Category Archives: General medieval

Chronicle IV: April to June 2016

I am, slowly, increasing the speed at which I move through my backlog on this blog, but I’m still not quite at real-time speed… Still, the perspective of retrospection is often valuable and I make sure you hear about up-to-the-minute stuff one way or another, right? So I now reach the fourth quarter of my reports of what was going on my life academic as I acclimatised to that elusive permanent employment I now have. This picks up in the Easter vacation of 2016, and I’ll break it down into the now-usual headings.

Teaching

The academic calendar is semestral at the University of Leeds where I work, so you might think that teaching was done by Easter vacation, but it’s more complicated than that. Leeds has examinations after each semester, you see, and because there’s no space for exams after an eleven-week semester before Christmas on a UK timetable, the exams are held in the first two weeks of the following semester. We then have a week to get them marked, and then teaching starts again, but we can’t be through all eleven weeks before Easter falls, so the semester breaks over that, with two or three teaching weeks that come once term is resumed after the vacation. Then we examine again, this time for six weeks, then mark for two, then finally it’s the end. Complicated enough? I won’t tell you when I discovered this, but it was well after I’d started work at Leeds and I had to amend a lot of materials…

Cover of my module handbook from HIST1045 Empire and Aftermath for 2015-16

It’s hard to know what to illustrate this section of the post with, so here’s some documentation, the cover of my module handbook for the module I now go onto talk about, HIST1045 Empire and Aftermath

So anyway, that means that term restarted with a jolt for me in the middle of April, though as you may recall this could have been worse, since I was at that point only running one module, the late antique survey I’d inherited on arrival. I was still new to more of it than I would have liked, but it went OK. I had had to envisage a final-year two-semester special subject enough to pitch for it at a module fair we run to compete for students with our colleagues, but that was obviously a lot less work than actually having to teach it (though I did in fact get four pupils so had to run it next year). Apart from that and joint care of a visiting Chinese doctoral student, though, my load was really pretty light this term, for the last time too really.

Other Efforts

On the other hand I was keeping busy in other ways! For a start I was, now that I look back over my calendar, doing quite a lot with coins, including going to meet the University’s principal donor of them, who was (and is) a very interesting fellow. He gave us some more, so I guess it went well? I also took up inventorying the University’s collection again over the summer, which has stood me in good stead ever since, and as you’ll shortly see I also did a short introduction session to the collection for my colleagues, although I’m not sure I persuaded any of the unconverted of their teaching utility…

Obverse of copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Justin II struck at Nicomedia in 574-575, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, Thackray Collection, CC-TH-BYZ-227

Here’s one of them, here the obverse of a copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Justin II struck at Nicomedia in 574-575, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, Thackray Collection, CC-TH-BYZ-227…

Reverse of copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Justin II struck at Nicomedia in 574-575, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, Thackray Collection, CC-TH-BYZ-227

… and here its reverse

I was also mentoring four doctoral students I didn’t supervise; I went to Birmingham for an exhibition opening I told you about at the time, was back there again to give a guest lecture I’ll tell you about in its turn as well, and in between those things, believe it or not, was in Princeton to speak at a conference that the XRF numismatics work had got me invited to, about which I’ll also write separately. Then there was the Staffordshire hoard exhibiton here in Leeds, and of course exam marking, a departmental research away day, and a doctoral transfer for someone I’d later, for reasons of staff change, wind up supervising, so that also stood me in good stead for later. I don’t mean to pretend that this is a lot, but I think I was being a good colleague wherever the chance arose, and getting engaged in the local academic community as well as holding my ties to my old ones where possible, which is generally how I like to play it.

Other People’s Research

On that subject, I was also still going to seminars, though this was kind of a quiet period for them anywhere outside Leeds, and even there a lot of it was internal stuff like work-in-progress meetings I don’t plan to talk about here. Running through my notes files, I find these:

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Medieval Coins for Beginners: a Workshop”, Medieval Group Seminar, University of Leeds, which I’ve already mentioned and will describe briefly in due course;
  • Joanna Phillips, “The Sick Crusader and the Crusader Sick: A ‘Sufferers’ History of the Crusades’, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, one of our own then-postgraduates here showing that she could compete with her graduated colleagues on a perfectly equal footing, in a careful and entertaining talk that crossed the history of medicine and philological text critique in a really good showcase of how our department’s strengths could combine;
  • Coins, Minting, and the Economy in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy Conference, Princeton University, already mentioned and definitely deserving its own post;
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “The Marriage of History and Science: Testing the Purity of Byzantine Gold Coinage”, Guest Lecture at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, likewise already mentioned and worth at least a quick note, I feel, given that this is my blog;
  • Caroline Wilkinson, “Depicting the Dead”, Digital Humanities Workshop, University of Leeds, probably worth its own post too as the issue interests me;
  • Mark Humphries, “‘Partes imperii’: East and West in the fifth century”, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, a detailed study of recognition of emperors in the western half of the empire by the eastern ones and indeed vice versa, neither of which were as simple or common as one might expect in the tangly history of the fifth century and the sources for which each have problems not always appreciated;
  • Philip Kitcher, “Progress in the Sciences and in the Arts”, Leeds Humanities Research Institute Seminar, which I was going to blog about separately as it definitely provoked me to argument in my notes, but I now discover that the speaker was giving this all over the place at this point, so you can see it for yourself, I have a lot to write up already and my views aren’t necessarily the same in 2019 as they were in 2016, so I shan’t, leaving it to you to decide what you think if you like:
  • Andrew Prescott, “New Materialities”, Cultures of the Book Seminar, University of Leeds, a visit to the Brotherton Library by a man I knew well to be an Anglo-Saxon manuscripts specialist, who was as the title suggests talking mainly about digitisation but emphasising the sometimes unappreciated physicality of the digital medium—you work it by touch—and the changing rôle of the library—perhaps only some libraries—from being literacy stores to being special archives, as well as the persistent worth of many old technologies (such as, you know, the book).

And that, I think, gets us to the end of the list for that quarter, and my main impression looking back is that there really was a lot going on in Leeds! It definitely helped me feel that I’d wound up in a good place, even if, as mentioned at the time, outside events were threatening to crumble some of my plans for it.

My Own Research

I was almost dreading writing up this part of this post until I went briefly through my files. I’ve no clear recollection of what I was working on this long ago and I was very afraid I would turn out still to have been in the kind of vague fugue I mentioned in one of the earlier ones of these posts. But not so! With the weight of teaching mostly off me, apparently despite all the other things I was up to I was also getting some work done. Not only were there those three papers I mentioned, but on inspection I find that I also turned round a new draft of that article on Carolingian crop yields that has now come out; that in this period I also reworked and sent out again my ill-fated article from Networks and Neighbours, though you’ve heard how that turned out; I must also have been reading Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez’s excellent then-new book on those Andalusi frontier warlords par excellence, the Banū Qāsī, because I was slated to speak about them at the fast-approaching International Medieval Congress, and was because of this able to do so; and I was also writing pretty decent chunks of what was then supposed to be my second book, on Borrell II.1 All of this, of course, took some time thereafter to come to fruition, where it has at all, but at least I was doing it then!

So yes: I think I was having a good time in these three months, looking back. There were certain other griefs that must have damped that impression at the time—my partner and I had decided we needed to move out of the area we were in, which did not like us, and so were doing a lot of house-hunting in this period, for one thing—but writing it up, from the academic side, at least, I wish it was always like that! And I shall move on now to telling you more about some of the interesting bits…

Kirklees Hall

This, sadly, was not where we wound up, although it is extremely suitable for medievalists and was on sale while we were looking… but for rather more than we could afford! But it has a crypt bathroom and a neo-medieval hall and went for less than a million…


1. The book I mention here is Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, La dawla de los Banū Qasī: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus, Estudios Árabes e Islámicos: Monografías 17 (Madrid 2010).

It’s not adultery, but…

Sorry for the break in posting here; I was away on holiday, a holiday that contained some medieval bits and pieces that may show up here in time. For the moment, however, I want to conform much more closely to type with a post about something to do with power I found in a Catalan charter. I can’t remember why it was that I was reading this document, but when I did it chimed with something I covered in an old post long ago. Do you remember a lady in tenth-century León who got fined for eating a vast quantity of cheese with her lover? Well, how could you forget? But the reason I originally heard about that charter was the fact that the local count had somehow managed to claim the fine for this essentially private misdemeanour, as if it was an offence against the public order that meant he, as the public representative, could claim damage.1 This seems to have been what good old Foucault called governmentality, that is, the powers-that-be expanding their reach into areas they don’t really yet control by assertion from a place of strength.2 At that time, this looked to me like a privatisation of public power by the local counts of León, and that was not least because I’d never seen any of my Catalan counts pull this kind of trick, which suggested to me that the background of official power the two areas shared didn’t include this. But now I have found them doing it. As I say in the title, it’s not adultery, but…

