Category Archives: General medieval

Gallery

A Black Country Motte-and-Bailey

This gallery contains 12 photos.

As I mentioned a few posts ago, one of the last things I did before leaving Birmingham professionally behind me in August 2015 was squeeze in a visit to Dudley Castle, which came as something of a surprise to me. … Continue reading

15,000 more coins to play with

This post is a step or two out of order; I originally stubbed it in December 2015 and would, if everything were normal, have intended it for seven or eight posts down the line. But it occurred to me that I had also referred to various successes with publications and grants that I probably ought to mention while they’re still even near fresh, rather than queue them out of my usual dogged commitment to chronology; and then I totted up the grants and realised that the ones I had to start with were to do with the Brotherton Library Coin Collection, and that without this post you, dear readers, would have no idea what that was. So here we are!

The Reading Room in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, including readers

The Reading Room in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, including readers, photo from Leeds’s website

So obviously you will remember, because I am still writing about it, that between 2014 and 2015 I was Interim Curator of Coins at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, which involved me doing exhibitions, outreach and general work with a collection of just over 15,000 coins and items of paranumismatica. But I put all that behind me, excepting lagging publication commitments, when I came to the University of Leeds, who had hired me as a historian of the early Middle Ages, not as a numismatist. Admittedly, I had tried to set up an undergraduate module using the coin collection in Leeds Museums Discovery Centre, but due to staff shortage there that was never possible. But just as I thought I might be through with numismatics again, someone here asked me, “has anyone told you about the coin collection in the Library?” And it turned out, wouldn’t you know, there is a collection here of just over 15,000 coins and paranumismatica, just waiting for someone to do exhibitions, outreach and general work with…

A copper-alloy sestertius of Emperor Nero struck at Rome in 65 AD, Brotherton Collection, University of Leeds, uncatalogued

A copper-alloy sestertius of Emperor Nero struck at Rome in 65 AD, Brotherton Collection, University of Leeds, uncatalogued; obverse…

A copper-alloy sestertius of Emperor Nero struck at Rome in 65 AD, Brotherton Collection, University of Leeds, uncatalogued

… and reverse, photographed by me for teaching last year

Now in some respects the timing of this was perfect: not only did it mean that I could in fact run that module the next and indeed this year on local resources alone, it also came a short while after the collection, which had for a long time been without a clear place in the University’s organisation, had been definitively placed in the care of the University’s Special Collections team. But they had no numismatics expertise in-house, and then there came I, a man who had quite literally written the book(let) on the care of coin collections (with really quite a lot of uncredited help).1 And so, while I couldn’t do much for the Library myself, not alongside my other responsibilities, one thing I could do was apply for money for someone else to do that work.

A copper-alloy forty-nummi of a type which has been suggested was struck by the occupying government of the Syrian provinces of the Byzantine Empire during their occupation by the Persians at the turn of the sixth and seventh centuries

I think this is an unusual one, a copper-alloy forty-nummi of a type which has been suggested was struck by the occupying government of the Syrian provinces of the Byzantine Empire during their occupation by the Persians at the turn of the sixth and seventh centuries. Here the obverse, fairly normal but a bit blocky and unclear of identification…

Copper-alloy forty-nummi struck during the Persian occupation of Syria 615-27

…and reverse, unobjectionable except for a jumbled mint-mark that just can’t be Byzantine. Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, no. not available to me but it does have one now. This is one of the cases where I’ve been able to improve on a previous identification. There aren’t many!

Now, I will talk about that in a future post, but first, how come the University has an orphaned coin collection at all, and what’s in it? Well, it’s not quite unknown: expert diggers in databases could already find out something of its history and the early British and English portions have even been published, although more was acquired after that was done.2 And in fact the history is composite, as these things so often are; while Lord Brotherton himself, the man behind our oldest library and the extremely significant collections therein, did not dally with coins, in 1918 the then-Department of Latin acquired itself a small set for teaching purposes, in 1949 the Yorkshire Archaeological Society presaged the eventual donation here of all its collections with a Roman coin collection, and in 1954 the rather fabulous Winchester Collection, which is where the funding story will come in, arrived here. Substantial anonymous gifts followed thereafter but the real difference was made by Mr Paul Thackray, of the same Thackrays as our local Medical Museum, who added 11,000 or so coins to our holdings in the early 1990s. Now, probably two-third, maybe even three-quarters, of all this is Roman, and almost all base-metal, although it’s an extremely good collection as far as that goes, with lots of varieties. There are also good representations of Chinese coins, including some genuinely rare items I am told, and of local merchants’ tokens, and a good set of modern world coins I want to convince my modernist colleagues to start using too. But there is also a small but precious selection of medieval and Byzantine items, and on them I have built my course. There is, indeed, more than I have fully discovered and some very interesting Eastern and Indian stuff, all of which is out of my competence, and two cabinets of Roman Provincial, which should definitely interest somebody, even if not me.3 Thankfully, even now we have actual hired help in place for cataloguing, though they won’t be able to do it all. But the potential is definitely here for people to do lots more with it, and it is a potential on which, as I shall describe in that near-future post, we have already started to deliver…


1. Jonathan Jarrett, Coins in Collections: their care and use (Cambridge 2009), now sadly out of print and unobtainable but obtained, thankfully, by Leeds just before that became true.

