, rather a lot of people who knew him better have been busy since he died recording stories about Richard that give a better impression of him than I have managed there. I might just quote some:

“As an undergraduate he acquired a firm grounding in the medieval Celtic languages and literatures to add to his Classics. But his first love was to history. Professor Simon Keynes remembers teaching him: ‘The depth of engagement with the primary source material for any given subject was phenomenal . . . I distinctly remember the appearance of his essays: the top five or ten lines comprising main text, and the rest of the page the numbered footnotes, perfectly judged to fit the page—but of course all hand-written rather than typed let alone word processed.’”

Thomas Charles-Edwards, ‘Tribute to Professor Richard Sharpe (1954-2020)’

“His first job, in 1981, was as assistant editor of the Dictionary of Medieval Latin in Oxford; he made himself a formidable Latinist by reading nothing but Latin for a year.”

Nigel Ramsay, ‘Richard Sharpe obituary’

“Used to the testing limitations of evidence from the ‘Dark Ages’, Richard was not reluctant to express his view that the study of English political history after the publication of Magna Carta was ‘mere journalism’.”

Hugh Doherty and James Willoughby, ‘Richard Sharpe’

“Politically, he was liberal, and was a member of Oxford Town Council between 1987 and 1995, where he was a strong supporter of the rights of Headington freeholders to erect giant fibreglass sharks on their roofs. He felt such a thing could only add to the gaiety of the Oxford skyline, and enjoyed the self-answering objection of another councillor: ‘But if we give this shark permission, then everyone will want one!’”2


“The volume and versatility of his research were nothing short of mystifying. Richard confessed that he himself found it difficult at times to keep track of the state of his many projects and side projects, which could range, in a single year (2016), from an article on the earliest Norman sheriffs, through early nineteenth-century printing of Irish poetry, to the composer Tommaso Giordani (‘accidents happen, as I sometimes pick something up along the way’, he wrote on his webpage in relation to that one).”

Roy Flechner, ‘Richard Sharpe, 17 February 1954 – 22 March 2020’

“He was already working on Hebridean history: his first book, Raasay: A Study in Island History was published in 1977, the year he graduated, followed by a second the following year, Raasay: A Study in Island History. Documents and Sources, People and Places (Raasay lies between Skye and the mainland). At the same time he was working on editions of the two earliest Lives of Brigit, a saint of peculiar interest—as a female counterpart to St Patrick, as the premier patron-saint of Leinster, and as someone widely culted in Britain as well as Ireland. He never published his editions but was generous in allowing others to use them.”

Ramsay, ‘Richard Sharpe obituary’, as above

That last strikes chords with me all the way back from those years in Oxford. I remember hearing, on two different occasions, someone (Hugh Doherty once, I think; can’t remember who the other was) say that they’d been to talk to Richard up in his office about some new problem they’d just stumbled on in a project, a saint’s life or manuscript they’d never heard of before or similar and were going to have to track down, and Richard going, “Oh yes! I wrote a piece about that years ago”, striding over to a cupboard and after a short search pulling out a neat stapled and paper-covered typescript on the exact topic, existence unknown to anyone but him. I should say, it’s not that Richard was shy about publishing; as Roy Flechner’s obituary that I’ve linked above says, his total of works even at the point of death was at least 212 separate items. But apparently he still wrote more than he could manage to publish… If there is a tiny crumb of compensation for him being dead it’s that we will now presumably have found out what else was in the cupboard; but it’s not how either he, I’m guessing, or I would have wanted that learning to be made available. I don’t know how many other people the world can make like this, or what the academy looks like if ever we run out.

Next post will be a final short one about (early) medieval remains in Rome as of some time ago; and after that I promise some actual academic content for once; but having finally got this news I didn’t want to let a kind colleague go unrecorded when he was so very important in understanding records.

1. That paper eventually published as Richard Sharpe, “King Harold’s Daughter” in Haskins Society Journal Vol. 19 (Woodbridge 2008), pp. 1–27. No-one seems to have attempted a full bibliography of Richard’s work, for reasons which may be suggested by what follows, and I’m not up to the challenge; there was a lot…

2. I’m bravely assuming that most of these anecdotes can stand by themselves, but the Tale of the Headington Shark—in which I’d had no idea Richard had had any part—might need a link for the unfamiliar


Finding the Medieval in Rome IV: Teaching with the Crypta Balbi

This gallery contains 23 photos.

