Category Archives: Anglo-Saxons

Rulers who weren’t kings, discussed at Leeds

I have as usual to apologise for a gap in posting. I mentioned the Covid-19; then I was on holiday; and then I was late with a chapter submission that I finished, on overtime, yesterday. Much of this post was written before that all started piling up, but I’ve only today had time to finish it. I was originally going to give you another source translation for the first time in ages, but it turns out that even though I translated the relevant thing fresh in 2019, two other people had already done it even then and I somehow missed that at the time. Oh well, never mind, because that progresses my backlog into April of that year, when I had the honour of giving my second ever keynote address (and, it must be said, so far my last). This was kindly arranged by my then-colleague Dr Fraser McNair, who had put together a conference called Non-Royal Rulership in the Earlier Medieval West, c. 600-1200. To be fair, though, I was only one of three keynote speakers, so well-connected is Fraser. As ever, I can’t give a full account of a two-day conference at a three-year remove, but I can give you the premise, the list of speakers and some thoughts which, I promise, will not just be about my paper. I’ll put the abstract and running order above the cut, but the rest can go below one so that if it doesn’t interest you, you few who actually read this on the website can more easily scroll to things that do. So here we are!

Between the breakdown of Roman rule and the sweeping legal and administrative changes of the later twelfth century, western Europe saw many types of rulers. The precise nature of their title and authority changed: dukes, counts, rectores, gastalds, ealdormen… These rulers were ubiquituous and diverse, but despite the variation between them, they all shared a neeed to conceptualise, to justify, and to exercise their rule without access to the ideological and governmental resources of kingship. This conference will explore the political practices of non-royal ruler across the earlier medieval period, in order to understand how the ambiguities of a position of rule that was not kingship were resolved in their varuous inflections.

And in order to do that thing, Fraser got hold of this glittering line-up (and me):

8th April 2019

Keynote 1

    Vito Loré, “How Many Lombard Kingdoms? The Duchies of Benevento and Spoleto in the Eighth Century”

The Terminology of Non-Royal Rule

  • Russell Ó Ríagáin, “A King by Any Other Name Would Rule the Same? A Relational and Diachronic Examination of the Terminology of Authority in Medieval Ireland”
  • Emily Ward, “Quasi interrex? Boy Kings and the Terminology of Non-Royal ‘Rule’, 1056-c. 1200″
  • Andrea Mariani, “Portugal Before the Kingdom: A Study of the Count of Portucale’s Titles and their Political Legitimation (9th-12th Centuries)”

Lay and Ecclesiastical Non-Royal Rulership

  • Mary Blanchard, “Equal but Separate? The Offices of Bishop and Ealdorman in Late Anglo-Saxon England”
  • James Doherty, “The Righteous Brothers: Bishop Philip of Châlons, Count Hugh of Troyes and Cultural Capital on the Stage of Crusade”
  • George Luff, “Princes of the Church: The Emergence of Ecclesiastical Rulership in the Early Medieval West”

Keynote 2

    Fiona Edmonds, “Regional Rulership: Northern Britain in its Insular Context, 600-1100”

9th April 2019

Analysing Non-Royal Power Relations

  • Sverrir Jakobsson, “Non-Royal Rulers in Twelfth-Century Iceland”
  • Mariña Bermúdez Beloso, “Non-Royal Rulership in North-Western Iberia: Who (Were They), what (Were Their Functions), Over Which (Territories did They Rule), How (to Study Them), and Other Questions for the Sources”
  • Alberto Spataro, “Rule by Law? Judicial and Political Hegemony of Milan in the Regnum Italiae (11th-12th Centuries)”

Keynote 3

    Jonathan Jarrett, “Counts Where It Counts: Spheres of Comital Action in the Tenth-Century West Frankish Periphery”

Non-Royal Rulers in the Middle

  • Daniel Schumacher, “Count Reginar: Duke, missus dominicus, and Rebel”
  • Fraser McNair, “An Anglo-Saxon Strand in Legitimizing the Counts of Flanders”
  • Jamie Smith, “‘Friends in Other Places’: The Diplomacy of Early Tostig of Northumbria, 1055-1066”

Symbolic Communication and Non-Royal Rule

  • Guilia Zornetta, “Benevento Before and After the Fall of the Lombard Kingdom: From Ducatus to Principatus
  • Rodrigo Hernández Hernández, “Justice, Peace and Virtue: The Mercy of Diego Gelmirez as a Discursive Element to Consolidate his Rulership in the Historia Compostelana
  • Anna Gehler-Rachůnek, “Strategies of Political Communication: the Papacy and the West around 600”

Continue reading

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

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

Real Royal Protection for the Carolingian Church?

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

The Torhalle of the Lorsch monastery

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

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

Middle-Age spread in the English village

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

Making Manuscripts under the Conquistadors

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

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

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

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

Exemption by Whatever Means

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

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


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

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

3. The odd thing is that I think we are both here channelling Matthew again, in the form of Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: the Middle Rhine Valley, 400-1000, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 47 (Cambridge 2000), just apparently from different directions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seminar CCLII: the Westminster insider

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

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

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

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

Charter of King Æthelred II of England for Abingdon Abbey

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

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

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

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

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

The octagonal Central Gallery in the Houses of Parliament

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

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

What to remember from the 2018 International Medieval Congress?

