Category Archives: General medieval

Announcing Inheriting Rome

Publicity image for Inheriting Rome: the imperial legacy in coinage and culture, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 27 February 2015 – 24 January 2016

Inheriting Rome: the imperial legacy in coinage and culture
Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 27 February 2015 – 24 January 2016
Coin Gallery

One of the very many things that have been keeping me from updating this blog as I would wish over recent months is now done, and can and should be announced. It is nothing less than the new exhibition in the Coin Gallery at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, curated by none other than yours truly. It’s entitled Inheriting Rome: the imperial legacy in coinage and culture and I’m really very pleased with it. The designer has taken my ideas and content and made it into a feast for the eyes as well as the brain but people have also been telling me that it is clear and interesting and makes them think and all those things that one wants to hear when one has done this much work to put objects, text and images together for the delectation of the general public. The Barber’s current What’s On leaflet has this to encourage you to come and see:

Look at one of the coins you’re carrying today: you’ll see the Queen’s portrait facing right and Latin script around the royal head. It seems our coins have looked this way forever, and that’s nearly true. But why? This exhibition uses money to explore and question our deep-seated familiarity with the Roman Empire’s imagery. Britain is not the only nation, empire or state to channel ancient Rome in this way: the Barber’s excellent collection of coins from the Byzantine Empire – as well examples from Hungary, Georgia and Armenia – illustrate both the problems and possibilities of being genuine heirs of Rome. Attempting to uncover the political uses of Rome’s legacy, this exhibition encourages the visitor to ponder why we are so often told of the empire’s importance – and whose interests such imagery serves.

A little UK-centric in retrospect, but then I don’t think we send the leaflet out any further than that… You can see that I was and am out to make a point, anyway, but really, come for how great it all looks and stay for the interpretation. It’s open until the 24th January 2016, and there are gallery tours on the third Sunday of most months as well as a number of gallery talks by myself, of which you can find details on the Barber’s website at those links. Do come and see!

Entrance to the Coin Gallery, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, showing the banners for Inheritance of Rome

Entrance to the gallery

Meanwhile, I have to thank Robert Wenley, Chezzy Brownen and John van Boolen for making it clearer and better in various ways or in John’s case actually helping install it, as well as crawling in roof-spaces to try and fix broken lights, and most of all Selina Goodfellow of Blind Mice Design for making it into something everyone wants to look at. I’ll have as much credit as is going, you know, but these people deserve theirs too. Thanks to all and you, readers, come and see what we did!

Backdrops at the end of the coin gallery of Inheriting Rome

Backdrops at the end of the gallery

(Right. So that just leaves a website rewrite, children’s activities, auditing the collection, checking the library and uploading the entire set of catalogues onto the University of Birmingham’s website, ON WHICH MORE SHORTLY, as well as zapping things with X-rays for purposes of Science! What’ll I do tomorrow?)

The English and Hungarian coins in the exhibition Inheriting Rome

The English and Hungarian coins in the exhibition, in full splendour

Sometimes justice really was blind

I work on the Catalan tenth century not least because, while the amount of evidence I have to work with is huge, if I ever step across the line into the eleventh century there’s just so much more that I would never get through it all. Much less of the material from after 1000 is published, too, though that is now improving. For my Ph. D., however, I set a cut-off date at 1030, figuring that a generation’s space after 1000 would let most of the threads I wanted to follow find their ends, and this lets some fun things sneak in that a study of the tenth century only would miss.

Biblioteca Universitària de Barcelona, Pergamins, C (Sant Pere de Casserres) núm 20

Like this, for example, about which I wrote a long time ago. It is Biblioteca Universitària de Barcelona, Pergamins, C (Sant Pere de Casserres) núm 20

I think this must be the only reason Josep María Salrach’s study of justice in Catalonia doesn’t mention what I had, when I drafted this, just found in the appendices of Michel Zimmermann’s Écrire et lire en Catalogne, of which I was then in the final pages.1 Zimmermann is interested in the early part of that book in people who get documents signed with clauses explaining why they couldn’t write themselves, and his Annexe IV is a long list of all the examples he’d found.2 Usually the reason given is illness, sometimes people stress that they can read even if they can’t write, and very rarely is it just ‘I can’t’, though despite all of this most signatures, in all documents, are done by the scribe, and it’s almost only ecclesiastics who sign for themselves. There’s an odd case, however, a judge named Guillem who, in Zimmermann’s list, always has his signature done with the same clause:3

“Ego Guillermus judex qui huius edictionis tactu necessitate oculorum signoque impressionis corroboro.”

This is quite tricky to translate, not least because it’s possible that where he used ‘necessitas’ he meant or was riffing on ‘cecitas’, which would be ‘blindness’, much more common in these formulae. And it clearly is a formula here, it is repeated for him pretty much word-for-word over a 28-year period and all that changes is the spelling of his name (Willielmus in the first document), despite a myriad of different scribes, so he must have known this clause and dictated it to the scribes. It’s something like:

“I, the judge Guillem, corroborate, by reason of necessity of the eyes, by touching this edict and with a mark of impression.”