I mentioned a little while back that when I started in post at the University of Leeds I inherited a late antique survey module for first-year undergraduates which, indeed, I still run. That module has always ended with a class … Continue reading


Finding the Medieval in Rome III: Emperor Hadrian, Defender of the Popes

This gallery contains 18 photos.

Obviously, the subtitle of this post is not true. Not strictly. How could it be, after all, when Hadrian, ruler of the Roman Empire from 117 to 138 CE, and respected chief priest of it too, probably didn’t even know … Continue reading

Missing Michael Matzke

While still not wanting to let this blog become an obituaries column, this is obviously not a good time in human history to ask people to stop dying. However, this is late news that only came to me when my partner opened up the current issue of the Numismatic Chronicle and found a review of Medieval European Coinage 12: Northern Italy, over whose text I myself toiled for a while in 2008-2009, and noted the fatal † by one of the author’s names.1 And that’s how I found out that I had missed Michael Matzke, Kurator of the Münzkabinett at the Historisches Museum Basel and erstwhile Assistant Keeper at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, dying at the age of 54 last year.

Dr Michael Matzke, late Kurator of the Münzkabinett of the Historisches Museum Basel

Dr Michael Matzke, late Kurator of the Münzkabinett of the Historisches Museum Basel; the (German) article linked beneath provides links to many other notices of his passing

I could not say that I knew Michael well; he was out of the department at the Fitzwilliam before I got there, and our scholarships hardly crossed paths. There is, all the same, a certain closeness to someone you only get by editing them, trying to think far enough into their thoughts to make them sit more accurately on the page in your language that they’re currently obliged to use. Without my knowing that much about his life, he thus became very familiar to me as an intellect. Michael was, in any case, very much not a problem to edit, and always polite and helpful in the event of queries, and although due to reasons beyond either of our controls the volume didn’t come out until years after I’d left the Fitzwilliam, I’m glad to say that the last time I saw him was actually at a party celebrating its then-actually-imminent publication, at the XV International Numismatic Congress in Taormina, which of course I reported here.

Courtyard of the Palazzo dei Duchi di Santo Stefano, Taormina, during a party

Michael’s not in the picture, sadly, but here is the party, in the Courtyard of the Palazzo dei Duchi di Santo Stefano

The evening before that, I’d been able to introduce that same partner of mine to Michael, among other people, on an extremely crowded balcony four floors up, where one of the Congress receptions was being held. The considerable press of people would be unthinkable now, of course, even without the low parapets, but was getting close to it even then; as Michael observed in stagey discomfort, “this would never be allowed in Germany”. I shall never know now whether he was laughing at his own nation or not, but given what I knew of his humour, utterly deadpan and razor sharp, I shall always suspect it. I’m glad I got to laugh with him and I’m sorry I won’t any more.

1. Andrea Saccocci, Michael Matzke and William Day Jr, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 12: Northern Italy (Cambridge 2016), reviewed by Monica Baldassarri in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 180 (London 2020), pp. 507-509. I should give more reference to Michael’s work but I wouldn’t really know where to start, other than the Bibliography of MEC 12! The links in the text will take you to more if you need to know, however.

Finding the Medieval in Rome II: trying to be noticed in the Forum Romanum, c. 600

When I was facing my crise de confiance of the other week, one of the sillier causes was that I had processed a bunch of photos of the Foro Romano from when I was there in late 2017, and I couldn’t think of a point to posting any of them that I hadn’t made with the previous post, i. e. that we perceive ancient Rome via what the medieval (and subsequent) past chose to preserve and add to it. This has been very clear to me ever since I first saw a picture of the Foro di Nerva (I think in a paper by Chris Wickham?) with a ninth-century house’s foundations showing in it, and of course when I was actually there to see myself, it was still evident, in so far as anything is immediately evident in the thoroughly bewildering palimpsest that is the Roman fora.

