Category Archives: General medieval

All That Glitters, Experiment 5

Fittingly in some ways, given the distressing news of the last post, this post takes me back to Birmingham (which continues to happen, with a trip there on Wednesday coming that I will delight in telling you about before long if all goes to plan…). In fact, this is the last of the posts promised in my second Chronicle round-up, which means that we are now progressed in the story of my academic life to December 2015… It doesn’t look a lot like blogging progress, but let’s ignore that and instead tell the next part of the story of my project to zap Byzantine gold coins with X-rays, All That Glitters.

Bruker S8 TIGER XRF analyser open for business

The maw of the S8 TIGER XRF analysis machine in the Department of Chemistry, University of Birmingham, already much featured in these posts

It’s getting a little silly now to re-summarise the project every time I do one of these posts, however far apart they may be, so I’ll invite you to look here for the premise and just say where, by December 2015, the project had got up to. In brief, we had started from a belief that we might be able to find out about sources of metal for the Byzantine coinage and how those changed and maybe why by analysing them using a technique known as X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF). We got money to investigate this possibility in April 2015, and either before that or thereafter moved through the following developmental steps:

  1. finding out that the lightweight, energy-dispersive kit that we had hoped to use just wasn’t going to get the information we needed;
  2. finding out that the big, stationary, wavelength-dispersive kit we had to use instead (by kind courtesy of the Department of Chemistry, University of Birmingham) would get us the best results only on its longest cycle, cutting the number of things we could test in the time we could pay for down considerably;
  3. finding out that the results we were getting apparently included quite a lot of invisible surface deposits that seemed most likely to be leftover soil;
  4. discovering that, against all expectations, cleaning the coins in acetone actually made this problem worse, if anything;
  5. deciding, along the way, that we could not, as we had hoped, test different areas of coins for comparison of homogeneity either, because the results were just too darn variable to interpret;
  6. establishing that despite all these limitations, we could still distinguish between mint practices sometimes, but that only in the most difficult of cases was this telling us anything a competent numismatist couldn’t have seen by thmselves;
  7. and, although this was my colleague Dr Rebecca Darley, not myself, presenting these initial findings at the International Numismatic Congress in Taormina and at the Joint British Museum/Institute of Archaeology Seminar at University College London.1
  8. At the former of these presentations we got some pushback from the numismatists whose work we were implicitly questioning, which was understandable, but in the latter we got lots of pushback from one or two archaeometallurgists who felt that we were not people properly trained to do such work and that in fact it was pointless, which I saw as one of those ivory-tower problems; people are out there doing such work badly anyway, so would you rather just let them publish it and be accepted or shall we aim to do at least a bit better?2 Admittedly, we were having trouble doing much better, but that was what we now set about solving…

On 17th December 2015, therefore, three of us brought our test set of coins back to the Department of Chemistry, but this time with a difference. We’d already tried cleaning the coins in acetone, as said, so we had decided that we needed to try harder. But how hard should you try to clean a relatively soft precious-metal object of considerable value? Thankfully, this was a question that the team working on the Staffordshire Hoard had already faced, and since I’d been able to talk with one of them earlier in the year, we had a kind of answer, which was, berberis (or barberry) thorns: tough enough to shift surface dirt, soft enough not to scratch the metal!3 So before the test, Maria Vrij, by now in post succeeding me as Interim Curator of Coins at the Barber following my move to Leeds, had taken the coins and more acetone down to the Barber’s most suitable room for the purpose and, with the windows wide open, had laboriously worked over their surfaces with thorns under a magnifying glass.4 I can only say that this made me very glad to have moved jobs before this could have become my task, and I remain very grateful to Maria for doing it, but of course the real question was, what difference did it make? And the answer was, sadly, ‘a bit’: the levels of presumably-surface material that shouldn’t really be in the coins (calcium, silicon, potassium, aluminium) dropped, but were not gone.

A gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius struck at Constantinople in 613-616, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2762, in a WD-XRF sample cup

A gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius struck at Constantinople in 613-616, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2762, in its WD-XRF sample cup for testing

This was, in many ways, not the answer we wanted, as with so many of the findings thus far. We would much rather not have had to use the big, fixed machine to which the coins had to be brought, rather than one of the portable ones we could have taken to other collections; we would rather have been able to use a shorter test cycle and thus test more things in the time we had; we’d rather not have had to clean the coins at all; but if we had to clean the coins, we’d rather it had been possible just with a wash and a rub in acetone, not with hours of picking at them with thorns with your face close over a bath of solvent. If we had (and by we, I really mean Maria, sorry Maria), to do all that, however, we’d at least have liked it to produce good results. What it actually produced, however, was only measurably less bad results, which was not the exciting scientific conclusion for which we might have hoped. But it might be a bit more like actual science, and sadly, it’s a lot more like real life; messy, never quite sorted out, but still interesting…


1. The former of these papers is now published, in fact, as Rebecca Darley, “All that glitters…: the Byzantine gold solidus, c. 300-1092″, in Maria Caccamo Caltabiano (ed.), XV Internationa Numismatic Congress, Taormina 2015: Proceedings (Rome 2017), II, pp. 982-985. A cite for the latter would be Rebecca Darley, “What does the science mean? Interpreting metallurgic analysis of Byzantine gold coinage”, unpublished paper presented at the British Museum/Institute of Archaeology Joint Seminar, University College London, 15th December 2015.

2. It seems mean to point fingers, but once it’s being cited it is probably fair game and, on the basis of our experiments, I might raise questions about Rasiel Suarez, “A Metals Analysis of Silver Roman Imperial Coins using X-Ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy”, online here, whose precision just seems impossible with the equipment he used despite his checks (which were not carried out against a standard), and one would like at least to be able to ask more questions about the methods and reproducibility of the tests in Monica Baldassarri, Gildo de Holanda Cavalcanti, Marco Ferretti, Astrik Gorghinian, Emanuela Grifoni, Stefano Legnaioli, Giulia Lorenzetti, Stefano Pagnotta, Luciano Marras, Eleonora Violano, Marco Lezzerini and Vincenzo Palleschi, “X-Ray Fluorescence Analysis of XII–XIV Century Italian Gold Coins” in Journal of Archaeology (2014), pp. 1–6, online here. Note that we are not the only researchers wondering about things like this, by now: see also V. Orfanou and Th. Rehren, “A (not so) dangerous method: pXRF vs. EPMA-WDS analyses of copper-based artefacts” in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences Vol. 7 (Basel 2015), pp. 387–397, DOI: 10.1007/s12520-014-0198-z, and E. S. Blakelock, “Never Judge A Gold Object by its Surface Analysis: A Study of Surface Phenomena in a Selection of Gold Objects from the Staffordshire Hoard” in Archaeometry Vol. 58 (Chichester 2016), pp. 912–929, DOI: 10.1111/arcm.12209.

3. See ibid.!

4. Of course, she is no longer Interim, but now actually properly Curator of Coins, and much better at it than ever I was, despite the acetone fumes!

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Memories of Ruth Macrides

You are owed a post, dear readers, but as happens too often these days, this is not one I wanted to write. Over the Easter vacation news reached me of the unexpected death of Dr Ruth Macrides, of the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham, noted Byzantinist and my erstwhile colleague. I have dithered about writing, because there are many people already doing so who knew Ruth better than I did, but I worked with her, I shared seminar wine with her and I have written notices about people I knew far less well; I probably should. So, this is a few memories of Ruth.