Church of the monastery of Sant Pere de Camprodon as it now stands, from Wikimedia Commons

The scenario is a donation to the monastery of Sant Pere de Camprodon, which was a foundation by the counts of Besalú to rival the important nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses; I’ve written about this if you need context, but basically the counts did a lot of stealing Sant Joan’s land and then selling it back in exchange for concessions to Camprodon.3 This, however, is not one of those occasions. This time, on 16 May 969, Count Miró Bonfill of Besalú, was giving Camprodon a homestead at Carrera, in modern-day Montagut de Fluvià, and two pieces of land in Campllong, on quite elaborate terms.4 I’m not sure if Miró actually knew how to do things on any other terms, but, for example, he ordained that any infringers of the grant would have to pay back the damage threefold rather than the usual twofold, and has a middling-length consideration of the state of his soul at the beginning and so on.

We're more or less here, presumably somewhere along the main road either west or east of the town...

All this fits onto a page of the edition easily, so it’s not a really characteristic charter of Miró’s, but it does tell us where he got the land, and that’s the interesting bit: “That same alod that is named above came to me through a scripture of sale which Theudered and his wife, Adalvira by name, made to me or through the selfsame theft that they committed.”5 I guess that the couple were fined more than they could pay without liquidating their property. It would be nice to think that they got something back—depending on what they had stolen and from whom, I suppose, which no document records—but we do also have the charter in which they sold him this land, two months before, and despite it being a ‘sale’, vinditio, there’s no price specified or any indication that one was paid. The language of the charter actually makes it sound as if they were paying off a debt, “on account of the selfsame forfeit that we made and on account of the selfsame trial which condemned us and through the selfsame law which we must compensate.”6 We don’t, however, know anything else about the couple, what they had stolen, whether this left them bankrupt or basically unhindered, or even where they otherwise lived; it’s possible that they were now tenants of the count on the same lands, but it’s also possible that they just didn’t sell anything else to anyone whose documents now survive or whose lands were next-door to their old ones, so never show up again.

Signature of Miró Bonfill, later Count of Besalú and Bishop of Girona

We don’t have any pictures of Miró, but we do have his signature in a good few documents; here he is as deacon, Miro leuita SSS, twenty years before the transactions of this post, from Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Pergaminos, Cancilleria Real, Seniofredo 39

So, what does all this mean in bigger historical terms? Well, it means that we have some sign in Catalonia too that the representatives of public power thought that they could take fines on behalf of, I guess, the state for offences that hadn’t directly impinged on their property or rights. Here, of course, there was no higher royal claim to such rights that the counts might be considered to have appropriated as there was in Asturias-León, although I’m not sure that scholars there now see the comital claims to power in their territories in those terms.7 It’s also possible that, just as I have argued that Miró’s cousin Borrell II was claiming rights that his predecessors hadn’t in Barcelona and Osona, and trying to make them sound authentic and legal, Miró had just paid closer attention to the Visigothic Law than his predecessors and found that it entitled the state to make such fines, and decided that, “l’estat, és mi”.8 There may have been governmentality going on here too, in other words, cladding new claims in old language. Or fines like this may have been being taken all along, and since that wouldn’t necessarily involve land transfers if people could pay the fines, we just don’t have the documentation of them. But there are nearly twice as many charters in Catalonia as from Asturias-León, so it seems less likely to me that it has just survived in four or five cases there compared to only one here than that there was actually a difference in how these men were working their power in the two areas. In future work, assuming I ever get to do any of it, I hope that I’ll be able to get closer to what that difference might have been and how to explain it. Till then, this is not adultery, but it might mean something anyway.


1. I learnt about all this from Graham Barrett, “Literacy, Law, and Libido in Early Medieval Spain”, presented at the 45th International Congress on Medieval Studies, West Michigan University, Kalamazoo, 15th May 2010, still unpublished.

2. See Michel Foucault, ‘Governmentality’, transl. Rosi Braidotti, in Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller (edd.), The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality (Chicago, IL, 1991), pp. 87–104, online in PDF here.

3. Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 64-71.

4. Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Sebastià Riera i Viader and Manuel Rovira i Solà (edd.), Catalunya Carolíngia V: els comtats de Girona, Besalú, Empúries i Peralada, rev. by Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueolòica 61 (Barcelona 2009), 2 vols, doc. no. 400.

5. Ibid.: “Et advenit mihi iste alaudes quod superius resonat per scriptura venditionis quod michi fecerunt Theuderedus et uxori sue nomine Adalvira vel per ipsum furtum quod illi fecerunt.”

