Category Archives: Anglo-Saxons

Anglo-Saxon England and the European Union

It is a time of weighty decisions in this part of the world right now. I don’t just mean in the Academy, although today and tomorrow much of the UK one is on strike because of pay that has not kept pace with inflation for some years and personally I am in the middle of quite a lot of marking, some of which will affect people’s fates in ways I can’t foresee but can still worry about. No, I mean that on June 23rd the UK will be turning out to express its opinion about whether it should be in the European Union any longer, even on the rather specialised terms we currently enjoy. As with every political issue these days this has become a matter of men in suits insulting each other and making up random stuff to frighten their electorates, and in some cases other people’s electorates: the President of the USA and the Prime Minister of Canada have both weighed in effectively to threaten Britain, apparently not realising how much of the ‘Leave’ campaign is being driven exactly by a resentment at other countries seemingly intervening in Britain’s decisions. Perhaps they’re actually trying to make sure the ‘Leave’ vote wins. In any case, it all has me wondering what perspective a historian can take on it all. Sheffield’s excellent History Matters blog has a Brexit category but so far only one post under it, and I feel as if more can be said.

Map of the Carolingian Empire under Charlemagne

Map of the Carolingian Empire under Charlemagne

It seems to me that this is one of the rare episodes where the most relevant parallels are from the early Middle Ages, because there is really only one point prior to the twentieth century when Europe could be considered a single political entity and, importantly, its ruler had not declared an intent to add the British Isles to that (as in the times of Carausius, Napoleon or the guy with the moustache and the painting qualification). That time is the period of the Carolingian Empire, albeit with some pre-echoes under the Carolingians’ Merovingian predecessors, and actually there are some thought-provoking parallels. There’s nothing really new in what follows except its application to now, but I still think that’s worth doing.1

A silver penny of King Offa

Obverse of a silver penny of King Offa of Mercia, struck in London by Ethelwald around 785

For a start, we can look at English-European relations in a time of breakdown here and see what happened. In around 796 Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Lombards and Patrician of the Romans, had a letter sent to King Offa of Mercia.2 At this point in time Offa was pretty much number one king in England; not only did his Midland kingdom stretch from the Welsh border and the Hwicce (around Gloucestershire) to Lindsey (modern Lincolnshire) but he also held control over Essex, East Anglia (just about), the south-eastern Home Counties and the city of London and had marriage alliances with both King Beorhtric of Wessex and King Æthelred of Northumbria.3 This put him in charge of quite a chunk of the Channel coast and its ports, and whether either side liked it or not that put him in contact with Charlemagne.

A Mayen quernstone

A Mayen quernstone, of the sort that Charlemagne probably refers to in his letter to Offa

In that letter Charlemagne was responding to one of Offa’s that we no longer have, and had a number of queries to answer. The letter is thus very revealing about the kind of things that kings dealt with in this era: the free movement of pilgrims from England through Francia, and how to distinguish them from merchants who disguised themselves as pilgrims to escape paying toll; the proper treatment of merchants who admitted as much, and should be protected by the Frankish king according to an old agreement; a renegade priest whom Offa feared had come to Charlemagne to spread accusations about Offa at the Frankish court, but whom Charlemagne had sent on to the pope at Rome; and black quernstones which had until recently been imported into England and which would now be again, as long as Offa would make sure that those exporting English wool cloaks to Francia made them at the old, full length rather than a new shorter one that the Franks didn’t like.4 Charlemagne also sent ceremonial clothing to both Offa and Æthelred with which their churchmen could hold memorial services for the recently-deceased Pope Hadrian I, whose death had, we know, grieved Charlemagne deeply.5

Charlemagne's epitaph for Pope Hadrian I, on display in San Pietro di Roma

More black stone, Charlemagne’s epitaph for Pope Hadrian I, still on display in San Pietro di Roma

A lot of this doesn’t seem too far from the modern day, suggesting that some issues keep coming up: we have a kind of Schengen Agreement for certain kinds of travellers, but not those with goods to declare; a certain sort of acceptance of responsibility for foreign nationals; some controversy over appeals to the European court system (here manifest as the king and the pope, but still); and fine-detailed specifications of goods with which, just like the fabled EU regulations on the curvature of certain vegetables, one is surprised and even dismayed to see the European world’s top legislators wasting their time when warfare, migrants and agricultural crisis all needed dealing with.6 We know from other letters that Offa and Charlemagne had at one point been sufficiently at odds for Charlemagne actually to close the Frankish Channel ports to traders from Offa’s territories, which will hopefully remain unparalleled whatever happens but reminds us that access is not guaranteed, and Offa was also persistently bothered about Charlemagne playing host to powerful exiles from England, either from Kent or from Northumbria (where King Æthelred would be killed later in 796, making Charlemagne extremely cross with the Northumbrians).7 Offa himself would die later that year, indeed, which reminds us that the people who make such treaties tend not to last as long as the consequences, but if you remember the furore about Julian Assange taking refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London you can probably understand that people being protected from vengeance by foreign powers is not a phenomenon that’s stopped nowadays.

Map of England in the time of Offa's rule, c. 795

Map of England in the time of Offa’s rule, c. 795; I think we could argue about Sussex, but it gives you the idea…

There are also plenty of things that damage the comparison, of course. One of the other things that Offa and Charlemagne seem to have argued about was a possible marriage pact between their children, in which the problem was which side got the other’s daughter for their son.8 The UK still has its royalty, of course, but if one of them married into a European royal line (if they could find one with whom they aren’t already consanguineous) it would no longer make a massive difference to the UK’s relations with Europe. That should serve to remind us that whatever the things the early medieval situation shares with the current one, democracy was not one of them; not only would Offa and Charlemagne both have been bewildered by the concept of a referendum, but once you’d explained it they would have thought it subversive and dangerous, and maybe even illegal, and there the modern parallel is really elsewhere in Europe. There’s also important differences in the scale of trade revenue involved, which for our kings might have been significant but was still only a tiny part of their kingdoms’ economy.9 And finally, of course, among many other objections that could be raised, the England of Offa was a patchwork of uncomfortably allied rival kingdoms of varying size and strength, all of whom could negotiate with the Franks separately as our letters show, and so is almost more like the European Union of now in structure than like the unified, monarchic and hardly-devolved kingdom of Charlemagne, despite the rough territorial match.