Staff picture of Dr Ruth Macrides

Picture of Dr Ruth Macrides from her Birmingham staff page, now displaying a sad notice of her death

Pinning down when I first met Ruth is tricky for me. It would have been when I was teaching on the History side of Birmingham’s School of History and Cultures, whereas the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies sits organisationally within the Department of Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology, so our points of crossing then were limited. But I knew her by the time I handed over the MA in Medieval History’s Research Skills module to her at the end of my contract, so I must have met her before that. In this respect, my memory is deficient, sorry Ruth. But she made a fresh impression upon me when, rescued from possible academic unemployment by the job as Interim Curator of Coins at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, I thus found myself gathered into the Centre. I don’t know if Ruth was in fact running the Centre at this point, but she was everywhere in its activity: she edited its journal, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, and she organised its seminar programme, which was (as indeed you heard here) studded with international speakers, including non-Byzantinists. The thing that most impressed me at the first meeting was that she had had termcards printed, not just A4 printouts but little green folded cards with the Centre’s logo on them. An affectation, you might think, but it was practices like this (and its Postgraduate Colloquium and periodic hosting of the Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, which latter Ruth was organising this year…) that meant that the Centre was instantiated and continued to have a group identity despite being organisationally subsumed into something else. With things like these Ruth was the Centre’s lungs; she kept it breathing, and I could point you at other interdisciplinary centres of yore which are no longer really visible or significant not least because no-one bothered to do things like those. So all power to Ruth’s memory for that.

Cover of the April 2019 issue of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies

Cover of the April 2019 issue of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, presumably the last one Ruth edited and displaying the logo of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, a coin of Emperor Leo III

My next most powerful memory of Ruth is of her laughing. As she was organising those seminars, she also had to take the speakers out to dinner. Not every one of those dinners could be a party, but I remember one seminar dinner in particular—though I don’t remember who the speaker was, or even if they actually came to dinner—in which Ruth and fellow American immigrée Professor Leslie Brubaker were exchanging anecdotes about the terrible British housing they had encountered with horror on their first arrivals on these shores. I have a very clear picture in my mind of Ruth drawing breath between laughs with her hand emphatically grasping Leslie’s arm, and I see that this is also Ruth as Leslie has remembered her on Birmingham’s tribute page. So Ruth energetically fronting the Centre and Ruth laughing with her colleagues are my two strongest memories of her, and that is just as it should be I think.

But Ruth also needs remembering as scholar, so I will add one more, though, because it makes a point she would not have. In fact, she wasn’t even present for it. A very long memory of this blog could however contain a seminar report on a paper by Kyle Sinclair, one of Ruth’s doctoral students who had on that occasion returned to present to one of the local postgraduate seminars. That was a good paper, but it was also the first time I had heard Ruth actually cited, for a paper entitled ‘The Historian in the History’, which turns out to be one of those super-useful things on how medieval authors’ own perspectives mess with our understanding of the history we rely on them for.1 That is, obviously, a known factor of doing history and yet it’s really hard to find people explicitly writing about it and about how we might extract practice as historians from these instances. It’s why I still struggle to direct students for whom source critique is a new idea, because clear and transportable examples are few and far between.2 I’m sure that, if you’re in the field, this is not the work for which the name Ruth Macrides is best known; in fact, she wrote so much of importance that I wouldn’t know where to start with that, especially as she specialised a few centuries later than I do at the other end of the Mediterranean from where I started. But that paper is one that all medieval historians could usefully read, and of course I had to hear about it from one of her students, because something I never heard Ruth do was boast about her work. Her own importance to her field was not something she thought worth mention, apparently. But I think it is and will continue to be evident in all the things people are now saying about her. She was important, she will be much missed, and so I wanted to make my own little contribution to her being remembered. Go in peace, Ruth, and may there be laughter where you have gone.


1. 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.

2. My other good example is Janet L. Nelson, “Public ‘Histories’ and Private History in the Work of Nithard” in Speculum Vol. 65 (Cambridge MA 1985) pp. 251-293, repr. in eadem, Politics and Ritual in Early Medieval Europe (London 1986), pp. 195-237, and I believe Chris Given-Wilson, Chronicles: The Writing of History in Medieval England (London 2004) does this work as well, but there really aren’t enough such pieces. I dream of some day writing one for charters…

Scribal individuation around Manresa c. 1002

Some time around the end of December 2015, in the fond expectation of soon having time to advance my old project on scribes and Church structures around the Catalan city of Manresa in the tenth century, when most of those structures were still in formation, I spent a bit of time staring at my images of the relevant documents and I was freshly impressed by the efforts the scribes went to differentiate themselves from other writers. And so I stubbed a blog post to tell you all something about it, and now we’re here in the summer of 2019 and I find myself just getting to it. As you know, lots else has been going on, of which there should be more to report soon, and I can’t say I have any massive new findings to present here, but some of this stuff is just cool, and that’s always been a good enough reason for a blog post before. So, here, have a charter!

Montserrat, Arxiu Monàstic, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, primera sèrie, no. 57

Montserrat, Arxiu Monàstic, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, primera sèrie, no. 57. Click through for bigger version.

This is from 1002, and so as far as I know has never been published.1 I haven’t done a transcription of it, but it’s a sale by one Tudiscle to a deacon called Borrell (no relation, I’m pretty sure) of a set of homesteads he was once given by his ‘lady’ (domina), Eigo. I picked it because of the subscriptions before I read it that far, but as it happens, you also have some female lordship there; you’re welcome. This happens in the Iberian Peninsula here and there. But I am, really, interested in the signatures. They start on the sixteenth line with the quartered disc with dots in it, which is a very abstracted form of the word signum, ‘mark’, ‘sign’, with a cross in the middle. Half of the signatures are by the scribe, a priest called Guifré, in the same unusual right-tilted hand as the main text, and those three all have that same disc, the people concerned being the seller Tudiscle and two witnesses, Guilabert and what seems to be Bonuspars, with which I can’t do much, I admit. But the scribe didn’t use that disc for himself: this was his sign for other people. He himself uses the four-pointed star device which, lexically, is filling in for the word subscripsit, ‘signed beneath’, ‘subscribed’, but looks nothing like it. Happily, the other two autographs show you different takes on the same idea, with Uuadamirsus sac(e)r, apparently not a man to whom spelling his name (which we would modernise as Guadamir) came easily despite being a priest, being clearest: the idea that lies under that messy ruche is a set of two or three Ss looped together as an abbreviation of the Latin. The other signature, MiRone leuita, the deacon Miró, does it more graphically, and that process of abstraction is the one that goes via the four-lobed version of the apparently-plural scribe Athanagild whom we looked at here years ago to the pointed version we have here. They’re all doing the same thing, these three churchmen, but they apparently didn’t want to do it in the same way.

Montserrat, Arxiu Monàstic, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, primera sèrie, no. 58

Montserrat, Arxiu Monàstic, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, primera sèrie, no. 58. Click through for a bigger version

There were apparently times when one differentiation wasn’t enough, even. Here you have another unpublished sale from the same year written by Ermemir (trust me, that is what the dribbled-down signature says) from another Ermemir and his wife Em (presumably for Emma? But there’s no abbreviation mark…) to Isarn, who is apparently plural; it is hard to resist the belief that scribe-Ermemir’s document-Latin wasn’t very precise, though one can forgive him given his nicely-drawn dagger as an initial I at the start.2 But as well as his deliberately decorative signature, he uses a really clear SSS-type ruche, and then seems to have tried out another in the far right corner. It’s not a separate witness signature, I think, firstly because there’s no name even though there’s space and secondly because the signatures otherwise finish at the far left, but it does seem to be the same ink. It’s possible some other scribe did a training run on a spare charter, of course, but the one scribe who’s clearly here is the one who’s named…

Montserrat, Arxiu Monàstic, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, Segona sèrie, no. 903

Montserrat, Arxiu Monàstic, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, Segona sèrie, no. 903. Again, a larger version lines beneath.