Although I feel that it probably is a sign that I am catching up on my blogged past, I have to admit that I face the fact that the next thing in my blog pile is the International Medieval Congress of three-and-a-half years ago with a certain unwillingness. I mean, I’ve spent much of the last two years either trying to stay off or being told I can’t go onto the campus where it happened, for a start, so there is definitely a sense that this is deep past which doesn’t have so much to do with time as experience. But I’ve done all the rest and the format for them seems pretty well worked out now, and so I will give it a go.

Postcard advertisement for the International Medieval Congress 2018

Postcard advertisement from the IMC website

This was, I am reminded as I fish the programme off the shelf, the 25th International Medieval Congress, and the programme is the fattest of all the ones on that shelf. I can’t actually work out how many sessions there were: it says that there were 392 sessions on the conference theme of Memory, 9 keynote lectures and 394 further sessions, plus 4 lectures, so I think it’s 799, but firstly I’m not sure if that was everything and secondly, that was the programme as initially published, not the result of all the subsequent changes you find in the also-thick booklet of changes when you register. And in any case, however many sessions there are, you still can’t go to more than 17 because that’s how many slots there are in the programme, which is massively parallel, and most delegates won’t manage that because of their feeble needs for food and sleep or because of wisely placing socialising with people you otherwise never see over more direct forms of academic engagement. I do like, however, how this means that it’s probably mathematically possible for more paths through the Congress to exist than there are attendees, since there were this year 2,545 attendees and, if my GCSE maths does not fail me, 1 x 53 x 1 x 54 x 54 x 13 = 2,009,124 possible combinations of sessions just on the Monday not including any of the receptions. How would we know if it got too big? Anyway, this just means that what I have done the last few times, just listing my own path and then offering a few remarks where things still stand out for me, seems like the best approach still, because I can’t give an impression of 2 million plus possible other Congress experiences in one blog post, now can I? So mine is below the cut, day by day with brief commentary on each day to lighten the data dump. As ever, I’m happy to try and answer questions about the papers if people have them, but I will try and stay short unless you do. Here we go! Continue reading

Gallery

Taking in York Minster

This gallery contains 16 photos.

At the very beginning of the period covered by the last post, April 2017, I had a relative visiting and so decided to do one of the obvious bits of Yorkshire touristing I had not yet done, which is to … Continue reading

Chronicle VI: October-December 2016

University and College Union pickets at the University of Leeds

University and College Union pickets at the University of Leeds

Well, just as with the last time I wrote one of these, we are still on strike again, so there is now time to write it. With the trip to Istanbul that immediately preceded the start of term now finally dealt with, it’s time again to look at my life academic as it stood at the current date of my backlog, sadly the end of 2016 but for once I am catching up, and take stock of what was going on and, of course, what of it still merits blogging about! Continue reading

Name in Print(?) XXIII

Sorry about the skipped week; marking got the better of me and family also arose, and while I couldn’t say I’ve yet got the better of the marking, this week I have no family commitments and have already worked to the limits of the Working Time Directive as befits the Action Short of Strike which I am currently undertaking, the upshot of all of which is that I have blogging time. I’ll try and manage two posts, partly to catch up but mainly because this one will only be short, and it is another publication notice!

Cover of a recent issue of the journal Northern History

Cover of a recent issue of the journal Northern History

I have been holding off on announcing this because I have been hoping to have a physical copy to flash before you, but I’m not, it turns out, entitled to any more than a PDF, as was the case with my last publication, and there is more in this queue, so I have stopped waiting. It is annoying that we are now in a world where we not only don’t get paid for what we publish, but actually have to buy it, but that is probably a reflection for another post. The people who have this time been so good as to publish me are a journal I hadn’t really expected to get into, Northern History, on pages 162 to 165 of whose combined first and second issue of volume 56 for 2019 you will find me reviewing Tony Abramson’s Coinage in the Northumbrian Landscape and Economy, c. 575-c. 867, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 641 (Oxford 2018).

Now, actually, when you know a bit more of the background, it is a bit less surprising to find me, a specialist in Catalan frontier politics of the centuries either side of A. D. 1000, in this journal of British history reviewing a work on Anglo-Saxon coinage of two to four centuries earlier. Firstly, I do have very limited form in this area; but secondly, Northern History is actually edited in my department. So what actually happened here is that a colleague with no-one obvious on whom to foist this task cornered me on the way down the corridor and called in a favour, and then a graduate student whose project I’d helped with pursued me for the copy until, getting on for a year late, I finally handed it in, and here we are. Also, I know the author of the book slightly, not least because he has also taught in my department, and I could go on. Now, as it happens, it was a hard review to write, because the book is masterly and maddening more or less in equal measure, much of which could be put down to the copy-editing, or lack of it, from Archaeopress, and that’s how come my review wound up taking up three-plus pages, but there’s no question that Tony Abramson knows a lot about the coinage. If you need to know what he knows, then you need the book and its associated datasets; if you need to know what he thinks about it, then my review may allow you to decide whether you need the book; but given I will apparently have to buy that review myself in order ever to hold it in my hand, I don’t feel too bad in suggesting that so must you if you want to know more!