So does the parallel I’ve set up actually tell us anything about the current situation? I think that it does, at least, bring some particular aspects of the situation out that are perhaps not as obvious as they should be. The first of these has already been mentioned, that whatever the outcome is on June 23rd it’s hard to believe the arrangement it sets up will last for long before being modified; all the people who made it will be out of power before very long, and the new lot will have a choice about how much continuity they want. The UK has tinkered with its relationship to Europe every few years for as long as I can remember, after all. The second thing we might take from all this is the reminder that even if the UK does leave the EU, relations with Europe will not just stop dead; the migrant crisis, the continuing importance of NATO, and the simple fact of Europe’s being right there and linked to the UK by a tunnel and high-speed rail link all mean that some kind of relationship between the UK and most of the Continental European states must continue. The referendum will help decide what kind of relationship that will be, but it won’t end it any more than Charlemagne closing the Channel ports ended trade relations between the two powers. That did, however, apparently make quernstones impossible to get for a few years and some parallel to that is very easy to imagine. What European foods do you currently eat you’d be sorry to go without?

Buffalo mozzarella cheese

My personal candidate: looks horrible, tastes magnificent. By Luigi VersaggiFlickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=397091.

But the last thing we might not think of without this prompt is the rôle of Northumbria. Obviously, now that’s part of England, but Scotland is not, and while in Charlemagne’s time the Picts were a whole separate quantity (albeit also in contact with the Continent) now we might be reminded by Offa’s rival kings that Scotland may yet be in a position to reach its own agreements with Europe, when the current alliance falls apart as did that between Mercia and Northumbria and the campaign for secession heats up again.10 What would that mean? When Scotland looked like devolving properly last time many people talked about moving there to benefit from various more friendly aspects of its fiscal system and so on; if the UK left the EU and then a subsequently separated Scotland rejoined, I think a lot of businesses might look to relocate, and Scotland’s economic case for devolution start to look a lot more survivable. I can’t quite imagine it doing to England what Wessex eventually did to Mercia, but this, and the other points above, might all serve to remind the uncertain voter that there are more voices in this dispute than just UK voters and Brussels.11 Whatever your own priorities are, it might be worth thinking before you vote about Offa, Charlemagne, pilgrims, exiles and even quernstones, and considering just which bits of history we’re about to repeat.


1. There are two obvious books that cover this theme, Wilhelm Levison, England and the Continent in the Eighth Century: the Ford Lectures, 1943 (Oxford 1946) and Joanna Story, Carolingian Connections: Anglo-Saxon England and Carolingian Francia, c. 750-870 (Aldershot 2003); both of them offer much more context for all of what follows than I can give here.

2. The letter was probably written by the Northumbrian cleric and teacher Alcuin, since it survives in collections of his other letters, but it went out in Charlemagne’s name. It is printed in Ernst Dümmler (ed.), “Alcuini sive Albini Epistolae” in Dümmler (ed.), Epistolae Ævi Karolini II, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Epistolae in quarto) IV (Berlin 1895, repr. Hannover 1994), online here, pp. 1-481 at no. 100, and translated in Steven Allott (transl.), Alcuin of York, c. A. D. 732 to 804: his life and letters (York 1974), ep. 100, and in Dorothy Whitelock (transl.), English Historical Documents, vol. 1: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979), doc. no. 197.

3. For background on Offa see most quickly Simon Keynes, “The kingdom of the Mercians in the eighth century” in David Hill & Margaret Worthington (edd.), Aethelbald and Offa: two eighth-century kings of Mercia. Papers from a conference held in Manchester in 2000, Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon studies, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 383 (Oxford 2005), pp. 1-26.

4. On the black stones, see Meinrad Pohl, “Quern-Stones and Tuff as Indicators of Medieval European Trade Patterns” in Papers from the Institute of Archaeology Vol. 20 (London 2010), pp. 148-153, DOI: 10.5334/pia.348, whence the illustration (fig. 1).

5. Charlemagne’s biographer Einhard tells us of the king’s grief at this event in his Vita Karoli, ed. Oswald Holder-Egger as Einhardi Vita Karoli Magni, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores Rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum separatim editi) XXV (Hannover 1911, repr. 1965), online here, trans. David Ganz in idem (ed.), Two Lives of Charlemagne: Einhard and Notker the Stammerer (London 2009), pp. 17-44, III.19. I’m not sure where the memorial is edited, but it is translated in Paul Edward Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, 2nd edn. (Peterborough ON 2005), no. 9.4.

6. Admittedly, the obvious migrants, the Vikings, hadn’t really started migrating as yet, though as we have seen here they were a danger; as to the agricultural crisis, 792 and 793 had been famine years in the Carolingian Empire, as is recorded in the Royal Frankish Annals, printed as Friedrich Kurze (ed.), Annales regni Francorum inde ab a. 741 usque ad a. 829, qui dicuntur Annales Laurissenses maiores et Einhardi, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores Rerum Germanicum) VI (Hannover 1895; repr. 1950), online here, transl. in Bernard Scholz & Barbara Rogers (transl.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories (Michigan 1972), online here, pp. 35-125, with commentary pp. 2-21, s. aa 792 & 793.

7. In addition to the works in n. 1 above see here Janet L. Nelson, “Carolingian Contacts” in Michelle P. Brown and Carol Ann Farr (edd.), Mercia: an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Europe (London 2001), pp. 126-143.

8. The source here is the Gesta Abbatum Fontellanensium, printed as Fernand Lohier & Jean Laporte (edd.), Gesta sanctorum patrum Fontanellensis coenobii (Rouen 1936), but I don’t have a detailed cite, only the knowledge that the relevant extract is translated in Whitelock, English Historical Documents doc. no. 20.

9. Opinions differ here, of course: see Chris Wickham, “Overview: production, distribution and demand” in Inge Lyse Hansen & Wickham (edd.), The Long Eighth Century: production, distribution and demand, The Transformation of the Roman World 11 (Leiden 2000), pp. 345-377.