And then there’s this one, which is from 1002 as well. Unlike the other two, even though the two modern editions of these documents both stop at 1000, this has been edited before, because it’s a big deal (in both literal and figurative senses).3 What you have here is the monks of Sant Benet de Bages telling a story, and as ever when people in this area tell a story in documents, it’s because something had gone wrong.4 Their erstwhile abbot, Sunifred, had died during a Muslim raid on the area (probably in 997), at which point a dispute apparently arose between the founders of the church, apparently about the succession. At the time, however, that being 999 by this time, Count Ramon Borrell of Barcelona, presumably the obvious arbitrator, was in Rome visiting the pope. So they sent word out there, and when the query reached him the pope pointed out to Ramon Borrell that, canonically, monks ought to get to choose their own abbot. This seems to have come as news to our count (who elsewhere entitled himself ‘inspector of bishops’, not that I suppose he tried that before the pope), and he didn’t know what to do, and so the document says that the pope went to the actual monastery and asked the monks what they wanted, and they all praised God and asked for one Ramio, and this document celebrates his election.5

Monastery of Sant Benet de Bages, from Wikipedia Spain

Monastery of Sant Benet de Bages, from Wikimedia Commons; not the first time I’ve used this image and I’m sure it won’t be the last

Now, this is fishy as the hold of a homebound Atlantic trawler. Most obviously, even though he had once been in Catalonia, Pope Sylvester II (for it would have been he) didn’t pop in and visit Sant Benet de Bages in 999; someone would have noticed and recorded it and in fact his own letters lament that he doesn’t have time to visit his old school province.6 Secondly, the monastery’s foundation charter does in fact say that the founders’ family should provide the abbots, but actually beyond one young retainer of Count Borrell II’s I’ve not managed to trace any of them beyond 985, and they don’t seem ever to have provided an abbot to the place, so I don’t know who could have been disputing the abbacy.7 But there was once and may still be another parchment, which I don’t think I have a picture of, which gives a quite different version of this story, and that too was in the monastery when Jaime Villanueva came visiting in the 1800s.8 So something is probably wrong about this story, but at least we can see that this was the version that the monks quite literally signed up to because, look, there they are, all differentiated. So at least they all agreed, right? But actually no, it’s not as simple as that once you stop and take a good look at the signatures. Let me break it down as far as I’ve currently got:

  1. Firstly, there is no scribal signature. The line at the bottom left in the main text hand actually translates as, “We all unanimously who proclaim and confirm this election and have asked for it to be confirmed,” and then a ruche.9 But I think the main text scribe is the priest Ansulphus, more or less dead centre among the signatures, because the first signature in textual terms is Adroarius, whose signature is mainly in the main text hand because, as it explains, he was too ill to write but dotted the cross at the end of his ‘signature’ instead, and it looks to me as if the same hand that wrote Ansulf’s name formed Adroer’s too, in a deliberately different font. So that’s your first writing stint.
  2. However, after the first eight autographs—Baldemarus (with the hatched SSS device), Orucius (who abbreviates ‘monachus’ differently to everyone else and has the vertical monogram for presbiter, ‘priest’, that we’ve seen elsewhere), Teudalecus (with a waved SSS), Ermengaudus (with the repeated double knot ruche), Auduagrius (who is sort of sharing the ruche Ansulf gave Adroer), Argericus (who has got his double knot into a fortuitous gap in Adroer’s illness clause), Willelmus (whose knot lies on its side—because he liked it that way, or just to fit?) and Wifredus, with the cross-hatch—you have a new line of signatures, Vivencius, Ansolphus (another one?), Stefanus, Miro and Sendredus, all of whom seem to be written by the same hand and it’s not Ansulf’s, even though his own signature immediately follows theirs. And there is a second Sendre[d]us, signing autograph, too, on the bottom line in a very unpractised hand that misses out his second ‘d’. So is this a second batch of signing?
  3. If so, it wasn’t the last. Two lines above that Sendred, observe the signature of Pontius the deacon. This is probably Ponç Bonfill Marc (son of the Wonder Judge!), because his hand also seems to have written the signatures of the count and his two retainers in the bottom right corner. And you see that at very bottom right there is a spare cross, and one more below Ponç’s name, as if further names were expected but never arrived? That makes it look as if they took it to court to get the comital confirmation once Ramon Borrell had come back from Rome. But you see also, where that spare cross hangs about below Ponç’s name, there is what looks like more script in the main hand’s ink? I think that’s exactly what that was. I think that when they took it to the court, there was no room to sign, so not only did Ponç unusually use the shortest version of his name, they actually scrubbed out some of the existing names to make more room. So, three separate signing occasions?
  4. No, in fact, still more, because there’s also some sign of erasure beside Sendred’s big scrawl at the bottom too, so he didn’t sign with the rest of the monks either. At least four signing occasions, then. So how many of the monks were even at the first one? There’s not really any way to be sure. The main text names only Adroer, Todalec, Baldemar and Ermengol. Did everyone else get added in later? How much later? On how many occasions? How consensual an election was this? How many other names had been washed out by the time they’d finally got it confirmed?

Anyway, that wasn’t supposed to be the point of the post. The point is, of course, that where we have got autographs, though here there is certainly a preference for the double-knot ruche, nonetheless, no one autograph is made to look like another; every one is different. This is, by now, what I have come to expect, but every now and then someone reminds me that other places don’t necessarily do this.10 In a later era, this might be authentication, but it would take a fiendish local knowledge to be able to remember who used exactly what variant of a ruche, I think, and besides we’ve seen before that it’s not always quite the same even when it’s (notionally at least) the same scribe involved.11 So I think it really is just a local sense that in a document like this every signature should be different, perhaps so that everyone could see that it genuinely was another hand, not the scribe’s. But then, why not vary the signatures when it actually is the scribe as well? Cheating? I don’t, yet, have my head round this. But I may get there yet, if I just look at a few more charters…


1. It is Montserrat, Arxiu Monàstic, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, primera sèrie, no. 57, as the caption says.

2. Montserrat, Arxiu Monàstic, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, primera sèrie, no. 58.

3. Jaime Villanueva, Viage literario a las Iglesias de España, tomo VII: Viage á la Iglesia de Vique, año 1806 (Valencia 1821), online here, ap. XIII.

4. See some day soon Jonathan Jarrett, “A Likely Story: purpose in narratives from charters of the early medieval Pyrenees”, in †Simon Barton and Robert Portass (edd.), Beyond the Reconquista: Essays on the Politics, Society and Culture of Medieval Iberia (forthcoming), but till then (and as well), Jeffrey A. Bowman, “From Written Record to Historical Memory: Narrating the Past in Iberian Charters” in Robert A. Maxwell (ed.), Representing History, 900–1300: Art, Music, History (University Park PA 2010), pp. 173–180.

5. Ramon Borrell is “inspector episcopiis dante Deo nostræ ditioni pertinentibus” in 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. CLXXII.

6. Gerbert’s letters are translated in Harriet Pratt Lattin (trans.), The Letters of Gerbert, with his Papal Privileges as Sylvester II, Records of Civilization: Sources and Studies 60 (New York City NY 1961), but I confess I didn’t go and check there this time and am just running on Emília Tarracó i Planas, “Formació cultural de Gerbert d’Orlhac a la Marca Hispànica” in Imma Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu temps: Catalunya i Europa a la fi del 1r. mil·leni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 635–636.