2. In Elizabeth Pirie, Ancient British and later coins to 1279 in the Yorkshire Museum, York, the City Museum Leeds and the University of Leeds, Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles 21 (London: Oxford University Press, 1975).

3. That Roman Provincial coinage should be interesting more people has recently become clear partly because of the ever-growing database of it at the Ashmolean Museum but also because George Watson, “The system of coin production in Roman Asia Minor: new thoughts on an old problem”, in Maria Caltabiano et al. (edd.), XV International Numismatic Congress Taormina 2015: Proceedings (Messina 2018), pp. not yet known to me, has started to make it clear that there are systems to its production about which we had previously not suspected, making it a key to the administration of the Roman East we didn’t know we had. So I want someone to do something with our boxes of it… Any would-be research students, do get in touch

All That Glitters, Phase 4

The times continue strange in UK higher education, as you may have seen. Many of us are on strike for what is now the third week, more of us than ever now, and the employers’ representatives appear to be refusing to negotiate in person and then changing their mind by Twitter overnight. I don’t know what may happen in the next 48 hours and of course in case classes happen, they all have got to be got ready on the few days when we’re not on strike, in case something is resolved that means we go back to work. But, what this does mean is that my conscience is pretty clear about blogging. Having taken my first steps down a new road in the previous post, it thus behoves me to look around myself and say, ‘What was I doing in July to September 2015 that I haven’t already told you about?’, and the answer to that is not limited to but certainly includes, ‘zapping gold coins with X-rays some more’. So this is about our fourth set of tests.

Jonathan Jarrett and a gold solidus with XRF machinery in the Department of Chemistry, University of Birmingham

Posed, obviously; I may look intrepid, but you have no idea how tightly I was holding that coin. It rolling under the machine would have spoiled several people’s day quite badly…

If you remember, where we were with this is that having got money to evaluate techniques by which we might be able to use X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to measure the metal content of Byantine coins, with an especial eye on trace elements that might betray metal sources, we had fairly quickly established that the kind of portable machinery which we could bring to the coins in their museum wouldn’t tell us what we needed to know. So the working set-up for these experiments was now that, after having checked our insurance quite carefully, as soon as I could get into the Barber’s coin room of a morning I would remove from it about 100 g of high-purity gold in the form of 20-odd Byzantine and other coins, then University security would turn up (in theory) and transport me to the School of Chemistry (in theory). We would then do as much zapping as could be done, with at least two people present where the coins were at all times, before Security turned up again (in theory) in time to get me and the coins back into the Barber before it closed. And this time we did this for four days running. I won’t tell you how many ways this process could go wrong, but I haven’t flagged them all. But Chemistry were lovely and very generous both with expertise and with biscuits, and though we never had quite the same team there two days together it was all quite a good group exercise anyway. So, what were we doing this time and how did it go? The answer is a long one, so I’ll put it behind a cut, but do read on! Continue reading

Chronicle I: July, August and September 2015

I’m back in the UK, and even if you’re not, you may have gathered that quite a proportion of this country’s academics are currently on strike about proposed cuts to our pensions. In theory, therefore, I can do nothing like work today, but for various reasons I think blog can be allowed; after all, given that the main reason I haven’t been blogging regularly of late is my job, it seems all sorts of perverse if when the job halts I still can’t blog. So, without further ado, I’m going to test out the new format with a short account of the three months of my academic life following the last backlogged event I covered, a conference in Lincoln which you can go and read about if you so desire.

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

We begin here… The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

Now, I say my academic life but it’s even more difficult to separate that from the rest than usual for this particular patch of my existence, as in this time I was transferring that existence from Birmingham to Leeds. The two themes of my life in this period were therefore movement between cities, and counting coins. The latter was because one of the things the Barber Institute had hired me to do when I started there was an actual audit of the coin collection, whose records from the previous few years were sadly not all they should have been. In the event, it was only once I knew I was leaving that I really got started on that, becuase immediate priorities were all more, well, immediate. But now it had to be done, so I was spending most of any given working day in the coin room comparing trays to spreadsheets, and occasionally finding where someone had evidently dropped such a tray at some point then put things back in the wrong places. There were only a few of those but they really slowed things down… But it did, finally, happen and I wrote a big report which not only confirmed that the Barber was then in possession of 15,905 coins, 35 tokens, 22 medals, 165 seals, 42 weights and 10 other objects of paranumismatica, as well as collections not formally part of its holdings like the so-called ‘Heathrow Hoard’, but gave them something much more like a firm footing for future development of the collection. At the same time I was also setting up a lecture series for my exhibition, which I was now going to miss, processing uploads which you already heard about, and zapping coins with X-rays on occasion. It wasn’t a bad job, really. Oh yes, and I was also supervising two MA dissertations, one of which was on the Heathrow Hoard, indeed, so there was some teaching even though it was outside term.