Statistics, with a slightly different spin this time. I was asked to take this on in August 2018, but couldn’t clear time to read the book until May 2019; it then took me four months to do that, because of having reading time only on the train into and out of work. With that done, I had a text off to the editors almost immediately, and it was in proof a mere six days later, and out for download in its finished form eleven days after that! So I really can’t argue with that speed of publication, or really ever expect to beat it! And presumably the print version followed hard upon that, too, but I’ll have to let you know about that if ever I see one…


Full citation: Jonathan Jarrett, “TONY ABRAMSON, Coinage in the Northumbrian Landscape and Economy, c. 575–867, BAR British Series 841 (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2018. £59.00 xxi + 207 pp., inc. 161 figures, 13 graphs and 10 plates, plus 2 databases and 20 datasets online, ISBN 9781407316536)” in Northern History Vol. 56 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 162–165, DOI: 10.1080/0078172X.2019.1678288.

Leeds International Medieval Congress 2016, reflected upon from a distance

Somehow Action Short of a Strike still looks a lot like a really hard week—the contract I’m working to doesn’t have fixed hours—so I find myself blogging very late on a Sunday. Both because of that and because of the topic, I don’t want to write a long post (though when I say that it never works, not least because of parentheses like these…): what can there be to say about a conference three years ago? On the other hand, in so far as this blog is my academic record, I don’t want to miss it out: I was there, I did things I hope will matter, and I was for the first time able to host friends for it at the house then ours in Leeds, so it was a sociable occasion worth remembering. Indeed, I made quite a few new friends at Leeds 2016, looking back, so some sort of record is needed. I’ll restrict it, however, to a list of the papers I went to and limited commentary where I have some memory or good notes, and I’ll put it behind a cut so as not to bore those who think this a touch too obsessional. If I don’t feature your paper, please blame my memory, not your content; it was a long and tiring conference, as it always is. But I will take the last day in a separate post, because it was sort of a conference within a conference for me, for reasons that will become obvious in that other post. So this is 4th to 6th July 2016 in my world, as it unfolded… Continue reading

Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy, including X-rays

Since 2014 or 2015 there has been a large project running at Princeton University in the USA called Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy (acronymised to FLAME, rather than the more accurate but less sexy FLAEME). Its aim has been to put the study of the late antique and early medieval economy onto a firmer quantitative footing than has ever before been possible, by reasoning that coinage is the best proxy evidence for it and assembling an absolutely massive database of coin types and finds from all available data, published and where possible unpublished, in order that really large-scale conclusions can be drawn from it. In this respect, the project is either a rival of or a complement to Chris Wickham’s huge book Framing the Early Middle Ages, whose title of course the project is riffing off and which argued that ceramics were the best proxy evidence, though he does observe that it would be fantastic to do a parallel project with coinage.1 Well, this is that project, and it has reached substantial proportions; checking in on their website today tells me that they have 233,816 coins in the database from 2,806 finds, and I think that more are still being added.

Now, wherever a database is made questions arise about methodology, because data generated by actual live humans living their real lives tends not to fit analytical categories perfectly. When I first heard of this project, one of the concerns the people I discussed it with was that, by uncritically dumping every publication they could find into a database unchecked—because how could they possibly check them all, given available time and the difficulty of identifying and recruiting suitable expertise for some of the weird bits?—the project would just multiply errors of attribution and interpretation by completely unknowable amounts, leading to the kind of bad numismatic maths we have decried on this blog before now and doubtless will again. This turned out to be something they were thinking about at Princeton, but nonetheless, the temptation to make a snazzy visual can still outweigh such cautions: the animation above is based on several questionable assumptions, most of all steady output at the mints concerned throughout the possible period of issue of each coinage, averaged down to a yearly output. In short, you’re probably seeing most dots on that map for much longer than they would have been there, and of course a massive number of mints doesn’t mean a massive output of coinage; the Merovingian Franks ran 80+ mints at once at times, and for much of imperial history the Romans only struck at Rome, but it’s no difficulty guessing who was making more coin… But the video does at least illustrate where minting was happening and roughly when and shows what could be done with such data by people who know what they’re doing. And FLAME is or was full of people who do know what they’re doing, so there’s hope.

Now, that is roughly where things stood with my thinking when, in late 2015, while I was winding up my post at the Barber Institute, FLAME got in touch with me to announce that they were having their first project conference in April 2016 and asking if I would like to talk there about the All that Glitters project. I did, I admit, wonder why they had asked me rather than any of the people on our team who actually work on the late antique or early medieval economy; maybe the Barber job looked like seniority to them, in which case it’s ironic that by the time I went I no longer had it. But go I did, and this is my very very late report on the conference.