6. Sobrequés, Riera & Rovira, Catalunya Carolíngia V, doc. no. 397: “propter ipsum forisfactum quod fecimus et propter ipsum placitum que nos condemnavit et per ipsa legem quod nos debemus componere.”

7. The new guide on such issues is Wendy Davies, Windows on Justice in Northern Iberia, 800-1000 (Abingdon 2016), where pp. 20-31 cover the power of the counts in court and their right to take this fine, which is called iudaticum. I don’t think “forisfactum” is being used in so technical a sense here, but with only one usage how can we tell? The obvious resorts for such questions in Catalonia, Jeffrey A. Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000 (Ithaca, NY, 2004) and Josep M. Salrach, Justícia i poder a Catalunya abans de l’any mil, Referències 55 (Vic 2013), don’t as far as I remember cover this.

8. A quick check of S. P. Scott (ed./transl.), The Visigothic Code (Forum judicum), translated from the original Latin, and edited (Boston, MA, 1910), online here, suggests that VII.2.13 would have given Miró all he needed.

Gallery

Mysterious Knights at Claverley Church

This gallery contains 19 photos.

I promised you a couple of posts ago a set of surprising medievalist photographs, and now the post has come. You may remember that I was being shown hidden bits of the Middle Ages lying in the general area of … Continue reading

Gallery

Dudley Priory

This gallery contains 8 photos.

Towards the end of March 2016, for reasons I don’t now recall, I was back down in the West Midlands for a short trip. This is relevant to the blog because while I was there, it was determined by two … Continue reading

One ruler, one mint, one type (keep moving)

Apparently I was mainly thinking about coins in late spring of 2016, as I seem to have stubbed a lot of posts in a row about numismatics. This is the third and last of them for a little while, which was occasioned by teaching the rise of Islam for my first-year module Empire and Aftermath at Leeds. I like to do this using the coinage as the key primary evidence, because I can and because, as has been observed by greater scholars than me, basically all the Islamic textual evidence for the actual seventh-century spread and conquest is post facto, written deep in hindsight, while the limited contemporary evidence we have is either largely written by outsiders and deeply hostile or written by non-Islamic insiders whose perspectives were unhelpfully local.1 Getting a picture of what was going on over, say, all of Syria, Palestine and Iraq between about 650 and 700 beyond the rough succession of caliphs and some key battles, is therefore very difficult, and even that can be tricky; consider, after all, that this is the period during which Shi’a Islam separated from the Sunni branch and each side’s historiography has a quite different view, not just about which caliphs were legitimate, but even about when they ruled and whose relations they were.2 The coins don’t settle those questions (though they open up others about faction and segmentation3) but they are at least directly contemporary sources from inside the territories newly run by Islam. That is, assuming that we can correctly date and attribute them. And that’s where the fun starts, of course!

'Derivative Arab-Byzantine coin of uncertain mint and date

Derivative Arab-Byzantine coin of uncertain mint and date (636×695 to be safe?), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

The biggest problem here is that at first, the new authorities of Islam basically imitated the coinage they found in the areas they took over, by way of maintaining tax systems and basic economic exchange. It wasn’t until the 690s that Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (of whom we have heard before here) unified the various disparate post-Byzantine and post-Persian coinages he now had in his realms. Up to that point, his territories ran a pseudo-Byzantine gold coinage, a pseudo-Persian silver one and a whole scatter of pseudo-Byzantine and some pseudo-Persian copper-alloy ones.4 Most of the copper-alloy, at least, carry little or no identifying information. It is generally assumed that there was a transition from things more or less like their originals, through things less like them with Greek rather than Latin legends to things even less like with Arabic text on them to the so-called Standing Caliph coinage and then unity, but actually, despite painstaking analyses of what was being restruck onto what, what is found with what and how weights might have changed down an utterly hypothetical declining scale, as I’ve said here before, we still can’t honestly say that all of those different sorts of coin and a whole set of ‘imitative’ issues weren’t being struck alongside each other, by issuers ranging from the state through town councils to local blacksmiths.5 The closer one gets to the latter picture, the more informative the coins seem about how the process of Islamic takeover might have looked on the ground, which is to say, more or less like a prolonged vacation by state authority, saving occasional visitations, and then some episodes of suddenly-tightening regulation, maybe only in some places.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Constans II struck perhaps in Constantinople in 643-644, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3959