It’s not clear to me for this wording whether he was meant to be holding a pen or not, or just to have put his finger to where his signature had been written for him, but in the only one of these documents of which I have a picture, his is the last witness signature and while it is clearly in the scribal hand, as you’d expect, it is followed, as you can see below, by a cross, set crookedly to the line of writing.4 I’d like to think that’s his mark. He presumably would have remembered how it went even if he couldn’t see what he was doing any more, and I do wonder if the odd word choice should be taken to imply that he didn’t think he was blind as such, just, I don’t know, long-sighted or something. He certainly didn’t let it stop him judging for another twenty years! And, as the post title implies, his would have been closer to blind justice than the area sometimes managed…

Partial facsimile of a 986 document from the Arxiu Capitular de Vic

Black-and-white facsimile of part of a charter of Guillem’s, his signature being the last line and a bit of the body text


1. J. M. Salrach, Justícia i poder en Catalunya abans de l’any mil, Referències 55 (Vic 2013); Michel Zimmermann, Érire et lire en Catalogne (siècles IX-XIII), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols.

2. Ibid., I pp. 81-83 & II pp. 1107-1111.

3. There’s the question of whether he appears before his eye problem developed and signed for himself then, and there is a judge Guillem in Cebrià Baraut (ed.), ‘Els documents, dels anys 981-1010, de l’Arxiu Capitular de la Seu d’Urgell’ in Urgellia Vol. 3 (Montserrat 1980), pp. 7-166, doc. no. 252 & Antoni M. Udina i Abelló, La Successió testada a la Catalunya medieval, Textos i Documents 5 (Barcelona 1984), ap. 26, but of course to prove it’s the same guy, you’d need, well, his signature… And there is a judge Guillem working at this same time who could still write, so who knows really. The documents in which Zimmermann finds him professing inability so to do run from 986 to 1015, and were then printed as: Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), 5 fascicules, doc. no. 524; Petrus de Marca, Marca Hispanica sive Limes Hispanicus, hoc est geographica & historica descriptio cataloniæ, ruscinonis, & circumiacentium populorum, ed. Étienne Baluze (Paris 1688; repr. Barcelona 1972, 1989), ap. CLXXIII; Francesc Monsalvatje y Fossas (ed.), Colección Diplomática del Condado de Besalú, Noticias Históricas XI-XIII, XV & XIX (Olot 1901-1909), 5 vols, ap. DLXXIII; & Jaime Villaneuva, Viage Literario a las Iglesias de España tomo XIII: viage á Gerona (Madrid 1850) app. XX & XXII.

4. Miquel dels Sants Gros i Pujol, ‘Lámines’ in Junyent, Diplomatari, pp. 681-808, no. 108 (doc. no. 524).

Seminar CLVI: whose job was high medieval English pastoral care?

I have had to neglect this blog cruelly so far this year, I am keenly aware, and I hope–this sounds foolish but I mean it–to blog about at least one of the reasons why shortly. Meanwhile, however, I will unblock the head of the queue by reporting on a lecture I went to in Birmingham last June, before the backlog can get any worse…

Cover of Robert Swanson's Religion and Devotion in Europe c. 1215-c. 1515

Cover of Robert Swanson’s Religion and Devotion in Europe c. 1215-c. 1515

One of the people it’s been nice to meet while in Birmingham is Professor Robert Swanson. Very loyal readers might just remember my first encounter with his work, years ago when I had to read up on the twelfth-century Renaissance very quickly.1 I enjoyed that book and it was very helpful, but it turns out that this is not really what he does, which is much more late medieval Church organisation and spirituality. That is a subject that attracts all sorts, but having talked to Professor Swanson a bit I thought it would be fun to hear him do his stuff, and the opportunity came around on 3rd June 2014, when he was asked to give the Guest Lecture to the Early Medieval, Medieval, Renaissance, Reformation and Early Modern Forum in Birmingham. The title he chose was “Pastoral Care, Pastoral Cares, Pastoral Carers: the cura pastoralis in late medieval England”. This would have been too late and too Insular for me in normal circumstances, since more or less all the questions whose solutions intrigue me about the early and high medieval Church seem pretty much settled in the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, but I had at this point just finished supervising an undergraduate dissertation on a text of this kind and era, onto the study of which Professor Swanson had put the relevant pupil, so I felt as if I might get something out of it, and so I did.2

Effigy of Archbishop John Pecham of Canterbury, responsible as you will read for making all this stuff a live issue in England. Canterburycathedraljohnpeckhamtombeffigy" by Ealdgyth - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Effigy of Archbishop John Pecham of Canterbury, responsible as you will read for making all this stuff a live issue in England. Canterburycathedraljohnpeckhamtombeffigy” by EaldgythOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It was in fact with Lateran IV that Professor Swanson began, because one of the very many things with which that Council was concerned was the standard of care for people’s souls which the Church was administering. Lots of how-tos and instructions ensued and by 1281 this had even reached England, when a Canterbury council also considered what needed to be done in this sphere (under the presidency of the dead guy above). Now, as Professor Swanson had it, this has up till now mainly been studied in terms of what it meant for priests and others who held ministry in the Church, who were enjoined to all kinds of education, guidance and policing of vice, that is, in terms of the cure of souls, in the most medicinal sense of that metaphor. These days, however, we think of pastoral responsibilities as a much wider field of operations, more like social work, and Professor Swanson wanted to look at that sense in a medieval context; how much of that kind of ministering to people was there, and who was supposed to do it?

