Category Archives: General medieval

The Carolingian Frontier II: groups and identities on all the edges

Putting coins aside for at least one post, I return to the way I spent roughly this time last year, i.  at conferences and in particular at The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours, which I started writing about a couple of posts ago. Resuming our tale on the 5th July, had you been in the JCR TV Room of Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge at 9 o’clock in the morning you would have found none other than me, leading off a session with a paper called “‘Completely Detached from the Kingdom of the Franks’? Political Identity in Catalonia in the Very Late Carolingian Era”. As you might expect, I don’t have notes on this,but I can give you the abstract and you can always ask for more.

The very last years of Carolingian rule in the West have been seen as decisive for the separation of the area that is now Catalonia from the larger West Frankish kingdom whence it had its origins as a political entity: between the sack of Barcelona 985 and the succession of King Hugh Capet in 987, the counties of the future Catalonia are held to have come to a collective realisation that they stood alone against the times in which they found themselves. Such a date is very late for the allegiance of any Carolingian periphery to the core, however: of what could such loyalties really consist? This paper explores the various forms of evidence that can be brought to bear on this question and concludes firstly that loyalty was strong enough that it could be exploited politically by counts and kings and their followers, but that its strength was too limited to assist in real crisis, and secondly that it was those crises, in 957 and in 985, that therefore broke the last ties to the Carolingians in Catalonia.

I have yet to work out what to do with this paper, which is more or less the latest instalment of some thoughts I’ve been having since midway through my doctorate, but I’m pretty sure it fitted the conference and hope it set things up well. But from there it was to Central Europe, Brittany, Burgundy and some other fiddly bits that might be either France or Germany depending on when you look, and back to Central Europe again. If I was an outlier, so was everyone! Writing this up, I realise that the crucial issues that joined us all up, for me, were one about group identity, how it was created and why it failed, and what the rôle of the frontier was in that. So if those interest you, read on! The papers broke down like this… Continue reading

Alleged iconoclasm and actual usurpation, now on the web

I meant to leap in quickly with another announcement about coins on the web, but then there was a need to write a Leeds paper and I really haven’t been able to get enough sleep lately and and… well, never mind. The short pause is over and here are some more coins. This time it is forty coins of the Emperor Leo III, the Isaurian, and one of his one-time buddy Artabasdos, whose name I find very difficult to spell.

Gold solidus of Emperor Leo III, struck at Constantinople between 717 and 720, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4506

Gold solidus of Emperor Leo III, struck at Constantinople between 717 and 720, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4506

Leo is a controversial figure, which is why Maria Vrij, who did the actual numismatic work behind this upload, identifying coins and tracing provenances and so on, is working on him, and in turn why she was doing the coins for me; many thanks to her. My part, merely laboriously to convert from an old non-relational database format designed for coins to a new relational one designed for things where one description makes more sense than obverse and reverse, and… yes, well, I can put it down, I can. Back to Leo. He is controversial because of being the emperor under whom the movement known as Iconoclasm, a prohibition of images of heavenly persons and objects, is supposed to have started. That may be true but there are big questions about the extent to which he himself started it or was unfriendly towards images, as opposed to being concerned that people might worship rather than merely venerate them. The detailed sources are largely later and there’s no sign in what remains of what he built or ordered made—of which there is very little—that he thought that images of holy persons were evil per se. But this is much debated, so I’m going to step lightly over it, observing only that, if the written sources for Leo’s reign are awkwardly late and therefore deformed by later disputes, the coins should be all the more vital as an exactly contemporary primary source for his rule and self-portrayal, and what they demonstrate seems mainly to be continuity and dynasticism, making them quite unhelpful for the Iconoclast case.1

Silver miliaresion of Emperors Leo III and his son Constantine V, struck at Constantinople between 720 and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4521

Silver miliaresion of Emperors Leo III and his son Constantine V, struck at Constantinople between 720 and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4521. And yes, look, there are no images of the human form here, but there were on the gold (above) and bronze (below), plus which, Leo was later remembered as having removed images of the Cross also, which makes it odd how it’s on his coins, no? But the Cross had been on the miliaresion since it was first struck, in the seventh century, so it doesn’t really mean anything except that Leo didn’t change things here.

Bronze forty-nummi coin of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Constantinople between 720 and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4534

Bronze forty-nummi coin of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Constantinople between 720 and 741 (the date on the coin being immobilised), Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4534. This was a change Leo did make, putting his son and heir on the coin with him, but that too was nothing that had not been done long before… This coin is much more fun, in fact, because of being overstruck onto an older one, of whose design traces can still be seen around the new one, especially a ghost head and patriarchal cross above the ‘M’ that signals the denomination on the reverse. Resource-saving, or just a really low-effort minting operation?