Princeton University campus

Princeton University campus, from their own website

I had never been to Princeton before, and found it a surreal experience. Everyone was extremely nice, but the campus looks somewhat as if some mythical giant that was into modelling had acquired a lot of Hornby-type buildings from a giant Ancient Universities series and then, having arranged them nicely on its lawn, subsequently moved away, leaving it free for a passing university to occupy. It is weirdly like walking around a curated exhibit that happens to be teaching space. Nonetheless, the conference facilities were top-notch, so I adjusted. This was the running order for the first day:

Coins, Minting and the Economy in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, 29th April 2016

  • Alan M. Stahl, “An Introduction to FLAME”
  • Lee Mordechai, “The FLAME Project: Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy: An Overview”
  • Alan M. Stahl, “A Numismatic Introduction to FLAME”
  • Peter Sarris, “Coinage and Economic Romanitas in the Early Middle Ages (c. 330-720)”
  • Florin Curta, “Remarks on Coins, Forts, and Commercial Exchanges in the 6th- and Early 7th-Century Balkans”
  • Vivien Prigent, “A Dark Age ‘Success Story’: Byzantine Sicily’s Monetary Economy”
  • Marek Jankowiak, “The Invisible Part of the Iceberg: Early Medieval Imitative Coinages”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “The Marriage of Numismatics and X-Rays: Difficulties with the X-ray-fluorescence-based Study of the Early Medieval Mediterranean Economy”
  • Richard Hobbs, “Hoards of Gold and Silver in the Late Roman Empire”

As you can see a lot of this first day was dedicated to explaining the project to an audience not necessarily directly connected with it (including, mirabile dictu, Peter Brown, though he didn’t stay around for my paper…), which involved explaining that it was starting with minting and production (because you can use any coin that can be identified as data for that), and that a second phase (in which they are even now engaged) would deal with circulation, as measured by where the coins actually wound up after leaving their mints. The questions that this raised were about what material, space- and time-wise, was included, but also about what questions the project was intended to answer, and I would have to say that we really only got answers to the former.

Alan Stahl’s paper was basically a summary of coinage history across the period and raised questions of tinier detail, but to all those that were of the form, “why were they doing that?” he raised the factor of user demand, which is indeed something people don’t think about much; lots of stuff was apparently usable as coin we don’t think should have been, but it must be we who are wrong there.

Peter Sarris’s paper stressed how many small ways the Empire had to alter the value of its coinage, whether by changing its weight or by changing the rate at which it could be exchanged for precious metal, for all of which the money-changers charged. Peter could speak of this with authority because of being nearly finished translating Emperor Justinian I’s new laws, which are now out.2 I still wonder how many of the practises described there were occasional preventatives rather than regular operation, but of course I haven’t read the laws yet. Here again, though, came up the theme of change that was and wasn’t acceptable to those who actually used the coinage; it seemed to me hard to reconcile the power attributed to the emperor and state and that attributed to the people, or really, the market, in this vision of Byzantium, and I still have to think that one out.

Florin Curta’s paper also touched on this by thinking that we have evidence of army pay-packets of large-denomination copper coins in military sites in the Balkans, but that smaller-value coins also got up there somehow in smaller numbers, the state and the market meeting here again and creating a different pattern doing so here than anywhere else. Andrei Gândilà suggested that fourth-century Roman small change was still in use in many of these sites so that the dearth of small denominations might not have mattered much, which of course as a factor threatens to unseat any of the deductions that one might try to make only from what was being minted

Vivien Prigent’s paper included his debatable (as in, I’ve debated it) belief that the term mancus refers to low-fineness Sicilian solidi, but also helped explain how those coins, about which I was also talking, as well as the inarguably slipshod small change of the era, came to be by setting them in the context of the short-lived relocation of imperial government to Syracuse in the reign of the justifiably paranoid Emperor Constans II, and the much increased demand for coin in which to make payments that the increased state apparatus there must have involved. Of course, Syracuse was an active mint before and after that, so until you can get quantitative representation into the sample, that wouldn’t show up in the video above.

Obverse of a copper-alloy forty-nummi struck onto a cut section of an old coin at Constantinople in 635/6, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/BYZ/58

Obverse of a copper-alloy forty-nummi struck onto a cut section of an old coin at Constantinople in 635/6, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/BYZ/58

Reverse of a copper-alloy forty-nummi struck onto a cut section of an old coin at Constantinople in 635/6, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/BYZ/58

Reverse of the same coin. It’s not from Syracuse, but it makes the point!