Werken van Barmhartigheid, Meester van Alkmaar (1504)

A 1504 Dutch painting of the Seven Acts of Corporal Mercy, “Werken van Barmhartigheid, Meester van Alkmaar (1504)” by Master of Alkmaar (fl. 1504) – http://www.geheugenvannederland.nl : Home : Info : Pic. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This turned out to be quite easy for him to set up a framework for. There are already, in this mass of didactic literature, a whole variety of instructions for the layperson to live a suitably holy but active life, obviously including the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Seven Deadly Sins and so on, and also a set of recommendations called the Seven Acts of Corporal Mercy, which could be broadly categorised as mutual assistance among neighbours and so forth. Now, they need the qualification as ‘corporal’ because there were also Seven Acts of Spiritual Mercy, rather less often discussed but nonetheless letting the laity through the gate somewhat, because of requiring one basically to watch out for the state of your neighbour’s soul, and warn them if they looked like endanngering it. Quite a lot of this sort of conduct can be found urged in sermons even without the Seven Acts mentioned, in fact, but in the more worked-out versions it was even considered pious behaviour to constrain such miscreants to stop them thus hurting their chances of Salvation, or even to denounce them to other authorities who might correct them, all for their own good of course. This could even be applied to the priesthood itself, who could be denounced to their archdeacon or bishop, mainly because of the danger to their congregation’s souls of course but also to their own, and at the very highest level it was in some sense the work of the king, who should bring his subjects to Heaven as far as possible, but also of every mother and father of a child who had to be taught to tell right from wrong, so a pretty all-encompassing theology once pieced together from these various expressions.

A fourteenth-century manuscript illustration of an archdeacon telling off some priests

A fourteenth-century manuscript illustration of an archdeacon telling off some priests for their flash duds, or something equally anachronistic

It’s hard, in fact, to see what interference this doctrine wouldn’t justify. It clearly overlaps considerably with the priestly ministry, and so in questions the issue naturally arose of whether people were actually attempting to carry this out, or even using it as a justification for what we might otherwise call nosiness, busy-bodying or, more generously, community policing. That was, in some ways, not the point of the lecture, which had been about whether there was room for a lay ministry in this period’s thinking at all, but with it fairly well-established that people could have found one if they wanted, one now rather wants to know if they ever did try to apply the theory!


1. Robert N. Swanson, The Twelfth-Century Renaissance (London 1999); his other work includes Church and Society in Late Medieval England (Oxford 1989) and Religion and Devotion in Europe, c. 1215-c. 1515 (Cambridge 1995), pictured above.

2. The text was Dives et Pauper, which was mentioned in this lecture several times and is printed in Priscilla Heath Barnum (ed./transl.), Dives et Pauper, Early English Texts Society O. S. 275 (London 1976). I shan’t embarrass the student by naming them, but they did pretty well…

A Compensation Coin, then, Two Rooms of Budding Byzantinists

I have been neglecting this blog, I’m sorry. I can only assure you that this is not out of laziness; rare has been the day of 2015 so far in which I have not written a couple of thousand words, but much less of this has been in the kinds of document that will ever have a readership than I would like, and much of that which has been is a long way off getting to that state… In particular, I have about thirty thousand words of a book manuscript (enthusiastic first-draft words, but words), and at the other end of the scale of scale, about four thousand words of exhibition copy of various sorts which were really hard to keep short. The fruits of all of this will be announced in their due season, of course, but just for the moment let me make up for the long silence with a picture of a coin, and then a conference report.

Reverse of a gold solidus of Emperor John I Tzimiskes, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4953

Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4953 (reverse)

This is a gold solidus of Emperor John I Tzimiskes (969-976), and it’s connected to what I’ve been doing at work lately in several ways. In the first place, it is a little way down the slippery slope of decreasing fineness that Byzantine gold coinage descended in the tenth and eleventh centuries; it looks pretty shiny, but all that glitters is not gold… That’s not news exactly, but it’s one of the types we’ve been blasting with x-rays to find out what more its metal can tell us. Secondly, it’s one of the coins that’s going in the next exhibition on the Coin Gallery at the Barber Institute, which is why I happen to have an image of it handy, And, thirdly, because as you can see it shows the Virgin Mary, identified in Greek, ‘theotokos’, motherbearer of God, crowning Emperor John with some help from a Hand of God, it was among the coins that my first research enquiry at the Barber, some time ago now, involved me getting out to scrutinise because of being a depiction of divinity in Byzantium. And with that, you see, we connect to the conference report, because the person who asked me about this coin was also presenting at the conference against which the blog backlog now laps. So!

A woodcut depiction of Constantinople from Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

A woodcut depiction of Constantinople from Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Every year since 1999, the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham has held a postgraduate colloquium to showcase its research. In the last few years this has grown somewhat to become an international event; the fifteenth colloquium, on 24th May 2014, had thirty different speakers from fifteen different institutions in seven different countries, organised by necessity into two parallel strands, and I know because I was there. I usually don’t report on postgraduate presentations here, figuring that students are not necessarily fair game for such exposure, but there was such a lot of good stuff said here that I want to give some account at least, so I will give you the running order of the papers I saw and then offer some remarks about the ones I found most thought-provoking. The theme they’d chosen was “Language as Culture in the Eastern Mediterranean (330-2013)”, and you see below how that was reflected in the papers on offer.