There are other things Leo was remembered for: he issued new law for the Roman Empire for the first time since Justinian had codified it all, and in 717-718 successfully defended Constantinople against everything the Caliphate could throw at it, among other deeds. But it’s for his Iconoclasm or lack of it that we will continue to know him today, because no-one comes to eighth-century Byzantium except via a course of study and since this is a controversy we’ll teach it…

Gold tremissis of Emperor Leo III struck at Constantinople, probably between 717 and 720, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4513

Gold tremissis of Emperor Leo III struck at Constantinople between 717 and 720, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4513

So instead, I just want to bring out a nice little irony in the fact that we put these two rulers’ uploads together.2 Leo first appears in the second reign of Justinian II, who used him as an undercover secret agent against the Caucasus-dwelling people known as the Alans. He came through that and a subsequent emperor, Anastasios II, put him in charge of the miltary in Anatolia, and so when Anastasios was deposed in 715, Leo refused to accept it, and his commander-next-door in Armenia, a chap called Artabasdos. Yup, that one. So Leo now marched on the capital, but predictably, once he had arrived there and forced Emperor Theodosios III to abdicate, he did not haul Anastasios out of the monastery but instead took power himself. In fact, he then had to quell a revolt in Sicily intended to restore Anastasios against him! Artabasdos remained a very senior commander in all of this, and Leo married his daughter Anna to him, so there was some sort of understanding between them at the very least.

Gold solidus of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Syracuse between 720 and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4578

Gold solidus of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Syracuse between 720 and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4578. Here, I suppose, you could argue that Leo had in fact replaced the canonical image of the Cross with one of his son, but since they’re both holding Crosses, again in perfectly traditional style, it’s a difficult case to make that that was for theological reasons!

That may explain what happened at the end of Leo’s long reign, by which time he had had another child, and indeed crowned him co-emperor in 720 as Constantine V. By 741 Constantine was fully grown and so when his father died he succeeded fairly naturally. But Artabasdos seems not to have liked this, and when Constantine went on campaign in 742 Artabasdos seized control in the capital and raised those bits of the army loyal to him to keep Constantine out. Artabasdos followed this by proclaiming himself and his son Nikephoros emperors, and his wife, Constantine’s sister, empress. There followed a year or so of fighting which Constantine ultimately won, and he duly had both his uncle-in-law and his nephew executed. Noblesse oblige, huh? I don’t know what happened to Anna.

Silver miliaresion of Emperors Artabasdos and Nikephoros struck at Constantinople in 742 or 743, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4544

Silver miliaresion of Emperors Artabasdos and Nikephoros struck at Constantinople in 742 or 743, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4544. This image has the obverse and reverse transposed, sorry. There’s an argument about which they should be, in fact, but maybe that’s too much for a caption…

Artabasdos doesn’t seem to have issued any bronze coin: there is only gold and silver known for him, and not that much of that. This adds to the impression that precious-metal coin and small change were for very different things in the Byzantine Empire, and forms part of the reassessment of the coinage in the Byzantine economy that we probably still need.3 But it’s also a reminder that the machinery of this immense government didn’t rely on any given ruler to make it go; if you held Constantinople, you could get bits of metal out into the world that proclaimed you as emperor to anyone who knew how to read them. And again, with Artabasdos as with Justinian II, we see that although people did this, doing it didn’t necessarily keep you in that position.

Some maybe-interesting searches:

How long do you have to rule after taking power by force for history not to call you a usurper? Longer than Artabasdos, anyway, even if maybe less long than Leo… More soon, anyway; till then, back to the backlog!


This post was written with the aid of Pray for a Good Harvest by Das Ludicroix, which I haven’t played for far too long but is still the oddest thing they recorded.

1. See on all this Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconcoclast Era, c. 650-850: a history (Cambridge 2011), pp. 69-155, which sets a very high evidential standard of proof but certainly has enough to find wanting.

2. I’m here basically following Walter E. Kaegi Jr, “Leo III”, in Encyclopædia Britannica Online, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Leo-III, last modified 19th May 2014 as of 2nd July 2015, but more detail is to be found in Brubaker & Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, pp. 70-79.

3. Despite the existence of Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coinage (London 1902), Michael Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985, repr. 2009) and Cécile Morrisson, “Byzantine money: its production and circulation” in Angeliki Laiou (ed.), The Economic History of Byzantium from the seventh through the fifteenth century, Dumbarton Oaks Studies 39 (Washington DC 2002), 3 vols, online here, III, pp. 909-966. In fact, at least partly because of Hendy…

Unexpected female scribe perhaps too unexpected

[I wrote the first draft of this post in August 2014, pretty much all in one go, and queued it. This is even more ridiculous than usual, as since then I’ve actually been to the relevant archive and answered the question it poses. But it’s still a good question, I still wrote the post and I feel very strongly about queues, so I’m putting it up anyway, and you’ll just have to wait for the answer…]

After months, nay years, I have finally found the time to finish Michel Zimmermann’s immense two-volume book Écrire et lire en Catalogne. There are 28 appendices – 28! – and the very last of them is a set of commented plates that include some really interesting documents. And one of them, sitting starkly against one of the things I have most often observed about this complex book, is this one:

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 973b

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 973b, as presented in Michel Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIIe siècles), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols, II p. 1250, fig. 4.