A view down the Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill

A view down the Foro Romano from the Palatine Hill, by your author

But as I was absorbing all the kind comments last week, for which many thanks, like something stirring from the mud at the bottom of a pond once the sunlight has reached it, a hook for the post occurred to me, and so here we are. This post is about the Column of Phocas, which was installed in the name of that Byzantine emperor (or, as he clearly saw himself, Roman emperor) in the Foro Romano in 608 CE.1)

The Column of Phocas in the Foro Romano

Yup, here it is, now minus the gilded statue of the eponymous emperor which apparently originally sat upon it and also the pyramid of steps by which it could still be approached in 1903

Phocas’s little offering here, which to his credit is still fairly visible, was the last piece of Roman imperial building in the Forum. We are now well past the time where the Roman emperors really had any role in Rome, you see. That time may really have ended in 476, when the last Western one who could access the city, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed (this is complex because there was also another candidate who could not, Julius Nepos; he died in 480); or it may have been earlier, really; it is, of course, as Phocas shows, a matter as much of someone wanting to do so as the emperors actually being able.2 But in any case, the role of patronage had kind of fallen to more local power-brokers since that point, such as the Ostrogothic king Theodoric (King of Italy for the Emperor 493-526 CE), much of whose monumental effort was nicked by Charlemagne in the early ninth century but some of whose modifications to the immense Palace of Domitian, which looms ruinously over the Forum to this day, are still identifiable.

The courtyard of the Domus Flavia, in the imperial palace complex on the Palatine Hill, Rome

The courtyard of the Domus Flavia, in the imperial palace complex on the Palatine Hill; according to the local signage its current state of remains is the one laid down by Theodoric

So the Column of Phocas is a real outlier. Its inscription makes it slightly less mysterious: it was not put up by order of the emperor, but in his honour, by the Exarch of Ravenna, Smaragdus, a man who owed his recall from exile and appointment to Phocas, or at least so says Wikipedia just now, though none of its indicated sources provide this information. This all makes a bit more sense if one understands that Ravenna, not Rome, had been the seat of imperial government in Italy since the early fifth century, and had been the base of this official, the exarch, for quite a lot of that time; he was supposed to be the ruler of Roman Italy on behalf of the emperor, a combined civil and military office which was supposed to make it easier to combat the encroachments of the Lombard kings and their warriors who had been pushing into Italy since 568.3 But this was, in general, working out better for Ravenna, secluded in marshland and on the near coast of Italy to the Byzantine Adriatic, than for inland and exposed Rome, and the people who were increasingly facing that reality were not really the exarchs, but the bishops of Rome, including especially famously this man, of whom we have heard on this blog before, Pope Gregory I (ruled 590-604).4

Ivory carving of Pope Gregory the Great being inspired by the Holy Spirit, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Ivory carving of Pope Gregory the Great being inspired by the Holy Spirit, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, image by Vassilown work, licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

Gregory I, also known as Gregory the Great, is renowned as one of the founding figures of the papacy and one of the very few early medieval popes about whom there is anything substantial written. As with all famous early medieval popes, that has a lot to do with the fact that only a very few’s letters survive, and perhaps unsurprisingly, they all have reputations for being vigorous reforming administrators, whereas the ones for whom we only have a short biography and maybe some building inscriptions are mostly forgotten or assumed to have been useless, which might not be entirely fair…5 In Gregory’s case, however, it’s a bit more than just letters that give this impression, as he also wrote some of the fundamental metatexts of Western Christianity, but it really is his letters that show him at full force (as I learnt in a different paper by Chris Wickham, which I don’t think I’ve yet blogged).6 Now, Gregory had complex relationships with the emperors. He was himself a native of the the city of Rome, and descended from senators, but had also spent some time in the imperial court at Constantinople as the papacy’s representative, under Phocas’s predecessor the emperor Maurice (ruled 578-602). During that time, Gregory was more or less unable to obtain Maurice’s help against the Lombards for Rome, and also got into a dispute over the appointment of Patriarch Eutychius of Constantinople, so it would be fair to say that he and Maurice did not see eye-to-eye. This only got worse when Gregory actually became pope. In the meantime, he had more or less taken over the civil administration of the city of Rome, as he saw it out of necessity and as the exarch saw it out of rebellious presumption, and was using the papal estates in Sicily to feed the city’s poor, thus more or less guaranteeing that in any contest between him and the exarch for their loyalty the citizens would line up behind the pope.7

A view down the Roman Forum towards the Curia from the Palatine Hill

It would be fair to say that now the Column doesn’t stand out much – you may be able to pick it out at the end here, next to the Arch of Septimius Severus – but it must have been even less visible among the buildings which still stood in 608.