    Keynote address

  • Maria Georgopolou, ‘Διγλωσσία: bilingualism as a cultural paradigm’
  • Session 01

  • Zuzana Cernáková, “Language of Fiction: representations of Byzantium in twelfth-century French literature”
  • Kirsty Stewart, “Beast Literature and the Vernacular in Byzantium, 1261-1453″
  • Jeff Brubaker, “The Language of Religious Union: the Greek-Latin Disputatio of 1234″
  • Theofili Kampianaki, “John Zonaras’ Treatment of the Roman Past in his Epitome of Histories
  • Session 03

  • Eileen Rubery, “Making and Meaning in the Frescoes in the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum (600-800 AD)”
  • Katherine Harrison, “From Ancient Lapidaries to Christian Allegories – Textual Sources on Stones and Their Impact upon Gemstone Icons in Byzantium”
  • Sandro Nikolaishvili, “Translation of Byzantine Symbols and Language of Power to Medieval Georgia”
  • Georgia Michael, “The Visual ‘Language of Death': new interpretations of aspects of idolatry and worship of early Christian funerary art (3rd-4th centuries)”
  • Session 05

  • Panagiotis Sotiropoulos, “Visual Representation in the World of Late Antiquity: religious origins of a gaze attracted by new public and private sights”
  • Miranda Williams, “Language and Propaganda in 6th-Century Africa”
  • Daniel Kelly, “Hagiographic Evidence for Continued Language Diversity in Post-Crises Byzantine State”
  • Lilly Stammler, “One Spiritual Beneficial Tale from the Life of St Andrew the Fool in South Slavonic Translation”

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The Carolingian (back-up) plan for world domination

It’s a long time now since I did my doctorate. Nonetheless, I recognise a huge debt in my work even now to that of my supervisor, Matthew Innes—I am prone to saying that Rosamond McKitterick gave me my study area, Matthew gave me questions to ask about it and Wendy Davies gave me the techniques to answer them (though Wendy never taught me as such), but actually Matthew gave me quite a few of the answers too—and when I come across more of his work it’s always good news. This happened again a few months ago, as I slowly worked my way through a chunky volume from Vienna on the early medieval state in which he features.1 In this chapter, he does nothing less than propose a general characteristic of Carolingian conquest, and I think it’s great and plausible but that it doesn’t work for Catalonia. From this follow some wider musings, as you may imagine.

Map of Frankish conquests under Pepin and Charlemagne

This post involves talking about Alemannia, and it’s really difficult to find a map that shows that. It’s more or less the little segment of this one marked "536" just above Italy.

Matthew starts his chapter with the tightest summary yet of his idea of how early medieval polities operated, one of the things that I have adopted wholeheartedly from him, that for distant rulers to get anything done in the regions they controlled they had to establish relationships with local agents who could do those things from a direct landed power-base, and make sure that they would do so by means of negotiation and incentives.2 Looking specifically at Alemannia, roughly modern far south-western Germany and part of the modern Switzerland, through the lens of Notker’s Gesta Karoli, a text that takes some careful reading to be used as a source for politics but one that Matthew knows very well, he argues that what Carolingian take-over looked like is a moment of weakness in a region’s autonomous government, a Carolingian intervention by force majeure involving expropriation on a substantial scale by the Carolingians’ initial agents, and then the development of a structure of government and judicial process dividing power between more people, including the locals, during which a lot of the property that was initially expropriated dribbles slowly back into local hands via gifts, court cases, benefices and so forth.3 In other word, it worked because they toppled local government, stole a lot of stuff and then offered people a way to get their stuff back that endorsed the Carolingian position at the top. As Jinty Nelson once memorably said, “They weren’t nice people, you know.”

Aerial view of the monastery of Sankt Gallen in its modern state

This is not really Sankt Gallen as Notker would have recognised it, but it’s still quite impressive. By Hansueli Krapf (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

I find this very persuasive. It certainly seems to work for Alemannia (where Matthew is mostly following Michael Borgolte here), it probably works for Italy, I think also Bavaria and, in an extreme kind of way, probably also for Saxony, though it might be less property and more recognition as free people.4 It doesn’t, however, seem to me to work for Catalonia, which raises the question of why not.5 In the first place, a crucial difference: parts of what is now Catalonia first came under Carolingian government, as you may recall, because the men of Girona opted to side with the Franks in 785.6 Cerdanya and Urgell seem to have done something similar and were under Carolingian rule by 793, when a Muslim army came to punish them for it, and after that the extent of control was slowly pushed out by military means until 809, when the hope of further gains seems to have been dropped by King Louis the Pious of Aquitaine (as he then was).7 But the initial secession is represented by the Frankish sources as self-determined, and there’s little enough to make any case against that with.