Now this dates from 1044, which is later than I usually run. So, although it is from Vic, my favourite archive, I’ve never seen the real thing. I really want to now, though, and it must go on the list. What Zimmermann thinks is important about it is the scribe, whose name was Alba, which is of course feminine in any Romance language you’d like to name.1 She was, therefore, a female scribe, and by the look of the charter, perfectly regular despite its unpleasant state of preservation, she knew what she was doing. (Some of the look of it must just be the photography, in any case. I have another picture of the same charter that isn’t half as bad, though black and white, so I guess that this one has been treated for increased visibility; I’ve applied nothing more than a bit of extra contrast myself.2) We only have the one document signed by Alba, but that may just be because she wrote for laypeople, although it could instead be that she was one of the literate women the sources occasionally show us, whom Zimmermann almost always prefers to deny, and got called in to write where others could not. It’s a neat and perfectly normal if quite thick charter hand, though, so I doubt that.

A second Riuprimer charter of 1044

Witness this very similar-looking document by the scribe Arnau in the same place a couple of months earlier, it being Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segle XI) (Vic 2000-2010), 6 fascicles, doc. no. 1026 and lámina 95.

All the same, it bothers me. Look at the left margin of the first document and you will quickly see that this is an example of something I have seen before at Vic, where two documents are written transverse on the same long strip of parchment.3 In the other case I have, the same scribe wrote both, which helps to explain why the same parchment was available to two different sets of transactors (and raises serious but unanswerable questions about archiving—were these people storing their documents with the scribes that made them, like later Italian notaries?4) And it looks, from what very little we can see of the script of the left-hand document, as if it’s the same hand here as well. But Zimmermann, and perhaps more significantly given that author’s tendency to push women out of his account, the index of scribes in the Vic edition of their eleventh-century charters both maintain that Alba wrote only one known document, so I’m willing to bet there’s another scribal signature on the left-hand one. Obviously I need to see it to be sure, but if so, as Mark Knopfler once sang, “Two men say they’re Jesus, one of ’em must be wrong”: either one of the scribal attributions is fictive, or there’s some really similar handwriting around Riuprimer in the 1040s.5 I can’t say any more without seeing it, but which would you guess?

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, nos 242 & 243

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, nos 242 & 243 in happy union, click through for (slightly) bigger

Also worth thinking about: if one of the names is fictive, why? When this happened at Sant Joan de Ripoll (that is, when a scribe can be seen to have written a document that has someone else’s name at the bottom) it’s because the person whose name goes at the bottom was the abbey’s apparent chief scribe.6 But that doesn’t really work when they’re both on the same parchment, and whether we see here a woman asserting her right to have writing that she had done and never mind the lazy notary (perhaps her father? I’m not sure if an unmarried woman would sign as femina, I’ve never quite figured out what that appelation means when it’s used), or rather a notary with a narky female client who wanted it noted that she could have written the document even if she hadn’t, we also need to explain the fact that this was not apparently rendered daft bu the other scribe’s signature. OK, if there is one. I think I have now hypothesized as far as my lack of evidence can take me…


The final version of this post was brought to you with the aid of Krankschaft, III, which is excellent.

1. Michel Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIIe siècles), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols, II p. 1250, fig. 4.

2. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segle XI) (Vic 2000-2010), 6 fascicles, doc. 1031 and lám. 96.

3. Arxiu Capitular de Vic, cal. 6 nums 242 & 243, printed most recently in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. nos 1718 & 1719.

4. See Reinhard Härtel, Notarielle und kirchliche Urkunden im frühen und hohen Mittelalter (Wien 2011), pp. 163-171.

5. Dire Straits, “Industrial Disease” on Love over Gold (Vertigo 1982).

6. Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 29-30; Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18/Publicaciones de le Sección de Barcelona 15 (Madrid 1951), p. 205.

The Carolingian Frontier I: points south

Last July was a rather busy conference season, possibly even busier than this one is, and the first one of it was that one I plugged here long ago (obviously), The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours, which was held at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge from the 4th to the 6th of July. This was organised principally (maybe entirely?) by three postgraduates, and given this—in fact, even not given it— it was a success of a great order as far as I was concerned. I guess that they had some help in securing some really big-hitting speakers but there were also plenty of new voices, not just from Cambridge, as well as, you know, me, wherever I fit onto that continuum. Aside from one failure of the college staff to realise that during a paper was not when to set up the refreshments noisily in the same room, I don’t recall anything going wrong and lots went right, including some of the most avid dicussion I remember at any conference. So, firstly, my congratulations to the organisers, and now I’ll move onto what people were actually saying!

Cover of the programme of the conference "The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours", 4th-6th July 2014, Cambridge

Cover of the conference programme

The conference ran from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning (which just about allowed people time to move on to the Leeds International Medieval Congress; we went direct from one to the other with one of the organisers in the back of the car…), with Saturday the only full day. The Friday thus had a sort of micro-unity, which was enhanced by the fact that all four papers were on the Mediterranean edges of the Frankish empire. We arrived late, for reasons I no longer recall, however, so I didn’t get all of the first one, a pity as it provoked a great many questions. What I can report broke down like this.