A tray full of pale gold and billon coins of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5704-B5735

A tray full of pale gold and billon coins of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5704-B5735, which did not get dropped

So all that was busy enough, but in August my old diaries and e-mails betray a slow shift: correspondence about workshops I would be doing in Leeds, moving company quotes, a farewell party at the Barber (bless them) and eventually the actual close of play. Somewhere in there, of course, was also happening the slow packing-up of stuff and eventually it all going into a Pickfords lorry, in coordination with my partner’s stuff coming up from London to be so shipped as well, and finally our actual installation into what we then thought would be our new home for the foreseeable future. I also did a medievalist tour of Dudley with a couple of friends, and I will post about that separately, with photographs, because there is actually medieval stuff to photograph there. But it’s September where the itinerary just gets crazy: from Leeds to Birmingham on the 8th, crashing for one last night in my now-empty previous home to hand over white goods and keys the next day, and then back to Leeds; to London and then Harpenden, of all places, at the weekend for a gig, then back to London and back to Leeds; and back down to Birmingham again on the 15th, for reasons I’ll say more about in a moment, and back up to Leeds again on the 16th; and then on the 20th I flew to Sicily, where I was for the following 6 days for reasons I’ll likewise mention below. And the day after I got back, we had to start having our house hot-water system replaced and I started teaching in my new job, opening up my career there with a lecture on Charlemagne and the Carolingians, all fairly fitting I think. Up to that point I’d been on campus quite a lot anyway, for induction and training, and also organising next year’s frontiers sessions for the International Medieval Congress, but now it had really started.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Justinian I struck at Cyzicus in 543&ndash544, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0692

Can it be that we have got so far through this post without an actual coin? Here’s a good big ugly one to make up for that, a copper-alloy follis of Emperor Justinian I struck at Cyzicus in 543&ndash544, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0692

I’m still quite smug about the second Birmingham trip, just because it involved seeing an opportunity coming from a long way off at a time when I was otherwise completely lost in the weeds of the job. As I mentioned, there were a set of lectures intended to support my exhibition at the Barber. For various reasons they took a long time to organise, and I was having trouble finding suitable guest speakers. But as the date slipped back and the new job became clear, I suddenly realised: by the time they happened, I could myself be a guest speaker, because I would no longer work there! So that’s what I did, giving my successor in the post the job of introducing me for a lecture I’d set up. Perhaps it shouldn’t seem like a triumph, but it did. After all, if you want something done, do it yourself… The lecture was called “Small Change and Big Changes: minting and money after the Fall of Rome”, and it basically went through the changes that the imperial coinage system underwent as large parts of the Roman Empire fell into the control of non-Roman rulers, using Barber coins as illustrations throughout; the background idea was that of the exhibition, that we are still the heirs to Rome’s monetary and iconographic vocabulary of power, but the foreground was much more me working out ideas that I intended to take into the classroom; the lecture title is, after all, suspiciously similar to that of one of my current modules

The Parkinson Building, University of Leeds

Which means we are now here, the Parkinson Building, University of Leeds,once again. Photo by Tim Green from Bradford [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

So, what haven’t we covered? Well, one thing that this new post format means sacrificing is the old write-up of trips, papers and conferences. I should still mention what they were, however, I think, so this is the list such as it was:

  • 3rd August: the medievalist outing to Dudley and Claverley, of which there will be separate photo posts;
  • 12th August: Eleanor Blakelock, “Secrets of the Anglo-Saxon Goldsmiths: underlying truth of the Staffordshire Hoard”, a seminar in the Department of Physics at the University of Birmingham whose details have now gone from the web, but a very useful contact with someone who genuinely knows about metallic analysis of early medieval gold, which resulted in an exchange of references as well as some useful knowledge about how Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths seem to have made their work look shinier;
  • 23rd August: an actual visit to the then-new display of the Staffordshire Hoard in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, which was good but probably isn’t worth recording separately for you all at this long remove given how much coverage the Hoard has already had here;
  • 21st–25th September: the XVth International Numismatic Congress in Taormina, Sicily. This needs a post of its own, and I’m not quite sure how I’ll keep it to one, but I am determined; it was a good but intense experience and I’m still trying to find out if my paper at it will be published. As you might imagine, I also managed to fit in some medievalist tourism here and there will be photos of that too.
  • 29th September: David Hinton, “Personal Possessions in Medieval England: archaeology and written evidence”, Institute for Medieval Studies Public Lecture, University of Leeds: my first academic event at my new job put one of the great figures of Anglo-Saxon archaeology before me and he was, of course, interesting; he emphasised the great spread of standards of living and wealth that Anglo-Saxon and medieval English material culture covered, from subsistence farming with almost nothing incidental owned (or at least lost) up to hoards of treasure such as have already been mentioned. Nonetheless, probably more people than that implies had precious items, however paltry; these were kept for lifetimes, which can make dating them from context difficult to do, but were also often metal and therefore recyclable, so the evidence all needs careful interpretation. Of course it does! But here was someone very used to doing that who made it sound manageable.

So, firstly that sort of summarises two and a half of the busiest months of my life until last year, but secondly I seem already to have promised five more posts of various kinds, mainly photos. I’d better therefore leave this one here and thus properly establish the new state of the blog! More will follow! After all, we haven’t got our pensions back as yet…

All That Glitters, Experiment 3

A problem with finally picking up this blog a bit is that some of the old stories in it have been sitting idle for really quite some time. Does anyone remember, for example, that while I was working at the Barber Institute we got a small amount of money to zap gold coins with x-rays? If you do, you may remember that I’d already reported on the first two experiments we did in that project when everything here ground to a halt in 2016. Well, now I resume, with a brief account of the third experiment we did, and before long who knows, we may be through the rest!