Map of the Carolingian Marca Hispanica

Here’s another handy map, this one of the whole Marca Hispanica as the Carolingians established it. By Modifications author: Tonipares (Adapted and translated from [1]) [Copyrighted free use or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

I have tried looking for such things, I should say, but I have pretty much failed. The ‘Goths’ here, like the ones of Narbonne, got to keep their own law; there are only two cases known to me where Frankish royal officials intervened in judicial process. For a while, at least, local counts remained in charge too, though quite possibly feathering their own nests from so doing. The administration does seem to have had a shake-up, but things like the writing of documents, for example, were still done by local standards afterwards. Even learned culture seems to have remained primarily Visigothic at first, though here I think there may be room for a different reading of the evidence.8 The Carolingians didn’t even impose the Roman rite over the Hispanic liturgy until probably much later. The two biggest changes were the abrogation of two of the area’s bishoprics, both probably inactive, and the establishment of those misunderstood semi-independent migrants, the Hispani, hither and yon with consequent complications for what was probably otherwise a mechanism for military service that would also have seemed like a severe change and which the counts were well-placed to exploit to their advantage.9 It seems as if an awful lot of the strong-arm measures required elsewhere were not necessary here. Why not?

A battle scene from the Biblia de Ripoll

A depiction of the armies of Israel from the tenth-century Bíblia de Ripoll. This is used much too often as an illustration of tenth-century warfare but I don’t have a better one so I shall be just as bad…

Well, the reprisal attack of 793 shows one good reason: those living in this area must have seen the need of protection in a fairly real way. Bavaria and Saxony’s far frontiers were largely within their capacity to manage, though Denmark might explain Saxony’s rapid assimilation in the same way as al-Andalus could here. Italy is a bit more complex, because its southern duchies remained a kind of barrier between the bit the Carolingians ruled and the notional enemy, and in any case that enemy could be any one of several. All the same, there was a job for government to do in Catalonia, and also there wasn’t much central control there anyway; while Barcelona and Girona themselves usually shared a Muslim ruling family as far as we can tell, those rulers’ position vis-à-vis cities further south and west was continually variable, and how far those centres’ power reached into the Pyrenees may legitimately be doubted.10

Roman walls at Saragossa

The walls that helped turn Charlemagne back… Roman walls at Saragossa. By own work (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.

But the other factor, which brings me perhaps closer again to Matthew’s argument, is that I think the Carolingians had tried the strategy he describes in the 770s and it had failed. The local agents would have been the al-‘Arabi family of Barcelona, but also no doubt some new Frankish brooms to keep them in order, and they would have ridden into local power on the back of the local leaders’ wish to separate from the Emirate; the establishment of Frankish defences would have meant a supporting allotment of land, and it could all have unrolled much as it had in Bavaria (taking that story from Duke Odilo, rather than just Tassilo), except of course that the local leaders changed their mind, formed ranks and had big old Roman cities to do this from.11 Result, Roncesvalles, more or less. So after that something else had to be done instead, and what they came up with was accommodation first, strong-arming second. But I think that Matthew might be right that the other way round had, till then, been the way that worked for the Carolingians.


1. M. Innes, “Property, Politics and the Problem of the Carolingian State” in Walter Pohl & Veronika Wieser (edd.), Der frühmittelalterliche Staat – europäische Perspektiven, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 16 (Wien 2009), pp. 299-313.

2. A formulation worked out in M. Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: the middle Rhine valley 400-1000, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 47 (Cambridge 2000), followed by me in J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), and now stated almost equally tightly in Jarrett, “Engaging Élites: Counts, Capital and Frontier Communities in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries, in Catalonia and Elsewhere” in Networks and Neighbours Vol. 2 (forthcoming), pp. 211-261, which is a pupil’s work in many ways.

3. M. Innes, “Memory, orality and literacy in an early medieval society” in Past and Present no. 158 (Oxford 1998), pp. 3-36, doi: 10.1093/past/158.1.3.

4. M. Borgolte, Geschichte der Grafschaften Alemanniens in fränkischer Zeit (Sigmaringen 1984); Elina Screen, “Lothar I in Italy, 834-40: Charters and Authority” in J. Jarrett & A. S. McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout 2013), pp. 231-252, doi: 10.1484/M.IMR-EB.1.101685; Stuart Airlie, “Narratives of Triumph and Rituals of Submission: Charlemagne’s mastery of Bavaria” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 9 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 93-119, doi: 10.2307/3679394 and Warren C. Brown, Unjust Seizure: conflict, interest and authority in an early medieval society, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past 2 (Ithaca 2001), for Bavaria; there isn’t really a good study for Saxony that I know of, perhaps because anyone who does it has to face up to the ugly fact that intermittent genocide actually worked out pretty well for Charlemagne for creating loyalty to his family…

5. It would probably work for Ramon Martí, given his “Conquistas y capitulaciones campesinas” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cultura antes del románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 59-63, transl. as “Peasant victories and defeats”, ibid. pp. 448-451, but as you may remember I can’t find it in me to agree there.

6. Chronicon Moissiacense, printed in Georg Heinrich Pertz (ed.)., Monumenta Germaniae Historica Scriptorum Tomus I (Hannover 1829), pp. 280-313, s. a. 785: “Eodem anno Gerundenses homines Gerundam civitatem Carlo regi tradiderunt.”

7. Josep María Salrach i Marés, El procés de formació nacional de Catalunya (segles VIII-IX), Llibres a l’Abast 136-137 (Barcelona 1978), 2 vols is still the best guide here.