10. On Scotland’s connections to Europe in this era see Patrick Wormald, “The emergence of the ‘Regnum Scottorum’: a Carolingian hegemony?” in Barbara Crawford (ed.), Scotland in Dark Age Britain: the proceedings of a day conference held on 18 February 1995, St John’s House Papers 5 (St Andrews 1996), pp. 131-160; Edward James, “The Continental Context” in Sally M. Foster (ed.), The St. Andrews sarcophagus: a Pictish masterpiece and its international connections (Dublin 1998), pp. 240-249.

11. Simon Keynes, “Mercia and Wessex in the ninth century” in Brown & Farr, Mercia, pp. 310-328.

A somewhat unexpected interpretation of Asser

I have one more thing I want to write about spinning out of David Bachrach’s Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, and then he can rest and I will move onto historians of much longer ago. But it is the way that one such historian is used in this book I want to query here. In comments here, even, Professor Bachrach has said, “Alfred the Great imported a Saxon from the duchy of Otto I’s grandfather to serve as a military adviser.” The book gives the full argument behind this somewhat surprising statement, and, well, I struggle with it.

Statue of King Alfred at Wantage

There being no decent pictures even of people’s imaginings of Asser or John the Old Saxon, it’ll just have to be Alfred, as portrayed in this statue which stands at Wantage

The historian in question is Bishop Asser of St David’s and Sherborne, biographer of King Alfred the Great of Wessex (871-899), and at cap. 78 of his Life of King Alfred he tells us of Alfred’s recruitment of various religious men to instruct him and his court in intellectual matters. In particular,

“he summoned John, also a priest and monk, a man of most acute intelligence, immensely learned in all fields of literary endeavour, and extremely ingenious in many other skills.”

This is our alleged military advisor.1 Not seeing it? Well, you don’t know what happened as a result. Firstly, Alfred established a monastery at the marsh island of Athelney, whither he had briefly retreated in 878 when all seemed lost in the face of Viking attacks. Athelney, Asser tells us, is reachable only by a causeway and Alfred put a fortress at the other end of it.2 The excellent commentary of Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge on Asser’s Life identifies that fortress as Lyng but points out that the 878 episode tells us that there already was one at Athelney itself, into which the monastery was presumably inserted.3 Anyway, a fairly multinational group of monks, English, Gaulish and (Asser says) at least one Scandinavian—paganus is the Latin word he uses, paradoxically—was assembled there and this John was placed at their head as abbot.4

Aerial view of the site of Athelney Abbey

Aerial view of the site of Athelney Abbey, I hope

Now, this did not go well. The Gauls, especially, did not like John, and Asser tells us that this resentment grew to the point where they set up two Gaulish slaves (whose presence itself raises questions), armed them and set them to kill Abbot John when he said his customary small-hours prayers in secret. (Obviously not secret enough!) Asser tells us the outcome:

“At midnight John entered the church secretly as usual (so that no one would know) in order to pray, and bowed down on bended knees before the altar; then the two villains attacked him suddenly with drawn swords and wounded him severly. But he, being a man of customary sharp intelligence and (as I have heard about him from several sources) a man with some experience in the martial arts, had he not set his mind on a higher course – rose briskly to meet them as soon as he heard their commotion and before he saw them or was wounded by them. He called out and resisted them as best he could, shouting that they were devils and not men… However, he was wounded before his own men arrived; they had been awakened by the uproar but, having heard the word ‘devils’, were frightened and did not know what to do… before John’s men got there, the villains had fled as quickly as possible to the depths of the nearby marsh leaving the abbot half-dead.”

And Asser goes on to assure us in his nasty fashion that the assailants were caught and tortured to death, although it’s not clear that the actual conspirators were ever disciplined.5 Abbot John could apparently handle himself, though, and you could read that passage as indicating that he also had some kind of bodyguard or troop, though perhaps it just refers to monks who had arrived with him, I think. But it is possible to extract even more implication from it, and Professor Bachrach does:

“Thus Asser, in his De rebus gestis Ælfredi, draws attention to the fact that King Alfred (871–899) recruited a Saxon named John to join his court, and eventually established him as an abbot, an office that certainly required much more than a passing acquaintance with ‘book learning’. Of importance in the present context, however, is that Alfred recruited this Saxon because of the man’s knowledge of military affairs.53 Saxony, which at this point had been part of the regnum Francorum for the better part of three generations, clearly not only offered opportunities for advanced study of the military arts, but also had developed some reputation in this regard, if Alfred was advised to seek there for a man who could hold high office in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom.”6

I can’t help but feel there’s some slippage here. Nothing in the texts we have tells us that anyone advised Alfred to look to Saxony or that he picked John because of his knowledge of military affairs, and it’s misleading to imply that it does. Even if he had done so, surely he would have wanted such a man at court instructing future soldiers, not in charge of a miscellaneous group of cloistered religious in one of the most inaccessible parts of the kingdom. And yet there’s a fortress, a man who can handle himself in a fight, retinues and slaves and no shortage of weaponry, it would seem. Perhaps we could be too quick to dismiss a military role for this community. But hang on: there was a footnote…

53 Asser, De rebus gestis Ælfredi, ed. W. H. Stevenson (Oxford, 1959), chs. 94-97, and specifically ch. 97 for the discussion of John’s knowledge of the belicosae artes. See the discussion of this passage by Richard Abels, Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England (London, 1998), 223. It should be noted that Asser does not accord John an exceptional knowledge of the military arts, saying that he was belicosae artis non expers, but I accept the basic thrust of Abels’ implicit argument that Asser did not wish to overemphasize the secular aspects of John’s career in Alfred’s service.”

And now I am confused. [Edit: I completely misunderstood the Latin here first time through. It makes the post a lot simpler but me look a lot more foolish. I’ve tried to leave the evidence behind and still make the post more coherent. Sorry!] We know that John was a trained fighter… because Asser tells us he wasn’t, but is trying to hide [the fact that John was a capable fighter it… by mentioning it at all? That all makes alarm bells ring for me, but also, the Latin as given there is not at all what Keynes and Lapidge give in their translation, quoted above; no hint of inexpertness there. What does it actually say?