7. The foundation charter is printed as Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 53 (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. 1127; on the family, see Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 144-151.

8. Villanueva, Viage literario VII, ap. XIV.

9. Nos om(ne)s unanimiter qui hanc electionem p(ro)-clamam(us) & firmam(us) & firmare rogauimus”, cf. ibid., ap. XIII.

10. All these issues and more are explored for French documents in the excellent Benoît-Michel Tock, Scribes, souscripteurs et témoins dans les actes privés en France (VIIe-début du XIIe siècle), ARTEM (Atelier de recherches sur les textes médiévaux 9 (Turnhout 2005), DOI: 10.1484/M.ARTEM-EB.5.105728.

11. For when it actually was done as authentication, see Alan Friedlander, “Signum mei apposui: notaries and their signs in medieval Languedoc” in Robert F. Berkhofer III, Alan Cooper & Adam Kosto (edd.), The Experience of Power in Medieval Europe, 950-1350: essays in honor of Thomas N. Bisson (Aldershot 2005), pp. 94-117.

OK, I admit, this is not a temple

I often hark back to much older posts on this blog, which I suppose is part of having been blogging for more than a decade. Still, you would have to have a special kind of memory to remember my theory about the so-called ‘tomb type’ deniers of ninth- or tenth-century Barcelona, which is just as well as I think I now have to admit that it was wrong.1 So, I probably ought to explain a bit, and then show you why it’s wrong and wonder what’s right now.

So, when the Frankish kings took over in what’s now Catalonia, they set up mints in four towns, Girona, Barcelona, Castelló d’Empúries and either Roda de Ter, Roda d’Isàvena or Roses, with the balance of likelihood for now on the third.2 These mints struck the regular Carolingian coinage of silver pennies, which Simon Coupland has called the ‘medieval Euro’, which under the rule of Charlemagne (768-814, here 785-814) and his son Louis the Pious (814-840) was standardised pretty much across their empire.3 The principal design of that is the so-called ‘Temple’ type, which you see here.

'Temple' type denier of Emperor Louis the Pious

‘Temple’ type denier of Emperor Louis the Pious, uncertain mint, 822-840. Image by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The reverse design is fundamentally Roman, the closest resemblance being to a coinage of Emperor Antoninus Pius, but as befitted their new dispensation the Carolingians converted the once-pagan temple into a Christian space by adding the cross at the centre and the legend, PXISTIANA RELIGIO, with the first two letters being Greek, the chi-ro monogram meaning Christ, so, ‘Christian religion’. Visually, it’s fairly clearly a design in three registers, the pediment, the pillars and cross, and the fundament. This type continued to be struck in the West under Louis the Pious’s son Charles the Bald (844-77), but at a decreasing standard until in 864, at the Council of Pîtres, Charles ordered a reform and brought the coinage back up, more or less, to the standard of his grandfather, whose KAROLVS monogram he also reinstated on the coins.4

'Temple'-type denier of King Charles the Bald, struck at Reims 840-864

‘Temple’-type denier of King Charles the Bald, struck at Reims 840-864. Image by By Numisanticahttp://www.numisantica.com/, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 nl via Wikimedia Commons.

Now, somehow or other the Catalan mints don’t seem to have got that memo. There’s no specimen of a post-Pîtres coin so far known from any of them—although as this post shows, that doesn’t mean there isn’t one waiting to be found—and it seems therefore that coinage in Catalonia either ceased to be made for a while or they carried on making the previous issue. I favour the former, simply because Charles stayed in fairly close touch with his distant province in his later years, but it’s possible an exception was made.5 The real difficulties for numismatists however start after Charles’s death, because while we have one or two not very good temple-type coins in his name from Barcelona, we don’t have any clearly in the names of his successors. What we have instead is a set of three types of coin, all rather below even pre-Pîtres standard in size and weight, all lettered in more or less junk characters, As, Vs, lozenges and triangles, and all with a small cross in a circle on one face. They’re distinguished by the other face, which carries either another such small cross in a circle, a triangle of three annulets in a circle, or a blocky design in three registers which we know as the ‘tomb’ type, and which has been guessed to represent the then-recently-discovered tomb of Saint Eulalie of Barcelona. Here is a typical example of such a coin.

Silver transitional denier struck at Barcelona in 865-1018, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.345-2001

Silver transitional denier struck at Barcelona in 865-1018, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.345-2001, image by your humble author

As you can see, that’s not a lot to go on. You may remember me being sceptical here about our ability to date the supposed rediscovery of Eulalie’s tomb, and of course we can’t independently date the coins except by hypothetical seriation, so neither one thing can be used to date the other, though people still do of course. The three known coins of Count-Marquis Ramon Borrell (992-1018) use the triple annulet device, so it seems likely—no more—that the anonymous ones with the annulets come before his. Eulalie’s tomb was supposedly found by Bishop Frodoí of Barcelona, who was around in the 870s, so we usually put the ‘tomb’ type first, and the cross type has to fill the gap. Braver souls than I have even assigned each type to a known ruler, Bishop Teuderic of Barcelona for the ‘tomb’ type, Count-Marquis Sunyer of Barcelona (911-947) for the cross and my own favourite, his son Borrell II (945-993), for the annulets.6 That could certainly be, but equally, we don’t know from what we have that they weren’t all issued simultaneously in a fifteen-year splurge under Count Guifré I the Hairy (870-898) and then just used till they wore nearly blank, and then a century later Ramon Borrell decided to revive his great-grandfather’s coinage, on a current standard, as a sign that he was taking up the fight against the Muslims anew. That could just as easily have happened from this evidence.

Anyway, whenever it dates from, this post is about the ‘tomb’ type. It is very rare to have a clear, unworn specimen of any of these coins, and all the ones I’ve seen hitherto of the tomb type have left me quite dubious about its iconography. It’s often no more than three raised rectangles, the uppermost slightly domed, and the repetition of the triple register has made me wonder before now whether it’s not in fact just a rather degraded recollection of the temple type that the revelant mint, wherever it is (we usually assume Barcelona, but again don’t actually know), had probably once struck. And, as I now know, that’s where I’m wrong, because in April of 2014 (and why, yes, I have had this post stubbed for a while), there passed through the sale-rooms of Aureo & Calicó in Barcelona this example:

Silver denier struck in Barcelona, probably in the late ninth or early tenth century. Aureo y Calicó, Ramon Muntaner sale, April 2014, lot 211

Silver denier struck in Barcelona, probably in the late ninth or early tenth century. Aureo y Calicó, Ramon Muntaner sale, April 2014, lot 211

Now, they attribute it to Bishop Frodoí of Barcelona, but you know from the above how much that’s worth. It probably is very early in the possible timeframe, at least, because its weight is high (1.36 g), the obverse legend is still legible as +CARLVS REX rather than being pseudo-literate and the cross is longer than on the later ones. The reverse legend is pretty clearly +BARCINONA, Barcelona, too, even though whoever engraved the legend on the die didn’t realise it needed to be in mirror-image and so it has come out, as the numismatists say, retrograde. That implies that they were copying a Carolingian-era denier, however. So perhaps this is the earliest tomb-type denier we have so far, and in that respect maybe it could be Frodoí or Teuderic (or Guifré the Hairy or his son Guifré II Borrell). Mainly, though, it’s really clear, even though someone apparently put a knife point right through its middle at some point in its history. The device on the reverse does have three registers, though the top one is subdivided vertically into two or three. But they plainly aren’t the temple. I’m not saying I know what it is. It could be Eulalie’s sarcophagus, but I’ve seen that myself and it’s not an obvious resemblance to me, plus which I don’t see how anyone who hadn’t seen it could possibly be expected to recognise it.

