Category Archives: General medieval

Seminars CCLXVII & CCLXVIII: the Normans return to Leeds

As usual, apologies are owed to you, dear readers, for a long absence; sorry. We stopped working to contract at about the time all my marking came in, and the result of marking arriving was as usual disappearance from civilisation. This last weekend that was compounded by a breakdown and impromptu eight-hour stop in Brecon, as well, which cut back my blogging chances somewhat. But quite a lot else has been happening and I have news as well as olds to report. I had some olds half-set-up to go, however, so that’s where we’ll start, with two papers from two successive days at the University of Leeds in 2019, both on the Normans in Sicily.

Now, for those in on the medieval scene it may not be surprising to hear of work on Norman Sicily at Leeds; in fact the main thing that might be surprising is that we were bussing it in, because is Leeds not after all the seat of Graham Loud, doyen of the field and supervisor of many protégés therein? And this was true even then, but Graham was at this point in the second of three years of a research project which would take him neatly up to retirement, and his students had pretty much all completed. Furthermore, because of his absence, we weren’t even really teaching Norman Sicily any more. The thing that can happen when a specialist retires, where a whole section of the library quietly ceases to be used, was already in progress. But this did not mean that there was no audience when firstly, on the 19th February, Jeremy Johns hauled up from Oxford to give an Institute for Medieval Studies Open Lecture with the title, “Documenting Multi-Culturalism in Norman Sicily”, and then the very next day Francesca Petrizzo, one of those completed students of Graham Loud’s indeed, spoke to the Medieval History Seminar with the title “‘Normans Don’t Cry’: grief, anger and the Hautevilles”.

Medieval scribes from three Sicilian traditions in Peter of Eboli's Liber in honorem Augusti

The masthead image of the project Documenting Multiculturalism: Co-existence, law and multiculturalism in the administrative and legal documents of Norman and Hohenstaufen Sicily, c.1060-c.1266, which although they don’t identify it on the website turns out to be from Peter of Eboli’s Liber ad honorem Augusti sive de rebus Siculis, Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 120 II, fo. 101r, online here. Really, academic websites should do better than this, but never mind, let’s move on…

Professor Johns was introducing us to a then-new project, Documenting Multiculturalism: Co-Existence, Law and Multiculturalism in the Administrative and Legal Documents of Norman and Hohenstaufen Sicily, c. 1060-c. 1266, funded by the European Research Council in a way that had just become rather political. The project probably also looked rather political to some, in so far as it was engaged in that most dangerous of things, attempting to check facts behind a cliché about religious, racial and cultural interaction. The cliché in question was that of Norman Sicily as a multicultural paradise of tolerance and shared artistic cultures; it is, now that Islamic Iberia is a bit more widely contested, almost the last of those we have left, but obviously it’s not everyone’s idea of paradise, and not everyone believes that it can have been possible despite certain signal memorials of it, because those are more or less by definition from élite; social strata deeply concerned in the success of the governmental project.1

Tombstone of Anna in St Michael's Palermo

The tombstone of Anna in St Michael’s Palermo, lettered in Greek, Latin, Arabic and Hebrew, commonly used as an emblem of Sicilian medieval multiculturalism; but Anna was mother of a priest of King Roger II, so may not have been precisely typical…

Well, this is a thing on which, to a certain extent, we can put numbers and for which we can find data, because the Normans arrived as French-speakers in a Sicily which had an Arabic administration and tax system, with older less Arabic components, staffed in part by Greek-speakers, and although survival of these systems’ documents is not what you’d call great (at least not by Catalan standards!), there are roughly 500 Latin, 350 Greek, 125 Arabic and 25 Judaeo-Arabic chancery records, quite a lot of inscriptions which at this point they had yet to count, and a good few other references that can be factored in.2 The difficulties or not that these documents describe are themselves qualitative instances of how these different cultural strata interacted, but also, and this was the main point of the paper, so is the choice and change of language in them. For example, one of the things coming out of this project will hopefully be the first ever study of Sicilian Arabic, because unsurprisingly it was a bit different. Ibn Hawqal, an Baghdadi merchant and probably Egyptian spy visiting in the 950s, thought it lamentably bad and ungrammatical; but the documents will tell us how it was actually written, and perhaps even spoken.3 Eventually, too, though this hasn’t happened yet, all the documents, in all languages of record, will be online in facsimile, transcription and translation, and that will be a fabulous resource to have.

What seems unlikely to emerge, however, is a simple narrative. The one we have at the moment is more or less that initially, the Normans needed the administration in working order so badly that they maintained it and its operators, thus practising tolerance by necessity and making a virtue of it while it did them good; but, after a century or so, partly because support for their endeavours from the Latin world was so necessary and partly just because the Normans did not naturalise very far, Latin tended to push out the other tongues and Christianity the other religions.4 What the project was already showing was that Arabic might have gone quiet, but had not completely gone, even in documents from close to the end of their sample, where boundary clauses might still sometimes be given in very local dialects of it in documents otherwise fully Latin.5 Who was the audience for that, nearly two centuries after Latin conquest? Likewise, it seems as if while the Normans may not have Arabised, they certainly naturalised to the extent that even by the 1190s, no-one seems to have been writing French on the island, rather than a local Romance more like that which would become Italian. Between Sicilian Arabic and Sicilian Romance, the most obvious outcome from the Norman period may actually have been, well, Sicily, admittedly not for the first time in its history, but ever reinvented as each wave washing over it dried into its shores.

Poster for the Medieval History Seminar, Institute for Medieval Studies, 20 February 2019

Poster for the seminar, designed by Thomas Smith

Francesca Petrizzo, meanwhile, had been one of my advisees while she was Graham Loud’s doctoral student, and so, disclaimer, can always be sure of a good write-up here, but I think more people than just me thought hers was a fun paper. Her doctoral thesis was on the political value of kinship among the most successful of the Norman families who made southern Italy and Sicily the new home for their endeavours in the eleventh century, by a process of hiring themselves into military disputes and slowly emerging as the masters of the situations into which they were hired, to the ultimate extent of becoming Kings of Sicily and counts of numerous other places nearby.6 However, what her thesis had not covered was emotional bonds, and this paper was an attempt to sound the evidence for that, and was therefore as much a methodological exercise as an empirical one: how can we get at emotions and feelings from the sources we have, and how can we ever be sure that they were what the subjects of report felt? There are some cases where it seems clear enough, relatively speaking: when Elvira of Castile, the wife of King Roger II of Sicily, died we are told by Alexander of Telese that Roger hid in his chambers for weeks, so that a rumour spread that he had died too and then his brother-in-law raised a revolt against his counsellors, whereupon Roger had to emerge in vengeful fashion and kill quite a few people. He then didn’t remarry for a decade, until he was down to one male heir. Love, grief and anger don’t seem unreasonable to attribute here, though one would like the hiding story to occur in more than one source.

Interior and crypt of Santissima Trinità di Venosa

Interior and crypt of Santissima Trinità di Venosa, with tombs of the Hauteville family visible beneath the floor, photo by Anna Nicoletta MenzellaOwn work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The main emotional outlet of the Hautevilles does seem to have been anger and venegance – the title quote came from a report by Amatus of Montecassino about a band of Normans whose lord was killed in a fray, who, he says, did not waste time on tears but went straight through the stages of mourning to vengeance without waiting (not his language, obviously, but the title quote is: “Normanni non plorent”, ‘the Normans don’t cry’).7 But seeing other emotions in the sources is hard: we can see patronage as an expression of affection, especially when it was extended to people who repeatedly caused trouble (though that was a lot of the Hautevilles, and there may just not have been much choice); we can also, however, therefore see a preference for kin over outsiders, despite how troublesome a kindred it was.8 And then there are memorials that show us some level of mourning, of which we have two above, though of course these are the public expression of mourning rather than a private one. Many of these emotional pathways, interestingly, occasionally let women through into what would normally be men’s roles; women counts regnant, several powerful consorts, daughters who witnessed charters, patronesses of chronicles, and so on.

The examples involving women may be the most powerful ones, for me, because they sit against the otherwise obvious possibility that these actions of violence, inclusion, patronage or dispute may have been pragmatic and political rather than emotional (in so far as the two spheres separate). Obviously female kinship ties had political value as well, but Tancred of Conversano having his daughter witness charters probably didn’t help anything except her sense of being a nobleman’s offspring. Nonetheless, most of the questions were about how results of an enquiry like this could be made reliable, with one person saying it simply couldn’t be done, as all we were getting was the emotions that the agent of record thought would have been appropriate, and another wondering if the chroniclers’ emotions weren’t the thing we should study here instead. Joanna Phillips, also of this parish, wondered if it might be more reliable to track responses to emotion than records of its expression. More interesting to me was the question that asked if this emotional profile was a Norman thing or more generally medieval, to which Francesca said that it wasn’t even general to the Normans; few other families had this kind of internal cohesion and, apparently, trust. But also, in most other cultures and kingroups of the era crying was a perfectly legitimate display of sincerely felt emotion; if these Normans didn’t cry, then they were modelling a different, less emotive kind of masculinity than was the fashion with others. That kind of relative history of emotions might work better for me; the chroniclers in question are still individual lenses which need to be gauged, of course, as are any non-chronicle sources (of which there were some) involved, but at least once we can say, this story presents appropriate emotions thus but this one elsewise, we can start to dig into why. The material for that seemed to be abundant here!


1. This is a lot to substantiate in one footnote, so maybe I can just give examples. For example, Iberia maybe not a multicultural paradise even if some current hate speechifiers go too far in denying it: Anna Akasoy, “Convivencia and its Discontents: Interfaith Life in al-Andalus” in International Journal of Middle East Studies Vol. 42 (Cambridge 2010), pp. 489–499. Sicily still in the frame: Sarah C. Davis-Secord, Where Three Worlds met: Sicily in the Early Medieval Mediterranean (Ithaca NY 2017). Critical reevaluation (maybe too critical): Brian A. Catlos, “Accursed, Superior Men: Ethno-Religious Minorities and Politics in the Medieval Mediterranean” in Comparative Studies in Society and History Vol. 56 (Cambridge 2014), pp. 844–869. Lots more could be cited, often with quite different views.

2. See Hiroshi Takayama, The Administration of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, The Medieval Mediterranean 5 (Leiden 1993), and indeed Jeremy Johns, Arabic Administration in Norman Sicily: The Royal Diwān, Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization (Cambridge 2002).

3. Professor Johns didn’t mention Ibn Hawqal, but the geographer’s peroration on Sicily is one of my favourite tenth-century sources, and can be found in French, at least, in Ibn Hauqal, Configuration de la terre (Kitab surat al-Ard) : Introduction et traduction, avec index, ed. J. H Kramers and trans. G. Wiet, Collection UNESCO d’œuvres représentatives : Série arabe, 1st edn (Paris 1964), 2 vols, I pp. 117-130. The only English version I know is a teaching translation of my own from that French, rather than the Arabic.

4. This is the picture you’d get from, for example, Donald Matthew, The Norman Kingdom of Sicily, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 1992), which was the first thing I ever read on the subject (and was new then…).

5. The example here was a 1242 document by King Frederick II’s administrator Obbertus Fatamongelia, apparently the first charter in their sample to use Arabic for a space of forty years, but I’m afraid I have no tighter reference than that. When their website’s finished, though, we’ll all be able to find it from that I hope!

6. That thesis was, for the record, Francesca Petrizzo, “Band of Brothers: Kin Dynamics of the Hautevilles and Other Normans in Southern Italy and Syria, c. 1030-c. 1140” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Leeds, Leeds, 2018), online here.

7. Again, I don’t have a detailed reference here, but one can read Amatus in Amatus of Montecassino, The History of the Normans, trans. Prescott N. Dunbar, rev. Graham A. Loud (Woodbridge 2004).

8. As well as Petrizzo, “Band of Brothers”, see now Francesca Petrizzo, “Wars of our fathers: Hauteville kin networks and the making of Norman Antioch” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 48 (Abingdon 2022), pp. 1–31.

Gallery

Dead Vikings in Carlisle

This gallery contains 16 photos.