Facsimile of the opening page of the lost manuscript of Asser's Life of King Alfred by Francis Wise, 1722

Facsimile of the opening page of the lost manuscript of Asser’s Life of King Alfred by Francis Wise, 1722, image from Wikimedia Commons

Well, we famously have no surviving manuscript of Asser’s Life, as the only one there was was lost in a fire in 1731, but a 1904 edition by W. H. Stevenson is usually agreed to have done the best possible job in reconstructing the text from early editions and the texts of the numerous medieval historians who quoted Asser.7 And of course because we live in the future, that’s in the Internet Archive and so without leaving my seat I can tell you that the best guess we have at the relevant Latin phrases is:

“Sed ille ut solito ac semper acris ingenio et, ut audivimus de eo a quibusdam referentibus, belicosae artis non expers, si in meliora disciplina non studeret, statim et sonitus latronum auderet…”8

I wish we did have the manuscript at this point, because what this shows is that the ambiguity is Asser’s, at least as we have him, not Professor Bachrach’s (or Richard Abels’s). I can’t offer a translation of this that makes any more sense of it than Keynes and Lapidge have. That word “expers” cries out to me for emendation to “inexpers”, not only because that would make it into a sensible litotes but also because otherwise Asser seems to be saying that John would not have been expert in the arts of fighting if he had not chosen a ‘better discipline’, which would imply that his Church career had actually taught him to fight. If his appointments always went this well one could imagine that being true, I suppose! But then I would have expected him to have a weapon handy himself… and I don’t think it can be what Asser meant. I think Keynes and Lapidge are probably as close to the sense as modern English can get and that Asser probably didn’t write what the edition says.

Holy Island and Lindisfarne

Another isolated place run by a religious man with early military training, sort of, Holy Island and Lindisfarne

Of course, if what Asser did mean meant is that John would have been a promising warrior had he not been called to the Church, then that’s little more than is said of St Cuthbert by Bede, and yet we don’t suppose that Cuthbert was made Bishop of Lindisfarne because the King of Northumbria really needed a tactical advisor, even if Lindisfarne was right by the royal seat.9 Such people had warriors where they needed them. Equally, from the other perspective, while Professor Bachrach is surely right that being an abbot involved more than purely literary knowledge, one obvious layman who ran abbeys and was, indeed, well-known to Asser through his works was Einhard, again, Charlemagne’s biographer, and he more or less tells us he was too small and weedy to have been given a military training. Yet he ran three abbeys for Emperor Louis the Pious.10

Einhardbasilika at Seligenstadt

Here is one of them, Seligenstadt, though it’s, er, come on a bit since Einhard’s day. This is, indeed, the Einhardbasilika. CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=246880.

So it is all quite dangerous: even the simplest reading of this source involves fiddling with the text. I still think that none of this gives us evidence that John was actually recruited or served as a military advisor; that isn’t the context in which Asser mentions him, either, and what Asser says about him is surely aimed at explaining his survival of an attack by two armed men when he had no weapon, rather than at gilding John’s secret career as a martial arts instructor (though now I put it like that it does all seem weirdly like the Hong Kong cinema cliché where a group of armed men unwisely attack the bent old sensei and learn the error of their ways forthwith). And yet, even my opposite reading of the source still involves bending it to fit my view. That mainly makes me think it won’t bear this kind of weight, but I do wish we had the manuscript…


1. Asser, Life of King Alfred, transl. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge in eidem (transl.), Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources (London 1983), pp. 65-110, whence all translations of Asser in this post, the quote here being cap. 78 as said.

2. Ibid. cap. 92.

3. Keynes & Lapidge, Alfred the Great, p. 271 n. 229.

4. Asser, Life of King Alfred, capp. 93-97 for this and the story that follows. The Latin I access through William Henry Stevenson (ed.), Asser’s Life of King Alfred, together with the Annals of St Neots erroneously ascribed to Asser, edited with introduction and commentary (Oxford 1904), online here.

5. Asser takes too much of a delight in people who don’t do what they’re told getting a bloody come-uppance for me to like his authorial character; compare this episode (Asser, Life of King Alfred, cap. 97 referred to and quoted here) with the bit of cap. 91 about people who should have built fortresses when they were told getting slaughtered by Vikings if you don’t know what I mean.

6. David S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012), p. 113 and n. 53.

7. See Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, pp. 223-227 for an account of the manuscript history and its modern lack.

8. Stevenson, Asser’s Life, Asser cap. 97.

9. Bede, Life of St Cuthbert, ed./transl. Bertram Colgrave in idem (ed./transl.), Two Lives of St Cuthbert: A Life by an Anonymous Monk of Lindisfarne and Bede’s Prose Life. Text, Translation and Notes (Cambridge 1940, repr. New York 1969 and Cambridge 1985), pp. 141-308 at cap. I.

10. For Einhard’s life see David Ganz, “Einhardus peccator” in Patrick Wormald and Janet L. Nelson (edd.), Lay Intellectuals in the Carolingian World (Cambridge 2007), pp. 8-36. On the non-religious duties of an abbot in the Carolingian world, see F. J. Felten, “Herrschaft des Abtes” in Friedrich Prinz (ed.), Herrschaft und Kirche: Beiträge zur Entstehung und Wirkungsweise episkopaler und monastischen Organisationsformen, Monographien zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 33 (Stuttgart 1988), pp. 147-296.

Seminar CCXXXVIII: digital eyes on the Lichfield Gospels

Those who keep track (not something I expect) may remember me posting about a field trip I did in my first year at Birmingham in which I took a small group of budding Anglo-Saxonists to Lichfield Cathedral, whose staff were absolutely marvellous with showing us round and with photographic permissions and so on, and which I thoroughly recommend as a place to visit. You’d have to have an unusually keen eye to have spotted that I borrowed one of the images there, of a page in the Lichfield Gospels or St Chad’s Gospels, from the website of a project run by Dr William Endres, but all the same I did, and so when he came to Birmingham on the 2nd April 2015 to present a paper called “The St Chad Gospels: a rare witness to early Anglo-Saxon England and beyond” to the Centre for West Midlands History Research Seminar, I thought that perhaps I’d better be there.