Crypt of Saint Eulalie in cathedral of Santes Creu i Eulàlia de Barcelona

Seen but not photographed, alas. The thing you’re looking for is not the raised-up Gothic box in the middle but the rougher-cut one lurking between the pillars and behind the railings at the back, almost invisible from any available angle of approach. Image by Bernard Gagnonown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

But it’s not the temple. The omission of the vertical elements when the horizontal ones are so clear is impossible to explain. So, I have to retire that theory and another one is needed. But this is the fun thing about medieval coinage, and I suppose material culture more widely except that coins were produced on such a scale; our understanding can genuinely be transformed by one new find. I would love to know where this coin came from, which I probably never will. Its pedigree is likely to be dubious, but that it got to a sale-room and they photographed it gives us more than we would have known otherwise. In this case, what we now know is that my idea doesn’t work, but that’s OK; now, whatever idea we come up with will have to work better than that. This is how scholarship progresses, and I have plenty of other progress to make, I hope.


1. Not least, I think I actually first expressed the theory in print, in my “Currency Change in Pre-Millennial Catalonia: Coinage, Counts and Economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2009), pp. 217–243, online here, at p. 220, though I was then less dubious about Bishop Frodoí of Barcelona’s rôle than I am now (and below).

2. See Miquel Crusafont, Anna M. Balaguer and Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge 2013), pp. 70-73.

3. See Simon Coupland, “The Medieval Euro” in History Today Vol. 54 no. 6 (June 2002), pp. 18–19, or in a bit more depth Coupland, “Money and Coinage under Louis the Pious” in Francia Vol. 17 (Sigmaringen 1990), pp. 23-54, online here, repr. in his Carolingian Coinage and the Vikings: Studies on Power and Trade in the 9th Century, Variorum Collected Studies 847 (Aldershot 2007), chapter III.

4. See Philip Grierson, “The Gratia Dei Rex Coinage of Charles the Bald” in Margaret T. Gibson and Janet L. Nelson (edd.), Charles the Bald: Court and Kingdom, 2nd edn. (Aldershot: Variorum, 1990), pp. 52–64.

5. He issued all of Ramon de Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia volum II: Els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 75, facsimile reprint (Barcelona 2007), Arles IV, Banyoles III & IV, Particulars XXVI, XXVII & XXVIII, Sant Andreu d’Eixalada I, Sant Julià del Munt I, Sant Llorenç del Munt I & Sureda III & app. VII & VIII to recipients in the area of modern Catalonia after the date of P&icrc;tres.

6. Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, “La moneda barcelonina del segle X. Altres novetats comtals” in Acta numismàtica Vol. 38 (Barcelona 2008), pp. 91–121, modified by Crusafont, Balaguer & Grierson, Medieval European Coinage 6, pp. 74-76.

Name not in print II: story of an article lost and found

Here is another post that has been in the wings for a long time, but which appears now with sudden news that completely changes how I have written it, with a new and unexpected happy ending! So, let me tell you a story about an article I wrote and its path to publication, which is also the story of a journal from beginning to more-or-less end.

This is a story that begins in 2012, when a team of four bright postgraduates doing early medieval doctoral study at the University of Leeds decided that what they wanted to do was to start a new journal. With great energy and determination, they got a website set up and assembled an impressive-looking editorial board, largely, I later learned, by getting their supervisor to call in favours on a massive scale. Nonetheless, they did it, and got in several convincing looking articles to kickstart the first issue, as well as a set of book reviews and conference reports to fill it up. Somewhere in the process, they started talking to the then-brand-new anarchistic academic press, Punctum Books, and secured an arrangement with them by which Punctum would give this new journal a print existence, on demand. With that, an ISSN and a professional-looking website running the Open Journal System, they were good to go and off they went. Thus was born the journal Networks and Neighbours.

Cover of Networks and Neighbours volume 2 issue 1

Cover of Networks and Neighbours volume 2 issue 1, Comparisons and Correlations

I became aware of this about midway through 2013, I think, when the first issue went live and I was finishing up at Oxford. Somewhere in the later part of that year I became aware that they were now on volume 2 and I decided I wanted in. There have, I know, been repeated attempts to turn the Internet into the new space of freely-available scholarship at the highest level—I think of now-dormant journals like Chronicon, intermittent journals like The Heroic Age (to whose intermittency I’m conscious I have contributed in my time, or rather failed to contribute, sorry folks), and more successful ones like Rosetta or Marginalia, which latter two survive by being run by a cyclical staff of postgraduate students. So perhaps their odds weren’t good, but there seemed to be something about the set-up, the ethic, the coincidence with the burgeoning open access movement and the number of important people they had behind them, and I decided that this looked like fun and possibly the future and that as someone who was, at that stage, still being published as an authority on scholarship on the Internet, I should endorse it.1 They had a call for papers up about cultural capital, which made me wonder whether some of my new work on the frontier as concept could benefit from an application of Bourdieu, and so I put a little while into writing an article-length version of some of the ideas I worked up in my big frontiers posts here, making cultural capital one of the backbones of my argument.2 By the time I’d finished (which I did, as I recall, largely in an afternoon spent in the Bibliothèque de l’Université de Genève, thanks to a kind host who will not wish to be named), I thought it was pretty good, but it had also really helped me think through some of that material and start making it do useful things.

Initially, things seemed to go well. I mean, they were inconvenient, but only in the way that peer review can be, in as much as the article went out to review and came back with a report that basically said, “if your points are any good they ought to work in Castile as well as in Catalonia and I’m not sure they do, but convince me”. Of course, it was an article about Catalonia, not Castile, but since my project pitch was that I was generating transportable theory, I decided I had to face the challenge. So I downloaded or borrowed everything I could on the Castilian frontier in the tenth century, while my first job in Birmingham drew to a close, and sent off a revision, which was nearly twice the length (and nearly half of that now citation) but did, I flatter myself, satisfy that requirement. Anyway, it satisfied the editors, who had all but one now graduated and moved on, and before very long at all a pre-print version appeared on their website and everything seemed to be under way. Admittedly, that preprint did spell my name wrong—not that that would be a first among my publications—and even after I’d sent in proof corrections which also made it clear that the preprint’s pagination was wrong, there it remained. So, things now began to get sticky. The supposed print date came and went and nothing seemed to happen, and then the issue after mine went up, and I began to fear that something had gone wrong.

Cover of Networks and Neighbours volume 3 issue 1

Cover of Networks and Neighbours volume 3 issue 1

Now, at this point in the process, an unexpected but useful thing happened, which was that one of the editors, Ricky Broome, came to present at the Digital Humanities Seminar I mentioned a post or two ago, on 16th November 2015 with the title, “OA and Me: a postgraduate perspective of Open Access publishing”. So I turned up, and of course, it was the story of Networks and Neighbours, peppered with reflections on the wider sphere of open access publishing. Ricky emphasised that in order to edit such a beast you need a living and spare time (which rarely coincide in academia), a credible editorial board and a lot of willpower, including to avoid the temptation simply to fill space in the journal with your own work. He thought that their ability to generate any revenue, even to cover basic costs, had hinged on the production of the print version, since as he put it more people would buy something they could see. He also had great hopes for the immediate future, with another issue in hand, but not so much for the long-term, as he saw the traditional journal as unlikely to make it online in the face of alternative models like repository or publish-then-filter mechanisms of dissemination. The discussion revolved largely around that and alternatives to peer review, but of course what I wanted to know, but waited till afterwards to ask, was where was issue 2.2? And Ricky was helpful and explanatory about that—the problems were not all theirs but their most web-savvy team-member had also got a full-time job that removed him from the project—but it didn’t leave me with much hope. And then a few months later the project officially folded the journal, moving the whole operation onto a Blogspot site where they now intended to publish articles as and when they came ready, in one of those future styles that had been discussed at the seminar indeed, but not what I was hoping for when I’d sent the proofs in expecting print, by now a year and a half before.