Marek Jankowiak was there to represent the Oxford-based Dirhams for Slaves project, and was consequently talking about apparently-imitative Islamic coins that we get in the region once populated by the so-called Volga Bulgars, which exist either as isolated singletons in huge batches all struck from the same dies; he explained these through the slave trade, which I might doubt, but I had to agree that the best explanation of a find record like that is that local production of coinage had suddenly to be ramped up at very short notice now and then, and maybe the best explanation for that is a bunch of incoming people you have to pay at short notice… Still, slaves might not be the only reason for that. His general emphasis on counting the imitative coins as part of the sample is something I deeply agree with, however; but again, how could a project set up with FLAME’s premises (identifiable mints) do that? By being very vague about origin location, was one answer, but that means that the dots in that video above are sometimes artifical and sometimes historical, and to read it you have to know which…

Then there was me, and of course you know roughly what I was saying, which was, “we tried doing this analysis by XRF and it doesn’t work so don’t believe people who do that”, but I’m afraid the reactions it got were about equally split between “well yes, don’t do that then” (though the relevant person did then offer me use of a cyclotron if I could sort out the insurance…) and “man I gotta try that now”, so I’m not sure it really had the effect I was after!

All of this had been interesting to me but in some ways the last paper, by Richard Hobbs, was the most so, and not least because it showed again how small the difference can be in terms of results between the dedicated lone scholar with a personal project (and, admittedly, the British Museum behind him) and a massive well-funded team effort like FLAME. Hobbs had been assembling a database of Roman precious-metal hoards, coins included, which he was comparing substantially by bullion value, but in the course of doing so had noticed many weird things, such as:

  1. During the third-century crisis, unsurprisingly, there were hoards buried all over the Empire, especially on the frontiers, but during the period 395-411 it’s almost only the coasts of the English Channel that show them.
  2. Only Gaul really hoarded silver plate in the third century, and not many more places thereafter until a generalisation of the habit during the sixth century. Did coinage not work as well in Gaul as everywhere else, or something?
  3. Despite the numerous wars there, fifth-century Italy either didn’t hoard stuff or always recovered it (or we haven’t found it, but that seems unlikely; it’s not as if hoards from other period of Italian history are unknown)….

While a lot of this is down to detector bias, for sure, there is something here about variation of response to crisis (and to wealth!) across regions that we would struggle to see any way, but it’s still quite hard to interpret. One thing is that we are looking at non-recovery, not necessarily hoarding per se; we only have hoards whose owners didn’t come back for them, and that’s important. But still: what does it all mean? That is is often the result that assembling a lot of data gives us, isn’t it?

All of this was therefore good for getting conversations going, but it was made additionally surreal by the fact that one of the attendees, Stefan Heidemann, had been prevented from actually attending by a series of small disasters. Not deterred, he was therefore present by Skype from Germany, but not on the main projection screen as might normally have been done, but on a laptop that was placed where he could see the screen, or on a trolley so that his field of view could be changed between presenters and audience. The latter meant that his window on us had to be rolled about like a trolley, but this more or less worked, and the link somehow stayed up throughout. In the final discussion people were wandering up to Stefan’s wheeled avatar to say hi, and I couldn’t shake the idea that we were looking at the future here somehow, as if the gap between this and an entirely virtual presence of a digital-only academic was just a matter of degree. It made things odder…

Florin Curta delivering his paper at the FLAME Conference

This is Florin Curta presenting, but, if you look carefully, in the centre of the table in front of the screen is a laptop, face towards the screen. If you could somehow see that face, it would be Stefan Heidemann’s…

Anyway, all of this had meant that Stefan, who had been supposed to be speaking on the first day, actually led off the second, whose running order was thus:

FLAME, Phase 1: Minting, 30 April 2016

  • Stefan Heidemann, “The Apex of Late Antiquity—Changing Concepts of Monetarization in the Early Islamic Empire”
  • Lee Mordechai, “The FLAME Project: Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy. Details and Future”
  • Andrei Gândilà, “Legacy of Rome: Money in the Early Byzantine Balkans and Asia Minor”
  • Jane Sancinito, “The Mint at Antioch: Disruptions in the Fifth Century”
  • Luca Zavagno, “Coinage from the Eastern Mediterranean: an insular perspective (ca. 600–ca. 750 C. E.”
  • Tommi Lankila, “Coinage in the South Central Mediterranean in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages”
  • Paolo Tedesco, “The Political Economy of Accomodation and Monetary Circulation: the case of Gothic Italy”
  • Ruth Pliego and Alejandro G. Sinner, “Minting in the Iberian Peninsula 350–725”
  • Merle Eisenberg, “Money as Governance: The Burgundian Revolution of 500 C E.”
  • Jan Van Doren, “Merovingian Gold Coinage in the Low Countries”
  • Rory Naismith, “From Feast to Famine and Back Again: Mints and Money in Britain from Fourth to the Eighth Century”
  • Round Table chaired by Cécile Morrisson

As may be evident, this second day was much more about project participants presenting their data. Stefan, however, was again demonstrating how much a lone scholar could do with his own database, as well as a sharp knowledge of sharia law. He emphasised how devolved jurisdiction over Islamic coin could get: while gold was controlled centrally where possible, silver could be run at provincial level and types and identification of authorities vary there, and we are quite unclear about who issued copper-alloy coinage as sharia doesn’t consider non-precious-metal to really be coin, rather than, I suppose, tokens; imitative production to answer demand thus probably happened rather a lot, as indeed we have seen here with the Arab-Byzantine coinages of Syria and Palestine. Their circulation was very local, however, so for any long-range transaction small change was made by cutting up legitimate coin, to generate the fragments we have so many of from Scandinavian hoards, which were presumably counted by weight. Clearly Stefan could have gone on for longer—I think he was trying to summarise a book here—but even what he was allowed to say left me a lot clearer about the systems behind what I have seen in the material.