The Gospels, on display in Lichfield Cathedral

The Gospels, on display in Lichfield Cathedral, albeit with special access for our 2014 visit

The St Chad’s Gospels have had a complicated history. There were once two volumes of them, made probably in Mercia in the 730s, but the work seems to have been stolen, for which Vikings usually get the blame, because there is a vernacular inscription in the surviving volume by a man by the name of Geili who had bought the two books (possibly still one then) and was now giving them to the Welsh cathedral of Llandeilo Fawr. This inscription means that among its other distinctions, the volume contains the earliest written Welsh. By the tenth century it was back in Lichfield, because Bishop Wynsige of that city 963-975 has signed it, and both volumes were still there in 1345, but by the time of the English Civil War (which the manuscript survived in hiding) there was only the current one, which has been safe in the cathedral since 1673. And since 2009 Dr Endres has been digitising it.1

The Welsh marginalia in Lichfield Cathedral MS 1, fo. 141r.

Screen capture of Reflective Transformation Imagery picture of the Welsh note in the Gospels, which is, I should say, Lichfield Cathedral MS 1, fo. 71r.

You may think that project is taking a long time even for one man, but the truth is that by now he has digitised it several times. In fact, he told us, he has photographed each page in 13 different spectra, all of which his website allows you to display either overlaid or singly, sliding from one to another. This is very helpful for tracking colour change and deterioration, of which there is thankfully little. Dr Endres has also added historical photographs of the Gospels from two old sets from 1887 and 1969, so there is a long-term check of some kind built in. But he has also started doing 3D photography of the pages, with pictures overlaid for which the lighting was set at different angles, allowing a kind of artificial tilting of the page under the light. I’d seen this done before but it’s always impressive, and in particular it had allowed Dr Endres to detect erasures and marks made by pens without ink, including dry-point glosses, which were mostly personal names, including those of three women in the margin of the magnificat of the Virgin Mary. That looks like selection, but the custom as a whole is hard to explain: why did people get to write their names invisibly in an old Bible? Dr Endres’s suggestion was that the names were meant to be read in Heaven, and I don’t have a better idea, I have to admit.

3D visualisation of Lichfield Cathedral MS 1, fo. 113v

3D visualisation of fo. 113v, swung so as to make visible the dry-point name at bottom centre near the marker

For me this was the most exciting part of the paper, as a lot of the rest was either about the philosophy of digitisation or was context to situate this Gospel Book in the context of others like the Book of Kells and Lindisfarne Gospels, of which more people have heard, and that was not so new to me.2 There was also more hypothetical stuff about the volume’s history and use. Some of the suggestions in my notes are quite high-flying, and I would particularly like to have got a reference for the half-joking one that it shows that St Augustine invented peacock jerky. Unfortunately, for reasons I now forget, I couldn’t stay for questions, but it was still nice to hear about this project, which I’d seen one side of on the web, from the inside, and I was able to express genuine pleasure to have been there to Dr Endres when I subsequently met him later in the year. It’s possible to look at this manuscript in great detail on the web at varying degrees of intensity, and it’s all been done on relatively little money. Once again we see how the lone interested person can often achieve nearly as much as a massive multi-institution project for a fraction of the cost, and wonder why there aren’t more projects like this one!


1. Jennifer Howard, “21st-Century Imaging Helps Scholars Reveal Rare 8th-Century Manuscript” in Chronicle of Higher Education, December 5 2010; William Endres, “More than Meets the Eye: Going 3D with an Early Medieval Manuscript” in Clare Mills, Michael Pidd & Esther Ward (edd.), Proceedings of the Digital Humanities Congress 2012 (Sheffield 2014), online here; Bill Endres, “Imaging Sacred Artifacts: Ethics and the Digitizing of Lichfield Cathedral’s St Chad Gospels” in Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture Vol. 3 (Stockholm 2014), pp. 39-73, online here.

2. On which see most obviously George Henderson, From Durrow to Kells: the Insular Gospel-Books 650–800 (London 1987).

Money of post-Viking Brittany

I only have time to write a very short post, but happily I have something quite short to communicate, arising from an equally short article by my old colleague Rory Naismith in last year’s Numismatic Chronicle.1 I suspect there is interest among the readership, somehow… Basically, in late 2011 there went through a Brussels auction house, as part of a small but really good collection of Carolingian (and some other stuff of interest to those of more classical and modern bents) coins, a two-coin hoard apparently found in the 1990s on the banks of the Loire near Saint-Florent-le-Vieil. The first was a penny of King Edward the Elder of England, and the second was this, which I reproduce from an old online copy of the auction house’s web catalogue:

Brussels, The BRU Sale auction 6, 9 December 2011, lot 153

Our mystery coin

If you follow the link that goes through that image to Sixbid.com you’ll find that the auctioneers, although they had successfully talked quite a lot of rare and unknown stuff, had really struggled with this one. Their description reads: “England. Vikings (?). Penny (AR, 1.30g, 10h). Uncertain mint. 885-954. Small cross pattee. Rev. Moneyer’s name. Possibly unpublished.”2 Rory, however, has other ideas. He notes firstly that it is more of an Anglo-Carolingian hybrid than an Anglo-Viking one, presumably working off the arrangement of the moneyer’s name, and then points to the near-Breton findspot and finally reads off the moneyer’s name as CONGVION, Conwoion, also Breton. All in all, he argues, this is probably a Breton coin.

Now as we have frequently observed, in print we academics are limited by the standards of reasonable proof and so on but here on a blog I can speculate if I like. As Rory says, the coin:

“stems from the aftermath of a period when Brittany was threatened by viking [sic] attacks, and its leaders sought refuge in, and support from, England. Alan Barbetorte (‘twisted beard’) (d. 952) returned from exile in England in 936, and had vanquished the vikings by 939, thus establishing himself as Count of Cornouaille and Nantes. His position remained tenuous, however. Sporadic viking attacks continued into the 940s, sometimes under Norman patronage, and Alan also faced attacks from Judicael Berengar, count of Rennes.”3

So that’s our context. There’s nothing here to say this is a coin of Count Alain, however. The obverse inscription, which Rory reads as FELECMANIS, is obscure; Rory compares it to the mint signature for Le Mans, CENOMANIS, but it seems to me that this cannot what the engraver was after; although they don’t seem to have been familiar with this kind of work (two forms of E, backwards Ns) their mistakes are still competently carved. So it could be a mint we don’t know about – on an unparalleled coin that probably isn’t as surprising as it would be otherwise – but it could also be a person, for whom this apparently-Breton moneyer Conwoion (and I feel obliged to say that a Breton name does not of itself make someone Breton) was striking coin.