So I then did something I shouldn’t have done and would live to regret. After one more attempt to get a corrected version uploaded, I told them I wanted to withdraw the article. It was now part of my probation slate at Leeds and I couldn’t see that it would in fact be published, and the protestations of the people I could reach (not Ricky, I should say) that it was published online, for me, failed in the face of the fact that it still wasn’t correctly paginated and still didn’t spell my name right. I would not be able to show it to my colleagues as was, so it wasn’t going to do. Therefore, I needed to send it somewhere else that would actually publish it, which I hoped would be fairly easy since it had already been through peer review. But such a journal wouldn’t accept it if it had already been published elsewhere. So I stamped my electronic foot and got Networks nd Neighbours to take it down and unlink it, which they did; you could no longer download it and it wasn’t listed in the issue. And I sent the article out again and, by way of nemesis, perhaps, the relevant journal rejected it as not being at all well enough informed about Castile. So there I was with no article at all, and no time at all in which to do the reading that would be required to make the necessary revisions. Not my smartest move, and the cause of some difficulties in probation terms, as you can imagine, as well as no little disheartenment about his work for yours truly.

So there, apart from occasional denials of its existence to people who’d found references to the article in searches and couldn’t then get it, things rested until May 2018. I only found out about this a few days ago, however: I was putting together an application and thought to myself that I really could use something that demonstrated my ability actually to do this frontiers stuff of which I speak, and I wondered if even the old preprint was still around anywhere to link to. And what I found was that the Blogspot operation has now ceased as well, and the whole journal has been archived on its own static website. And, blessed day, whoever did that job had not got the memo about withdrawal and had, more to the point, somehow found and uploaded the corrected, properly paginated, Jarrett-not-Jarret version of the article which I had never before seen. On re-reading, it is still, dammit, an article to be proud of and I am exceptionally glad to have a version I can, at last, cite. So although I had just about reached Ricky’s seminar paper in my backlog and was preparing a post explaining the story of this missing article, now it has a quite different ending. Of course, the journal’s fate is still an exemplar of what can and can’t be done without institutional support and postgraduate levels of free time, and it helps explain why so few other such journals have made it. I am sad about my meanness in the face of their difficulties now, but hey: Networks and Neighbours the project continues, doing some impressive things, indeed; the journal was itself an impressive thing even if not always printed; and at last I have my article, and I can be happy with that.

So, statistics as is now traditional: two drafts, and time from first submission to publication, four years one month. Of course the story explains that, and let’s face it, I seem to collect these stories. But it exists, you can read it and cite it, and I think it’s quite good.3 And that’s the end of the story…


1. I refer, of course, to my previous works, Jonathan Jarrett, “Views, Comments and Statistics: Gauging and Engaging the Audience of Medievalist Blogging” in Literature Compass Vol. 9 (Oxford 2012), pp. 991–995, DOI: 10.1111/lic3.12016, and Alex Sayf Cummings & Jonathan Jarrett, "Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy" in Jack Dougherty & Kristen Nawrotzki (eds), Writing History in the Digital Age, Digitalculturebooks (Ann Arbor, 2013), pp. 246–258, DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv65sx57.26.

2. A good introduction to the theories in play here is Pierre Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital”, transl. R. Nice in J. Richardson (ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (New York City, NY, 1986), pp. 241–258, online here, and in the words of ‘well-known’ band Half Man Half Biscuit, “if you’ve never, then you ought”.

3. That cite being: Jonathan Jarrett, “Engaging Élites: Counts, Capital and Frontier Communities in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries, in Catalonia and Elsewhere” in Networks and Neighbours Vol. 2 (Binghamton, NY, 2018 for 2014), pp. 202–230, online at <https://nnthejournal.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/nn-2-2-jarrett-engaging-elites1.pdf>, last modified 26 May 2018 as of 12 April 2019.

Maybe not Fat but still not Great

I’m going to the very end of my backlog here; I wrote this post pretty much entire on a train back to Leeds from the Institute of Historical Research on Armistice Day of 2015, and it’s been waiting for its moment, and for me to do the footnotes, ever since. As there is still marking just now, it seems to be that moment at last, so here you are. I’ve updated the editorial voice a bit in the set-up, but I’ll stand by the argument; I wouldn’t post it otherwise! So, here goes.

I was profiting that term (the one in which I wrote this post’s first draft) by teaching much closer than usual to my research interests. I then had a second-year course on the Carolingians that made me work over afresh many things that I thought I knew about everyone’s favourite early medieval imperial dynasty and their rule, much of which I hadn’t properly thought about for a decade and a half, and also made me read many things that I should have read then but didn’t, as you’ve already seen. And a proximate result of this was that for two days in November 2015 I was reading, at top speed, Kingship and Politics in the Late Ninth Century: Charles the Fat and the End of the Carolingian Empire, by Simon MacLean.1 Yep, sorry, Simon, this post is about your book.

Cover of Simon MacLean, Kingship and Politics in the Late Ninth Century: Charles the Fat and the End of the Carolingian Empire (Cambridge 2003)

Cover of Simon MacLean, Kingship and Politics in the Late Ninth Century: Charles the Fat and the End of the Carolingian Empire (Cambridge 2003)

So, first things first, this is a good book and I wish I’d read it sooner. Again, sorry Simon; it came out while I was first teaching and by the time that had stopped it was thesis write-up time and I wasn’t taking in anything new and then after that, well, life. Anyway, you mention the Spanish March maybe once. But I’m still sorry. For those who haven’t read it, it focuses on the reign of the last man to rule the whole Carolingian Empire, Charles III, unfortunately known to history as Charles the Fat to distinguish him from Charles I (the Great), II (the Bald) and a myriad of other Charleses of the era who didn’t get numbers because, as eleventh-century Andalusi scholar al-‘Udrī wisely said, “all the kings of the Franks are called Charles”.2 He was son of Louis the German, who was son of Louis the Pious who was son of Charlemagne, he was King of Alemannia from 875, of Bavaria and Italy from 879, Emperor of the Romans from 881, of Franconia and Saxony from 882 and from 884 or 885 King of Lotharingia and the Western Franks too, that being the whole lot, which he kept only till 887, the year of his death. So that’s our frame.

Now, Charles has had a bad press from the sources and the historians who have taken them literally: supposedly an epileptic (or else a victim when young of demonic possession), he is reported to have lost almost all his battles, and most importantly of all those against the Vikings, whom he largely paid off instead, to have relied to exclusion on one particular corrupt archbishop as chief counsellor, to have failed to contain the ambitions of the aristocracy to build up their own separate regional power-bases, not to have produced any legitimate children and finally to have been deposed by his half-nephew, Arnulf of Carinthia, who then went on to start saving Germany from the Magyars. Such, anyway, are the stereotypes.