8. I’m finishing this post away from my library, so this is harder to substantiate than I’d like, but… judicial intervention in Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Sebastià Riera i Viader & Manuel Rovira i Solà, (edd.) Catalunya Carolíngia V: els comtats de Girona, Besalú, Empúries i Peralada, ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Memòries de la secció històrico-arqueològica 61 (Barcelona 2003), 2 vols, doc. no. 7 and there is another case in Pierre Ponsich (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia VI: els comtats de Rosselló, Conflent, Vallespir i Fenollet, ed. Ordeig, Memòries LXX (Barcelona 2006) but I don’t have that reference handy, sorry; the counts and their origins are discussed in Salrach, Formació, I pp. 39-46; the changes in documentary practice are studied in Jonathan Jarrett, “Comparing the Earliest Documentary Culture in Carolingian Catalonia” in Jarrett & McKinley, Problems and Possibilities, pp. 89-126, doi: 10.1484/M.IMR-EB.1.101679; and on learned culture, see Michel Zimmermann, Écire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIIe siècle), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols, II pp. 619-831.

9. On the Church reorganisation see e. g. Manuel Riu i Riu, “La organización eclesiástica” in José María Jover Zamora (ed.), Historia de España Menéndez Pidal, tomo VII: la España cristiana de los siglos VIII al XI, volumen II. Los nucleos pirenaicos (718-1035): Navarra, Aragón, Cataluña, ed. Riu (Madrid 1999), pp. 613-648. On military service, wait for my article on the subject, but meanwhile compare Cullen J. Chandler, “Between court and counts: Carolingian Catalonia and the aprisio grant, 778-897″ in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 No. 1 (Oxford 2002) pp. 19-44, doi: 10.1111/1468-0254.00099 and Jonathan Jarrett, “Settling the Kings’ Lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective”, ibid. 18 (2010), pp. 320-342, doi: 10.1111/j.1471-8847.2010.00301.x.

10. Here again Ramón Martí would disagree: see his “Palaus o almúnies fiscals a Catalunya i al-Andalus” in Hélène Débax (ed.), Les sociétés méridionales à l’âge féodal (l’Espagne, Italie et sud de France Xe-XIIIe s.) : hommage à Pierre Bonnassie, Méridiennes 8 (Toulouse 1999), pp. 63-69, for an argument for a much more thoroughly-spread Muslim presence; cf. e. g. Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “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.

11. For now the best resort here is the work of Philippe Sénac, for example his “Charlemagne et al-Andalus (768 – 814)” in idem (ed.), Aquitaine—Espagne (VIIIe – XIIIe siècle), Civilisation médiévale 12 (Poitiers 2001), pp. 1-18, but look for new thoughts from Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, currently doing his doctorate at Cambridge.

Seminar CLV: tracking the head of John the Baptist

I proffer my usual apologies for the intermittent service here at the moment. I had hoped that the holidays would give time for blog catch-up but I am between even more places than usual this Christmas and have also been contriving to get about 1,500 words a day of book written and an article finished off and ready to submit, and I’m loath to mess with the magic… Nonetheless, tonight I have some time and so I can tell you about going to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research on 14th May 2014 to hear Dr Georges Kazan speak to the title, “The Head of St John the Baptist: Byzantium and the Circulation of Relics in the Early Middle Ages”.

View from the west of the church of Sv. Ioan Prodrom, Sveti Ivan, Bulgaria

View from the west of the church of Sv. Ioan Prodrom, Sveti Ivan, Bulgaria. Photograph by Kazimir Popkonstnatinov

This was an unusual paper, not least because the speaker confessed himself out of his area of expertise almost immediately and then turned out to know an awful lot. Dr Kazan’s expertise is archæological, and specifically he knows a lot about reliquary types and designs, especially in the Byzantine world. But reliquaries are what they are only because they contain things connected with saints, and that gets you into the world of hagiography, that most tricky and unreliable of genres. Plucking up his courage after getting involved in the Bulgarian find of relics that were immediately hailed as John the Baptist’s at Sveti Ivan near Sozopol in 2010, as reported sceptically here indeed, Dr Kazan had tried using the texts to tell him what relics of St John the Baptist were around in the early Middle Ages and where, and had been pretty exhaustive in breadth about it.

Supposed relic of the skull of St John the Baptist in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Supposed relic of the skull of St John the Baptist in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

The first thing that surprised me about this catalogue is that it was surprisingly unambitious till about 800. Despite John’s fame, his head was not claimed by anyone until the end of the fourth century, although then there were two, in Alexandria and in Constantinople. Other places claimed to have unspecified relics of his and it is possible to guess that these might in fact have been coming from Constantinople, not least because the Sveti Ivan relics were in a reliquary of a type that was exported from there in some numbers. In about 800 a third head came to light, however, and by 814 a fourth one (claimed to be the same one) was in Rome, and after that it begins to get silly: there are, to Dr Kazan’s knowledge, thirty-six claimed heads of John the Baptist currently preserved in whole or in part, and a hundred and thirty-seven relics of him in general, with sixty-seven other cases now lost. All this is exactly why I was sceptical about the Sozopol claim, though I didn’t know the numbers. Interestingly, however, that has been radio-carboned and DNA-tested and comes out (at least the human bones in the casket, which were accompanied by lots more including animal bones 500 years older) as bone from a Middle Eastern male alive in the first century A. D., so at the very least it was a suitably-old body the makers piled in there…

The supposed relics of St John the Baptist as discovered at Sveti Ivan, in the sarcophagus that contained them

Not that there was very much of him… The relics as discovered, in the sarcophagus. Photograph by Kazimir Popkonstnatinov.