  1. Lorenzo Bondioli, “A Carolingian frontier? Louis II, Basil I and the Muslims of Bari”.
  2. What I got here was focused on the southern Italian city of Bari, which fell to Muslim forces in 841 and then became a distant target of the campaigns of Emperor Louis II, great-grandson of Charlemagne, for whom beating up on Muslims made an excellent way of justifying pushing the Christian cities between him and the Muslims into his control. There were also Byzantine claims to the area, but both empires could derive importance from squashing the same Muslims so there was a short-lived cooperation in 869, which broke down acrimoniously. Eventually Louis captured Bari with Slav aid instead, in 871.1 He then died in 875, however, leaving it more or less ready for the Byzantines to move in as protection. Signor Bondioli was arguing, I think, that the anti-Muslim campaigning was initially a cover for more local ambitions but became the basic requirement of an imperial claim to power in the area, which both sides could benefit from even as they were beholden to it.

  3. José Miguel Rosselló Esteve & Isabel Busquets Porcel, “The Balearic Islands and the Carolingian Empire: an unknown relationship”
  4. As the title implies, this was a paper with less evidence to put to work. It used to be thought that Byzantine control in the Balearic islands ended in the mid-eighth century, and that the Muslims then took over rather later, but we now have reason to believe (seals, mainly) that an observable flight of settlement from the coast to hilltop fortifications was actually done under the auspices of imperial authority. By 799, however, Christians there were soliciting aid against the Muslims from Charlemagne and Carolingian naval forces began to get involved very soon afterwards. What we don’t as yet have is anything archæological to indicate Carolingian presence on the island, rather than control from outside, the islands’ once-three bishoprics all being replaced by mainland Girona for example. (There is a bigger problem here about identifying a Carolingian archæological signature at all, something I have seen elsewhere in Catalonia.) This fits with the ease that the Muslims retook the islands in 849. It seems rather as if this was a place that wanted to be Carolingian but got nothing from the concession, so, did it count as frontier or not? Come to that, did Bari?

This was but one of many themes that came up in the very busy discussion after this session. Oddly, the answers diverged somewhat: the actual urban centre, Bari, had its Muslim presence reduced by Signor Bondiolo’s comments to a sporadic or vestigial mercenary force, making it essentially just a town with a purely local context except when larger polities gave it more, whereas Drs Rosselló and Busquets were anxious to stress the less populous Balearics’ involvement in their wider political world and the articulation of the fortified environment by such powers, even though they were doing this based on only one of the castles on the islands, because it’s the only one (of three on Mallorca itself) that’s been dug. I don’t have a clear record of which one this was, but I think it must have been the Castell del Rei at Pollença, which as far as I can discover is not the one that produced the seals, which came up at Santueri. You can probably argue that if any fort is producing Byzantine seals so far out it bespeaks a wider involvement, but one could still wish for more evidence; the site could have just been coordinating or gathering revenue via the one local official who still wrote to Constantinople, for example.2 We can see more Byzantine involvement in the Balearics in the archæology and more Carolingian in the texts, and I suppose it’s partly a choice of which to emphasise, but in Bari the same arguments from silence led to very different places. As ever, one model won’t do for such variant areas but it does make one wonder what models people start with when they look at them.

The Castell del Rei at Pollença, Mallorca

The Castell del Rei, a serious enough looking refuge! By Grugerio (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Once the moderators had managed to quell things enough to get some tea down us and we had managed to get some air and were all back in the conference room, we got another suitably border-crossing pairing.

  1. Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “The Carolingians and al-Andalus: an overview”
  2. This was nothing so superficial as an overview but in fact a very trenchant analysis, and my notes on it are full of marginal asterisks of emphasis. Professor Manzano pointed out that the area between the Frankish empire and Muslim Spain was articulated by cities, with local rulers who were at first emplaced or suppressed by a centralising Muslim government whose tax systems and garrisons are evident (he argued) through coins and seals, and which the Carolingians just attacked, without further plans, until the Andalusi government collapsed into civil war in the 740s, when Mayor-then-King Pepin III started to get the idea of actual takeover and to incentivise the local élites to come over to his side. Thereafter the contest was for the loyalty of the city lords, and what happened there is that what had been an incomer Muslim élite was displaced by Islamicised locals using either one of the big states on their borders as a hand up into power. Except in the relatively small area of what is now Catalonia that was held by the Carolingians after 830, the resulting power interests were then able more or less to ignore those powers for a long time thereafter.3 This all made a lot of sense to me, and it would probably work in other areas too.