Google map of Brittany

Google map of Brittany and the approximate findspot of the coin, marked as ‘Loire’ down towards the bottom centre

Now I have no idea at all who this person would be, count, bishop, abbot, untitled warlord or immigrant pirate chief, though Feleman or Felkman might have been their name. I have to admit that the word appears to be in the genitive (i. e. the possessive case), which makes a place-name more likely, but even if the issuer is not named here, there must have been one. If Rory is right, someone in that uncontrolled Channel coast zone had decided it was time their area had money again, money that would look roughly acceptable in both England and in Francia but which presumably to them sang of their locality. Now, I have to admit that I come back to that ‘Breton name need not equal Breton’ problem, or more specifically need not equal Brittany. If I were guessing what that signature FELECMANIS meant, I think I would pretty quickly light on Fécamp in Normandy as a possibility [Edit: though as Fraser gently demonstrates in comments, I’d be wrong to do so], and then remember all the links between Bretons and Normans that we can recount and think that maybe this is a Norman coin with a Breton moneyer striking it. There’s no way to decide, and Rory’s proposal may be the simpler, but wherever it was, someone there had decided enough was enough and there needed to be money in the area that was internationally recognisable and communicated both to England and to Francia, thus claiming their own authority in the area. It’s an important early sign of independent state formation in this old fringe of Francia, and I wish we knew more about it. I suppose we can hope for more to be found or recognised!


1. R. Naismith, “A Pair of Tenth-Century Pennies Found on the Banks of the Loire” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 174 (London 2014), pp. 223-225.

2. Jean B. Forestier & Maxime Mégret-Merget (edd.), The Bru Sale Numismatics and Paper Money Auction 6, 6th December 2011 (Brussels 2011), online here, lot 153, from a ‘European private collection’. The record on Sixbid suggests that it didn’t sell, and Rory informs us that the coin is in a private collection, but whether it’s still with its 2011 owner I couldn’t guess.

3. Naismith, “Pair of Tenth-Century Pennies”, p. 225.

Seminar CCXXVII: towards a more relaxed and flexible late Anglo-Saxon monetary system

My mainline posts may be diverging increasingly from my seminar reports in terms of date covered, but you will have to admit that the subject material is fairly coherent as I move onto the next seminar report, because it’s all about money here on A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe for a while. For lo, on 4th February 2015 my old colleague Rory Naismith, now of Kings College London, was presenting to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London, and so of course I was there.

A silver penny of Cnut, struck by Godman at London, in 1025-1036 from the Lenborough hoard, Buckinghamshire, discovered late 2014

A silver penny of King Cnut, struck by Godman at London in 1025-1036, from the Lenborough hoard, Buckinghamshire, discovered late 2014

Rory is, as those who know his work will appreciate, a man who gets stuff done, and accordingly when the Committee of the Medieval European Coinage Project (on which, full disclosure for those that don’t know, I sit) needed someone to write volume 8, which will cover the British Isles from circa 600 to 1066, it was to Rory we turned, and now it is in press, so chalk one more of many up to Rory on that one. At the point of this seminar he had just about submitted that text, and so was able to give us some preliminary conclusions under the title, “Coinage and the Late Anglo-Saxon State”, and having thus elected to focus on the late Anglo-Saxon monetary system he was necessarily led to address the legacy of this man.

Portrait of Michael Dolley

The late Reginald Hugh Michael Dolley

Thankfully this was not quite literal, as Rory informed us that Michael Dolley (for it is he) had produced not just 860 research outputs in his career but 6 children, but nonetheless there is a particular vision of the late Anglo-Saxon monetary system that we owe to Dolley, which has become fixed into a view of what James Campbell called the ‘maximum hypothesis’ of what he also called the Anglo-Saxon state.1 According to Dolley, extensive study of the coinage revealed that from 973, in the reign of King Edgar, a system of sexennial recoinage operated in which the whole kingdom’s money was called in, melted down and reissued in a new type at any of a large number of mints scattered across the country for this purpose. This allowed very tight dating of the sequence of what were, then, necessarily single nationwide issues, and from this really quite elaborate hypotheses have been hatched about how the weights of these coins were managed to encourage people to bring them in at the end of the run despite the cut that moneyers took at recoinage, and many other aspects of fine detail management.2 It’s been thought for quite a long time that this must be too rigid but only now has someone been forced to write a replacement account, and of course here he was talking to us.

Silver penny of Æthelred II struck by Æthelwine at Stamford around 1009, found at Lenborough, Buckinghamshire, late 2014, a mule of the Lamb of God and Last Small Cross types showing their probably-simultaneous manufacture

Silver penny of Æthelred II struck by Æthelwine at Stamford around 1009, also found at Lenborough, a mule of the Lamb of God and Last Small Cross types showing their probably-simultaneous manufacture

So, in the Naismith dispensation, not everything has changed but a good deal has. In the first place, since we have 1300+ finds of coins of this period, we can start to say something about relative frequency of types with some basis, and this shows us that not every type was struck in equal numbers. Some, indeed, especially the Lamb of God issue of Æthelred the Unready as above, were apparently struck in very small numbers—if you find one, be careful with it—and while some hoards have only one type in, others do mix, often containing several types at once, all of which puts serious holes in the idea of consistent and total type-by-type recoinage. Instead, it seems ineluctable that some types were only experimental and ran alongside others, that recoinage was not always total and that people did save up over several reigns even when the coins in their hoards should have been legally useless. In discussion, in fact, I suggested that they were still exchangeable for new coins and so people waited until they had to do so rather than pay the moneyer’s cut several times over, which I think still works. The coinage winds up looking like a much less tightly-regulated fiscal apparatus as Rory sees it, anyway, and acquires an aspect of simple moral broadcasting and the performance of royal power, all of which is very much in keeping with how we now view that kingship in certain other aspects too.3

Silver Agnus Dei penny of Æthelred II struck by Sæwine at Salisbury

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge also has one of Æthelred’s Lamb of God pennies, which has suffered a different set of misfortunes but which is described in the article linked through the image. The coin is Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.1-2009, and it was struck at Salisbury by Sæwine.