Sorry for the absence: despite working to contract at the moment, it turns out life fills up blogging time with work for other people sometimes. In order to get something out for the Bank Holiday weekend, however, here is a … Continue reading

Scribes who knew more

Moving forward definitively at last into 2019 in my backlog, in February of that year I was mainly reading Wendy Davies‘s then relatively new book Windows on Justice in Northern Iberia 800–1000. I got two posts out of this, but it turns out on reviewing the drafts now that the first one I had kind of already written in two places. Therefore, here is just the second one, on the second part of the book, which is substantially about scribes and what they knew, especially in terms of formulae. It is great, obviously, because Wendy Davies. But there is one conclusion she has that stuck out at me and now that I look at it I have objections, but I also have examples that may mean I have to swallow those objections. Tricky, huh? So I invite you to read on…

Cover of Wendy Davies's Windows on Justice in Northern Iberia, 800-1000

Cover of Wendy Davies, Windows on Justice in Northern Iberia, 800-1000 (London 2016)

Wendy starts by categorising her documentary sample, and while I suspect she goes too far with this—I always suspect this with efforts of categorisation, I guess—there is a distinctive category she sets apart, which is big documents that narrate a judicial dispute and then have the outcome confirmed by important people.1 This is, she thinks, basically a monastic habit (um, as it were; I don’t appear to have meant the pun when I drafted this) and with her favourite example it’s clear firstly that other documents from earlier in the process were used (and reported slightly differently each time they were used), and secondly that there were several distinct episodes of confirmation some years apart, as if San Vicente de Oviedo‘s monks had a ceremony every now and then when the king was hosted at their place and got him to sign things (or, I suppose, when they solemnly trooped to the palace chanting and got him to do so, or whatever).2 There are a few documents in my sample with extra, later, confirmations on so I can imagine that happening in my world too.3

However, the bit that I baulked at was towards the end where she suggests that these documents required special knowledge to write, and that unlike the average sale or dispute document, whose structures the local priest of wherever knew and could write you more or less as per standard—and Wendy’s sense of the variations in that standard is acute and fascinating4—these ones have language in that would have been the preserve of only a few highly-educated clerics.5 Something socialist in me doesn’t like that; I think a number of local priests came from cathedral chapters and might have been as highly trained as the next man, but they didn’t get to write one of these big things every day, or possibly at all unless they happened to work for a monastery. The hearing over the abbacy of Sant Benet de Bages that I wrote about years ago might even be an example of someone we otherwise think was a local priest finding himself in that context and having to step up to the formulaic plate.6 But then I thought back and remembered my best example of such a document from Catalonia, which is of course the Sant Joan de Ripoll hearing of 913.7

Low-quality facsimile of the charter of the Vall de Sant Joan hearing

Low-quality facsimile of the charter of the Vall de Sant Joan hearing, Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 32

Now I’ve written a lot about this document here and elsewhere and I won’t trouble you with it all again, but thre are several things about this huge hearing that gel with Wendy’s analysis here. Firstly, it’s a substantially fictive narrative designed to represent only one side of a dispute.8 Secondly, it is confirmed or at least witnessed anew on two occasions at least, though not by anyone much as far as I could discern; Sant Joan seems quickly to have lacked powerful supporters in its area.9 But thirdly, I have repeatedly observed that its scribe, one Garsies, is not attested anywhere else ever. I have in the past suggested that that was because he was needed to mobilise or silence the otherwise scarcely visible community of old settlers who predated Sant Joan’s tenure of the area under dispute.10 I sort of picture him as being in charge of some crumbling church from long before far out in the wilds, or possibly I suppose even at Santa Leocàdia in Vic, the once-and-by-then-replaced cathedral, in general being an older authority not necessarily well integrated into the new church structure, and that because of this he was who was needed to write this document, as a person everybody could accept would be trustworthy.11 The other possibility I’ve never been able to rule out, of course, is that he was a scribe of Count Sunyer who came along for the day, but I’ll ignore that for now. Wendy now opens up a third possibility, which is that he was just called upon because he had some sense how this should be done that other less experienced or learned priests might not have had. We don’t have another such document, at least not for twenty years or so not very close by, so we don’t see Garsies again. She could be right. In which case I don’t have as many frontiersmen, but I wonder where on earth he would have learnt this stuff? Santa Leocàdia might just still be the answer, but I will have to rethink…12


1. Wendy Davies, Windows on Justice in Northern Iberia, 800-1000 (Abingdon 2016), pp. 35-39.

2. Her specific worked example, of many, is Pedro Floriano Llorente (ed.), Colección diplomática del monasterio de San Vicente de Oviedo (años 781-1200): Estudio y transcripción (Oviedo 1968), doc. no. 26, discussed Davies, Windows on Justice, pp. 1-5 & 146-147, with text pp. 60-3 and photo p. 2.

3. Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic: segles IX-X, Documents 1 (Vic 1980-1996), 5 fascs, doc. no. 594, also printed as Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia Volum IV: Els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica 53 (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 1712, actually tells us that this happened to it, which is nice but of course raises questions of which bits were written when. In some ways more interesting is Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 995A, because there are two copies, the former of which was already witnessed by Count Borrell II but the later of which us confirmed additionally by Viscount Guadall II of Osona. More would not be hard to find.

4. Davies, Windows on Justice, pp. 95-120, which is kind of a kingdom-wide application of my technique in Jonathan Jarrett, “Comparing the Earliest Documentary Culture in Carolingian Catalonia” in Jarrett and Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout 2013), pp. 89–126, DOI:10.1484/M.IMR-EB.1.101679, which is rather flattering.

5. Davies, Windows on Justice, pp. 141-143.

6. 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.

7. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 119.

8. Jonathan Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2003), pp. 229–258 at pp. 241-248 and Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 35-42.

9. Ibid., pp. 46-49.

10. Ibid., pp. 42-46.

11. The identification is argued in Ramon Ordeig i Mata, “Santa Eulàlia i Santa Leocàdia, una església altmedieval de Vic” in Ausa Vol. 25 no. 168 (Vic 2011), pp. 323–332. .

12. It is arguable, of course, that I should have maybe done that rethinking in the three years since writing this post. One thing that should have occurred to me then but didn’t, and does now, is that the possible link to Santa Leocàdia has the additional strength that by 913 the church was actually held by Sant Joan de Ripoll, having been granted to them in Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya carol&iacutelngia volum II: Els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 2 & 3 (Barcelona 1926-1952), repr. in facsimile as Memòries… 75 (Barcelona 2007), Sant Joan de les Abadesses I. So I might still think that the most plausible answer. An outside possibility might be that Garsies had come from some Andalusi intellectual centre such as Toledo which might be thought to have given him special knowledge of charters and the like; but if that were the case, I’d expect him to have been widely sought out as scribe, and in any case Toledo diplomatic wouldn’t necessarily have been what was wanted in Osona (see my “Comparing the Earliest Documentary Culture” as in n. 8 above). Maybe he just refused any lesser client than two counts, a viscount and an abbess, but still, I think more or less on-site but normally disregarded is a more plausible and interesting possibility…

Murder of a factoid about Mallorca

My backlogged blog chronology is getting a bit out of step here, as I find this in my drafts folder from November 2018 referring to an unusual luxury I’d been able to permit myself that summer, which was a trip to Cambridge University Library. I was privileged enough to do most of my undergraduate and doctoral work out of that library (even though my doctorate’s from London) and there are still times when it’s invaluable to get there, for the simple reason that unlike most big research libraries a good proportion of its stock is on open shelves. The speed factor this adds to checking references is hard to exaggerate; when ordinarily you might have to wait an hour or two for your books to arrive, being able to go straight to not just the things you already knew you needed, but also then the things which they reveal you also need to check, which otherwise might normally mean a second trip at some future point, is invaluable. I was at that point up against a tight deadline to finish my article “Nests of Pirates” and, among other things, I was able to check the thing I want to tell you about now, and because of the open shelves track it to its root rather than just the next layer down. It’s about the Islamic conquest of Mallorca, I think by the definition offered some time ago by frequent commentator dearieme it counts as a ‘factoid’, and I think I killed it.1

The Balearic Islands had a rough Late Antiquity.2 Taking part fairly fully, as far as patchy archaeological evidence and a few textual anecdata can so far reveal, in both the third-century crisis (during which Mallorca’s then-capital, Pollentia, burned down) and then the general shrinkage of economy and settlement suffered by the western half of the Roman Empire over the fifth century, they fell in the course of that century into the maritime empire of the Vandal kings of Carthage, where they remained until returned to imperial control during the Byzantine conquest of that kingdom. They then remained under at least some kind of Byzantine obedience into the eighth century, to judge by seals found at the hilltop fort of Santueri in Mallorca, and perhaps even later, but that’s where the trouble begins, because the terminus post quem non is of course Islamic conquest, and we don’t really know when that happened.3

Wall of the castle site at Santueri, Mallorca

Wall of the castle site at Santueri, Mallorca

Now, first of all some important preconditions. There are five major islands in the Balearic archipelago, as you see above, in descending order of size Mallorca, Minorca, Ibiza, Formentera and Cabrera, of which Ibiza and Formentera sit apart as part of a separate group called the Pityuses, all over an area of about 150 square miles. There is much more evidence about what happened to Mallorca than any of the others; indeed, archaeologically and documentarily, we don’t actually have any proof so far identified that Cabrera, Formentara, Ibiza or even Menorca were actually occupied between the seventh (or for Menorca, eighth) and tenth centuries (mid-ninth for Menorca, as we’ll see), though it’s probably more likely that they were than they weren’t.4 Nonetheless, people who write about this area always seem to do so as if what happened in one island can be generalised to all the others, apparently believing that because they are governed as a unit now, and have been since, well, mumble mumble mumble, they must always have behaved as one. But it ain’t necessarily so.

Ruins of the late antique Christian basilica in Illa del Rei, off Menorca

Ruins of the late antique Christian basilica in Illa del Rei, its own separate islet off Menorca, by Pytxyown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

So what we’re actually able to discuss is the Islamic conquest of Mallorca, not the Balearics, and we just have to live with that. Now, currently the archaeology can really only tell us that at some point people started using Islamic-style ceramics and burying like Muslims, not when or why.5 For when or why the answers must for now come from texts. The terminus ante quem this time is 933 CE, by which time there was an Andalusī (i e. from al-Andalus, Muslim Iberia) fleet using Mallorca as a base for raiding Christian Francia, according at least to the chronicler Ibn Ḥayyān, who had access to some of the caliphal archives of Córdoba somehow and thus had reason to know.6 So the conquest was before that, but when? Excitingly, there are four different dates recorded, all in different sources, none of which seem to know the others’ stories. For dramatic reasons it’s most fun for me to go through them from latest date to earliest, which means that the first entrant is fourteenth-century CE polymath, bureaucrat, lawyer and underrated sociologist, but questionable historian, Abū Zayd ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān ibn Muḥammad ibn Khaldūn.

Bust of Ibn Khaldun at Casbah de Bejaia, Algeria

Bust of Ibn Khaldun at Casbah de Bejaia, Algeria, image by Reda Kerbushown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Ibn Khaldūn, who had excellent sources for the most part, including Ibn Ḥayyān, but notoriously scrambled them in his own work, offers the latest date for the conquest, placing it in 902/903 and explaining it as the result of an Andalusī pilgrim to the East having been stranded in the islands for a while and having thus learned their weak spots, and then offering to lead a conquest of them for the Emir of Córdoba, which succeeded.7 Opinions vary among the people who know this report as to whether the islands could possibly still have been Byzantine at so late a stage, or had been assimilated into the Carolingian sphere after an appeal to Charlemagne for help against pirates in 798, which was answered.8 That appeal is documented in the Carolingian court chronicle, the Royal Frankish Annals, but only in its early version, not its revision of 829, as if by then it was no longer a working claim. So if the Balearics did swing Carolingian, it may not have lasted long.9 Nonetheless, after 903, says Ibn Khaldūn, they were Islamic territory.