Given all this, the fact that we have a monumental column being put up by the exarch in the name of the emperor in the absolute central imperial space in Rome soon after Gregory’s death may now seem a little more pointed. And I do suspect that this was what was going on. Wikipedia is almost certainly right to say (as it currently does):

Rather than a demonstration to mark papal gratitude as it is sometimes casually declared to be, the gilded statue on its column was more likely an emblem of the imperial sovereignty over Rome…

Of course, it wasn’t the same emperor by that time as had so offended Pope Gregory, and Gregory had indeed written very warm letters of congratulations to Phocas on his accession (the nature of which the pope was apparently able to ignore), but notice, all the same, that no column went up for Phocas under Gregory.8 In fact, though it was only four years after Gregory’s death when Smaragdus recycled various other monuments to make this one, that was already three popes, Sabinian (ruled 604-606), Boniface III (ruled 607) and Boniface IV (ruled 607-615), and Boniface IV had had to be bought off with the gift of the old and glorious temple of the Pantheon, which Boniface immediately converted into the church of Holy Mary and the Martyrs as it remains today.

Exterior of Santa Maria ad Martyres, Rome

The Pantheon from outside, as it now is (or was in autumn of 2017)

Part of the interior of Santa Maria ad Martyres, Rome

The interior of Holy Mary and the Martyrs needs some impossible wide-angle lens which I didn’t have to do it even partway justice. This is the only photo I took that gives any impression of the vertical space, and it’s still not right (albeit partly because of my cropping off tourist head level at the bottom)

So there are actually quite a few ways to read the Column of Phocas, and in the very little research I’ve done for this post I’ve been through several. It was, obviously, a statement of imperial involvement in the city of Rome once again, after really quite some attenuation. (It did ought to be said that Rome was still an imperial mint, as well, so the other such statement was the coinage, throughout this time, and that has to be put on the other side of the balance.) The Column may also have been an attempt by a slightly desperate imperial official to convince the people, after a decade of papal urban government and provision, that he had some power there, in the face of the recent evidence. And there are probably other ways to read it still. Either way, somehow it is still there, for the most part, and now really not very many people know who either Phocas or Smaragdus were and that this single monument represents about the last time the Roman emperors did something in Rome other than tax it or kidnap the pope to solve a theological dispute.9 But you are now among those people, so I hope it’s been a better way for you of displaying holiday photos than I otherwise had!

1. Ordinarily I would try to do better than this, sorry, but today because it’s late my main source for the actual Column is “Column of Phocas” in Wikipedia, online here.

2. We have discussed here before how the history of early medieval Rome is inadequately written, but some guide to the recent state of developments is to be found in Kate Cooper, Julia Hillner and Conrad Leyser, “Dark Age Rome: towards an interactive topography” in William Bowden, Adam Gutteridge and Carlos Machado (edd.), Social and Political Life in Late Antiquity, Late Antique Archaeology 3 (Leiden 2006), pp. 311–337.

3. For this the classic work is T. S. Brown, Gentlemen and Officers: Imperial Administration and Aristocratic Power in Byzantine Italy, A.D. 554-800 (London 1984).

4. Two good biographies are Jeffrey Richards, Consul of God: the life and times of Gregory the Great (London 1980) and R. A. Markus, Gregory the Great and his World (Cambridge 1997).

5. One sign of what can be done with even that kind of limited material is Caroline Goodson, The Rome of Pope Paschal I: papal power, urban renovation, church rebuilding and relic translation, 817-824, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 77 (Cambridge 2010), but if there is another such for an earlier pope I don’t know about it.

6. The letters are available in translation, in full as The Letters of Gregory the Great, trans. John R. C. Martyn, Mediaeval Sources in Translation 40 (Toronto 2004), 3 vols, and in part online here.

7. Failing that paper of Chris Wickham’s, there’s Georg Jenal, “Gregor der Große und die Stadt Rom (590-604)” in Friedrich Prinz (ed.), Herrschaft und Kirche: Beiträge zur Entstehung und Wirkungsweise episkopaler und monastischen Organisationsformen, Monographien zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 33 (Stuttgart 1988), pp. 109–145, or relevant bits of Richards or Markus as in n. 4 above.

8. John R. C. Martyn, “Four Notes on the Registrum of Gregory the Great” in Parergon Vol. 19 (Perth 2002), pp. 5–38.

9. This happened more than once; see Judith Herrin, “Constantinople, Rome and the Franks in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries” in Jonathan Shepard and Simon Franklin (eds), Byzantine Diplomacy: papers from the Twenty-fourth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Cambridge, March 1990 (Aldershot 1992), pp. 91–107.