This is not necessarily to diminish the power of that kingship, one should say, lest hearts in Oxford start to quail, but rather to change its aims. Starting with James Campbell but picked up by many others, a good deal of work has gone into establishing the late Anglo-Saxon kingdom as unusually closely and effectively administered, and the coinage has been a big part of that because of the kind of micro-management arguments I’ve mentioned, which would require a very modern-looking grasp of fiscal economics to dream up.4 If the kingship’s aims were actually more ideological than fiscal, that doesn’t remove the fact that apparently it could, on a fairly frequent basis, call in almost all of the coinage and replace it, a thing that almost no other medieval state could hope to do or even see any point in. Indeed, one could follow Rory all the way and see the flexibility of this system, minting coins as needed in places that only sprang into life as mints occasionally and meeting demand where the demand mainly was (London, Lincoln, Stamford, York and Winchester struck between half and three-quarters of any given type, Rory had told us), as a strength, indicating a responsive and adaptable system rather than a rigid and dictatorial one. What it begins no longer to look like, however, is a prototype for English modernity, and that is probably good to make clear.


1. Dolley didn’t really compile a monographic statement of his theory, and the closest one can get to a summary of it is probably R. H. M. Dolley and D. Michael Metcalf, “The Reform of the English Coinage under Edgar” in Dolley (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Coins: studies presented to F. M. Stenton on the occasion of his 80th birthday, 17 May 1960 (London 1961), pp. 136-168, though one (and by one I suppose I really mean Rory) has also to take account of updates like Dolley & C. Stewart Lyon, “Additional evidence for the sequence of types early in the reign of Edward the Confessor” in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 39 (1967), pp. 59-61 or Dolley, “Some neglected Scandinavian evidence for the ordering of the early types of Edward the Confessor”, Seaby’s Coin and Medal Bulletin no. 693 (London 1976), pp. 154-158. Probably the best place to find the significant references is in fact shortly to be Rory Naismith, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 8: Britain and Ireland, c. 400-1066 (Cambridge forthcoming)! As for the Campbell theory, the starting point is J. Campbell, “The Late Anglo-Saxon State: a maximum view” in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 87 (London 1994), pp. 39-65, repr. in idem, The Anglo-Saxon State (London 2000), pp. 1-30, along with several other relevant papers, including at pp. 201-225 idem, “Some Agents and Agencies of the Late Anglo-Saxon State” in James C. Holt (ed.), Domesday Studies: Papers read at the Novocentenary Conference of the Royal Historical Society and the Institute of British Geographers, Winchester, 1986 (Woodbridge 1986), pp. 201-218, and one could also point back to Campbell, “Observations on English Government from the Tenth to the Twelfth Century” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 25 (London 1975), pp. 39-54, repr. in idem, Essays in Anglo-Saxon History (London 1986), pp. 155-170.

2. The extent to which Dolley carried the numismatists of his generation with him is to some extent evident in the number of things about his system that he co-wrote, as witness the cites above, but even in 1976 some disquiet was emerging, evident in Stewart Lyon, “Some Problems in Interpreting Anglo-Saxon Coinage” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 5 (Cambridge 1976), pp. 173-224, while on the other hand people who liked to think in systems were having a ball with it, most memorably for me S. R. H. Jones, “Devaluation and the Balance of Payments in Eleventh-Century England: an exercise in Dark Age economics” in Economic History Review 2nd Series Vol. 45 (London 1991), pp. 594-607, which is really special thinking.

3. This new perspective seems to be due not least to Patrick Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the twelfth century. Volume 1: legislation and its limits (Oxford 2001), though some influence from the German scholarship focussed on ritual must also be involved, visible for example in Levi Roach, “Public rites and public wrongs: ritual aspects of diplomas in tenth- and eleventh-century England” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 19 (Oxford 2011), pp. 182-203. The Lamb of God coinage is especially useful for emphasising this ideological broadcasting, as it seems to have had no real economic rôle: see Rory Naismith & Simon Keynes, “The Agnus Dei pennies of King Æthelred the Unready” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 40 (Cambridge 2007), pp. 175-223, DOI: 10.1017/S0263675111000093.

4. In which respect it’s interesting to compare the works in n. 1 above with Simon Keynes, “Royal Government and the Written Word in Late Anglo-Saxon England” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 226-257, about which I wrote here a long time ago but now seems more prophetic than I then realised.

Seminar CCXXIII: hackweights, cut coins and secret knowledge in Viking England

Sing hallelujah, for I have brought my seminar reporting backlog under a year again at last! Witness: the date of the seminar involved in this post is 13th January 2015, when my old colleague and Viking metal expert Jane Kershaw came to Birmingham to tell the Research Seminar of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages about “The Bullion Economy of Viking England”, and I was there.

Part of the Cuerdale Hoard, on display at South Ribble Museum

Part of the classic example of hack metal from the British Isles, the Cuerdale Hoard, on display at South Ribble Museum

The starting premise here is a duality long accepted by scholars of early medieval Scandinavia between monetary economies, where value can be measured, stored and exchanged in coin that is guaranteed to some extent by an outside agency like the state, and a bullion economy in which precious metal (or other metal) is dealt with by weight to perform the same functions. This is a concern of Scandinavianists because Viking Age Scandinavia operated on the latter terms whereas the places it was preying on usually had money, so whereas a ninth-century hoard in, say, the Paris basin would usually be coins, a ninth-century hoard in Sweden is classically many many Samanid dirhams, coins yes but often cut into non-arithmetic fragments, along with bits of jewellery, ingots and other lumps and bits of cut-up metal, or hacksilver as it’s usually called. Even the intact coins in such a hoard will very often bear peck marks from where their metal content was not taken on trust but tested with a knife-point or similar.