  3. Sam Ottewille-Soulsby, “‘The Path of Loyalty': Charlemagne and his Muslim allies in Spain”
  4. Sam, one of the organisers, thus had the unenviable task of following one of the masters of the field, but he did so capably by focusing down onto a few particular cases of the kind of interaction Professor Manzano had been discussing, in which lords of cities like Huesca, Pamplona, Barcelona and so on moved between Córdoba and wherever Charlemagne was holding court as each grew more or less able to exert influence in the area, usually gravitating to the stronger but backing away as soon as that meant concessions. In 799, particularly, never mind the famous 778 campaign, Charlemagne had the alliance of the King of Asturias, Barcelona notionally under his lordship, Huesca sending him its keys, Pamplona having freshly thrown out its Muslim governor and a claimant to the Andalusi Emirate hanging round his court… and when Carolingian forces turned up at Pamplona they couldn’t take it and the whole position fell apart. As my notes suggest I thought then too, this is that idea I had long ago of Königsfern; for many a lord in a quasi-independent position, kings and the like are useful resorts but you want them to stay at a distance! This is how the kind of status that Professor Manzano had been drawing out was maintained under pressure, and it is in a way understandable why the two superpowers severally resorted to force to remove such unreliable allies and replace them with still more local ones who actually needed their help to get into power. But we only have to look at the Banū Qāsī to see how that could turn out…

The Catedral de Santa Maria la Real de Pamplona

The Catedral de Santa Maria la Real de Pamplona, not Carolingian-period itself but in a location that would almost certainly have been in use when Charlemagne arrived, and that’s as close as we’re going to get I fear! Image licensed from the Centro Vasco de Arquitectura under Creative Commons.

Questions here were also busy. I asked about the language of such deal-making; of course we don’t know, but I think it is worth asking whether these Arabicized élites spoke a language that Charlemagne’s court could understand, because I think it helps determine whether they seem like the Other or not. Rebecca Darley raised scepticims about the conclusions Professor Manzano was drawing from the coin evidence, and once he’d explained himself I was sceptical too, I’m afraid; much rested on the non-existence of Visgothic copper coinage, which is a given in some parts of the scholarly literature even though it’s been disproved at least three times.4 The seals are still fun, though. And the last question, from someone I didn’t know, was perhaps the most important if again unanswerable. Sam had mentioned that the Carolingian sources refer to some people as custodes Hispanici limitis, ‘guards of the Spanish frontier’. What were they guarding? Lines of defence, points of entry, tax districts? We just don’t know how this government defined the places where they ran out, but by now this gathering seemed a pretty good one in which to start thinking about it!5


This post was again constructed with the aid of Kava Kava, Maui, which turns out to have been a good purchase.

1. I’m lifting the background detail so far from R. J. H. Jenkins (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii: a Commentary (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 2012), pp. 101-106, because it’s what is to hand and I missed the bit where Dr Bondioli doubtless explained it all… I may therefore be slightly out of date.

2. Drs Rosselló and Busquets referenced the Taktika of Emperor Leo VI (now available as George T. Dennis (ed./transl.), The Taktika of Leo VI, Dumbarton Oaks Texts 12 (Washington DC 2010)) by way of explaining what Byzantine policy with regard to fortresses would have been, and OK, but what I’ve just described would fit perfectly well into Leo’s son’s De Administrando Imperii (available as Constantine Porpyhrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii, ed. Gyula Moravcsik & transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, 2nd edn. (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 1967 and as Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 Washington DC 1993)), for all that that’s later, so I think this is also plausibly sourced.

3. All of this reminds that I still badly need to read Eduardo Manzano Moreno, Conquistadores, emires y califas: los Omeyas y la formación de al-Andalus (Barcelona 2006), as it’ll obviously be great.

4. In Xavier Barral i Altet, La circulation des monnaies suèves et visigothiques : contribution à l’histoire économique du royaume visigot, Beihefte der Francia 4 (München 1976); Philip Grierson & Mark Blackburn, Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 1: the Early Middle Ages (5th–10th centuries) (Cambridge 1986) and Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, Sistema monetario visigodo: cobre y oro (Barcelona 1994).

5. We actually have a much better idea of such matters for al-Andalus, largely thanks to Professor Manzano; see his La Frontera de al-Andalus en época de los Omeyas, Biblioteca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991) and “Christian-Muslim Frontier in al-Andalus: idea and reality” in Dionisius Agius & Richard Hitchcock (edd.), Arab Influence upon Medieval Europe (Reading IL 1994), pp. 83-96.

Seminar CLVIII: too close to the action and yet too far

As you know, I dither about reporting on postgraduate seminars—in fact I dither about going to them but I always feel that more staff should, and you know, be the change you wish to see in the world, and so on—but the 19th June 2014 meeting of Birmingham’s Gate to the East Mediterranean Forum seems like fair game, partly because it was not a postgraduate speaking, but an alumnus of the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, Kyle Sinclair, but also because the paper was interesting. It was entitled “Michael Attaleites and Eyewitness Accounts of Warfare in Byzantine Literature”.