Bruker S8 TIGER XRF analyser open for business

The S8TIGER WD-XRF spectrometer in the Department of Chemistry, University of Birmingham, with five sample cups waiting and one under analysis

A brief recap may be in order first of all, though. The very short version of the project’s purpose was: we had all seen an increasing amount of work using X-ray fluorescence spectrometry to analyse the fineness of precious-metal coins and sometimes even assign origins to its metal based on the trace elements therein. We had our doubts about this, but the manufacturers of some of the best machinery involved wanted to quell our doubts about this and offered us quite a lot of help with it, so we came up with a plan and, somewhat to our surprise, got both permission from the Henry Barber Trust to muck around with their coins and funding from the Royal Numismatic Society to do it, and so set about it. We began this in December 2014, with two experiments. The first was designed to test the viability of hand-held, portable, energy-dispersive machinery that could be brought to the coins; the second did comparator analyses using a fixed-location wavelength-dispersive spectrometer to which we had to bring the coins. This showed us that to detect anything at all of trace elements we would need the big machine, but also that it was picking up a whole load of stuff that seemed very likely to be extraneous material on the surface of the coins, probably from the soil in which they had long ago been found, rather than the stuff of which they were actually made. And that is about where we come in!

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini struck at Constantinople 785-797, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4599

The coin whose results (and details) are given in the first table below, set up for the test in which it did so

So, the third experiment was very simple. Using the same set of coins as we had previously run, I got hold of some conservation-quality acetone and a toothbrush, took them and the coins down to a workroom in the depths of the Barber and gave them all a careful but thorough scrubbing and let them dry, all except one that we left uncleaned as a check. Then I packed them up again and we bore them off to the Department of Chemistry on 22nd July 2015. There we ran them again, on the shorter of the big machine’s two cycles, and this gave us some results both before and after cleaning.

Unfortunately, if anything, the post-cleaning results showed more extraneous grot. That ‘if anything’ will tell you, though, that consistency was hard to observe. The variation wasn’t vast amounts, you understand, between half and one-and-a-half per cent, but cumulatively certainly enough to push our figures for the actual gold content up or down by two or three per cent, which would for some people be enough on which to found a theory about debasement… Here are the top ten elemental results from just one side of one coin by way of example:

Coin 170 (obverse)1 Percentage observed first time Percentage observed second time
Gold 86.51% 84.49%
Silicon 3.44% 4.63%
Silver 1.61% 1.43%
Aluminium 1.27% 1.19%
Potassium 0.80% 0.63%
Sodium 0.74%
Copper 0.44% 0.34%
Calcium 0.32% 1.96%
Sulphur 0.28% 0.48%
Iron 0.27% 0.50%
Total percentage of coin observed 96.38% 96.70%

Down by two per cent gold, and that mostly gone to silicon and calcium, even though some other small elements had dropped in the readings as well. Also, what this arrangement doesn’t show, the second time small but possible readings showed up for chlorine, magnesium and, way down the scale, platinum, all absent the first time through. Surely cleaning with acetone couldn’t have added calcium to the coin? But each coin we ran had its own little tale of additional mess to tell, even (and this should have told us something) the uncleaned check. Here are its top-ten figures for the obverse:

Coin 21 (obverse)2 Percentage observed first time Percentage observed second time
Gold 82.57% 87.43%
Silicon 1.82% 1.61%
Aluminium 1.01% 0.81%
Silver 0.74% 1.10%
Sodium 0.65%
Potassium 0.47%
Chlorine 0.45%
Calcium 0.44% 1.78%
Iron 0.31% 0.31%
Copper 0.24% 0.26%
Total percentage of coin observed 89.12% 93.80%

Some things are beguilingly similar, yes—iron and copper levels stay about the same—but others are not. The first test picked up sodium, potassium and chlorine but none of those turned up second time even though we’d actually got better readings with more of the sample observed (possibly because we gave it a flatter bit to look at). Were we just looking at a different bit? If so, that bit apparently had less silicon in it, but a whole whack more calcium in it. What can you do with these sorts of data?

Gold solidus of Emperor Anastasius I struck at Constantinople 491-518, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0006, in an WD-XRF sample cup

The uncleaned check likewise set up for the results above, though I have to say it’s not like it looks dirty

So this was somewhat daunting, especially as we had four solid days of testing booked in for the following week and now somewhat less certainty that it would produce anything. At the time, my best guess was that the acetone had removed only handling patina, thus exposing the actual surface of the coin and everything that had adhered to or reacted into it while it was in the ground. Actually, looking back, I think we were already seeing here the conclusion that the final experiment would necessarily lead us to. But that would be getting ahead of the story, and even though this story is so very far behind, I have hopes of telling it as I wanted to anyway. So, till next post but, er, two, if I have my plans right (and no-one else dies—did you see Mark E. Smith has left us for the bar of the great and final WMC since the last post?), I shall leave the question hanging…