Approach to Puig d'Alaró, Mallorca

Approach to Puig d’Alaró, Mallorca

But! The twelfth-century Granadan geographer Muḥammad ibn Abi Bakr al-Zuhri has a different story. According to him, the conquest took place in the reign of “Muḥammad, son of the fifth Emir of al-Andalus”, and although it was mostly successful, the “Rūm” held out in one particular fort, Ḥisn Alarūn, almost certainly modern Alaró seen above, for a further eight years and five months before finally running out of supplies and surrendering.10 So for him Mallorca was definitely still Byzantine territory, but when? Muḥammad I ruled 852-886 CE, but the trouble is that he was the fifth Emir, and his son was called al-Mundhir (r. 886-888 CE). Professor Juan Signes Codoñer has suggested that the peculiar way in which the ruler is identified might be explained if the name of Muhammad’s father ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II had dropped out, supposing a correct text saying “Muḥammad son of [‘Abd al-Raḥmān], the fifth Emir…” and that looks like a good solution to me, but it’s still a 30-year window.11 Also, al-Zuhri said that he had heard this story told, not that it was a matter of record, and while he was nearer in time to the events than was Ibn Khaldūn, that distance was still four hundred years, so it’s not the best evidence.

But! Maybe we need neither of these, because the somewhat later Marrakech historian Abū al-ʽAbbās Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn ʽIḏārī has a different report again. He, frustratingly, doesn’t tell us when the conquest actually was, but notes that in 848/849, none other than ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II sent a punitive naval expedition against Mallorca because its inhabitants had “broken their pact” and were harassing Islamic shipping in their waters. Some kind of blockade seems to have been imposed and next year Mallorca and Menorca both sent envoys begging for the renewal of the pact, though Ibn ʽIḏārī doesn’t say that they got it.12 Nonetheless, as far as he was concerned, subjection of the islands to Islam, even if not conquest by it, had happened by then.

Romantic modern depiction of Ibn al-Qutiya

Modern depiction of Ibn al-Qutiya

Now it’s possible to reconcile that with either, but not both, of the previous two, and maybe even the Royal Frankish Annals, by saying that the Balearics, or at least Mallorca, had maybe been under a pact to the Muslim rulers in the Peninsula for some time but not actually conquered by them – this was also the case with Basque Pamplona, so it wouldn’t be unprecedented – and had perhaps flirted with a Carolingian alternative before being brought back into line by ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II.13 But! Now we reach the meat. Our earliest source for the conquest also gives the earliest date, or at least so it seems. If you look in the work of Juan Signes which I already mentioned, or that of Josep Amengual i Batle on which it often rests, you will find a report there that the tenth-century Sevillano lawyer and historian Muḥammad Ibn ʿUmar Ibn al-Qūṭiyya dated the conquest of the islands to 707/708 CE, when ‘Abd al-Malik, son of the then-governor of Muslim North Africa, Mūsā bin Nuṣayr, mounted a naval raid on Mallorca and Menorca and captured the “kings” (mulūk) who ruled there and sent them off to Damascus.14 I grant you that’s not quite the same as actual conquest, and it might even have led to the kind of pact subsequently reported by Ibn ʽIḏārī, but it is still quite surprising, not least because it’s a full four years before the actual conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, which Mūsā carried out in 711-712 CE. Now, that may just be presentism talking and it might have made more sense, before their permanent attachment (so far) to governments in the Peninsula in the thirteenth century, to see the islands as prone to African dependency, as under the Vandals and Byzantines, and not Iberian rule. But, this is also our factoid.

You see, when I first saw this report, in Signes I think, I was immediately struck by two things. One was how early it was, as I just said; but the other was that I really ought to have known about it because I own an English translation of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya’s History of the Conquest of al-Andalus.15 I’m not saying I’ve ever sat down and read it all through and made notes, but I have gone into it quite a lot for gobbets for my Special Subject at Leeds, and if I’d seen this bit I would have grabbed it because of what it implies about the conquest of the Peninsula following on naval raiding rather than being a spontaneous event.16 So I went and got my copy off the shelf, and this bit isn’t there.

Well, how odd, I thought. It seemed unlikely that Professor Signes had just made this up, so I looked up his reference, which was as I might have expected to the old Castilian translation of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya by Julián Ribera. And that was online then, so it was pretty easy to check that too and find that it’s not there either.17 But he gave a reference also to Josep Amengual’s two-volume history of the late Antique Balearics, and it was that which I arrived in Cambridge needing to check. And from that it became clear that the reference in question is in the Ribera volume after all.18 So for a moment it looked as if either David James had missed it out of his English translation, or it wasn’t in the manuscript of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya that he’d used. BUT! Not so! There are actually two texts translated in that volume of Ribera’s, Ibn al-Qūṭiyya and a similar history under the name of Abū Muhammad Abd-Allāh ibn Muslim ibn Qutayba, and our factoid is in the latter, not the former. Well, at least I now had the source. And in some ways it should be a better source, because although based in Iraq, Ibn Qutayba was writing even earlier than Ibn al-Qūṭiyya and brings the gap between source and event, otherwise so large in this saga, down to a mere 150-odd years.

But.

Shamefully, I knew nothing about this Ibn Qutayba, so I did some rapid research. That told me that Reinhart Dozy had written about this very text in the 1880s.19 And this is the great virtue of the Cambridge UL: having found this out, within ten minutes I could sit down again with Dozy’s work before me, and it gave me pause. Dozy had spent some time with this Ahādith al-Imāma wa’l-siyāsa of Ibn Qutayba and in the end concluded that it was actually nothing of the kind, partly because no such work seemed to be attributed to that author by medieval biographers, partly because it claims to have had the Mallorca report from eye-witnesses but it had supposedly happened 134 years before, and mainly because there is a reference in it to Maroc, a city not founded until 1062 CE, difficult for a ninth-century CE author to have added. Dozy’s conclusion was that the whole thing is an Andalusī “romancing” of the work of Abū Marwān ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Ḥabīb, with some extra Iberian material from who knows where, and that its unique content – of which the notice with which we’re concerned is part – is late eleventh-century at the earliest and probably without earlier basis. So, let’s stack all this up.

  1. Some time after 1062 CE, someone decided to write a history of Muslim Iberia, which they based on an earlier work but to which they added some of their own material, including our notice about a 707/708 Muslim attack on Mallorca, and put the whole thing out under a respectable, plausible, but false name. Well, goodness knows they weren’t the last to do that, but then what?
  2. In the 1870s, Reinhart Dozy, having got curious about this, went into it and discovered the forgery, and wrote the discovery up as one of about a dozen unconnected little studies in one of his less well-known works. Not many people seem to have noticed.
  3. Juan Ribera had noticed, but for reasons that aren’t entirely clear thought that an earlier thought of Pascual de Gayangos that maybe this was more of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya still deserved to be taken seriously enough that the known text of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya and this one should be translated together, and so he did that.
  4. Several people, including Josep Amengual, presumably searching quite rapidly for all references to Mallorca they could find, then found this one, but apparently did not realise that it was not actually within Ibn al-Qūṭiyya’s text.
  5. Signes then presumably got the cite from Amengual, and repeated it even though he doesn’t seem to have been able to find it himself. And that paper, unlike Amengual’s book, went online and thus other people started to ‘know’ this thing as well. But unfortunately, it’s a dud…

Now, of course, this does not leave us with any kind of definitive answer. As I said in my article, you can even just about have it all: it could be that there was a 707/708 raid which sent the poor Mallorcan mulūk off to Syria, possibly even resulting in a pact to the then-governor of Ifrīqiya, which the islands then, finding that not keeping them safe, repudiated in favour of an approach to the Carolingians that didn’t last long, then went independent and possibly piratical for a bit before being reigned back in by ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II, but were not finally conquered till either the 850s-880s or 902/903.20 Or maybe those two dates are even for different islands in the archipelago and both true! It would be a bit weird that not one of our writers seems to have known other stories if they were all true, but they’re not actually incompatible, and even if the 707/708 story is from three hundred years later, that’s still closer to the supposed facts than Ibn Khaldūn or Ibn ʽIḏārī. But what that story is not is the work of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya. And that is a dead factoid, thankyou very much.


1. What that means, of course, is that if you’ve read Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates? ‘Islandness’ in the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet” in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101, at pp. 199-209 and esp. 206-209, none of what follows is going to be new to you, sorry. But given firewalls and time, I’m betting that mostly you haven’t, and I can forgive you.

2. Covered ibid. pp. 198-212, but see also Luca Zavagno, “‘Going to the Extremes’: The Balearics and Cyprus in the Early Medieval Byzantine Insular System” in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 140–157, and Miguel Ángel Cau Ontiveros and Catalina Mas Florit, “The Early Byzantine Period in the Balearic Islands” in Demetrios Michaelides, Philippa Pergola and Enrico Zanini (eds), The Insular System of the Early Byzantine Mediterranean: Archaeology and History, British Archaeological Reports International Series 2523 (Oxford 2013), pp. 31–45.

3. On the Santueri seals see Juan Nadal Cañellas, “Las bulas de plomo bizantinas del Castillo de Santueri” in Bolletí de la Societat Arqueològica Lul·liana Vol. 72 (La Palma 2006), pp. 325–340; they are the only part of the evidence from an extensive archæological dig that has been made public.

4. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, pp. 199-204.

5. This is changing as radiocarbon dating begins to make a difference, as witness Miguel Ángel Cau Ontiveros, M. Van Strondyck, M. Boudin, C. Mas Florit, J. S. Mestres, F. Cardona, E. Chávez-Álvarez & M. Orfila, “Christians in a Muslim World? Radiocarbon dating of the cemetery overlaying the forum of Pollentia (Mallorca, Balearic Islands)” in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences Vol. 9 (Cham 2017), pp. 1529–1538, DOI: 10.1007/s12520-016-0325-0, but as the title notes they had found Christian burials, not Islamic ones. The real problem is non-differentiation of pre- and post-conquest coarse-ware ceramics, which absent Islamic fine-wares makes it very hard to tell when a site stopped being used. Once this changes, it will probably no longer be viable to hypothesize non-occupation of any of the islands.

6. Dolors Bramon (ed.), De quan érem o no musulmans: textos del 713 al 1010. Continuació de l’obra de J. M. Millàs i Vallicrosa, Jaume Caresmar 13 (Vic 2000), &section;374; Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 207.

7. Juan Signes Codoñer, “Bizancio y las Islas Baleares en los siglos VIII y IX” in Rafael Durán Tapia (ed.), Mallorca y Bizancio (Palma de Mallorca 2005), pp. 45–99 at pp. 84-85; Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, pp. 208-209. The opinion of Ibn Khaldūn is mine, not Signes’s!

8. Basically, the Byzantinists see it as Byzantine till the last possible moment (as witness Signes), the Islamicists see it conquered as early as possible, and the Catalans see it as taken over by the Carolingians and thus effectively gathered into the future Catalonia with some unfortunate Islamic interludes that however serve to justify Aragonese ‘reconquest’. There are, admittedly, exceptions to this in every group except the Byzantinists.

9. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, pp. 205-206; the text is in English in Bernhard Walter Scholz and Barbara Rogers (edd.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, Ann Arbor Paperback 186 (Ann Arbor 1972), online here, pp. 1-128, s a. 798.

10. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 208.

11. Signes, “Bizancio y las Islas Baleares”, p. 85.

12. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 208, accessible to me from Ibn Idari, Historias de al-Andalus, transl. Francisco Fernández González (n. p. n. d.), pp. 81-82.

13. On the situation of Pamplona see Juan José Larrea & Jesús Lorenzo, “Barbarians of Dâr al-Islâm: The Upper March of al-Andalus and the Pyrenees in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries” in Guido Vannini & Michele Nucciotti (edd.), La Transgiordania nei secoli XII-XIII e le ‘frontiere’ del Mediterraneo medievale. Trans-Jordan in the 12th and 13th Centuries and the ‘Frontiers’ of the Medieval Mediterranean, British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 2386 (Oxford 2012), pp. 277–288.

14. Signes, “Bizancio y las Islas Baleares”, pp. 46-54; Josep Amengual i Batle, Els orígens del cristianisme a les Balears i el seu desenvolupament fins a l’època musulmana, Els Trebals i els dies 36 & 37 (Palma de Mallorca 1991), 2 vols, vol. I pp. 441-453; there are other people I could cite, as well, but these notes are crowded enough and anyway I do at Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 207 n. 64.

15. Muḥammad ibn ʻUmar Ibn al-Qūṭīyah, Early Islamic Spain: the history of Ibn al-Qutiya, transl. David James (London 2011).

16. I have, in fact, sat down and read all of it, while in bed in Venice in fact, and it has many excellent stories in it one of which will be a future blog post; but I don’t have notes. Anyway, while I’m trailing future blog posts we might note that if this thing were in there it would not be the only evidence for early raiding preceding the invasion of Iberia, as I will later disclose, and that was why I didn’t initially think anything need be wrong with the idea.