The autograph signature of civil servant and historian Michael Attaleites, at the end of a manuscript of his Diataxis

Allegedly, the autograph signature of the man behind our key source for this post, the civil servant and historian Michael Attaleites, at the end of a manuscript of his Diataxis. By Dimik72 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the basic questions historians of any stamp have to ask about their sources is how they know what they claim to know, obviously, and in the hierarchy of the possible answers to that question there isn’t usually much to trump the eye-witness report. Obviously, they may still be mistaken or lying but at least they had the chance to get it right. Right? Dr Sinclair was testing this argumentative position with the sources for the Battle of Mantzikert in 1071, when the Byzantine Emperor Romanos IV fought against the Seljuk Turks and lost, badly, his forces being routed in confusion and he himself captured by his opponents. In the subsequent government confusion, the Turks were able to sweep quite a lot of the local authority in what is now Turkey out of the way and take over while the empire was still trying to reconstitute its centre.1 And the chronicler Michael Attaleites was there.2

Sketch-map of the army routes to Mantzikert (now Malazgird, Turkey)

Sketch-map of the army routes to Mantzikert (now Malazgird, Turkey). By Bakayna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Well, we say he was there: he was on the campaign, indeed he was the army’s judge (krites ton stratepedou, say my notes), but when the actual battle was being fought, as Dr Sinclair excavated from his testimony for us, he was at the camp, not in the field. So rather than seeing the outcome himself, what he knew about was the reports of the survivors, every one of whom had of course been scattered in confusion and none of whom, it becomes clear as one goes through the account, knew what had happened to the emperor. Now, by the time Attaleites was writing that was in fact well-known, and he knew and used the work of fellow historian Michael Psellos on the battle, but Attaleites seems to have worked to give his contemporary impression as an eye-witness, and what he witnessed was, well, not very much but still more than most of the actual participants could have determined individually.3 All the same, what he tells us about is fear, confusion and the limits of everyone’s understanding of what was going on.

Obverse of a gold histamenon nomisma of Romanos IV struck at Constantinople in 1068-1071, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4526

Emperor Romanos IV in happier times, as who could not be happy being crowned alongside your wife by Christ himself? Obverse of a gold histamenon nomisma of Romanos IV struck at Constantinople in 1068-1071, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4526, and currently on exhibition in Inheriting Rome, along with its sibling B4524 the other way up! Yup; that should bring ’em in.

Now, it is of course possible that that is actually what being involved in or close to the losers in a battle that ends in an utter rout is like, but we did push a bit deeper on this. For a start, Attaleites seems to have been making the most of his own status as a witness, not least to raise the value of his testimony, a lot more favourable to his old boss Romanos than had Michael Psellos been. This also involved emphasising his own connection to the emperor, the importance of his role in the army and so on, in general trying to make sure that whatever had gone wrong didn’t reflect on him. As Dr Sinclair concluded, just because it’s eye-witness doesn’t make a source unbiased or without purpose! And here, the purpose was not least to give the ring of eye-witness testimony to events that our chronicler had not in fact seen, and didn’t really understand at the time. As usual, the methodological conclusion is that every source is evidence for something, even if only the motives of its maker, but you do need to consider those before pretty much anything else…4


1. Mantzikert has been much studied, but I’m afraid that I was writing in a hurry so I crib from Timothy Gregory, A History of Byzantium (Oxford 2005), pp. 254-256. He and the work in the next note both spell Manzikert ‘Mantzikert’ so although Wikipedia and my own education vie against them, I’ve done so too.

2. Lately available in English as Michael Attaleites, The History, transl. Anthony Kaldellis, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 16 (Cambridge MA 2012).

3. As well as the Internet Medieval Sourcebook version linked, you can if you like get more or less the same translation of Michael Psellos’s Chronographia as Michael Psellus, Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: the Chronographia, transl. E. R. A. Sewter (London 1966).

4. Cited at several points on such issues in the course of the paper was Ruth Macrides, “The Historian in the History”, in Costas N. Constantinides, Nikolaos M. Panagiotakes, Elizabeth Jeffreys and Athanasios D. Angelou (edd.), Philellen: studies in honour of Robert Browning, Biblioteca dell’Istituto ellenico di studi bizantini e postbizantini di Venezia 17 (Venice 1996), pp. 205-224, which sounded really interesting, but good luck getting hold of it…

Coins of an emperor about to lose some face

One of the very many things that needed doing when I arrived in post at the Barber Institute, as you may recall, was to see about getting its coin collection onto the Internet. Some attempt had been made at this by Jonathan Shea in 2008, a representative selection of our holdings, but although that was a start it was only 200-odd coins out of 16,000, so still a little way to go. It took me some time to improve upon it, though; quite some time just to work out what needed to be done, still longer to work out how to do it, and by that time I’d already started putting volunteers to work on it and had to deal with the consequences of setting workflows before I knew what was best to do. The result was that it was March already before stuff finally started to appear online. But when it did, what stuff!

Gold solidus of Emperor Justinian II, struck in 695-696 at Carthage, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4400.

Gold solidus of Emperor Justinian II, struck in 695-696 at Carthage, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4400.

Because I was reliant on volunteer labour to a great extent, I was also guided very much by what those volunteers wanted to work on. As it happens, though, quite a lot of people wanted to see or teach with coins of Emperor Justinian II (685-695 and 705-711), so it was just as well that one volunteer also needed to work on them for their undergraduate dissertation. They went through all our existing records for the coins of Justinian’s first reign, correcting them against what was in the trays and reference catalogues, and then typed those corrections into a spreadsheet. Then I proofed the spreadsheet, converted it laboriously into upload format and navigated the whole upload process until it was done. And the results are here!