1. We used randomly-allocated running numbers throughout these experiments, so that we couldn’t try and guess what the results should be according to where the coins fitted in Byzantine history (or the previous curves laid down by work like Cécile Morrisson, Jean-Nöel Barrandon and Jean Poirier, “La monnaie d’or byzantine à Constantinople : purification et modes d’altérations (491-1354)” in Morrisson, Claude Brenot, Barrandon, Poirier and Robert Halleux (edd.), L’or monnayé I : purification et altérations de Rome à Byzance, Cahiers Ernest Babelon 2 (Paris: C. N. R. S. 1985), pp. 113–187. This one was actually Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4599, a solidus of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini struck at Constantinople between 785 and 797, online here. I’m actually almost loath to identify the coins here, though, lest it be thought I’m actually publishing figures for their metal content. As is probably clear, though, that’s something I’m sure we weren’t reliably getting.

2. And this one was Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0006, a solidus of Emperor Anastasius I struck at Constantinople between 491 and 518, online here, with the same reservations as in the previous note.

Society for the Medieval Mediterranean 2015 (in Lincoln), parts 2 & 3

[Context: this post was half-written before I ground to a complete halt in hiatus last year. It’s clear that I can’t continue this scale of write-up, but because it was part-done, and because it involves the recently-lamented Simon Barton, I want to do this last one as it was meant to be done. I am, however, combining what would originally have been two posts, because this is an indulgence I can’t go on permitting myself. After this, we can talk about what happens next but I am hoping, hoping that this is the cough of the blogger’s virtual throat being cleared before saying something in a more regular fashion. We’ll see, but I have hopes and reasons to do it and that’s a powerful combination. This post’s still a composite hodge-podge, though, so I’ve added headings to show where its layers separate.]

The Voice of October 2016

This is, as grimly predicted, the busiest term ever in my life so far, and at some point in it I’m moving house! Yay! Before that point, I can at least crunch out a few more posts, though, I hope [Edit: ha!], and the next in the queue is a report on the second day of the conference of the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean, which as you will recall was in Lincoln in mid-July 2015. This post deals with the papers and so on from the 14th July, and then we’ll talk about something completely different before returning for the third and final day. [Edit: no we won’t, it’s all happening here.]

Brayford Campus of the University of Lincoln

The Brayford Campus of Lincoln University, just for context

There were up to five parallel sessions running at all times except during the keynotes in this conference and so there was always plenty to choose from, including plenty of early medieval. As it happens, I underestimated the time it would take me to get from my (rather good) bed and breakfast to the university and so missed the first paper I’d chosen to see, which was a shame but at least, as its presenter told me, it was substantially the paper I’d seen him give in Leeds. Nonetheless, the questions seemed to reach to different things and I was sorry I hadn’t seen this version. The session as it happened, even where I didn’t see, was like this.

Law in the Post-Roman West

  • Graham Barrett, “Legislation and Codification after Rome”
  • Michael Kelly, “Transhistoricality in Early Medieval Hispania: Law as Narrative and Cultural Episteme”
  • Thomas Gobbitt, “Framing the Laws: prologues, epilogues and peritext. The Liber Leges Langobardorum in the Eleventh and Twelfth Century”
  • So as said, I missed Graham pronouncing his wisdom, but it got a better hearing here than it had at the slightly odd session in which it had been aired at Leeds, and his paper dominated discussion, so it’s worth reprising its central point, that law after the end of Empire in the West was probably mostly used in small bits, which were occasionally recombined into codes but used quite differently in the field (or in court). Questions focused on issues of formality of, well, issue, and the audiences for the different sorts of law people were detecting bundled into codes like the Salic Law, and this discussion also included Graham asking what the difference is between a ‘capitulary’ and a ‘novel’, a question that could only matter to a legal historian you’d think but has everything to do with our confused relationship with the Roman Empire, both imitative and successive.

    I didn’t really understand Michael Kelly’s paper, I will confess. It may, from my notes, have been intended to argue that all our sources were constructed by their authors to convey a particular version of the past, not reality, and that our sources therefore are really only sources for their context, the Visigothic Law being no exception and very full of contemporary bias that belies its deliberate impression of antiquity, in which case OK, but phrases like, “transhistoricality must be a purely discursive phenomenon,” meant that I’m not sure.

    Lastly Dr Gobbitt gave us a spirited run-through of the survival of Lombard laws in the eleventh century in the form of a text known as the Liber leges langobardorum [sic], which gathered up the Edict of Rothari and various other bits of genuinely Lombardic legislation along with some laws of Charlemagne and a reasonable salting of historical material (much of it already travelling with Rothari), apparently all for study at or around Pavia in a kind of pre-Bologna legal college. He too emphasised variation: no two of the seven eleventh-century manuscripts gather quite the same materials or lay them out in the same way. This stuff was of interest to a range of people but their purposes were not all the same. Quite what those purposes were was work still to be done but the evidence base seemed well established.