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Constans II struck perhaps in Constantinople in 643-644, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3959

Some day I hope to write about this, as I’ve said, but today I just want to write about coins like the one above. You see, one of the exceptionally problematic aspects of the coin evidence for a normal tale of military conquest and take-over is that, to all appearances, imperial small change continued to arrive in the ‘conquered’ territories for some years after their ‘loss’ by the Empire. This is really obvious, because the issuing emperor changed at about the right point; the supposedly-crucial Battle of Yarmuk that effectively debarred the Byzantines from Syria took place in 636, as near as we can be certain, Emperor Heraclius died in 641 and after some confusion his grandson Constans II succeeded, and Constans’s copper-alloy coins are frequent finds in Syria, arriving, it seems, up till about 655 (though dating Constans’s coins relies on those guesses about weight that I myself don’t trust).6 So why was the Empire still shipping in or selling to its supposed enemies? Part of an answer may lie in these coins, which are found very frequently in Syria and nearly as often in Cyprus, but don’t really occur elsewhere in the Empire.7 They look very much as if they were being struck in Cyprus for use in the now-Islamic provinces; it has been argued instead that they were being made in Syria and exported, but if so they occur more than any other sort of probably Syro-Palestinian issue in the island.8 By the 670s the Byzantine Empire and the Caliphate had even agreed that neither of them could effectively take Cyprus off the other, and so there was established a condominium in which their two sets of representatives shared the island’s taxes; one wonders how many other areas might early on have had some such fuzzy arrangement in which the Empire grudgingly recognised the conquerors as new quasi-independent governors but still demanded recognition of its dominion in the form of tax, and then that situation got wiped out of potential record by changes in the 670s to 690s.9 If such areas had made a pact with the Caliphate, both sides might have quite happily claimed them as their own without either really having much control over them until they made an effort to assert it.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Heraclius struck in Cyprus 626-627, image from Numista

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Heraclius struck in Cyprus 626-627, image from Numista where credited to Classical Numismatic Group

But there is a numismatic problem with such a hypothesis! And that problem is, these coins do not bear a mint-mark indicating Cyprus like the authentically-Cypriot one above (KVP or KVPR for Kypros), but carry the unhelpfully unspecific legends of the regular issues of Constantinople. And yet they do not look like the contemporary metropolitan coins of Constans II. Furthermore, just to confuse matters, coins that did carry the Cyprus mint-mark were almost certainly being made in Syria, imitating the earlier issues of Heraclius and Constans II!10 So, a number of options open up, one being that these sort-of-regular coins are actually somehow imitative or unofficial (whatever those words really mean in a situation like this), perhaps because there was a mint on Cyprus, potentially running under Islamic control and making what those authorities thought real coin looked like, or otherwise, that Constantinople was making an export-standard copper-alloy issue that was then being shipped to Cyprus for distribution into Syria.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Constans II struck at Constantinople in 643-644, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3952

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Constans II struck at Constantinople in 643-644, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3952

I’m not sure which of these hypotheses I find less likely, to be honest: the former requires effective forgers who nonetheless didn’t fully understand the system into which they were passing coin, and who made their coin larger and neater than the regular issues they were imitating, in which case what was the profit? and the latter seems like an administrative headache with no clear gain except keeping Cyprus slightly further from fiscal independence. But the latter also incurs numismatic disdain because numismatists really try to avoid hypotheses in which a single mint is issuing distinct sorts of coin of the same standard at the same time. They will even mount hypotheses on the basis that that couldn’t happen.11 Now, I’ve disproved a couple of these already in my small way, but in this instance I’m not so sure it needs doing; although we as a discipline don’t usually admit it, it’s very unclear as to why the Empire put mint-marks on its copper-alloy coinage. It’s often assumed that it was for accounting and authentication purposes, either knowing how much a mint was making or being able to track dud coins back to their issuing mint, but in the former case the only place you could do that was surely at the mint itself, before dispersal into currency, in which case why bother marking them? and in the second, it’s very peculiar that it was done on the effectively worthless metal of the small change but not on the highly-protected gold of the solidus, and no-one ever tries to explain that.12 Whatever the reason was, though, it’s not hard to imagine the mid-seventh century involving circumstances in which that just didn’t apply. Either way, the coins are telling us something about what’s going on here that a purely textual approach will never disclose; but numismatics also has to shed an assumption or two before we can do the kind of work with it that opportunities like this make possible…


1. Compare Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: the Islamic Near East from the sixth to the eleventh century, 2nd edn (Harlow 2004), Robert G. Hoyland, Seeing Islam As Others Saw It: A Survey And Evaluation Of Christian Jewish And Zoroastrian Writings On Early Islam (Princeton 1997), online here, and now James Howard-Johnston, Witnesses to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century (Oxford 2010), DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199208593.001.0001/acprof-9780199208593.