17. Signes, “Bizancio y las Islas Baleares”, p. 93 n. 5, cites Julián Ribera (ed./transl.), Historia de la Conquista de España de Abenalcotía el Cordobés, seguida de fragmentos históricos de Abencotaiba, etc., Colección de obras arábigas de historia y geografía que publica el Real Academia de Historia 2 (Madrid 1926), online here as of 10th July 2016 but sadly no longer, but he gives no page reference, I suspect because he could not find the passage in question either.

18. Amengual, Orígens del cristianisme, vol. I pp. 442-443, citing Ribera, Historia de la Conquista de España, p. 122, which is correct.

19. R. Dozy, Recherches sur l’histoire et littérature de l’Espagne pendant le moyen âge, 3ème ed. (Paris 1881), 2 vols, vol. I, online here, pp. 21-40.

20. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 210.

Where do viscounts come from, Mummy?

Being on strike, again, I have time to write. This post has a silly title but a serious question, as became clear to me late in 2018 when, at that point still working on the book of Borrell II, I decided that I needed to know more about the viscounts of Narbonne into whose family his elder niece, with whom he may have grown up, married.1 Looking for work on them turned up a fairly recent essay volume edited by Hélène Débax, who knows a thing or two about viscounts, and with grim determination I realised I’d have to read all of it, a luxury or necessity that modern-day academia rarely allows me.2 By the look of my Zotero files, that took place over October 2018 to January 2019 – because yes, by then I needed four months to read a book on work time – and revealed several things to me. For one, I’d assumed that pretty much everywhere had viscounts, while being aware that they basically don’t occur in England; but actually, the vicecomital dignity or office was pretty constrained in both space and time, in the former being largely confined to the peripheral areas of what became the kingdom of France, including most of the Midi, and in the latter to the ninth to twelfth centuries. Both of these things mean that the viscount is, like many things, a Carolingian and post-Carolingian phenomenon. But this is one of the ways in which Catalonia and its northern-neighbouring territories were Carolingian and its western neighbours were not. That is, however, not to say that Catalan viscounts were like other viscounts, and that’s where the stub for this post came from.

Cover of H&eacutelène Débax (ed.), Vicomtes et vicomtés dans l'Occident médiéval (Toulouse 2008)

The book and the colloquium that Débax put it together from both wisely distinguished viscounts and viscounties, “vicomtes et vicomtés”, the kind of distinction I use to point out to monolingual and xenophobic students why accents count as spelling. Not everywhere had both viscounts and viscounties; several sets of viscounts existed without developing an associated territory, either because their tenures were too discontinuous or because they worked under the shadows of counts, one or two places had viscounties from earlier on which were later run by other people who didn’t use the title, and several places developed viscounts first and then they developed viscounties later.3 Catalonia, interestingly, had viscounts from really quite early, albeit perhaps not continuously, and the eventually established families mostly did get themselves viscounties but these were almost always located outside their official jurisdictions, which remained counties with counts (apart from Conflent, which we’ve already discussed and is weird).4 So Catalonia may not exactly have fitted the pattern, but Débax and colleagues thought they had a pattern, albeit one not universal and open to variation. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to any of them except Henri Dolset, speaking for my patch alongside the already-discussed Élisabeth Bille, there is a different pattern in use in the Catalan scholarship to explain the emergence of these major nobles. And then there’s me. So it seems meet to set up the two competing patterns in the scholarship first and then comment with what I can bring to the question.

So what is the ‘vicomtes et vicomtés’ pattern? For Débax herself and most of her contributors, viscounts were a symptom of comital weakness. They popped up where there were no active counts, taking over unattended jurisdictions, and some of them effectively became counts under a lesser name, with no superior officers between them and a very distant king. This was what happened at Narbonne, where I started, and at Castillon in the Dordogne among other places.5. Some viscounts who set up in such a fashion even managed to become counts, by obscure processes in most cases; we see this at Millau, whose viscounts managed to inherit the comital dignity of Rouergue, and in la Marche, where there had never been a county as far as we know until the viscounts managed to upgrade.6 Even viscounts who had a count to whom they were notionally subordinate often managed to achieve quasi-independence in parts of their territories, unaffected for the most part by their relations with their bosses at bosses’ courts; such were the viscounts of Trencavel whom Débax has made her own, Auvergne, Thouars and Marseille in its third round of vicecomitogenesis, as well as in Béarn with some special conditions.7 A strong count, however, didn’t let this happen in his core territories (best shown in these studies by the viscounts of Tursan, just too close to the biggest counts in the south at Toulouse) and even where it had, once in the general revival of civil government in twelth-century France the counts were powerful enough again, they put a stop to it (as at Bruniquel, Marsan and indeed eventually Narbonne).8 This often followed on an equally-revived Church mobilising the force of Gregorian reform to push these upstart officers out of the Church properties and revenues which were often a major prop to their standing.9 Nonetheless, it was not a universal that wherever the counts couldn’t assert themselves, viscounts sprang up; some noble families occupied what was far as we can see were positions just as powerful (and some northern viscounts, especially, were not major players in their areas) and never took such a title, prime examples in the south being the Castelnau of Cahors.10 So there remains something unusual about the title which the pattern developed in these studies doesn’t overall explain.

Map of the Catalan counties c.950, by Philip Judge and Jonathan Jarrett

Map of the Catalan counties c. 950, by Philip Judge and myself. We’ve not seen this for a while, have we? But now it helps. Of these counties, Empúries and Roussillon were usually both ruled by one count, Barcelona, Girona and Osona by another (though only after 898), Urgell by a third and Besalú, and Cerdanya by a fourth family, usually providing plural counts. Pallars and Ribagorça started with one count for both and finished up with several for each. The rest of the areas never had named counts, but did sometimes have viscounts, most obviously Conflent. But so did the counties with counts!

The Catalan scholarship that I know best on these matters kind of comes at the question of origins from the other direction, which the more voluminous but also locally-specific evidence from the area partly explains, but not as much as the good old feudal transformation narrative does.11 Under that rubric, of course, we’re supposed to move from a fully-functional public system via a period of upheaval to an exploitative one of private jurisdiction which everyone’s happy to call ‘feudal’ that is slowly brought under control by the powers-that-were over the eleventh or twelfth centuries but which remains the new basis for power till the Age of Revolutions. Accordingly, the Catalan scholarship points at ninth-century viscounts who appear sporadically, but sometimes with counts, as being the public system working and the viscounts as official delegates of the counts, and mostly argues this for the tenth-century ones as well, though as we’ve seen I have my doubts.12 The delegation was necessary because there were more counties than counts: a count of Barcelona, Girona and Osona couldn’t be everywhere at once, so someone had to hold the fort or forts while he was elsewhere. This idea is echoed in the Débax volume in a few places, for Rouergue before the Millau swallowed it, for example, but in general they have too many viscounties springing up out of nowhere for the idea of delegation to look normal.13

That suits me fine, because I’ve never liked the delegation argument, which goes back to Ramon d’Abadal but wasn’t up to his usual standard of analysis.14 In the first place, the plurality of comital holdings really doesn’t reach back to the ninth century, when one county per count was much more normal, but there were viscounts already then. In the second place, a count couldn’t be everywhere in a county either, so what makes those quite big units the natural level at which jurisdiction does not need dividing or delegating? And in the third place, to which I’ll come in a bit, other than sometimes presiding over courts, which was a thing that many sorts of person could do, viscounts don’t seem to have done the same jobs as counts in many ways. The only place where we arguably do see viscounts behaving like delegates of the counts is in Osona, a county that was created ex novo by a count in the 880s; the best example is the rights given to Viscount Ermemir II over Cardona in its franchise of 986, but we see older members of the family doing things at comital bidding too.15 That’s harder to find where the jurisdiction was older; there, the counts don’t seem to have had this kind of systematic direction of their viscounts. There is also some echo of this in the Débax volume: in Marseille and the Limousin the counts of Toulouse acquired these areas as new concerns and then set up viscounts there, and in Poitou a different family did, because they had no immediate local basis of power themselves and other places they needed to be, so they had to. But it’s clearly not where the idea of viscounts comes from.

My own copy of my book, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power

Cover of Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), available from at least some good booksellers!

For me, it’s actually that idea that is crucial. In 2010, in my so-far-only monograph, I had a section entitled ‘Power with a name’ that I think still bears some weight. The thing is, you see, if Duby and the other feudal transformationists demonstrated anything they demonstrated that a local magnate who was beyond the control of a higher authority did not need a title for his power; he (or indeed she) could just appropriate revenues and turn them into custom by means of threat and force.16 But to call yourself a ‘vicescomes’ was to emphasise that there was in fact an officer called a ‘comes’ who you weren’t; in fact, you stood in place of him in a way that uncomfortably suggested responsibility to him. ‘Vicarius’ was even worse, but essentially meant the same thing. As with the counts themselves, these were all claims to exercise power on behalf of someone else, not by your own hand. So there must have been substance to such a claim which made that potential liability worth
admitting.17 The old Carolingan legislation that people in all these areas, Catalan or not, occasionally copied up, give some ideas from what it forbids viscounts to do to those whom the kings had given immunities: it might have included demanding labour services from people on roads or fortifications, calling out militarily-liable people or charging them not to, taking fines and penalties at court, and a good few other things probably.18 But these rights can only have been restricted to such ‘public’ officials as long as the public power existed, so in that sense the very existence of viscounts tells us that there were rights that people still recognised as being restricted to people who had certain sorts of power only, and not others.

So in 2010 I suggested that the viscounts in Catalonia were best understood as powerful independents who had, for one reason or another, decided to engage with the effective takeover of royal powers by the counts, recognising perhaps that they could not, or could not yet, be counts themselves but could retain command in their key areas by pretending that they were comital delegates, and acting that part when required.19 Then their descendants were stuck with the legacies of that choice, which often allowed them room for powerful expansion but on someone else’s agenda. I’m not sure if that was true of all of them, but I think it works as an explanation for the ones I know best. And it also fits with some of the Débax team’s cases: Auvergne, predictably covered by Christian Lauranson-Rosaz, had viscounts whose origins he couldn’t explain as anything other than independents who coralled themselves a piece of the surviving public power, and André Constant, for all that his chapter floats what seems to me a quite unjustifiable theory that all his viscounts were also archdeacons in the Church by right till reform stopped that, sees the same thing in the bits of Catalonia I know less well.20

It seems clear that one size won’t fit all here. Even in Catalonia viscounts seem to have had diverse origins, with the Osona family who became the Cardonas presumably having some prominence that made them locally useful but then relying on comitally-driven expansion to turn that into anything substantial, whereas as far as we can see the family that emerged as viscounts of Conflent and sometimes Urgell owed nothing to the counts and were basically irremovable.21 No-one seems to be sure where the Girona viscounts who became the Cabrera developed, and the picture is complicated by the fact that it’s much easier to see them outside their county than within it because there are far fewer surviving documents from Girona than from the frontier counties where they show up as landowners.22 Barcelona has had much more work done on it, partly because it’s the capital but also because one viscount and his brother the bishop ended up besieging the count in his palace at one point, so there’s a story to explain; I haven’t read all that work yet, so I won’t try and guess how they fit.23 But if there’s a pattern there, it seems to me that it is the one of powerful independents accepting a space in a hierarchy which they could work to advantage that explains most cases, and in that case the dignity has still to have meant something that wasn’t just ‘I’m in charge now’. It’s not clear to me how far this applies north of the Pyrenees, given the even greater variety of circumstances plotted by Débax and colleagues, but as so often I wonder what happens if rather than taking France as normal and wondering why Catalonia looks weird we start by looking at Catalonia and then seeing if it explains France.


1. Her name was Riquilda, and the relationship is made clear in her will, which is printed as Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic: segles IX-X, ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Documents 1, 5 fascs (Vic 1980-1996), doc. no. 346, and also in the Catalunya Carolíngia but I haven’t internalised that reference yet and this post is already late, so the old one will have to do.

2. Hélène Débax (ed.), Vicomtes et vicomtés dans l’Occident médiéval, Tempus 37 (Toulouse 2008), Freemium version online here.