That was the second thing that surprised me, and the third was that, with excruciating effort, it was more or less possible for Dr Kazan to construct a story that more or less reconciled all the different snippets of hagiography up till 800.1 In that construction, that of the chronicler Rufinus of Aquileia, the body of St John was first reported at Sebaste in Palestine, when with that of the prophet Elisha it was attacked by pagans during Emperor Julian’s persecutions in 361. It was gathered up and brought to Jerusalem for safety, then to Alexandria, then back to Jerusalem in 362, by which time the body had been divided; it was then established in a martyrium in Alexandria (again!) in 395. On the other hand, in the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, monks who had found the head in the mid-fourth century were reported to be venerating it in Cilicia during the reign of the Emperor Valens; Valens ordered them brought to Constantinople but the mules pulling the cart would go no further than Cosilaos, where a new cult was set up and whence Emperor Theodosius I removed the relics in 391, taking them to Constantinople where they were established in a church at the Hebdomon.2 The thing that makes this all just about possible is the first story’s insistence that there were two bodies at Sebaste and that they were burnt and broken up; after that, how to know which head was which? Both groups could have believed they had the right one. Of course, then there come the heads of 800, one supposedly located in the ruins of Herod the Great’s palace by yet more monks and stolen off to Emesa by parties unknown, who sealed it into an urn that became the property of an Arian healer, who hid it in a cave when his quackery was revealed and he was run out of the town. The cave got used by hermits, who eventually turned up the urn in 453, and passed it on to a monastery back in Emesa in 753. This was the head that was claimed to be at Rome in 800 but was unfortunately also still attested at Emesa in 814, so by then things have got silly but before 800 the details we have that are not fantastic are not in themselves clearly contradictory.

Supposed relic of part of the head of John the Baptist in the Residenz, Münich

Supposed relic of part of the head of John the Baptist in the Residenz, Münich. By LarryB55 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, the fact that that is possible does not mean that any of it is true, and the fantastic details do present a problem or two here, ones that may be more apparent to the textual scholar than the archæologist. In the first place, the deposition of the bodies at Sebaste is hard to take in Rufinus’s terms because we have very little sign otherwise of persecution under Julian, rather than just cutting funding. In the second place, of course, it is completely unclear how many of these details could possibly have been known by the people who would have to have hold the story; in the case of the Emesa head most of that is frankly impossible (and this Dr Kazan freely acknowledged). To do any more one would need to know a lot more about the manuscript situation of each of the texts (Rufinus, at least, not being preserved in any version earlier than the seventh century, surely affecting what his redactors knew to be ‘true’ about such matters, and you already know what I think about Sozomen’s critical faculty) but Dr Kazan had not gone any further than the nineteenth-century editions, so there that matter had to rest. At this rate, to accept any of the details as any more than a fortunate stab in the dark by an inventive hagiographer is pretty much unjustifiable, so the body part maths doesn’t really get us very far, and what we are left with is more or less where Dr Kazan had started, the Sozopol sarcophagus and its siblings.

Reliquary box which contained supposed relics of St John the Baptist, found at Sveti Ivan

The reliquary with its lid on. Photograph by Kazimir Popkonstnatinov.

By Dr Kazan’s account, pressed from him in questions by Charlotte Roueché, Alan Thacker and Caroline Goodson, these kinds of reliquaries were made in Asia Minor half-finished and finished wherever they were needed, but the best finishing was done in Constantinople. They often contained metal caskets, although both the stone shells and the caskets are found separately. They were not necessarily reliquaries, but were almost always put to funerary purposes and so make sense for that use. It would seem that Constantinople had quite the trade in these things going on, so that by the fifteenth century relics with a Constantinopolitan provenance were considered automatically suspect. Nonetheless, it was and had been for a long time one of the kinds of status Constantinople had to offer people. The trouble was, I think these were things that Dr Kazan had known already before starting research for this paper. It was delivered sincerely and contained a great deal of interesting information, but very little of it was information on which a historian could put any weight, and sadly that is a state of the record which further finds are unlikely to fix.3


1. Happily for me given the state of my notes, Dr Kazan seems to have had most of these references worked up for a conference he organised in the Sozopol finds in Oxford in 2011, which I completely missed but whose papers are now online. I get most of the textual references following from Dr Kazan’s own “The Head of St John the Baptist—the early evidence”, and the site details and a number of the images in this post from Rossina Kostova, Kazimir Popkonstantinov and Tom Higham, “Relics of the Baptist: Scientific research planned for the finds excavated in Sozopol, Bulgaria in 2010 (Radiocarbon Dating, DNA testing)”.