Justice and Judicial Practices in Early Medieval North-Western Iberia (II): punishment and justice in Castile and León

  • Julio Escalona, “Follow the Money? Justice and Authority in the Sanction Clauses of Tenth-Century Castilian Charters”
  • Álvaro Carvajal Castro, “Authority and Liability in Ninth- and Tenth-Century North-Western Iberia: the evidence from the sanction clauses”
  • Igor Santos Salazar, “Rule Through Courts: the settlement of disputes in Castile and Tuscany during the tenth-century”
  • It would probably be hard to pick three Iberian-peninsula scholars who have worked harder to link up with other areas and fields, and especially the English-speaking world, than these three, but because of the occasion they had a substantially Iberian-peninsula audience too and this was probably as close as I shall get to attending a seminar in Spain until I can take a year out to improve my spoken languages or something, which is to say, valuable. Not least, of course, because this was effectively a charters session! Julio’s was illuminating: doing more or less the exercise I had done the previous year with Vic’s charters by going through the clauses in which they lay down what will happen to those who infringe the charter’s provisions, he noted that alongside the threats of excommunication, less common in sales than in donations as I too had found, there are many fines, levied largely in the name of the king. This being tenth-century Castile, however, the king was far away, and the count doesn’t turn up as much as you’d expect and was not clearly a royal delegate for these purposes. Instead, the money seems to have gone to local lords whom we otherwise struggle to identify, those much-vaunted ‘local élites’, domini, whom Julio argued should be the focus of our questions about community formation in these areas rather than the traditional village grouping of the alfoz. This paper had some seriously subversive connotations bubbling up out of those sanction clauses.

    Álvaro had meanwhile done something similar with charters from further west, in Asturias-León, and found a judicial system anchored in the same ideas but based very much on guarantee and surety, whether explicit or implicit; instructions on who was to pay if something went wrong show no particular regularity over whether actor or recipient, or either of their families, was expected to be liable. Instead, we have to assume that these situations were being judged, negotiated and arranged according to how people felt the various options which the traditional legal library gave them were best deployed in each case. Igor, meanwhile, lacking a precisely comparable charter base in Tuscany, looked instead at the actual trials there and in Castile, which was valuable because unlike in Julio’s documents, the counts of Castile rarely appear in actual court cases; instead, again, their roles were delegated down to locals, this presumably being one way in which the counts attached themselves to such communities via the local headmen whose station they thus enhanced.

I am absolutely fine with this, but what was interesting was the comparison with Italy, where Igor saw the same trick being played with a different deck of cards, a working system of public courts becoming less effective in the face of decentralising power and being met with a recentralisation via an overhaul of that system that linked local ‘judges’ to the kingship. There is here a bigger dynamic about what failing states do to regain traction in their localities, I think, and it’s one we could probably do with taking out and showing people. The role of the king was quite different in the two cases, being distant in Asturias and active in Tuscany, but then, the kings in Italy were already a local response to detachment from the bigger system of the Carolingian Empire to which, in its Ottonian form, attachment would soon resume… I think it works! And I’m also not sure I realised this at the time… That may of course have been because I had other things on my mind right then, not just lunch though that did indeed come next, but my own paper, because I was in fact up next, in this august company.

Medieval Iberia

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Ceremonies of Property Transfer in Carolingian Catalonia: a model of documented transaction”
  • James d’Emilio, “The Formulaic Clauses of Charters: tradition, variation and originality”
  • Laura Cayrol Bernando, “« Hermana del emperador »: (re)constructing the memory of the Infanta Sancha Raimundez (d. 1159)”

The voice of January 2018 now takes up the story…

    Predictably, my own paper in this session is the hardest for me to remember because I wasn’t making notes, but I’ve just re-read it and gosh-darn if it isn’t actually one of my better ones and I should probably send it out. What I was doing was something I’ve stabbed at here already, gathering up all the various testimonies I know from Catalan documents to the phenomenon specialists call reparatio scripturae, the replacement of documents that had been lost, and arguing that there is here evidence that not just churches but lay people went to some effort to get their friends and neighbours to remember not just the existence of charters but their actual textual content, and wondering what those efforts might have looked like. Josep María Salrach has already thrown a sentence or two away on this, but in the words of the late Captain Beefheart, “there’s more.” As I say, I should do something with this. Any suggestions?

    Monastery of San Julián de Samos

    It’s hard to think of images for a lot of these papers, given how much they were about concepts, but Professor D’Emilio’s one was at least partly located here at the monastery of San Julián de Samos, so here’s a picture! By José Antonio Gil Martínez from Vigo, GaliciaFlickr, CC BY 2.0, Link

    As to the other two speakers, James D’Emilio was on similar turf, but much later and in Castile; I was concerned about the apparent use of written formulae in my texts, but he can place some of his, from the Bible and Isidore of Seville. As that implies, his texts usually had grander aspirations and participants than mine, kings and bishops, but it’s still something to watch out for: who says charter formulae have to start in charters? Then Laura Cayrol Bernando looked at a different kind of creation of memory, using the vexed question of just what the infantado that royal heiresses in high medieval Castile held was, to expose quite late medieval processes of sanctification of female royal donors by their commemorating churches that have, basically, created the problems with that question. In the process, however, it showed how some family ties were remembered much longer than others because things like this hung upon them and so had active memorialisers. Because I was facing them, I don’t have much of a record of the questions from this session, and so without further ado I move on, as did we, to the second keynote address of the conference.