2. It’s actually quite hard to find a good reference for the history of this division, but Chase F. Robinson, “The Rise of Islam, 600‒705” in idem (ed.), The Formation of the Islamic World, Sixth to Eleventh Centuries, The New Cambridge History of Islam 1 (Cambridge 2010), pp. 171–225 at pp. 193-208, does the job OK.

3. Adam R. Gaiser, “What Do We Learn About the Early Khārijites and Ibāḍiyya from Their Coins?” in Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 130 (Washington DC 2010), pp. 167–187.

4. The best guide here is Stefan Heidemann, “The Merger of Two Currency Zones in Early Islam: the Byzantine and Sasanian impact on the circulation in Byzantine Syria and northern Mesopotamia” in Iran Vol. 36 (London 1998), pp. 95–112, online here.

5. I’m thinking here of Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications 12 (Washington D.C. 2008) as both guide and target of critique.

6. Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins, pp. 19-21, but see now Marcus Phillips, “The Import of Byzantine Coins to Syria Revisited” in Tony Goodwin (ed.), Arab-Byzantine Coins and History (London 2012), pp. 39–72, online here.

7. Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins, p. 21, and Phillips, “Import”, p. 42. Philip Grierson attributed these to Emperor Constantine III (641), despite that ruler not living long enough to reach the ‘anno III’ they indicate, but correctly noting that there is also a Sicilian variant of the issue: Philip Grierson, Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection, Volume Two: Phocas to Theodosius III 602–717 (Washington DC 1968, repr. 1993), 2 vols, II pp. 396-397 and 399 (DOC III.2 Heraclonas 5 & 9).

8. See n. 7 above; Foss argues for Syrian manufacture.

9. On which see now Luca Zavagno, Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (ca. 600-800): an island in transition, Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies 21 (London 2017), pp. 72-86, but with specific reference to numismatics also Zavagno, “Betwixt the Greeks and the Saracens: Coins and coinage in Cyprus in the seventh and the eighth century” in Byzantion Vol. 81 (Athens 2011), pp. 448–483, online here.

10. Regular coins of Constans II: Grierson, Dumbarton Oaks Catalogue III.2, pp. 445-446 (DOC III.2 Constans II 62), and Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins, pp. 20-21; the ‘Cyprus imitation’ issues are discussed ibid. pp. 22-24, emphasising the volume of the issue, and Zavagno, “Betwixt Greeks and Saracens”, pp. 466-467.

11. For example, one more relevant than the other, see Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, “La moneda barcelonina del segle X. Altres novetats comtals” in Acta numismàtica Vol. 38 (Sabadell 2008), pp. 91–121 at pp. 91-106, to which cf. Jonathan Jarrett, “Currency Change in Pre-Millennial Catalonia: Coinage, Counts and Economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2009), pp. 217–243, or Franz Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I in Constantinople 713–976: Structure of the Issues; Corpus of Coin Finds; Contribution to the Iconographic and Monetary History (Lancaster PA 2007), p. 45, to which cf. Jonathan Jarrett, “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (London 2017), pp. 514–535 at pp. 521-522. In both cases the authors themselves invalidate the assumption in the same work, Crusafont in “Moneda barcelonina”, pp. 106-121 and Füeg in Corpus, p. 39.

12. Thus for example Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 20-24 (inc. p. 21: “it was desirable, for administrative reasons and as a precaution against counterfeiting…”), or Cécile Morrisson, “Précis de numismatique byzantine” in eadem, Georg-D. Schaaf and Jean-Michel Spieser, Byzance et sa monnaie (IVe‒XVe siècle) : Précis de numismatique par Cécile Morrisson suivi du catalogue de la collection Lampart par Georg-D. Schaaf, Réalités Byzantines 15 (Paris 2015), pp. 7–104 at pp. 61-69 (simply no explanation).

Many many Barber Institute coins now online

Following up on that previous post more quickly than usual, the mention of Dr Maria Vrij of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, my honourable successor and exceeder in post there as Curator of Coins, and also the use of the University of Birmingham’s online objects catalogue to instance a Barber coin, both lead me together to pointing something out that’s deserved notice since it began in March 2016 with some of the Barber’s Roman Republican coinage, which is: they have managed to put really quite a lot more of their coin collection online since I left you know!