Bronze follis of Emperor Justinian II struck at Constantinople between 685 and 695, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4395

Bronze follis of Emperor Justinian II struck at Constantinople between 685 and 695, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4395; from the sublime to the seriously heavily-used… Also not to scale, this is a good bit bigger than the solidi.

Justinian II is famous among early medieval historians principally for getting deposed in 695 and having his nose cut off, so as to disqualify him from returning to the throne. It wasn’t enough, since, allegedly adorned with a false nose made of gold (because why would you settle for less?), he came back anyway, executed his supplanter Leontius and the man who had since supplanted him, Tiberius Apsimar, in the Hippodrome and managed six more years of rule before his enemies finally decided to finish the job.1 There are various ways one can view this career, more and less favourable, but even this essentially laudatory write-up concludes, justifiably I feel, that “Emperor Justinian II of Byzantium wasn’t a brilliant military strategist, a capable ruler, a benevolent dictator, or even a… half-decent human being” (and the ellipsis is over obscene language, so if you’re bothered by such, don’t click the link, you won’t like it). For numismatists, though, Justinian II has a more particular importance, because in about 692, he seems to have decided to remove his own portrait from the obverse, ‘heads’ side of his biggest gold coins and replace it with one of Christ, relegating himself to the reverse, where he hung determinedly on to the Cross and was named not as emperor but as Christ’s servant.

Gold solidus of Emperor Justinian II struck at Constantinople in 692-695, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4381

Gold solidus of Emperor Justinian II struck at Constantinople in 692-695, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4381. Its siblings B4380 and B4383 are currently on display in Inheriting Rome, so come and see for yourself!

There are various views about what was going on here, which I don’t think is obvious (or rather, several equally obvious interpretations spring to mind), and I will write about that a little way down the line, but a teaching point I like to make with these coins is that, whatever public image Justinian was trying to project with these coins, it wasn’t effective enough, as he was deposed and eventually killed anyway. I think this should make us think about the idea that coinage was somehow propaganda. But what should make us think about this still more is that this change only took place on the gold and silver coinage, and only at Constantinople.

Gold tremissis of Emperor Justinian II, struck at Ravenna between 685 and 695, Barber Insitute of Fine Arts B4422.

Gold tremissis of Emperor Justinian II, struck at Ravenna between 685 and 695, Barber Insitute of Fine Arts B4422. Again, not to scale, this thing is about the size of a small fingernail…

So, on the bronze coinage that was the stuff anyone would actually have used in the cities every day, although Justinian’s coins did have some innovations (and we may have a unique one of them in the Barber collection) this changed policy of representation wasn’t reflected at all. Who was the audience for this propaganda supposed to be, exactly? To answer that, we would need to understand what the solidus was actually for and how it circulated better than we do, but for the time being, I like to think that it helps if you can look at the coinage as a whole.2 In which spirit, here are some links to particular searches for your enjoyment:

It’s all quite like actual numismatics, isn’t it? Thanks need to be added to this post to Emily Hancock, who did the spadework with printouts, catalogues and coins, and to Jan Starnes, wherever she may be, who did the original photography many years hence. Without them, it would have been a lot longer coming about!


1. Although I’ve never seen it, there is apparently a book-length study of the reign of Justinian, Constance Head, Justinian II of Byzantium (Madison 1972); some coverage can be found in John Haldon, Byzantium in the Seventh Century: transformation of a culture, revised edn. (Cambridge 1997), pp. 70-78, but my immediate reference here was Paul A. Hollingsworth, “Justinian II” in Alexander Kazhdan (ed.), The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (Oxford 1991), 3 vols, II, pp. 1084-1085.

2. The most thorough guide to his coinage is Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 84-149 esp. pp. 97-99, but a recent contribution has been made by Michael Humphreys, “The ‘War of Images’ Revisited: Justinian’s Coinage Reform and the Caliphate” in The Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 173 (London 2013), pp. 229–244.

Seminar CLVII: unmistakable greatness in a hidden place

Let’s not talk here about the hiatus, then; it won’t surprise those of you who know me that I have a place to do that scheduled slightly further down the list anyway… Instead, straight back on the horse with a much-delayed seminar report from 4th June 2014 (because dammit I am a year behind again and determined not to stay that way), when I was present in the Institute of Historical Research because none other than Professor David Ganz was presenting to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, with a paper called “Charlemagne in the Margin: a new Carolingian text about Karolus Magnus”.

An illustration showing Æneas, hero of the eponymous Æneid, from a fifth-century manuscript of it now in the Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica, Cod. Vat. lat. 3225

An illustration showing Æneas, hero of the eponymous Æneid, from a fifth-century manuscript of it now in the Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica, Cod. Vat. lat. 3225.