3. Viscounts who never got viscounties in Bas-Quercy and the Toulousain, as described by Didier Panfili, “Bas-Quercy et Haut-Toulousain, un kaléidoscope à vicomtes – IXe à XIIe siècles”, ibid., pp. 73–86; viscounty only developing after some time at Béziers, covered by Claudie Amado, “Les vicomtes de Béziers et d’Agde : Deploiement lignager et bipolarité du pouvoir”, ibid., pp. 21–31.

4. A point made in Roland Viader, “Conclusions”, ibid. pp. 319-333 at pp. 326-327.

5. The overall pattern is asserted in Hélène Débax, “Des vice-comtes aux vicomtes, des vicomtes aux vicomtés : Introduction”, ibid. pp. 7-19; Narbonne is covered in Jacqueline Caille, “Vicomtes et vicomté de Narbonne des origines au début du XIIIe siècle”, ibid. pp. 47–60, and Castillon by Frédéric Boutoulle, “Les vicomtes de Castillon et leur dominium (XIe–début XIIIe siècle)”, ibid. pp. 103–113.

6. Millau: Jérome Belmon, “Aux sources du pouvoir des vicomtes de Millau (XIe siècle)”, ibid. pp. 189–202; la Marche, whose viscounts began as castellans and finished up as counts, is covered by Didier Delhoume and Christian Remy, “Le phénomène vicomtal en Limousin, Xe – XVe siècles”, ibid. pp. 237–250 at Annexe p. 228.

7. For the Trencavel, see most obviously Hélène Débax, La feodalité languedocienne XI-XII siècles : serments, hommages et fiefs dans le Languedoc des Trencavel (Toulouse 2003), but if you have only the volume under discussion then an extremely brief summary is in Débax, “Des vice-comtes aux vicomtes”, p. 15, and they also come into Amado, “Vicomtes de Béziers et d’Agde” at pp. 26-30 and Pierre Chastaing, “La donation de la vicomté d’Agde (1187) ou les vicissitudes du vicecomitatus aux XIIe et XIIIe siècles” in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 33–45. Auvergne is covered by, who else, Christian Lauranson-Rosaz, “Vicomtes et vicomtés en Auvergne et dans ses marges (IXe-XIe s.)”, ibid., pp. 213–222; Thouars is covered in Géraldine Damon, “Vicomtes et vicomtés dans le Poitou médiéval (IXe-XIIe siècle) : Genèse, modalités et transformations”, ibid. pp. 223–235 at pp. 224-235 and Annexe pp. 200-201; Marseille in Florian Mazel, “Du modèle comtal à la « chatelainisation » : vicomtes provençaux aux Xe–XIIIe siècles”, ibid. pp. 251–264 at pp. 253-257 & 260. For Béarn see Bénoît Cursente, “Les Centulles de Béarn (fin Xe siècle-1134)”, ibid. pp. 129–142. Their special circumstances were the availability of the counts then kings of Aragón as an alternative source of patronage, culminating in one of the line dying at Fraga next to Alfonso I the Battler, but that didn’t stop them coming to the court of the Duke of Aquitaine when summoned, it seems.

8. On that revival of governmental strength see now most easily Thomas N. Bisson, The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government (Princeton NJ 2015), but it’s present in all the studies in the Débax volume whose viscounts survived long enough, and it’s really interesting how independent lords got squeezed between it and Church reform, without any necessary coincidence of interests between those two pressures. On the individual cases see Jeanne-Marie Fritz, “Marsan et Tursan : deux vicomtés Gasconnes”, in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 115–127, Tursan at pp. 122-127 and Marsan at pp. 115-118; Bruniquel in Panfili, “Bas-Quercy et Haut-Toulosain”, pp. 75-79 & 83-84 and Laurent Macé, “Le nom de cire : Jalons pour une enquête sur les sceaux vicomtaux du Midi (XIIe-XIIIe siècles)” in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 305–317 at pp. 311-312; Narbonne in Caille, “Vicomtes et vicomté”, pp. 56-59.

9. Reform as the enemy in Mazel, “Du modèle comtal à la « chatelainisation »”, pp. 258-261;, Jacques Péricard, “Les vicomtes de Bourges (IXsup>e-XIIe siècle) : une éphemère émancipation” in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 279–289 at p. 288, and Viader, “Conclusions”, pp. 329-330, and also in André Constant, “Entre Elne et Gérone : Essor des chapitres et stratégies vicomtales (IXe-XIe siècle)” in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 169–187 at pp. 178-186, but that goes to heroically unsustainable lengths to associate the viscounts with Church office in the first place, which for the period I know I’m pretty sure are faulty, and admits that the viscounts managed the Augustinian reform very well, so in general I have doubts about this as a case.

10. On viscounts in the north see Jean-François Nieus, “Vicomtes et vicomtés dans le nord de la France (XIe-XIIIe siècles) : Un monde d’officiers au service du pouvoir princier”, in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 291–303; on Castelnau see Florent Hautefeuille, “Une vicomté sans vicomte : les Gausbert de Castelnau”, ibid. pp. 61–72.

11. The people who’ve been following me a while will know the classic references by now, but they are Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : Croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail, Sèrie A, 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, and Josep M. Salrach, El procés de feudalització (segles III-XII), Història de Catalunya 2 (Barcelona 1987), now updated somewhat by the lighter but no less interesting Salrach, Catalunya a la fi del primer mil·lenni, Biblioteca de Història de Catalunya 4 (Lleida 2005).

12. Here I principally mean Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “La institució comtal carolíngia en la pre-Catalunya del segle IX” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 1 (Barcelona 1964), pp. 29–75, reprinted in Abadal, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i Documents 13 & 14 (Barcelona 1969), 2 vols, I pp. 181–226, and reprised and updated in Abadal and José María Font i Rius, “El regímen político carolingio” in José Manuel Jover Zamora (ed.), La España cristiana de los siglos VIII al XI, volumen II: Los nucleos pirenaicos (718-1035): Navarra, Aragón, Cataluña, ed. Manuel Riu i Riu, Historia de España Menéndez Pidal 7 (Madrid 1999), pp. 427–577. The Catalan perspective in the Débax volume comes from Henri Dolset, “Vicomtes et vicomtés en Catalogne frontalière aux Xe-XIIe siècles (Barcelone, Gérone, Osona, Tarragone) : territoire et pouvoir” in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 157–168 and Constant, “Entre Elne et Gérone”, as well as Élisabeth Bille, “Des vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne : du fidèle du comte au seigneur féodal (IXe-XIIe siècle)” in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 143–155, which was discussed in a previous post.

13. Belmon, “Aux sources du pouvoir des vicomtes”, Annexe pp. 179-181.

14. Abadal, “La institució comtal carolíngia”.

15. The Cardona franchise is printed in Antoni Galera i Pedrosa (ed.), Diplomatari de la Vila de Cardona (anys 966-1276): Arxiu Parroquial de Sant Miquel i Sant Vicenç de Cardona, Arxiu Abacial de Cardona, Arxiu Històric de Cardona, Arxius Patrimonials de les Masies Garriga de Bergús, Palà de Coma i Pinell, Diplomataris 15 (Barcelona 1998), doc. no. 7 – again, it’s in the Catalunya Carolíngia but I don’t right now have the space to look it up. On the creation of the county see Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, La Plana de Vich en els segles VIII i IX (717 – 886), Estudis d’història vigatana (Vich 1954), reprinted as “La reconquesta d’una regió interior de Catalunya: la plana de Vic (717-886)” in Abadal, Dels Visigots als Catalans (Barcelona 1969), I pp. 309–321. An earlier instance of the family’s cooperation with the counts is Viscount Ermemir I’s attendance at Count Sunyer’s marriage, seen in Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: Estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18 (Barcelona 1951), doc. no. 9; again, it will be in the Catalunya Carolíngia too but I haven’t looked on this occasion.

16. The locus classicus here obviously Georges Duby, La société aux XIe et XIIe siècles dans le région mâconnais, Bibliothèque de l’École Pratique des Hautes Études, VIe Section (Paris 1971), but, as with the Nestorians, the founder of the doctrine has been surpassed by his followers, by whom in this instance I mainly mean Jean-Pierre Poly and Éric Bournazel, The Feudal Transformation: 900-1200, trans. Caroline Higgitt, Europe Past and Present (New York City NY 1991). In both cases I cite the editions I’ve used, but there are updated ones.

17. Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History: New Series (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 129-133.

18. For example, see Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia volum II: Els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 1 & 2 (Barcelona 1926-1952, repr. 2007), 2 vols, Particulars VII: “Et nullus comes, nec vicarius, nec juniores eorum, nec ullus iudex publicus illorum homines, qui super illorum aprisione habitant, distringere nec iudicare presumant.” Thus spoke Emperor Louis the Pious to Joan of Fontjoncouse in 815. It doesn’t specifically mention viscounts, I admit – in fact none of the royal legislation for the area does even though they were sporadically there – but it would be hard for one to argue they weren’t included in the ban, I reckon.

19. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 133-135.

20. See nn. 7 and 9 above respectively.

21. M. Rovira i Solà, “Noves dades sobre els vescomtes d’Osona-Cardona” in Ausa Vol. 9 no. 98 (Vic 1981), pp. 249–260, online here, covers both families, and I add some details on Conflent in Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 136-141; cf. Bille, “Des vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne”.

22. Three pretty much incompatible views of the membership and relationships of this family can be found between Jaume Coll i Castanyer, “Els vescomtes de Girona” in Annals de l’Institut d’Estudis Gironins Vol. 30 (Girona 1989), pp. 39–98, online here, Dolset, “Vicomtes et vicomtés en Catalogne frontalière”, and Constant, “Entre Elne et Gérone”.

23. Obviously I have read Dolset, “Vicomtes et vicomtés en Catalogne frontalière”, but behind him there’re Francesc Carreras y Candi, “Lo Montjuích de Barcelona” in Memorias de la Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vol. 8 (Barcelona 1902), pp. 195–451, and now José Enrique Ruiz-Domènec, Quan els vescomtes de Barcelona eren: història, crònica i documents d'una familia catalana dels segles X, XI i XII, Textos y documents 39 (Barcelona 2006), both of which have had exciting differences from my views wherever I’ve dipped into them and so need proper treatment some time in a mythical future.

Name in Print XXVIII: a large parcel from China

Although for the most part I enjoy the distance this blog usually occupies from the present, which means that I have a good safe perspective on what I cover, it is occasionally awkward to be detailing things that happened to me years ago, as for example when something that is immediately worth reporting comes about from earlier events I haven’t yet reported. Such a one is this, a paper that resulted from my second trip to China. So far I have been to China twice and each time, though it wasn’t my explicit plan, it’s resulted in a publication: the conference at Changchun on which I reported has made up a supplement to the Journal of Ancient Civilizations and I will eventually report on a conference I went to the next year in Beijing, entitled ‘The Influence and Change of Coins from an International Perspective’. The convenors of that conference asked me for a text of my paper, which I sent, and then just got on with it. The editors of the JAC, meanwhile were in frequent touch about the lengthy progress of the volume to press, and finally, a little while ago, let me know that it existed both digitally and in print, enclosing copies of the former and promising copies of the latter, which were to be shipped any day. Meanwhile, I was assured by one of these same people that the other conference was also in press, but since I’d heard nothing from the actual editors, seen no proofs and so on, when I received a large parcel from China with an ISBN prominently printed on the packaging, I fairly naturally assumed it was the JAC supplement, perhaps in more copies than I’d been expecting. But in fact it was the other one.

Cover of 王春法 (ed.), 货币与王朝: 国际视野下钱币的影响与改变 (Beijing 2021)

Cover of 王春法 (ed.), 货币与王朝: 国际视野下钱币的影响与改变 (Beijing 2021)

It is an extremely handsome and heavy volume, and after spending some time with Google Translate I’m fairly sure it contains not quite all the papers presented and another eleven that weren’t. But the extra ones fill up range very usefully. If you read Chinese – and I don’t, though I have a few words of the language such as a foreigner can learn by online tuition – this is actually a pretty good review of most aspects of currency as it has been known in China and its neighbours up till at least the Ming era. Almost everything in it is by Chinese scholars, or at least scholars with Chinese-viable names in Chinese institutions. The four foreigners involved come from Azerbaijan (1), France (1) and the United Kingdom (2), and 1 of those 2 is me, explaining what I think about the coin reform by which Emperor Anastasius I brought in marked-denomination multiple-value copper coins to end the reliance of market transactions in the Roman-or-Byzantine Empire on notionally-slightly-silver coins of such tiny effective value that they had to be used in bagged-up bundles valued by weight. What I think is, very summarily, that this was an unpopular measure that probably inserted a fiduciary currency into a system that still notionally ran on bullion value, and it was not intended to make market transacting easier, as some scholars seem to believe, but to make paying the army, or rather the army’s paying for things, easier, at the cost mostly of the poorest in the empire.