Once we got into the actual project members’ papers, however, it becomes easier to be economical in the reporting. Lee Mordechai helpfully emphasised many of the difficulties with the project I’ve raised above, but hoped that the second phase, when findspots and hoards were more fully integrated, would help clean things up a bit. He also emphasised that there was far more data out there than they were using in the form of the trade, whether just harvesting eBay (for which, of course, software once existed…) or trying to gather all auction catalogues (and eliminate duplicates?). So how selective is their data, one might ask?

Andrei, meanwhile, painted us a picture of circulation in the Balkans (despite the project not being onto that yet) that showed a tremendous mixture of coinages from different Roman and Byzantine eras being used together; how were their values calculated? If they were strictly face-value, why change the size of the coins? If they weren’t, why tariff coins against each other as Constantine IV was evidently doing when he issued new large ones?

Copper-alloy 20-nummi of Constantine IV struck at Constantinople in 664-685, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4304

Copper-alloy 20-nummi of Emperor Constantine IV struck at Constantinople in 664-685, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4304; note the small M, apparently indicating that this big 20-nummi coin was equivalent to an old small 40-nummi one like the cut-up bit above

This paper and the discussion after it provoked me to write one of my own I’m giving in China in a couple of weeks, so I’m grateful, but it was a sharply divided discussion. Peter Sarris believed strongly that coin was basically moving by weight, in which case it seems stupid for the Empire to have issued coins of the same face value in larger sizes than previously; but this it repeatedly did. I tend more to believing in face value, seeing the size increase as essentially a PR exercise, which Andrei also suggested, and as others pointed out big and small coins did get used together, whereas if their value was different you’d expect only the big ones to be hoarded, but I admit it’s not unproblematic. Andrei wondered if old coin was treated as being equivalent to the piece of current issue that it weighed most like, and that seems murderously complicated, but it might be possible.3 Jane Sancinito was a Parthian specialist temporarily employed on sorting out the coins in the archive of excavations from Antioch that Princeton happens to have, which is what she told us about.4 Luca did roughly the same job for the Eastern Mediterranean island zone, as you’d expect, but again was able to emphasise how long-lived even the most basic small change could be, with Syracuse issues lasting a century or more in Crete and so on, and the overlap between supposedly conquered zones and still-imperial spaces in the wake of Islam, as has been said here, potentially telling us something quite important, but hard to specify. Paolo Tedesco was trying to link coin use patterns to the question of how ‘barbarian’ soldiers were settled in Italy that has generated so much scholarship, but it turns out that the coin finds don’t help, or at least suggest that very little money moved from the capitals to the south, as if everything there was sorted out locally.5 The two Hispanists summarised Visigothic gold coinage but noted that there was at least some silver and copper coinage too, which is still contentious among Spanish numismatists for some reason; this wasn’t news to me but I expect it was to others.6 Eisenberg was mounting an attempt to link the few Burgundian coins we can identify to known events that might let us date them, but wasn’t helped by the fact that the Burgundian laws refer to several sorts of coin we either haven’t got or can’t identify, and as Helmut Reimitz pointed out, were not even necessarily issued for the kings! The paper did provoke the useful announcement from Cécile Morrisson that all the Bibliothèque Nationale de France’s collection of Merovingian coinage is now online, however, which may be very useful to some people. Van Doren reminded us how much coinage the late antique Low Countries produced, almost all apparently for North Sea trade since it barely turns up in France. Lastly Rory Naismith did much the same exercise for Britain, but this involved calling into question the whole concept of mint as more than the identity carved onto a pair of coin dies, and in most British cases we don’t even have that, so how can these coins be attributed as a project like FLAME would want? The British record is however massively distorted by the huge volume of fourth-to-fifth-century Roman hoards; at a later point in the conference Alan Stahl revealed that they now had that data in FLAME, but its effect was simply to drown out everything that wasn’t British in whatever query one ran, so they’d had to exclude it again! What do you do when your evidence prevents you using your evidence? The round table addressed a lot of these questions, but it would be hard to say that it solved any of them…

Many of the same questions came up again in a final workshop the next day, along with many suggestions for how to get truer or more realistically qualified results out of the database. I think that this probably was useful to the project team, and maybe was the big point of bringing us all there; there as much can’t-do as can-do in their responses, but the discussion as a whole left me much happier than I had been going in that all this data would probably be more useful to have than not, and could answer many questions if flagged and curated with suitable cautions and references. (And indeed, work has continued and many useful things that were talked about at this meeting seem to have happened.) The labour still seemed immense, however, and it is perhaps not surprising that, although at this stage there was talk of publishing this conference, a journal issue, and many other things, in the end I’m not sure that anything has come of it except the still-developing database, which remains on closed access. The project director has moved on and now works on late antique environmental history; none of his publications seem to have come from the project, and I can’t find any signs that others have. Even the site’s blog is now inaccessible in full. One wonders how long the website itself will survive, and then what all this money and time will have been spent on. I suppose the message is: data is great, and could potentially change everything, but while they were right in these discussions to say that this dataset could answer a great many research questions, it may have turned out that having no questions has sadly doomed them to having produced no answers. Maybe this post can be an encouragement to others who do have questions to see if the FLAME database can answer them! But you will have to ask them first!


1. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), p. 702 & n. 16.

2. Peter Sarris (ed.) & David Miller (transl.), The Novels of Justinian: a complete annotated English translation (Cambridge 2018), 2 vols.

3. It was because of this discussion, and the following conversation with me, him and Peter in the bar, that I wrote in my “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (London 2018 for 2017), pp. 514–535, at p. 515 n. 4, that I think Andrei is going to solve this question for us. I was then thinking of Andrei Gândilă, “Heavy Money, Weightier Problems: the Justinianic reform of 538 and its economic consequences” in Revue numismatique Vol. 168 (Paris 2012), pp. 363–402, online here, but now there is also Andrei Gandila [sic], Cultural Encounters on Byzantium’s Northern Frontier, c. AD 500-700: coins, artifacts and history (Cambridge 2018), so I’d better read it and find out if he has!

4. For those of you watching closely, yes, that does mean the only female speaker on the whole programme didn’t get to present on her own work. I didn’t organise, I merely report, but I also note that among the people on the All That Glitters project for whom this would have been closer to their research area than it is to mine, two are women, so more women certainly could have been invited.

5. See for the debate S. J. B. Barnish, “Taxation, Land and Barbarian Settlement in the Western Empire” in Papers of the British School at Rome Vol. 54 (Rome 1986), pp. 170–195.

6. If it is to you, the new data can be met with in Ruth Pliego, “The Circulation of Copper Coins in the Iberian Peninsula during the Visigothic Period: new approaches” in Journal of Archaeological Numismatics Vol. 5/6 (Bruxelles 2015), pp. 125–160 and Miquel de Crusafont, Jaume Benages and Jaume Noguera, “Silver Visigothic Coinage” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 176 (2017 for 2016), pp. 241–260.

Numismatic entertainment

Once I had discovered the coin collection in Leeds University Library and begun to put it to work in my teaching, the convenors of the Leeds Medieval Group were not long in asking me if I might be able to put on some kind of event using the coins for them. We set this up for 25th April 2016, under the title, “Medieval Coins for Beginners: A Workshop”, and I planned it very loosely, because I didn’t at all know what sort of audience to expect: Medieval Group draws people from well outside its host department and indeed from outside the university, so levels of expertise or interest were hard to gauge. After a year at the Barber I was pretty sure I could manage whatever the needs were. As it turned out, basically everybody who came was one of the department’s historians, with one postgraduate looking worried among them. This worked well for me, as I have a sort of undeclared mission to get someone other than me in the department using the coins, so I asked the gathering what they were hoping to get from the workshop, and one of my colleagues whom I will not identify declared loftily, “I want to be entertained.”1 Well, that I could do, but it is of course a trick that can be repeated here, so this post is three of the little stories of coins that I told all that time ago.

Obverse of an Æ3 of Constantine I struck at Rome in 314, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/400

Obverse of an Æ3 of Constantine I struck at Rome in 314, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/400

Reverse of an Æ3 of Constantine I struck at Rome in 314, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/400

Reverse of an Æ3 of Constantine I struck at Rome in 314, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/400

So, let me start with a teaching point of which I never tire. This is a chunk of small change struck for the Emperor Constantine I, at Rome in 314, a couple of years after he had taken over that city by defeating his rival Maxentius, who drowned in the retreat. We don’t know what the small-change coins of this period were called, but these ones are half the size of the biggest, and numismatists unhelpfully call them Æ3s in print and then struggle over how to say that out loud to each other. Anyway! The teaching point is that in the year between his defeat of Maxentius and the issue of this coin in the city where he’d done that, Constantine, along with his colleague Licinius I, had famously legalised the practise of Christianity within the Empire with their 313 Edict of Milan. Many historians will still tell you, faithfully following the testimony of Constantine’s biographer Bishop Eusebius of Cæsarea, that Constantine himself was Christian by this stage.2 These coins show nothing of that, however: on the reverse Constantine is proclaimed Soli invicto comiti, “(to the) Companion of the Unconquered Sun”. It may have been possible to see Sol the sun-god and Christ as somehow reflections of the same divinity, but the type had also been used by the pagan emperors Aurelian and Diocletian, the latter of whom was one of the persecuting emperors whom it seems safe to say was not after an expression of Christian syncretism on his money. Basically, whatever his personal religious convictions were, they didn’t change Constantine’s coinage at all (barring three very very rare types, of which much too much has been made given how drowned they were by continuing pagan issues).3

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

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 (not to scale)

Reverse 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 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 (likewise not to scale)