The margin in question was an extra-large one left around a text of the works of Virgil that was made at the monastery of Saint-Amand in the modern Netherlands in the late-ninth century, that is, in the full flood of the so-called Carolingian Renaissance.1 In that prolific endeavour of cultural uplift, Virgil assumed a much larger rôle than one might expect the premier poet of pagan Rome would have in this thoroughly Christian endeavour. But not only were the scholars of the early Middle Ages quite conflicted about their inner love affair with the Latin Classics (at least at the top level; I don’t suppose people who liked The Golden Ass were quite as bothered as Saint Jerome2), Virgil’s was acknowledged to be about the best Latin that had ever veen written, and a very different sort of Latin to the Bible, the other main introduction to the written word. We are before textbooks here; the scholars of this age learnt their Latin the hard way, by starting at the top.3

Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 407, fo .151v

And now, the manuscript, and indeed the very page, in question, thanks to the Bibliothèque Nationale’s Gallica! The actual manuscript is Valenciennes, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 407, now fully online (click through). The bit we’re after is in the box at the right opposite the line that starts “Agm. agens clausus…”

Probably not so many people learnt their way through the whole thing, but we have, said David, forty ninth-century manuscripts of the Æneid and almost all of them were made to be glossed, that is, to have notes, references, clarification and so forth added in the margins. These usually came from a Christian commentator of the fourth century by the name of Marius Servius Honoratus, and his gloss travelled so closely with most manuscripts that bits of it could get copied into the main text by mistake, in some cases.4 In this case, however, there is more, since as an expert palæographer David was able to say that only the Servian gloss was added by the scribes of the original text, but that several other glossators then went through parts or all of the manuscript adding their thoughts, and in this case those seem to have been particularly interested in comparing pagan and Christian religious practices. Mostly this was fairly neutral, using the Romans as an anthropological light on the Christianity of the manuscript’s era although at one point, apparently, a glossator uses a sermon of Saint Augustine which we no longer have to critique Virgil. And, on the reverse of folio 151, in Æneid Book VII, a character by the name of Clausus is explained with the words, “Sicut de magno Karolo data est comparatio: Nam adeo uultuosus erat ut non expediret interrogari ab eo qui eum numque viderat quis Karolus esset.” A very rough translation of that might be, “Comparison may justly be made to Charles the Great: for he was so terrible of aspect that there was no need for anyone who had ever seen him to ask which one was Charles.” This is interesting not least because it seems to be based on something that Charlemagne’s second biographer, Notker the Stammerer, also bases a story on, in which a Frankish exile in beseiged Pavia repeatedly tells the King of the Lombards that he will know when he sees Charlemagne, but it’s probably also the earliest reference to Charlemagne as ‘Charles the Great’.5 As David said, he was epic already…

Cover of Christopher Lee's Charlemagne: by the sword and the cross

Perhaps, however, not yet this epic. Rest in peace, Mr Lee

This is a unique and early usage of Charlemagne’s later byname, in a rather out-of-the-way place, so in questions the topic that mainly concerned people was who it was that thought this and how many people would ever have noticed. Was this a teaching text, which many a student would have worked with, or someone’s private annotated version? Was this a private thought or a schoolroom lesson? It is, after all, only one of several sets of glosses, as you can see above, so it is at least partly a question of which glossator preceded which. At the time of address, even David’s master palæography could not determine that, and with several scribes clearly working at around the same time in the same place it would probably only be guesswork if anyone were to attempt it. At least, however, the manuscript shows how for its users Virgil was not just a dead pagan poet, but a source of insight into their own, Christian, times worth going back to again and again.


1. Still best approached, I think, via Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), Carolingian Culture: emulation and innovation (Cambridge 1994); for wrangles over the term Renaissance here see John J. Contreni, “The Carolingian Renaissance” in Warren Treadgold (ed.), Renaissances before the Renaissance: cultural revivals of late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Stanford 1984), pp. 59-74.

2. I was lately reading Apuleius while off-air, in fact, in the rather ancient Penguin translation, Lucius Apuleius, The Transformations of Lucius, otherwise known as The Golden Ass, transl. Robert Graves (Harmondsworth 1950) anyway; if you know it you’ll likely agree that refinement and high culture are not its main subjects. As for Jerome, his fear of being too Ciceronian resulted in visions of angels beating him up for it, which is probably more severe than most!

3. On education and its methods the entry point is still Pierre Riché, Education and culture in the Barbarian West, sixth through eighth centuries, transl. John J. Contreni (Philadelphia 1976); see also Contreni, “The Pursuit of Knowledge in Carolingian Europe” in Richard E. Sullivan (ed.), The Gentle Voices of Teachers: aspects of learning in the Carolingian age (Columbus 1995), pp. 106-141.

4. See Don Fowler, “The Virgil Commentary of Servius” in Charles Martindale (ed.), The Cambridge Comnpanion to Virgil (Cambridge 1997), pp. 73-78, doi: 10.1017/CCOL0521495393.005.

5. Notker, Gesta Karoli, transl. of course in David Ganz (transl.), Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (London 2008), pp. 45-116, II.17.