Title page of 乔纳森加莱特, ‘拜占庭帝国的市场交易与阿纳斯塔修斯一世的货币改革’, in 王春法 (ed.), 货币与王朝: 国际视野下钱币的影响与改变 (北京 2021), pp. 266–276

Title page of 乔纳森加莱特, ‘拜占庭帝国的市场交易与阿纳斯塔修斯一世的货币改革’, in 王春法 (ed.), 货币与王朝: 国际视野下钱币的影响与改变 (北京 2021), pp. 266–276

Now, I’d say that if you want to know more you can read the paper, but if you look at that quickly you will see that the text is in Chinese, so even if you can, I can’t.1 I didn’t know that was going to happen, though apparently I have one Zhāng Yuè to thank for it and such bits as I’ve run through Google suggest that I have been pretty clearly understood. If you look closer, though, you will see that the footnotes remain in English, which was apparently the policy for all the foreigners. I guess that they thought that so much of it was non-Chinese citations that there was no point rendering the discursive content into Chinese around it. But as it is, I do wonder how many people in the world can read all of it, and consequently I have put the English-language draft up on my publications webpage here, in case anyone should be interested.2

Nonetheless, I’m delighted by it. At this point, Chinese scholars have a reason to think of me as one of the current thinkers about early Byzantine coinage. I probably don’t deserve that renown but even to have it undeserving among a catalogue of Chinese luminaries of numismatics is pretty cool.


1. So, citation as it appears on the page is 乔纳森 加莱特, “拜占庭帝国的市场交易与阿纳斯塔修斯一世的货币改革”, transl. 张 月 in 王春法 (ed.), 货币与王朝: 国际视野下钱币的影响与改变 (北京 2021), pp. 266–276. If, like me, you can do something in Pinyin but not in Hanze, then it’s Qiáonàsēn Jiā Láitè, “Bàizhàntíng dìguó de shìchǎng jiāoyì yǔ ā nà sī tǎ xiū sī yīshì de huòbì gǎigé’, and in English that would be Jonathan Jarrett, “Market exchange in the Byzantine Empire and the currency reforms of Anastasius I”.

2. The draft bears the original title, “‘He will ruin many from among the people’: market exchange in the Byzantine Empire and the reform of Emperor Anastasius I.”

Seminars CCLIII-CCLVI: Friends and the Famous Speaking at Leeds

There is a lot of unpleasantness going on just now, he says in a classic understatement. I had most of a series of angry posts about the state of the English university done when Russia invaded Ukraine, something I’d barely seen coming and which is starting, as people break out the word ‘nuclear’, to sound a lot like the bad dreams of my Cold War childhood over again. Now it seems a bit selfish to complain about having secure if worsening employment while others are losing their homes and lives. The Ukraine conflict has also got some pretty deep and obvious medievalist resonances, but with fighting going on at this moment, I cannot look at that now. Instead I’m staying safe around the turn of 2018/2019, when because I was not on Action Short of Strike and being threatened with total pay deduction because of it, I was still going to seminars. I cannot get to many seminars down south any more, so it is always important when people come north (or in one of these cases, east), and in normal circumstances I try to be there whoever’s speaking. But for these four I was there because I knew or knew of the people and was glad to have them visiting us, and so they each get a short report despite this having happened three years ago plus, sorry.

Real Royal Protection for the Carolingian Church?

First up, then, and coming from least far was my sort-of-opposite number in Manchester, Dr Ingrid Rembold, who on 28th November 2018 was in Leeds to address our Medieval History Seminar with the title, “Widows, Orphans and the Church: protection and virtue signalling in the Carolingian world”. Here, Ingrid was looking at the three categories of society whom Carolingian Western Europe considered it a royal duty to protect, and asking why and what it actually got them. For the Church we mainly had monasteries to talk about, and she had some good critical things to say about the legal category of ‘royal’ monastery, which I have myself also always struggled to find expressed in the actual sources; and her general argument that these obligations (which the previous royal dynasty don’t seem to have felt anything like as keenly) mainly sprang from the Old Testament and the idea of the Church as the bride of Christ, temporarily ‘widowed’ by His absence from Earth, I thought was new and sounded right.1

The Torhalle of the Lorsch monastery

The Torhalle of Lorsch monastery, supposedly a ‘royal’ house but whatever that means, this is a building through which Carolingian kings almost certainly passed. Image by Kuebi – Armin Kübelbeck – self-made with 36 single shots (Lens: 1:1.8 85 mm; 1:5.6; 1/500s; ISO 100; manual focus and manual exposure) made by stitching with Hugin, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Where there was more disagreement, however, although mainly between me and Fraser McNair, then of this parish, was about what this protection meant and how it was delivered. Ingrid had quite early on argued that Carolingian local power was so reliant on the local powerful that its legislation of this kind could only be exhortatory, without real force except as those locals cared to enforce it, which for her presented the problem that monasteries sometimes sought royal protection against exactly those locals, which makes no sense if they were the ones who would have to deliver it. If, after all, they actually did behave differently because the king told them to, even if he couldn’t coerce them, that is arguably a more powerful king, not less, than if he had to send the boys round. And that does seem to have happened in Catalonia, I will admit, with royal grant after royal grant coming south from kings who could not appoint, remove or direct anyone there; but I have explained how I think that worked, and it’s not universal.2 I just think there was more use of force available to the Carolingian state than Ingrid does, apparently. She fairly asked whether it counts as state power if a local person does it, too, and this was where Fraser and I disagreed. I think the Carolingians mostly could send someone else into a local area with legitimate power to act, if they needed to, because of the three-legged structure of counts, Church and vassals they maintained, whereas Fraser argued that their trick was to recruit the locals into the wider power ideology of ministerium, so that yes, it absolutely did count as state enforcement if a local man did it, as long as he was the right local man.3 I just think that, optimally at least, there were plural right local men, and maybe the lengthy conversations between myself and Joseph Brown in comments on my old posts at the moment are partly about what happened once there was only a singular one in many areas.

Middle-Age spread in the English village

Then, on 4th December, no less a celebrity than Professor Carenza Lewis visited to deliver one of the Institute for Medieval Studies’ open lectures, with the title, “Triumph and Disaster: new archaeological evidence for the turbulent development of rural settlement”. This was showcasing a then-new project of which she was leader, which was seeking to redress the fact that we have a pretty skewed and partial sample of medieval rural settlement in England from archæology, mostly either deserted sites or along a belt from Hampshire to Lincolnshire and then up the Eastern Pennines. To remedy this, her team had been digging dozens and dozens of test pits of a meter square or so in people’s gardens, which was excellent for public engagement as well as data, and what they had mainly discovered was change. Thinly-documented phenomena like the ‘Middle Saxon shuffle’ (a general but not well understood shift of early English villages) showed up well, but the starkest two phenomena were, most of all, desertion of sites after the Black Death, to levels like 40-45% of sites with a concomitant implication of moves into towns as well as, you know, ‘Death’; and, secondly, the long period of high medieval growth before it. Those, perhaps, were not surprises, but they are often assumed from a small sample, so anything that puts such generalisations on firmer footings is probably worthwhile. What was weird to me then and remains so now, however, is that the Roman period, when we suspect settlement in lowland Britain to have been at its densest really until quite recently, showed up very poorly. Professor Lewis didn’t offer an explanation for this, but it made me wonder whether the method was somehow missing an object signature that would be significant. Since Roman ceramics are usually both plentiful and easy to recognise, however, as are Roman coins, I can’t imagine what it would have been! The Saxon period is usually poorer in material remains…4

Making Manuscripts under the Conquistadors

Then, finally ticking over the clock in 2019 and bringing this blog close to only three years behind at last, on 28th January 2019 Dr Claudia Rogers, then of Leeds and as we’ve seen a valued teaching colleague, presented some of her work in a workshop for the Medieval Group under the title of “Encountering Pictorials: a a workshop on sixteenth-century Meso-American manuscripts”. I know that this is not medieval on the usual European clock, but in the first place we have the debate about whether that counts outside Europe – but of course it’s kind of patronising and colonial to assert that, outside Europe, other places were ‘medieval’ for longer, so that’s not my justification here. Instead, I’ll argue that these manuscripts are some of our windows on the pre-Columbian time before, which is medieval on the European clock at least, and also that they’re just really cool.

Page from a Matrícula de Tributos, México City, Biblioteca Nacional de Antropologia, MS 35-52 fo 5r

Page from a Matrícula de Tributos showing just some of the stuff which the Aztecs had previously claimed in tribute every 80 days from their dependencies, México City, Biblioteca Nacional de Antropologia, MS 35-52 fo 5r

They are, however, wickedly complex to interpret. They are mostly on bark-paper, and come in three broad categories, organising knowledge by place (being, roughly, figured maps of significant things, people or events), events (iconographic treatments of single themes in detail, as here the tributes paid at conquest) or, to me most intriguing, by time, these being calendrical, cyclical, year-by-year chronicles with one image only per year to sum up everything in it. Obviously, one of their primary topics is the ‘Qashtilteca’ (‘Castile-people war’), but their reactions to it and involvements with it are quite complicated, and implicated: one group who produced several of these texts, the Tlaxcalans, had been in rebellion against the Aztecs when the Spanish arrived, and gladly accepted help against their overlords from the conquistadores, who, however, then turned on and subjugated their erstwhile allies. Tlaxcalan artist-scribes thus had a lot to explain. Smaller themes of the conquest can be picked up as well; apparently dog attacks on people became a new theme of depiction, for example. And these texts were produced in a world where the Spaniards were the new élite, and some were glossed in Castilian so we know that they were sometimes being explained to the conquerors. Are they therefore colonial or indigenous, collaborative or critical? Complications also arise when you compare these texts with solely-written ones of the same period: they seem to focus on different things, including giving more prominent roles to women. Was that a genre convention, or was one mode of discourse closer to (someone’s) truth than the other? And so on. And then there’s the question of what gets assumed or put back in the restorations that are making these texts increasingly available. Basically, you have to have a 360° critique going on at all times when trying to do history with these. Claudia did not necessarily have answers to these questions then, but even explaining the complexity of her questions was quite a feat, to be honest…5

Exemption by Whatever Means

Lastly for this post, a mere two days later I was back in probably the same room, I don’t remember, to hear then-Dr Levi Roach present to the Medieval History Seminar with the title, “Forging Exemption: Fleury from Abbo to William (997-1072)”. This was a paper dealing with no less fiendish, but much more focused, questions of source critique, revolving around the French monastery of Saint-Bénoît de Fleury (a ‘royal’ monastery in theory, but as we shall see and as Ingrid had already told us, that didn’t necessarily mean much). At the very end of the tenth century, Fleury found itself caught between a new dynasty of kings and their client, Bishop Arnulf of Orléans, Fleury’s local diocesan bishop, both of which were a problem for them (for reasons my notes don’t actually record). As well as Fleury’s own rights, they were in contention over the much bigger issue of who should be the Archbishop of Reims, a long-running fracas I will let someone else try and explain instead of me. For all these reasons, the monks found they needed extra support, and Abbot Abbo (or, I suppose, Abbo Abbot) went to Rome to get it, at that stage not yet a normal thing to do. Pope John XV apparently charged too much, but Pope Gregory V was more amenable and Abbo allegedly came back with a document detailing lots of things bishops could not demand from them.6 The problem is, however, that it’s not confirmed, and there is a nest of associated forgeries for other monasteries, and Levi’s work for about half his paper was to disentangle those from whatever the source of the copy of this document we now have actually was. Those who know my work well will realise that this twitched several of my interests, because only a few years before, I have argued that a count of Barcelona also went to the pope, on this occasion John XIII, to get a privilege which was not in fact awarded, and came back with the unconfirmed documents they’d presumably tried to get him to sign and pretended they were legit; but no-one believed them.7 Both that and the resort to the pope only when the king couldn’t or wouldn’t provide therefore looked quite familiar to me.8 I did raise these questions with Levi, indeed, and he defended his position by saying that when Fleury’s privilege was challenged, which it was, it was challenged on the basis of being unprecedented – quite literally uncanonical – rather than on being faked. To which I say, OK, but that doesn’t actually tell us what was going on. I need to check in on Levi’s subsequent work and find out what he now thinks, I guess! Had I but world enough and time, and did it not look like labour for my bosses when I’m on strike…9

But there you are, four good papers and only a selection of what I attended in November 2018 to January 2019 as well. Some of us clearly do find time to do research, or did! And I’m glad that they then come to Leeds when they have.