Seal of King Charles the Fat

Simon’s cover-image, perhaps the only contemporary illustration of the man in question, the seal of King Charles the Fat, calling himself, you may notice, Karolus Mag[nu]s, Charles the Great, and showing no particular signs of overweight I’d say. Image public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Simon therefore goes back to the sources, makes a good effort to catch them all and to compare versions of the key ones, includes the charters alongside the narratives as no-one has before and attempts to save Charles’s reputation. There is, admittedly, no getting round the deposition by Arnulf or the lack of children, those are things that are true, but Simon puts the former firmly in the context of the latter and shows Charles trying to solve that problem, including eventually by divorcing his wife on the somewhat unlikely grounds of non-consummation; she even stood up before the court, declared herself still to be virgin and went off to be an abbess.3 Otherwise, Simon more or less discounts the childhood epilepsy, which is otherwise written up at the time as a surprising, unhelpful and shortlived monastic impulse rather than an actual physical fit; he shows Charles’s armies frequently effective against their enemies and Charles able, for the first time in many years, to field armies from several bits of the empire at once; and he rightly points out that paying off the Vikings, whatever may have been thought about it in the Eastern Frankish realms, had been a working strategy for two generations in the West and obviously a survivable one.

Most importantly, because it was not necessarily obvious before whereas those things should probably have been, Simon goes through Charles’s charters, paying attention to where they were issued for whom and at whose behest, and is able to show not just that many other counsellors surrounded Charles as well as Archbishop Liutward of Vercelli, the supposed evil grand vizier of the realm, and that even Liutward, ever-present only in the early part of the reign, only really got to pull strings for people in Italy, while many other major nobles also served Charles loyally, including winning his battles for him.4 Most interestingly of all, I think, by way of emphasising what one key source also says, how very unexpected and rapid Charles’s fall from power was, Simon sets out something quite striking: that almost all of the major nobles who would in fact become kings in the immediate wake of Charles’s death, though big players already, were big players in the areas where they came to rule because Charles himself had put them there; it was his grants that made them the men on the spot, rather than them having been able to inherit a spot in which their family had been investing for decades and finally get free of the kings to rule it in their own right.5 I find this perfectly convincing and of course, it puts a big hole in arguments about the rise of aristocratic separatism in the Carolingian era (and pushes even more of the change necessary to maintain such arguments about what is, essentially, feudalization, into the all-important tenth century!).

a diploma of Charles the Fat to Otbert, Provost of Langres, 15 January 887

One of those there charters, a diploma of Charles the Fat to Otbert, Provost of Langres, 15 January 887; image from Ferdinand Lot & Philippe Lauer (edd.), Diplomata Karolinorum. Recueil de reproductions en facsimilé des actes originaux des souverains Carolingiens conservés dans les archives et bibliothèques de France (Paris 1936-), vol. VII, no 10, via Abbildungsverzeichnis der europäischen Kaiser- und Königsurkunden project

So there’s all that, and yet. Simon argues that this all means that Charles was not a bad king, although there were things he did wrong in retrospect; instead, he was energetic, intelligent, a canny deployer of political symbolism and patronage and a good judge of loyal subordinates. And OK, but bear in mind that I am an old hand at the which-Carolingian-is-best/worst conversation in the conference bar. My personal candidate for the latter remains Charles the Simple, and there’s no doubt about the former; indeed, it’s kind of a problem for the whole dynasty that (as Simon cannily observes) they build Charlemagne himself into a legend they themselves can never quite live up to.6 But we have to bear in mind the judgement of the times on Charles the Fat. I don’t mean the sources necessarily, but the events on which all can agree. I mean, first and foremost the man got deposed. This may not have been fair but it still happened, and even if Simon is right that it happened mostly because of a barren marriage and bad management of his chief rival plus an ill-timed illness during an unusually serious Viking assault, his nearest and until-recently-loyal still decided that they would be better off without him in charge.7

Additionally, I think even in Simon’s best presentation of the facts two other things became apparent: firstly, apart from one very early campaign against the Abodrites I don’t think we ever hear of Charles leading an army to victory.8 In fact, we get the opposite situation where when he was present even his best and otherwise successful generals found themselves on the losing end. It’s not just the Siege of Paris, though that did happen there; it’s wherever he was actually in command…9 And lastly, I haven’t done the numbers on this, but he does seem to have been ill rather a lot, even if at other times he was mobile and active to an unusual degree. So a bad general and frequently unwell, suggesting a danger of death without an heir… I’m not saying he was in fact a terrible king after all, but I can see why when push came to shove, if they’d considered his form, his counsellors would have decided the race needed a new horse. We don’t, as Simon points out, know if Charles was actually fat; we do know that he himself invoked the risky comparison to that elder Charles than whom he could only be less great; he changed the political future all right, in ways he couldn’t have foreseen; for a short while he led a great Carolingian family alliance against the Vikings and usurpers; but I think we also know that he didn’t, in the end, do very well as a king.10


1. Simon MacLean, Kingship and Politics in the Late Ninth Century: Charles the Fat and the end of the Carolingian Empire, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 57 (Cambridge 2003).

2. Fernando de la Granja (transl.), “La Marca Superior en la obra de al-cUdrí” in Estudios de edad media de la Corona de Aragón Vol. 8 (Zaragoza 1967), pp. 447-546 at pp. 466-467 (§24): “todo los reyes que reinan en Francia se llaman Qarlo.”

3. MacLean, Kingship and Politics, pp. 169-173.

4. Ibid., pp. 178-191.

5. Ibid., pp. 81-122, esp. 115-119.

6. Ibid., pp. 222-227. The problem only got worse after this, of course: see Matthew Gabriele, An Empire of Memory: the legend of Charlemagne, the Franks, and Jerusalem before the First Crusade (Oxford 2011), to which contrast Alessandro Barbero, Charlemagne: father of a continent, transl. Allan Cameron (Berkeley 2004).

7. The coup is covered in MacLean, Kingship and Politics, pp. 191-198.

8. Timothy Reuter (transl.), The Annals of Fulda, Ninth-Century Histories 2 (Manchester 1992), s. a. 869 (p. 60).

9. Simon performs a masterful deconstruction of the sources for the Siege of Paris (MacLean, Kingship and Politics, pp. 55-63), but even that cannot change the outcome.

10. Ibid. p. 2 & n. 3 for the byname; see n. 6 above for Charles-comparisons; and MacLean, Kingship and Politics, pp. 123-168 for the period of family leadership.

Crusading and a Non-Deterministic Climate

The marking ebbs, and the ability to blog reappears… And for once it is clear what I should blog about, because I said I would pass over Conor Kostick‘s long-ago paper to the Digital Humanities Seminar in the Leeds Humanities Research Institute (which, as every sub-university-level academic organisation must every few years, has since changed its name), and then Dr Kostick himself cropped up in comments encouraging me not to, and so it seems rude to refuse. I admit that part of my initial reservation was that I might have to be rude, but now that I review my notes, even though the paper was called, “Digital Linguistics and Climate Change: a Revolution in the Digitisation of Sources since 2000”, which you can imagine annoying me in several ways I’m sure, I find less to be annoyed about than I remembered, but also less that one might call, well, conclusive.