An anonymous bronze quadrans of the Roman Republic, struck at Rome in 215-212 BC, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0073

For a while Maria was keeping me posted as uploads went up, so that I could post about them here, but since I wasn’t really posting and she soon had a new exhibition to cope with, that stopped and I’ve only just got as far as the first stub I made to mention this to you all. What this means is that the phenomenon has meanwhile achieved very serious proportions! When I took on that collection, 188 items were online, out of a collection of nearly 16,000; by the time I left, not least due to the efforts of Maria, that was 462. But since I left, in four fairly short years (three only 365 days each, I believe!), that total has risen to more than the 3,000 items the search will find at once, even in just Byzantine coins. I can determine that it includes 2,109 Roman coins, including 400-odd Republican pieces, but not including 22 Late Roman pieces of about 250, so that at least is still ongoing work, and the Byzantine collection doesn’t yet include the coins of Constantine XI so can’t be finished yet either, but it’s amazing what has been achieved. That achievement includes the digitisation and getting online of 908 Sasanian Persian coins, a larger collection than most other places in the world and surely pretty much the only one online; it includes the fascinating Mardin hoard, which is very worn Roman and Byzantine coins that were some of them countermarked for use in the medieval Islamic world and therefore presumably were all used thus, since they were buried together; and a selection of Trebizond and Vandal stuff, to name but a few things I can find in searches.1

An anonymous copper-alloy follis struck in the Byzantine Empire between 976 and 1035 and then later countermarked 'Saif' and lost as part of Mardin Hoard, Barber Institute MH0099

An anonymous copper-alloy follis struck in the Byzantine Empire between 976 and 1035 and then later countermarked ‘Saif’ and lost as part of Mardin Hoard, Barber Institute MH0099

So great things have been afoot, and so many feet have they been a’ that I can’t actually determine how great they are; but we are talking records in the thousands, all with good images and metadata that tell you at least something about the rulers who issued them and sometimes the collectors who found them and made it possible for the Barber to make them available all these years later. More is doubtless still to come, but meanwhile I invite you to have a browse, follow some cross-references and revel in the numismatic riches of it all!

A gold hyperperon of Emperor John III Vatatzes of Nicaea struck at Nicaea in 1227-1254, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6081

A gold hyperperon of Emperor John III Vatatzes of Nicaea struck at Nicaea in 1227-1254, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6081. Note the way that the method of striking with two dies has left the image of Christ doubled up on the obverse!


1. The Mardin Hoard has actually been exciting people for long enough to be published in print, at least in summary, as N. M. Lowick, S. Bendall & P. D. Whitting, The Mardin Hoard: Islamic countermarks on Byzantine folles (London 1977).

All that Glitters 7: the slight return

With due respect thus paid to events that have overtaken us, I return to my sort-of-scheduled programming here at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe and also to the subject of Byzantine coinage, from which it seems I will probably never entirely escape. And why indeed would one want to? But I can bring one thing to a close with this post, which is my reports on the experiments that my collaborators and I did on the All That Glitters project analysing Byzantine gold coins by X-ray Fluorescence of which you have by now heard so much, at least until we actually publish properly on it. So here is the last post on the theme for the time being.1

Bruker S8 TIGER XRF analyser open for business

And therefore last chance to re-use this photograph of the S8TIGER WD-XRF machine in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Birmingham!

I’ve done so many of these posts now that summarising the experiments in any detail would be quite difficult as well as tedious, so for the purposes of this post, let’s just say, we’d gone into the project hoping to say something about changes in the trace elements present in the coins that might tell us something about changing metal sources and minting practices, and we’d found that for two reasons that wasn’t really possible, although we did still find some stuff out doing it. The first and more historical of those reasons why not was simply the nature of the Byzantine tax system, which persistently called in coins from across the Empire, melted them down and redistributed their metal centrally to the mints for striking, thus ineluctably mixing all the different mints’ practices together; the only place we could really see compositional difference was provinces that were falling off the Empire, and even then interaction was usually sufficient to keep things mixed up. But the other reason was that the detection machinery, be it never so sophisticated, couldn’t really tell us what we wanted to know, and that also for two reasons, one being because of invisible surface deposits from the soil that we couldn’t properly see through with the X-rays (and couldn’t safely remove very effectively), and the other being simple and frustrating variation in results.