1. My picture of what the Carolingians did with monasteries probably relies principally on Matthew Innes, “Kings, Monks and Patrons: political identities and the Abbey of Lorsch” in Régine Le Jan (ed.), La royauté et les élites dans l’Europe carolingienne (début IXe siècle aux environs de 920) (Villeneuve de l’Ascq 1998), pp. 301–324, online here, which I still think is excellent, as I do most of Matthew’s stuff, but may still take that category of ‘royal monastery’ somewhat for granted.

2. Jonathan Jarrett, “Caliph, King, or Grandfather: Strategies of Legitimization on the Spanish March in the Reign of Lothar III” in The Mediaeval Journal Vol. 1 no. 2 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 1–22, DOI: 10.1484/J.TMJ.1.102535.

3. The odd thing is that I think we are both here channelling Matthew again, in the form of Matthew 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), just apparently from different directions.

4. When reporting at this distance, it’s always wise to check if something has actually come out that would represent a more up to date presentation of the same research, and in this case it seems to have, as Carenza Lewis, “A Thousand Years of Change: New Perspectives on Rural Settlement Development from Test Pit Excavations in Eastern England” in Medieval Settlement Research Vol. 35 (Leicester 2020), pp. 26–46.

5. In Claudia’s case the subsequent publication is newer media, John Gallagher, Nandini Das and Claudia Rogers, “New Thinking: First Encounters”, MP3, BBC Radio 3, Arts & Ideas, 23rd October 2019, online here.

6. This must be Maurice Prou and Alexandre Vidier (edd.), Recueil des chartes de l’abbaye de Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, Documents publiés par la Société archéologique du Gâtinais 5-6 (Paris 1907-1912), 2 vols, online here and here, I, doc. no. LXXI.

7. Jonathan Jarrett, “Archbishop Ató of Osona: False Metropolitans on the Marca Hispanica” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 56 (München 2010), pp. 1–42.

8. I can’t take any credit for noticing people from the Catalan counties heading for Rome like they’d used to head to the king; that observation goes back as far as Ramon d’Abadal, Com Catalunya s’obri al món mil anys enrera, Episodis de la història 3 (Barcelona 1960).

9. It’s at least easy enough to find out that is, because Levi has since been all over the web about a book he’s published, Levi Roach, Forgery and Memory at the End of the First Millennium (Princeton NJ 2021), DOI: 10.1515/9780691217871, where pp. 113-152 look very much like a version of this paper.

Mistakes about Catalan viscounts

(In October 2018, somehow, I seem to have managed to claw back some reading time; I think this may have been the point at which I decided to read for research on the train to and from work on the grounds that at least that way I was reading something. One of the things I picked was a French volume about viscounts, which was germane to what I then thought I was working on, and it occasioned me to stub several posts for the blog. The following one, though, I originally wrote in one go on 17th October, apparently mainly out of outrage. I’ve now defanged it somewhat and post it in the spirit of 2022 as far as I can, rather than that of 2018.)

This is a post of reflection, prompted by my having read a piece of someone else’s work that made me cross. Long-term readers will remember this happening more in my younger days; I said some angry things in print or indeed here, feelings were hurt, and I now try not to do the destructive-mode thing for the most part. After all, it’s not as if my own work is magically free of all error. But sometimes, what gets me is that I can see how it could have been done better because I know the stuff too, and this is one of those cases.

The piece that prompts this is a short chapter about the viscounts of Cerdanya.1 I have been learning a lot about viscounts lately. I began looking for stuff about the viscounts of Narbonne, because a cousin of Borrell II, with whom he may have grown up, married into their family. (We know this because she left something in her will to him and his brother.2) But the book in which that chapter lay contained studies of many another area’s viscounts, and also the reflection that actually it was only fringe areas of France that developed semi-independent viscounts, really, mainly from the very late tenth century until the twelfth, when either the Albigensian Crusade or the Plantagenets rather shook them out of their trees.3 And among these things are two articles by French scholars on Catalan viscounts, one by Dr Élisabeth Bille.

Now, my reason to care is that there is a chapter in my book which has a section on the viscounts of Conflent, and despite the title of Dr Bille’s chapter, that is effectively who it is about: the two families conjoined in the mid-11th century and she doesn’t trace the Cerdanya side back before that, while the viscount of Cerdanya whom she does mention, Unifred, discussed below, is problematic. My chapter was based on a larger part of my thesis, but my thesis was finished in 2005, didn’t go online till 2007, this book came out in 2008 and seems to have been based on a conference that must have happened earlier, and I only submitted the text of my actual book to the press in 2008… So neither of us could have known about the other’s work, and indeed I only find hers now.4 But of course we’re working off the same sources, so ideally our work would find the same things. This is not what has happened. My quibbles, enumerated, are these.

  1. In passing, Bille refers to Count Ermengol I of Osona dying in battle in one of several engagements with his cousins the counts of Cerdanya, in 942.5 This has been said by several people, but there’s no actual basis for it; a twelfth-century text from the place where he was buried says he died at Baltarga, and people have deduced that it should have been a fight with Cerdanya because that’s where the place is, but firstly no other source says this, secondly that source doesn’t say whom he was fighting and thirdly for that reason someone else has argued that he died defending his country from Hungarian raiders, which also could have happened but for which there is no more proof.6 So while this doesn’t really affect the overall conclusion much it made me suspect that trouble lay ahead.
  2. It becomes clear where when Viscount Unifred of Cerdanya first turns up. This man is very little attested, but he appears between 913 and 928 as a fidelis of Count Miró II of Cerdanya; then the next (and last) mention we have of him is in 954, when the Counts of Cerdanya and Besalú, Miró’s sons, wrote to King Louis IV asking for permission to seize Unifred’s property because he had rebelled against them.7 For Bille this shows that the counts could still depose viscounts at this stage and disinherit their heirs, but for me it shows the absolute opposite: not only did they need royal permission, leading to them contacting a king for the first time in their or their father’s lives that we know of, but also given that this was forty years after Unifred’s first adult appearance, he was almost certainly dead by now. And, as it turns out, his children actually did inherit a decent chunk of his property.8 Bille knows the charter that shows that, but doesn’t read it my way, or know of other Catalan work that did.9 In fact, she doesn’t use much current Catalan work on Catalonia at all. And this does all matter, because her overall argument is that viscounts changed from being biddable subordinates of the count to territorially-entrenched independents over the eleventh century, whereas I’d say Unifred shows that they were already independents in the tenth and had probably always been, so the change must be otherwise described.9bis
  3. A further example of this is Viscount Bernat of Conflent, Unifred’s grandson as it happens, though Bille does not know this. He ruled Conflent between 971 and 1001, in which as far as Bille is concerned the viscounts were still the counts’ assistants. Actually, as she must know, having read the same documents I have, Bernat never appeared with a count in his lifetime. He must have known them – he even shared care of a castle with Borrell II at one point – but he ran things entirely separately from them as far as we can see, something which was made much more possible by the fact that first his brother then his son were successive bishops of Urgell, meaning that the family had someone else who could represent them to the counts.10 As it is, Bille mentions Bernat once and moves on without discussion of either his ancestry or how his career sits at complete variance to her discussion. She moves onto Bernat Sunifred of Cerdanya, from the next century, so quickly that it’s easy to think that the two were the same man.11
  4. Another part of Bille’s argument is that the viscounts did not have assigned property or territories before about the mid-11th century; for her, they were essentially floating officers of the count. How they were maintained she never discusses, but to support her basic contention she says that none of her viscounts are named as viscounts of a particular place or territory before 1050.12 To which I say, Bernat of Conflent was so named at the consecration of the new church of Sant Miquel de Cuixà in 974, and the reason clearly is that two viscounts called Bernat were present so had to be distinguished, this one and one of Cerdanya (the latter, as far as we can tell, not a descendant of Unifred).13 It could be done, therefore; it just didn’t normally need to be said. Everyone at the time knew who the viscount was, after all. Now, when one goes and looks at the references Bille provides here (which is not easy, as they’re given on CD-ROM!14), she doesn’t know that document; but actually, she knows three others I didn’t in which viscounts of this family are named with territories prior to 1035!15 Yet in the chapter body she says that never happened, even though her reference is three cases where it did!
  5. Lastly and less importantly, Bille notes that this family managed to dominate the bishopric of Urgell for fifty years or so, till Bishop Ermengol, Bernat’s son, progressed himself to sainthood by falling off a bridge in 1035.16 After Bishop Eribau, who succeeded him, the counts managed to corner that see for themselves.17 Well, fair enough actually, except that unbeknownst to her Eribau was also a member of the same family, if not the exact same branch of it. Again, if she knew the relevant Catalan work she’d have known that.18

Now, with all that on one side of the balance, on the other I do understand how this sort of thing can happen. After all, if I go back and look at my thesis now I cringe in places at what I didn’t know and thought I did, and while this article was published four years after Dr Bille’s thesis it was presumably written much closer to it.19 If I were guessing what had happened here, it’s that by the time the editors got proofs back to her, she had perhaps found this extra stuff but they would only let her make changes to the digital section, not the print text, so correcting the references was all she could do. It’s also just hard to be up to date with literature in a country not your own. I’m always massively behind with the Catalan scholarship, because it’s so hard for me to find out what is being published and then get hold of it; the tricks I can perform in a UK environment of being present at enough events and conferences that I hear from active people and can use what they tell me to learn what I need to be aware of, I can’t do somewhere I don’t live (insert: as you can tell, a pre-Covid-19 perspective here). One winds up patching one’s ignorance with Google, and in 2005 that didn’t work as well as it does now. I’m acutely conscious of this just now because I am currently trying to work out how to do revisions on an article I unwisely wrote out of my normal area. Predictably, it has come back with reviewers’ comments indicating my ignorance, and setting me reading I will have to go to Cambridge, London and ideally Barcelona to do, because some of it isn’t available in the UK at all.20 In term-time, that is very difficult, and I will probably have cut some corners to answer these critiques by the time this post goes up.20bis Given that when that article comes out, someone could probably be just as cross about it, perhaps I should just recognise that sometimes this happens to people, forgive it and move on.

Except that… My mistakes have got caught by peer review; that is what’s supposed to happen. Bille’s got published. Moreover, however it happened, she ignores, sidelines or just plain misreads several documents that damage her argument seriously. Peer reviewers ought to have caught that—I would have caught it, even in 2006—but I don’t see how she cannot have known that the evidence conflicted with her argument. We’re supposed to do this right, after all; even if historians don’t believe we can actually know what happened, we have to be as careful as possible in trying to find out and as honest as possible about what we find. Without that, we have no claim to being experts, as opposed to opinion columnists, and without expertise there’s no justification for the profession at all. So I still think this needs pointing out. Probably it’s partly that it’s stuff I have written about, and therefore want to believe I got right, and she doesn’t agree. But I also think this shouldn’t have been published without being checked and fixed. So, this is the check. I cannot find any sign that Dr Bille has continued in the profession, so I guess that there will not be a fix; but at least if someone else is using the chapter, they can now see the problems too.


1. Élisabeth Bille, “Des vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne : du fidèle du comte au seigneur féodal (IXe-XIIe) siècle” in Hélène Débax (ed.), Vicomtes et vicomtés dans l’Occident médiéval (Toulouse 2008), pp. 143–155.

2. Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic: segles IX-X, ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Documents 1 (Vic 1980-1996), 5 fascicles, doc. no. 346. The two brothers are the only distant kin or nobility mentioned, and it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to suppose that this implies some special memory of them from before she was packed off to Narbonne; such memories wpuld have to be childhood ones, when they would have been even younger than her. One could make a more realpolitikal argument that she was maintaining links with the counts beyond her neighbours, but if so this is the only one she tried doing like this, and I think that suggests that the personal link was determinative.