Saul killing King Nahash and destroying the Ammonites, in the so-called Crusader Bible (c. 1250), New York City, NY, Morgan Library, MS M.638, fol. 23v

Saul killing King Nahash and destroying the Ammonites, in the so-called Crusader Bible (c. 1250), New York City, NY, Morgan Library, MS M.638, fol. 23v, image copyright not stated

Dr Kostick’s research at this time had arrived at the central theme of his paper from a circuitous direction. Starting with the study of the Crusades, he’d got into digital humanities as a lexicographical way of working out what medieval authors most probably meant by the words they used, which were of course changing as they used them. His example here, an interesting one, was that Archbishop William of Tyre, Chancellor of the Kingdom of Jerusalem already, may have been the first author to use the Latin word classis, classically meaning ‘fleet’, to mean ‘class’, as in first- and second-class, which are ways he divided up the nobility of Jerusalem in terms of tax liability. That wouldn’t have been clear without being able to find all the places he uses and all the places other people do and thus being sure that his is the usage that seems to begin it. This kind of technology lets us get further than the grand old lexicographers of old such as Charles Du Fresne Du Cange; as Dr Kostick put it, “we are standing on the shoulders of giants, with big binoculars”.

Charles Du Fresne Du Cange, from David d’Angers and Alfred Gudeman, Imagines philologorum (Berlin 1911), p. 19

Du Cange himself, from David d’Angers and Alfred Gudeman, Imagines philologorum (Berlin 1911), p. 19, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

From here, however, he had gone via an investigation of crusade preaching and had wound up at medieval climate data, not an obvious transition you might think, but several paths lead there. One is the kind of work that has been, let’s say examined, here before, attempting to correlate major political and social upheavals with climate events; another is the fact that at least one historian of the First Crusade, Ekkehard of Aurach, actually made the association for us, saying that the massive participation in that Crusade was at least partly down to a bad harvest, famine and ‘plague’ (perhaps ergotism, suggested Dr Kostick) in France that meant people with no other hope were willing to sign up with someone with a poorly-realised plan and take their ill-informed chances.1 The problem with many such analyses looking for other correlations, apart from the basic logical one of the difference between correlation and causation, has been poor focus of data, using, for example, tree growth in Greenland as a proxy for harvests in continental Europe, and this Dr Kostick avoided by taking as wide a range of sample evidence as possible. He started with chronicles, especially, using the same text-mining techniques as already mentioned, counting entries mentioning famine, plague and strange weather; added tree-ring data from a range of different areas (assembled by Francis Ludlow); and used ice-core data from Iceland and Denmark for finer dating. It’s a pretty good sample, as these things go, and this obviated many of the objections to such work I’d gone in with. So having done that, what do we then know? Well, the texts make it clear that both in 1095 and 1146, i. e. just before the First and Second Crusades, there were outbreaks of disease, which the tree-ring data suggests often coincided roughly with years of poor tree-growth, and the ice-core data sometimes allowed one to associate these and other such peaks with volcanic eruptions.

(I went looking for a climate data graph to put in here but the amount of short-sighted nature-blaming one quickly finds just made me angry so you’ll have to manage without an illustration between these paragraphs.2)

So case proven? Well, sometimes. It’s certainly possible, especially in the light of Ekkehard, to imagine how such a causal chain could fit together: a ‘year of no sun‘, poor crop yields, famine, destitution, desperate mobility, a convenient casus belli or particularly effective preacher, and suddenly what was meant to be a few thousand carefully-picked troops heading East, probably on the expectation of campaigning on an imperial salary for a few months, has become a horribly underplanned mass movement that winds up changing the world.3 The problem is that the chain doesn’t always work the same way. That works very well for the First Crusade, but in the Second Crusade, the popular participation was nothing like as large, though it was certainly large enough for Odo of Deuil to lament, I’ll admit; still, it was provoked by the fall of Crusader Edessa in 1144, and preparations were well underway by 1146 so I’d have thought that popular uptake is all that the bad year could have affected. Meanwhile, there was another significant peak between these two Crusades (not at 1101, at 1130 or so) which correlates with no such action, and there was no such peak before the Third or Fourth Crusades. Hey, maybe that’s why the Fourth Crusade couldn’t raise enough men, right? But the Third still presents problems.

A 15th-century image of the conquest of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade, from  David Aubert, Livre traittant en brief des empereurs, II, fo. 205r

An unexpected result of a bad harvest? Probably not, eh? A 15th-century image of the conquest of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade, from David Aubert, Livre traittant en brief des empereurs, II, fo. 205r, says Wikimedia Commons where this image is public-domain

Obviously, this paper was never meant to present a thesis as simple and obviously falsifiable as ‘volcanic eruptions caused the Crusades’, but without that, what do we learn from it? Our chroniclers already told us that plague and famine powered recruitment for some of the Crusades, and we didn’t need text-mining to see that. We might, now, understand better where that plague and famine had come from in these cases, but as with my earlier critique of Michael McCormick’s similar deductions about volcanoes, the problem lies in the volcanic eruptions that did not cause crusades, the famines and plagues that were not caused or strengthened by climate events, the crusades that did not correlate with bad weather or famines, and so on.4 No general rules could be extracted from this sort of causation, and neither was Dr Kostick out to present some, but without some such finding, it seemed like a very laborious way to conclude that a couple of our sources were maybe more right than we sometimes reckon. There seemed no question that Dr Kostick and his team had been more careful with data and correlations and even with causation than previous studies, but naturally enough perhaps, that had also limited what they could conclude.

That was my feeling as Dr Kostick wound up, anyway, but questions revealed other doubts and issues among the audience, many of which I thought he actually had good answers to. One of my colleagues argued that climate event references in chronicles are often wrong, to which Dr Kostick wisely observed that this was a good reason to correlate them with scientific data. Other questions focused more justly on causation: Graham Loud has in the past argued, apparently, that a famine which preceded the Third Crusade actually limited response from Germany, and here again Dr Kostick argued that while local responses to stimuli would obviously have varied, the bigger correlations still need explanation when they occur. True enough, but that seems to have been very rare… Well, I certainly don’t have better answers, and if Dr Kostick had been unwise enough to try and push his data further than it would go I imagine I’d have had bigger issues with that, but my feeling remains on this revisiting that his admirable caution robbed the paper of its potential power. The success of McCormick et al. suggest that, sadly, the route to publication of such work is not to care about such things but to push the deductive boat out well beyond sensible recovery, and maybe that’s why this one didn’t (yet?) achieve wider dissemination; it just wasn’t crazy enough!


1. F.-J. Schmale and I. Schmale-Ott (edd.), Frutolfi et Ekkehardi Chronica necnon Anonymi Chronica Imperatorum: Frutolfs und Ekkehards Chroniken und die Anonyme Kaiserchronik, Ausgewählte Quellen zur deutschen Geschichte des Mittelalters 15 (Darmstadt 1972), pp. 19-38 (commentary) & 123-309 (text), cap. 13/40, pp. 124-127, the relevant section transl. J. H. Robinson in Readings in European History Vol. I (Boston 1904), pp. 316-318, online ed. P. Halsall as “Medieval Sourcebook: Ekkehard of Aurach: On the Opening of the First Crusade”, online here.

2. I should clarify that the thing I think is stupidest in these arguments is neither that there is dispute over climate change at all, which I find explicable if dangerous, nor that there is argument over its causation, which is predictable really, but the conclusion that some people who believe climate change now is not anthropogenic reach that therefore we need do nothing about it because it’s natural. I imagine these people largely do not live in the areas most affected.

3. This interpretation of events largely rests on my old piece linked off this very blog, but is similar to that put forward in Peter Frankopan, The First Crusade: the call from the East (London 2012).

4. My target here is of course Michael McCormick, Paul Edward Dutton and P. A. Mayewski, “Volcanoes and the Climate Forcing of Carolingian Europe, A.D. 750–950”, Speculum, Vol. 84 (Cambrudge MA 2007), pp. 869–895, online here.