Two hundred and fifty years down the line and the emperors now ruled from Constantinople, while Rome had been lost and won back several times, even in the living memory of Emperor Justin II for whom this 40-nummi coin, which I showed you a few posts ago, was issued at Nicomedia (modern-day Iznik) in 574-575. We can date it because, unlike almost any other ancient or medieval coins, Byzantine small change between 532 and around 700 carried regnal dates; we don’t know why this was done—why are there dates on our coins, after all?—but current explanations don’t seem adequate.4 In any case, the teaching point here is that you will note that there are two figures on the coin. That’s apparently because Justin II, who was not a well man for much of his reign, ruled with the aid of his Empress Sophia, who therefore seems to have got onto the coins. She only appears on the small change, however, and alongside her husband, whereas all precedents for empresses on imperial coins so far had them having coins of their own struck, and mostly in gold. More bewilderingly, a close look at this coin will reveal that the inscription, δN IVζTINVS PP AVC (Dominus noster Iustinus perpetuus Augustus, our Lord Justin Eternal Emperor) names only the emperor. Just one mint, Carthage in North Africa, struck these coins with the empress’s name on too. Otherwise she is visibly there but in some sense unrecorded, and one could make that into a cunning representation of the real political situation but then Carthage’s practice becomes very hard to explain; as far as we know she wasn’t from there or anything. Who made these choices and why is a question that has been keeping people occupied for a good long while, and probably will some time longer.5

Obverse of a silver penny of King Harold II struck at Canterbury in 1066, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, Winchester Collection, uncatalogued

Obverse of a silver penny of King Harold II struck at Canterbury in 1066, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, Winchester Collection, uncatalogued

Reverse of a silver penny of King Harold II struck at Canterbury in 1066, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, Winchester Collection, uncatalogued

Reverse of a silver penny of King Harold II struck at Canterbury in 1066, University of Leeds, Brotherton Library, Winchester Collection, uncatalogued

Lastly something closer to home, the above is one of the relatively few silver pennies that there was time for King Harold II of England to issue in 1066, this one struck at Canterbury by the moneyer Eadwine, which is proclaimed abbreviatedly on the reverse. Harold’s presentation here is interesting, not least because of how Byzantine it is, with a cross-sceptre and a diadem. The leftwards profile portrait was normal in England at this time, and would be changed for an even more Byzantine facing one by the Normans, presumably unbeknownst to Harold, though he obviously knew that the Normans were a danger. The coin is involved in some quite deliberate political signalling, therefore; not only are there these signs of royalty attached to someone whose family had never previously been royal, but the reverse message is one simple word, PAX, Peace. Of course, Harold’s promise here would prove empty. Ironically—or not?—William the Conqueror’s coins would also use a PAX legend of a kind, but then he could reasonably say that unlike Harold he’d been able to achieve it. That debate has since continued at least as far as Sir Walter Scott, of course, but it’s interesting to be able to see it happening at the time on one of the few public image tools available to a medieval régime.6

So there you have it, stories to tell with three of the sixteen coins I took with me into that workshop, and I hope that they provide some entertainment for you also!


1. That colleague’s anonymity will be protected, but honourable mention here must go to Dr Alan Murray, who was using the coins to teach with even before I arrived and who is so far still the only other person in the School of History to do so except on my modules. I’ll get them one day though!

2. Eusebius is now best got at in Eusebius, Life of Constantine, ed. & transl. Averil Cameron & Stuart G. Hall (Oxford 1999), and for bigger background my students seem to do best with Charles M. Odahl, Constantine and the Christian Empire, 2nd edn. (London 2010), which does include the coinage as part of its source base.

3. The debate on Constantine’s conversion is almost too tedious to cite, but try Raymond Van Dam, “The Many Conversions of the Emperor Constantine” in Kenneth Mills & Anthony Grafton (edd.), Conversion in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: Seeing and Believing (Rochester 2003), pp. 127–151, for an account of it; on the coin types, a dose of quantitative common sense is provided by Patrick Bruun, “The Christian Signs on the Coinage of Constantine”, in idem, Studies in Constantinian Numismatics: Papers from 1954 to 1988 (Rome 1991), pp. 53–69.

4. See Jonathan Jarrett, “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (London 2018 for 2017), pp. 514–535 at pp. 515-516 & n. 9 for a short round-up of this question.

5. Leslie Brubaker and Helen Tobler, “The Gender of Money: Byzantine Empresses on Coins (324–802)” in Gender and History Vol. 12 (Oxford 2000), pp. 572–594, repr. in Pauline Stafford and Anneke B. Mulder-Bakker (edd.), Gendering the Middle Ages (Oxford 2001), pp. 42–64, gathers the evidence but even they struggle to conclude very much about the thinking behind the coins.

6. You probably don’t need a go-to reference on the Norman Conquest of England and the build-up to it but I think Brian Golding, Conquest and Colonisation: the Normans in Britain, 1066-1100 (Basingstoke 1994) is a good one; Martin Allen, “Mints and Money in Norman England” in Anglo-Norman Studies Vol. 34 (Woodbridge 2012), pp. 1-22, is a good introduction to where we are now with the coinage of the era.