3. Hélène Débax, “Des vice-comtes aux vicomtes, des vicomtes aux vicomtés : Introduction” in eadem, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 7–19; for shaking from trees, see Mireille Mousnier, “Vicomtes de Gimois et de Terride : une difficile polarisation”, ibid., pp. 87–102, and Jeanne-Marie Fritz, “Marsan et Tursan : deux vicomtés Gasconnes”, ibid., pp. 115–127.

4. The relevant bits of mine are Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History New Series (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 133-141, developed from Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia” (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of London, London, 2005), online here, pp. 219-221.

5. Bille, “Vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne”, pp. 144-145, referring to plural “heurts” between the kingroups; only one is known, and that was with Count-Marquis Borrell II of Barcelona. On it, see for now Josep Maria Salrach i Marès, “Política i moral: els comtes de Cerdanya-Besalú i la comunitat de monges benedictines de Sant Joan (segles IX-XI)” in Irene Brugués, Xavier Costa and Coloma Boada (eds), El monestir de Sant Joan: Primer cenobi femení dels comtats catalans (887-1017) (Barcelona 2019), pp. 225–257 at pp. 229-231, developing earlier work of Salrach’s which could have been available to Bille.

6. Salrach, “Política i moral”, p. 228; Albert Benet i Clarà, “La batalla de Balltarga. Epíleg de la incursió d’hongaresos a Catalunya l’any 942” in Quaderns d’Estudis Medievals no. 9 (Barcelona 1983), pp. 639–640. The source is the Gesta Comitum Barcionensium, now best edited in Stefano Maria Cingolani (ed.), Les Gesta Comitum Barchinonensium (versió primitiva), la Brevis Historia i altres textos de Ripoll, Monuments d’Història de la Corona d’Aragó 4 (València 2012), pp. 9-160 at VI.2: “Ermengaudus vero frater eius, apud Baltargam bello interfectus, sine filio obiit.” And that’s all it says, in this single mention two hundred years later! So you’d think that as an idea it would have failed already, but since writing this post’s first version I have found Oliver Vergés Pons, “La batalla de Baltarga en el joc de la política comtal del segle X: la mort d’Ermengol d’Osona i la successió del comtat d’Urgell” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 48 (Barcelona 2018), pp. 901–923, online here, which returns to the Barcelona-Cerdanya theory and needs examination separately. The shortest version of my protest would be that none of the contemporary sources for his death mention the battle, but they do mention illness, and I think the battle was fictitious.

7. With Miró in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia Volum IV: Els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica 53 (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 119; overseeing Miró’s will in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia Volum 8: Els comtats d’Urgell, Cerdanya i Berga, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica 111 (Barcelona 2020), 2 vols, doc. no. 229 (but published elsewhere as long ago as 1838); having his lands confiscated in Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia volum II: Els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 2-3 (Barcelona 1926-1952), 2 vols, Particulars XL.

8. Pere Ponsich (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia volum VI: Els comtats de Rosselló, Conflent, Vallespir i Fenollet, rev. by Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Memòries de la Secció Històrica-Arqueològica 70, (Barcelona 2006), 2 vols, doc. no. 490, first published in 1981; for the prosopography the relevant work needed here is Manuel Rovira i Solà, “Noves dades sobre els vescomtes d’Osona-Cardona” in Ausa Vol. 9 no. 98 (Osona 1981), pp. 249–260, online here.

9. Bille, “Vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne”, Annexe no. 43. On the complications of following up references in this volume, see n. 14 below.

9bis. In Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 144-147, indeed, I suggested that titles like ‘viscount’, ‘vicar’ and the like might indicate rewards issued to powerful independents for engagement with the comital power structure, rather than any actual office and responsibility, and I still think that was true in some cases, but one of the other posts I stub wrestles with this question separately.

10. Ibid., pp. 136-141.

11. Bille, “Vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne”, pp. 149-150.

12. Ibid. p. 154.

13. Ordeig, Catalunya carolíngia 8, doc. no. 718, first published in 1979; Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, p. 135 n. 31.

14. I do, sort of, understand why some supporting material for academic work is best viewed online. There are things that won’t fit on a page’s format, interactive datasets that can’t be rendered in print, images that need to be in colour or scaled in ways that the print book didn’t allow for, and all these might, just, justify the peculiar awkwardness of needing a computer to read your print book usefully. But this is just a PDF, effectively another 220 pages of the book, and while I see how they might have been expensive to add, in the first place not so many computers even have CD-ROM drives any more, especially not laptops, so you may not even be able to read this book on your own computer, and in the second place a lot of it is just footnotes that any normal press process would expect in academic work anyway. It’s hard to see why they didn’t just publish it digital-only, given how awkward this mish-mash of technologies is…

15. Bille, “Vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne”, Annexe p. 133 n. 21.

16. On Bishop Ermengol, the beginning of whose career we have documented here in the past, see for now Jeffrey A. Bowman, “The Bishop Builds a Bridge: Sanctity and Power in the Medieval Pyrenees” in Catholic Historical Review Vol. 88 (Washington DC 2002), pp. 1–16.

17. Bille, “Vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne”, pp. 150-151

18. Rovira, “Noves dades”.

19. My worst mistake in that was picked up in the viva, thankfully, and didn’t get to the version of record. There is a charter I’ve mentioned here before, in which a frontierswoman bequeaths some stuff to her deacon son, including what seem to be revenues from border-raiding. The Latin terms for these are ‘praedis et peccoribus’, and I had trouble translating the second term. William Whitaker’s invaluable Words program came up with the fairly hypothetical ‘little sins’, deriving it from ‘peccata’, and I ran with that and developed an argument that the scribe was imposing his moral view of this raiding onto the charter even though the transactors presumably thought it was cool. One of my markers pointed out, though, that ‘peccores’ would be a perfectly normal Latin word for ‘pigs’. That whole argument came out of the thesis as soon as I could bear to look at it again…

20. You may ask why I don’t inter-library loan it all. The answer is threefold: firstly, it would cost me ten pounds an item that I can’t charge to expenses, an ongoing argument; secondly, inter-library loan from Spain is really erratic and can take months to turn up if it comes at all; thirdly, it’s term-time, so if something does turn up quickly, and is restricted to the Library, and I also have marking due, I simply won’t be able to open it before it’s due back. Thus, I wind up taking the much more expensive option of going where it is at a time I choose, not least because that, I can charge to expenses without argument. But I’d rather be at home a few more weekends than this will all permit me, and of course, it shouldn’t be necessary to work in my own time to fulfil the requirements of a paid job, right? It just always, always is in academia. (Note: this whole note was written in 2018, but it does help explain why people might by now be frustrated enough to strike.)

20bis. Actually, in 2022, I haven’t, because I couldn’t get permission from work to go to the relevant library enough. I will finish the article when my managers care to make it possible for me to do so. Again, this is why we’re on strike.

Seminar CCLII: the Westminster insider

Given that I am on strike, you may be wondering where the promised blogging that usually happens here during the UK university sector’s repeated and lengthening industrial action is. Ha! Little do you know that I have spent the last two days crafting 8,000 words of prose on the UK higher education situation, which was originally intended to be three posts here and is probably actually eight. I’m still undecided as to whether to write it all up for here, or to try and fling it somewhere else as an op-ed, or of course both, short version elsewhere and full version with footnotes here. It could still happen! But meanwhile I thought you might like something more academic, while still political, to chew on, and that takes me back to just before the Ankara trip just mentioned, to early November 2018, when for reasons I would not have forecast a few months before, I was in the Houses of Parliament.

George Frederick Watts, Alfred Inciting the Saxons to Prevent the Landing of the Danes, Westminster, Parliamentary Art Collection

George Frederick Watts, ‘Alfred Inciting the Saxons to Prevent the Landing of the Danes’, 1846, Westminster, Parliamentary Art Collection

The reasons for this are Aristotelian in complexity of causation. The material cause was of course that I had gone there, through quite the myriad of security checks and into the room (whose name I have sadly forgotten) where the above painting hangs. The formal cause was Professor Simon Keynes, who was delivering a lecture there, and the final cause was that lecture, entitled, “Edward the Confessor, Westminster Abbey – and the Cult of King Alfred the Great”. But the efficient cause was the unpredictable element, it being the election to Parliament some months earlier of Alex Burghart, sometime research worker and still-frequent commentator on matters early medieval because of having done a Ph.D. on Mercia back in the day. Once inside the House, while clearly also busy with quite a range of other things, which have led to him becoming the country’s Minister for Skills, no less, he seems to have lost no time in arranging what was supposed to be a series of lectures on the history of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, for which there is apparently a small endowment. (The lectures have continued, but thanks to the pandemic, a bit discontinuously.) And so he decided to start with the founder of the building, and that’s what Simon was there to do.

Charter of King Æthelred II of England for Abingdon Abbey

A charter of King Æthelred II the Unready for Abingdon Abbey, signed by Wulfsige Abbot of Westminster, London, British Library, MS Cotton Augustus II 38 recto

Westminster Abbey was founded by King Edward the Confessor, or so the regular version goes. But as Simon’s painstaking (but not painful) exposition of the documentary evidence went to show, while not everything that has been written giving the place a greater antiquity can be trusted, there is a clear reference to the abbey already in a 993 document of Edward’s predecessor-bar-three, Æthelred the Unready, which you see above, and possibly even an older one from 986. There is also a burial of circa 1000 in a reused Roman sarcophagus that was recovered when the Houses of Parliament were built, and in questions Alex pointed out that according to Edward’s charters the abbey apparently held most of the old trading settlement as endowment, which Tim Tatton-Brown pointed out meant that it must have postdated the establishment of the new port so could not be much earlier than Æthelred anyway. Edward’s contribution was presumably therefore a rebuild and reestablishment on new rules, which can be seen in the architecture and his own charters, as well as in the Bayeux Tapestry (see below); the association with Edward is not in doubt, only exactly what its nature was. However, as Simon concluded, while Edward is much commemorated in Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, which in the 1840s replaced the old Westminster Palace after a disastrous fire, commemorate him very little; there is just one statue. Instead, when they go back before the Conquest they tend to commemorate Alfred the Great, as above. Victorian England wanted heroic fighters, not peaceful saints, in their legislature’s decoration!

Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry showing Edward the Confessor's corpse being carried to rest in Westminster Abbey

Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry showing Edward the Confessor’s corpse being carried to rest in Westminster Abbey, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The thing is, by then that was not surprising. To get to the lecture, once through the security, the select but quite large party had had all to pass through the Royal Gallery in Westminster Hall, which is hung with quite amazing frescoes of great moments in British history, as selected by that same Victorian agenda. These involve, as you might expect, quite a lot of conquering, some missionary conversions (including of the English themselves, but then later other peoples around the British Empire) and many victorious battles. The wider architecture of Westminster Hall is also quite amazing. I have borrowed the below picture from a travel blog that has many more, and it gives you the idea but believe me, you want to see the rest too, so do click through.

The octagonal Central Gallery in the Houses of Parliament

The octagonal Central Gallery in the Houses of Parliament, where the Commons and Lords meet

It was amazing to see it all, though much of it is open to the public at the right times, so it’s not as much of a privilege as I might make it seem. (Drinks afterwards in the Pugin Room and talking to Michael Wood for the first time in a decade or so, that was a privilege, I will admit that.) But it does also make me reflect. This is the working space of the people who decide the fate and direction of the country, and with them affect those of others. Given that’s their daily commute (for those that go into the House daily, I suppose) and the site of what in other places would be the water-cooler or kitchen conversations, I couldn’t but remember how separated from the real world three years teaching in an Oxford college made me, and wonder what working in Westminster’s actual buildings does for the sense of normal human life enjoyed by our legislators. I don’t see how one could maintain humility without a struggle. The jeering you see on Parliamentary TV presumably hasn’t that much to do with this environment – I imagine its architects were hoping for more ennobling effects than that – but the environment can’t make anything seem more, rather than less, real. There’s probably a serious role for these lectures just by way of establishing that we do have means and tools for deciding what reality is, or at least was!

Gallery

A Further Bit of Istanbul

This gallery contains 12 photos.

I have to apologise for an unannounced three-week hiatus here. The simple explanation is that teaching restarted, I’m afraid, but there were also a couple of very full weekends, one of which did itself generate some medievalist photography which some … Continue reading