2. Rufinus of Aquileia, Historia Ecclesiastica, ed. Theodor Mommsen in Eusebius, Werke, ed. Eduard Schwartz (Leipzig 1903-1909), II: Die Kirchengeschichte – die lateinische Übersetzung des Rufinus, II.28; an earlier translation is here. Other later historians also report this, and are listed in Kazan, “John the Baptist”, p. 2, but all seem to be working from Rufinus. Sozomen, who worked explicitly to correct Rufinus, is edited in Sozomène, Histoire ecclésiastique, ed. J. Bidez, trans. André-Jean Festugière & rev. Bernard Grillet (Paris 1983-96), and in older English online here, VII.21.

3. Kostova, Popkonstantinov & Higham, “Relics of the Baptist”, cites as publication of the excavation K. Popkonstantinov et al., ‘Srednovekoven manastir “Sv. Ioan Prodrom” na ostrov ”Sv. Ivan”, Sozopol’ in Arheologičeski otkritija i razkopki za 2009 godina (Sofia 2010), pp. 595-599.

Seminar CLIV: continuing to work out the Staffordshire Hoard

There seems to be little question that being in Birmingham has put me in a place where I can reach a much wider range of medievalist activity than my previous employments allowed, and by way of proof of this, on 13th May of this same year I was at the University of Leicester hearing Chris Fern give us the latest news on a certain famous find under the title of “The Staffordshire Hoard: the current state of knowledge”. Not many people would be better placed to, since Dr Fern (of whom we have heard here before) was then producing the object catalogue, meaning that he had perhaps a better view than anyone else of what the whole assemblage was like (at least, until they had got it all onto one table two months previously). For me, there were three particular areas where this lecture told me something new, and those were the silver items, the links between items, and the problem of parallelling any of the stuff, so that’s how I’ll divide the post.

Fragments of silver foil from the Staffordshire Hoard during conservation at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

Fragments of silver foil during conservation at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

When the Hoard first came to light, one of the questions I quickly developed was “what is the silver stuff?” The news was always clear that that there was about three kilos of gold and one and a half of silver but it seemed that the gold was all we saw. This turned out to be not least because the silver was in much smaller parts than the gold, and thus harder to separate from the mud, but also because both those factors made it much harder to identify. In fact, it turns out very largely to be bits of 12 friezes that might all be from a single helmet, and the difficulty in working that out will be clearer if I say that amounts to more than 700 fragments. This is not actually a job I would want, I have to admit…

A silver strip from the Staffordshire Hoard in the process of reassembly by Rachel Altpeter at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

A silver strip in the process of reassembly by Rachel Altpeter at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

However, the Hoard team had been doing this, and not just with the silver. Of the total of circa 3,800 fragments they could at this point join up more than 600, not a lot but enough to show patterns. For example, they had 41 pairs of hilt collars to go at the top and bottom of sword grips, but a total of 85 pommels for those swords, as well as enough hilt-plates to allow for 4 each per sword, and much of this groups into two basic styles albeit with great and ingenious variations, one being gold, garnets and cloisonée glass and the other, later, involving much more filigree work and fewer gems or glass bits. On the other hand there are also some odd things that won’t group, the crosses and the wire serpents for example but also the three sword-rings that seem to have been casts, meant to look like really old Scandinavian swords but not actually being made the same way.

A close-up of a hilt collar with fine filigree work from the Staffordshire Hoard

A close-up of a hilt collar with fine filigree work, and when I say fine, I mean, the wires are less than a millemetre thick each!

This, along with the fact that we don’t know and probably can’t know who it was that stripped all this stuff violently off the objects it had once adorned, who it was who gathered it together and then who it was who buried it, and whether any of these people were the same or around at the same time, makes dating the Hoard qua hoard very difficult still. (One interesting point that only makes that more complex is that apparently though many of the fragments show signs of wear, this is typically at the extremities, not the parts that were handled, suggesting that these splendid weapons were perhaps worn more than drawn. This opens up the possibility that they might have been kept for a long time, and be heirlooms whose antique look was important in an age where normal weapons would have looked different.) We have a lot of stuff here that Dr Fern thought was best paralleled from East Anglia, which is something that happens a lot because basically our biggest single source of early Anglo-Saxon art parallels is the assemblage from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, and that was so varied and so is this that parallels are to be expected, but there are a lot; on the other hand some of the material, especially the older-looking stuff and the silver, is more Scandinavian and at the other end of the period range Dr Fern suggested that some of the material, which is best paralleled from the Scottish site of Mote of Mark, might indicate British workmanship under Northumbrian influence and by that point, really, anything is possible except that there will be an easy explanation. So there is still a lot to do, but in some ways it seems that the range of things we can actually hope to resolve is closing down, and the parts of the Hoard that are destined to remain enigmas are, paradoxically, becoming more clearly obscure as our knowledge of it increases.


Presumably a full publication of the Hoard is now relatively close but until that time, apart from the project website from which I have linked almost all my pictures in this post, the basic starting point is Kevin Leahy & Roger Bland, The Staffordshire Hoard (London 2009), which was quite limited in what it could then say. For the other two sites I’ve mentioned there’s a wealth of material on the Sutton Hoo ship burial but the easiest way in is perhaps now Gareth Williams, Treasures from Sutton Hoo (London 2011), in the same series. Then lastly there’s Lloyd Laing & David Longley, The Mote of Mark: a Dark Age hillfort in South-West Scotland (Oxford 2006).