Keynote 2

Andrew Marsham, “Rituals of Accession in Early Islam: a comparative perspective”
With us all gathered in the same room again, Simon, may he rest well, introduced Andrew Marsham, who somewhat cautiously introduced his own attempt to imitate Jinty Nelson‘s early work on rituals of royal inauguration.1 Resting explicitly on that, he set out to try and compare her early medieval West to both Byzantium and Islam, using the moments at which a king, emperor or caliph assumed power to expose what people thought was most important about that office. He argued that all three political zones shared the Judæo-Christian inheritance of a conviction that power ultimately came from God, making the ruler in some way the representative of God on earth. In the West, this became a link that was mediated through the Church, by coronation and unction, even to the point where without the cooperation of churchmen kings could not in fact assume power sometimes; the same struggles do occur in Byzantium but the Church was never so clearly separate from the ruler’s control, and in Islam of course there is no Church, no liturgy as such, making other rituals like handclasping and popular acceptance much more significant, though they did operate in other areas too. Dr Marsham argued that what the caliphs lost, or saved themselves from, by not having that apparatus of religion to serve or obstruct them they however compensated for somewhat by also being the heirs of the Sasanian Persian monarchy, from which they could draw the representations of higher and divine power without which their office might have struggled to be free of direct interference from the ‘umma. I make this sound less tentative than I remember it being, but I didn’t think there was much wrong with it; Dr Marsham had been careful in stepping outside his own area and it was a thought-provoking lecture.

The Old Palace Hotel, Lincoln

The Old Palace Hotel, Lincoln

With that complete, we then wandered at varying length to the Old Palace, where a rather splendid dinner was set before us. I can remember thinking at point of registration that the cost of the dinner was fairly high, but the setting alone quickly explained why, and the food didn’t fall short either; looking back, I think that was probably money well spent. There were two sessions the next morning before we all dispersed, with hard choices to make about what to go to, but you’ll quickly see why I chose as I did. First up!

Justice and Judicial Practices in Early Medieval North-Western Iberia

  • Iñaki Martín Viso, “Authority and Justice in the Shaping of Asturleonese Monarchy”
  • Robert Portass, “Levels of Justice in Tenth-Century Northern Spain”
  • Fernando Luis-Corral & María Pérez Rodríguez, “Local Communities and the Uses of Justice in the Kingdom of León”
  • These are, as you can tell, my kind of questions and being asked of my period in a neighbouring area by some of the hot names in the field, so my choice was clear. Iñaki was looking at Asturias in its ninth-century expansion, and observing that while the kings are a big part of that so are counts and other nobles; he saw a difference between them in that the kings were always the highest court of judicial appeal, and managed often to claim overall hegemony in areas of new settlement even if they didn’t orchestrate it, but that even out there there were still areas where the kings held and could grant no lands because a count or a bishop had got there first; he pointed at Astorga and Coimbra for this. The following, and interesting, process, would thus be the one by which the various non-royal officers of justice in these areas were brought to recognise the king as their superior… Rob then brought out the judicial hearings from his pet area of Liébana, and argued that although office-holders like counts were visible in them they were often not the ones holding the court, which could be done by various individuals who had no ‘official’ right we can recognise except that they owned a lot of the local land; the local monastery was only one of these. Categories like ‘public’ and ‘private’ are really no use here, therefore. The paper involved a guy called Bagauda about whom I’ve written here before; I then thought that the obvious explanation of his position was that he owned the land the victims lived on, but Rob says that ain’t necessarily so. I need to read his book!2 And the last paper was a study of the enigmatic figures known as ‘worthy men’, boni homines, in the Iberian Peninsula’s charters, asking whether they were the tools of local communities or the means by which aristocrats asserted power over those communities. They concluded the latter, but without much attention to who the people in question actually were and how their position was manifested, and I felt quietly that if the speaker and his co-author had read, well, me, they’d have a more useful way of approaching this question.3

But the real worth of this session was the discussion, which was lengthy and erudite. I started by raising the point that power in Rob’s area need not have been solely economic, which Rob answered with a reflection about what actually made power here, and whether the ability to coordinate process or the ability to defy it was more ‘powerful’. I don’t think question an answer linked but both were good points if I do say so myself. Igor Santos asked if the fact that the winners write history means that we can’t see the weak in these trials, only the strong, but Iñaki asked if the Church, which is our source of record, must always be the strong party, and here again (as you may know) I agree. There then followed a lengthy tangle over what constituted the ‘public sphere’ in this area in this period, and specifically how the written law fitted into this, which was certainly not everywhere, and whether there was one ‘public sphere’ or many local senses of public practice, both questions raised by Julio Escalona. I suggested, as had Graham Barrett earlier, that law and custom were not necessarily separate either; the written law could be invoked as custom. But especially, because at this point I was still tangling with the questions about how someone powerful on the outside manoeuvered themselves into a local position of power in the frontier zones here at which I wrote at such length here a few years ago, I was interested in who set the limits of public office, and here Iñaki made a useful differentiation between sorts of royal property and rights that got me thinking, which Julio followed with the idea that kings and counts together tended to limit the number of people who could claim comital status. In both cases, it seemed to me (and seems) the crucial operation is to get other people recognising the rights you claim in your office. Afterwards, over coffee, Julio, Rob and I all agreed that this can be seen as convincing people that the public sphere you claim is the same one that they recognise. This is what the Asturian kings, and also the counts of Barcelona, achieved in the ninth and tenth centuries and I still want to know how. Then, onwards to the last session!