At what had been supposed to be the end of the project, therefore, because of the various constraints and inefficiencies of getting the coins safely to the analysis machinery and back, we had unspent money left in our grant budget, and so I thought—I think this was me, but if not, I’m sorry to either Rebecca Darley or Maria Vrij for stealing their credit here—that one useful thing we could do with half a day was get some kind of baseline figure for how bad that variability was. So on 16th February 2016 we did a very simple experiment. We took one coin, put it in a sample cup and then without touching it, moving it or changing it in any way beyond what the automatic handling in the spectrometer put it through, ran it through exactly the same test five times, and then turned it over in the cup and did that again for the reverse side, giving us ten runs on the same object in which there was literally nothing more that we could have done to reduce variation.

Apparently I wasn’t taking the security photographs that day, so I cannot show you that coin in its sample cup, but here it is in shiny catalogue image; it is a gold-ish tremissis of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V probably struck in Sicily or Italy, as we demonstrated in the last one of these posts, between 717 and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4542

The results were not encouraging. Admittedly, in terms of gold content they were not too far apart, ranging from 85.26% to 87.21%, an error margin of only about 3%, but even that is 2% raw difference in apparent metal content. People have founded theories about currency alteration on the basis of disparities like that, so if you’re getting them between measurements of a single coin that’s a problem. But the less present elements had similar amounts of variation: silver 7.63% to 8.84%, copper 1.78% to 2.39%, iron 0.15% to 1.04%, aluminium 0.38% to 0.67%, magnesium 0.13% to 0.67%, and then a host of other elements that one didn’t even see in some or most tests. Again, these margins may not seem like a lot, less than a per cent in some cases, but those less-than-per-cent margins are in some cases more than the total percentage of a metal in question, which meant that the error margins we were seeing were mathematically huge, in the order of 300% to 500%. Basically, no respectable scientist would trust such figures, because they could have no confidence that they would be able to reproduce them, and fair enough, because here we were trying to do so and more or less failing.

So what did all this tell us? One gloomy conclusion, that for all we’d hoped to find differently, XRF probably still isn’t a workable way of analysing trace elements in coins, we had more or less already reached, but this let us actually put numbers on why not, which is worth something. I’ve since looked at quite a lot of papers using XRF analyses on coins, and I’ve found only one that used an average of several experiments as their working figure, and that was from 1983 (and was by none other than the late lamented Michael Metcalf, and he was dealing with variations of over 20% depending on what he’d done to Philip Grierson’s coins to get those results, which we know because he actually said so in his write-up).2 He wasn’t even a metallurgist! And he presumably also wasn’t paying for machine time, which is the basic reason that I guess people don’t otherwise do this. But it is, one might say, a little embarrassing for the subdiscipline. Still, I’m not sure that even an average figure from our tests would be very safe to use. How many tests would one need to run on each object to make safe a 300% error margin? What if one of those tests increased that margin? In general, I think that even the best XRF machinery we can get just can’t give accurate figures for small-percentage composition elements, even if it probably still has some application for the big-ticket components. It’s not the conclusion we’d aimed for but when we can get anyone to publish such a negative finding it may not be without value.3 And thus endeth, for now, the sequence.


1. Of course, we have actually published on the project a tiny bit, in the form of Rebecca Darley, “All that glitters…: the Byzantine gold solidus, c. 300-1092″, in Maria Caccamo Caltabiano (ed.), XV International Numismatic Congress, Taormina 2015: Proceedings (Rome 2017), II, pp. 982-985, but that was actually written and given before we’d done these final experiments.

2. That being D. M. Metcalf, “Interpreting the Alloy of the Merovingian Silver Coinage” in C. N. L. Brooke, B. H. I. H. Stewart, J. G. Pollard and T. R. Volk (eds), Studies in Numismatic Method Presented to Philip Grierson (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 113–126, out of 16 studies I know of from 1966 to 2019; I’m sure there are more, though, and if you feel I’ve missed an important one it would be really useful to know!

3. The main reason that we haven’t yet done more on publication of these experiments, even three years down the line, I should explain, is professional mobility. Even in the course of the project, every single project member changed jobs and only two of them even stayed within the same company/institution. Since then several more of us have moved again. Of course, our new employers all hired us for our own individual qualities and while some of them might like us to do this kind of collaborative inter-disciplinary research, they would prefer to have been part of it, so that only those of us who remain in Birmingham have any immediate professional interest in making this part of our workload. We will publish something on it, because we spent money on the assurance that we would, but it will be when one of us needs it more than whatever else we’re supposed to be working on, and the path to that isn’t yet clear.