‘Del tuerto al dretto’: bridging the gap between lawcodes and society in the medieval Mediterranean world

  • Jeffrey Bowman, “Women Administering Justice in the High Middle Ages: a divergence of rule and practice”
  • Rodrigo García-Velasco, “Municipal Law at the Iberian frontier: the evidence of the fueros and cartas de población during the Iberian Reconquista, c. 1050-c.&nbsp:1150″
  • Belen Vicens, “Infançones, franchos, and Wannabees: rethinking status and identity in late medieval Aragón”
  • Here, of course, I had to be because I have learnt a lot from one of the participants, taught another and knew nothing of the third, all good reasons and the more so once combined. Professor Bowman was pointing out an obvious but neglected thing, that though as far as most of the rules on the subject we have from the Middle Ages say that women could not sit in judgement over men, they did nevertheless sometimes do so in the persons of countesses and viscountesses and probably more. Sometimes people argued about this: a legal specialist dealing with Matilda of Canossa wisely decided that her office carried the jurisdiction but in a case involving Ermengarde of Narbonne it went all the way to the king of France, who used it as a way to claim Narbonne as part of the French crown! There was, basically, usually a way to make it work whatever the rules said and fighting it as illegitimate doesn’t usually seem to have worked, which is worth keeping around to think with.

    Cathedral of SS Just & Pastor, Narbonne

    I like this picture of Narbonne Cathedral so much that even this weak excuse will do to use it again. By Benh LIEU SONG (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

    Rodrigo was looking at the various concessions of rights and local jurisdiction by kings that we group as fueros, a term that has come simply to mean ‘laws’ so commonly were these issued, and asking where the balance of power lay between the locals whose rights were here asserted and the kings who apparently granted them. He argued, however, that the texts we have represent a step after the balance had been found and agreed, and that the real processes of power lay in the circumstances that had led to the text’s issue. Again, the question of how to convince a potential subject you and they shared a sphere of power arises, which is of course why I cite Rodrigo’s work sometimes, but there was argument in questions about whether the fueros were somehow a bridge between the two public spheres or just an incentive dangled before the ungoverned by those who would govern them.4 Then the last paper looked at an episode of 1248 in which a number of people claiming free status were reduced to serfdom by royal judgement; the speaker argued that this was an exercise of consolidation of definitions of freedom which had previously been vague, imposing rules which left some people on the wrong side, and that trying to read the rules back from such cases was a mistake. That was why there needed to be a hearing! Well, maybe, but it was a good place to end.

And since thereafter we all said our goodbyes and dispersed, me towards the rather splendid cathedral—possibly the most impressive in the UK, but I sadly without my camera—and then the railway station, it’s where I have to end too, closing an era of far-too-intensive reporting in the hope that you can see why I found it all worthwhile to do. Next post: the new régime!

West front of Lincoln Cathedral

Likewise this one! Lincoln Cathedral’s west front, by Anthony Shreeve public domain via Wikimedia Commons


1. Collected in Janet L. Nelson, Politics and Ritual in Early Medieval Europe (London 1986).

2. It being Robert Portass, The Village World of Early Medieval Northern Spain: local community and the land market, Royal Historical Society Studies in History: New Series (Woodbridge 2017). In fact, two different journals have asked me if I wanted to review this, and I said no, partly because I know Rob too well, partly because I didn’t have time and mainly because I had already got myself a copy when I finally got round to paying my first subscription to the Royal Historical Society, which published it. Of course that still doesn’t mean I’ve read it, but I do intend to!

3. Specifically, if they’d read Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Royal Historical Society Studies in History: New Series (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 35-36 & n. 55.

4. The work of Rodrigo’s that I cite is his “Legislation and Resistance: limitations of royal power on the Catalan and Aragonese frontiers, 986–1134”, M.St. dissertation (University of Oxford 2013), which I had the fun of supervising, but I think he would say that his thinking has moved on a bit now and I await the completion of his doctoral thesis keenly! No pressure, Rodrigo…

Duncan Probert

It is more than two months since I have been able to post here, and though the blog is recently now a full ten years old it is also fair to ask what kind of health it is in. I may now have an answer to that question and time to frame it, but today is not the day where that happens, because news reached me by e-mail today of the unexpected death of fellow medievalist and stalwart member of the black-clad and long-haired, Duncan Probert, a couple of weeks after suffering a stroke. Duncan, who had come to medieval studies as a second or even third career, I met when he was at Birmingham and I was at the Fitzwilliam, and over our occasional meetings at conferences and seminars over the next few years he developed into a respected and highly productive scholar of medieval English names, place- and personal, who could make that work comprehensible to outsiders despite handling large datasets by preference. He worked on many projects, most recently at Kings College London, and managed to combine the hard-headedness of real-world employment experience with an irrepressible belief in the power of human ingenuity to solve problems. He also drew good maps. He will be missed by many; with this post I count myself among them. Rest well, Duncan.