Reverse of a penny of King Æthelred II of England showing 'peck' marks in the upper right quarter

Reverse of a penny of King Æthelred II of England showing ‘peck’ marks in the upper right quarter. The coin is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Now of course, sometimes you get ‘Viking’ hoards in ‘victim’ areas, and this is especially the case in the areas of England that were subject to Viking settlement. But these were money-using areas, so what happened when people who worked a different way moved in? This was the subject of Jane’s paper, because while hoards have told us mainly that settlers seem quickly to have adopted coin, to the point of making their own proper-standard stuff in the name of locally-culted saints, the single-finds that are continually being recovered by metal-detector users these days, the bits and pieces that people dropped or lost and which therefore presumably represent the everyday better than an emergency deposit like a hoard, tell a different story, because what they dropped and lost looks much more like the kind of cut-up bullion we expect from a non-monetary situation. In other words, people were doing both.

A cut fragment of a silver Permian ring from a Viking context and now in the Fitzwilliam Museum

A cut fragment of a silver Permian ring from a Viking context and now in the Fitzwilliam Museum; photograph by Jane Kershaw

To an extent, this shouldn’t surprise us, as several people opined in questions. When your smallest available monetary unit is a penny cut in half or quarter, quite a rare thing to find but still in the realm of, say, five or ten pounds sterling as of 2015—total fudge figures because we can buy so much more and get money so much more easily, but an approximation for thinking with—some smaller ways of handling value must have been desirable, for the basic everyday level of exchange that we mostly can’t see but assume was usually done with produce. But Jane gave us two other important things to consider.

Viking silver ingot

A smooth, ‘regular’ ingot with rounded ends and test marks (PAS ‘Find-ID’ SF-144CA2, photo: PAS), says Jane on her blog

Firstly, many of the lumps of metal we find are much bigger than this, including ingots of around 50 grams, with a buying power on the same scale of more like three to five hundred pounds. So the bullion economy could supplement the top end of the monetary one as well as the bottom one, and perhaps better since really tiny pieces of silver and gold such as might make for low denomination currency would be awfully easy to lose!

Viking copper alloy collapsible weights from 1000-1200

Viking copper alloy collapsible weights from 1000-1200. Photograph by Klaus Göken/Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte/Berlin State Museums.

Secondly, operating in a bullion economy requires learned skills that a monetary one displaces: you as trader, on whatever scale, need to be able to weigh, test, evaluate and value all kinds of metal object or fragment to be sure that you are receiving what you think fair and paying no more than you have to. Coin which you can trust gets rid of those problems and leaves you only haggling over a fair price, without needing to work out how to express that, demand it or ensure that you’ve really received it. Small wonder that many graves of people from this period with strong Scandinavian connections include small sets of weights and balances!

An assemblage of Viking metalwork finds from Torksey, Lincolnshire, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

A carefully-sorted assemblage of finds from Torksey, Lincolnshire, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Obviously they didn’t come in looking as tidy as this!

This all sounds somewhat chaotic, and assemblages like the above, pulled together from twenty-five years of metal detecting over the area of a short-lived Viking fortified harbour, tend to corroborate that impression: how could anyone manage all this stuff? Well, among all the stuff above that seemed clear and sensible and somewhat like someone pointing out the floor under a carpet I had got very used to walking on, Jane also had some hints of a system being used to manage the chaos, by possibly setting weight standards in some metals. The hints here are cubo-octohedral weights, square lumps with the corners cut off, which are found in various sizes from just above a gram to just below four, and are numbered with spots, like dice with only one face. They are found numbered all the way from one to six, and their weights are roughly in proportion to those numbers but so far no example has been found with five spots.

A Viking cuboctohedral weight with four dots on it

A number four weight of the type Jane was discussing, photographed by her and discussed on her blog (click through)

It’s hard not to see a system there, and Allan McKinley bravely suggested that a dirham might be about the right weight to be the five-spot unit, though I checked this later and dirhams seem usually to have been too heavy. But the problem is variation and regulation: the weights aren’t exactly consistent, and how could they be? What reference could there have been except someone else’s weights? That need not preclude an aim to be consistent, but it makes it impossible for us to verify: the error margins of the weights of something so small could very easily exceed a step in the scheme. If a high-weight two-spot one weighs more than someone else’s light three-spot one, we have to ask not only how could this work but how can we be sure they really should be the other way round? I’m not saying Jane’s not right about this, but early medieval metrology is notoriously unverifiable except by constructing models that then guide your sense of what the objects ‘should’ weigh, and given that, I’m not sure what she will have to do to convince me we can really know that one of the models is sustainable…


Jane’s cite for the bullion economy system was Dagfinn Skre (ed.), Means of exchange dealing with silver in the Viking Age, Norske Oldfunn 23 (Århus 2008), and it’s a good one, though I feel that we have to mention Mark Blackburn, Viking Coinage and Currency in the British Isles, British Numismatic Society Special Publication 7 (London 2011) too; for more local examples, see now Jane Kershaw, “Viking-Age Silver in North-West England: hoards and single finds” in Stephen E. Harding, David Griffiths & Elizabeth Royles (edd.), In Search of Vikings: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Scandinavian Heritage of North-West England (Florence KY 2014), pp. 149-164.

Seminar CCXIII: doctors in one place, lords in many

Since 1984 (I understand) there has been a peripatetic seminar series shared between the medievalists of the universities of Chester, Keele, Lancaster, Liverpool, Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan Universities (presumably not all of those initially), which is now known as the M6 North-West Medieval Seminar, because of the six participant medieval departments and also the arterial road that links the north-west of Britain to its neighbouring regions. The papers often look really interesting, but from Cambridge or Oxford I could never have got back from it before the transport ran out for the night, and it wasn’t till 12th November 2014, when the seminar swung down to its southernmost point at Keele, that I could even attempt it from Birmingham. Even then it was a bit of an adventure, with a forty-minute bus ride through the dark from the nearest station and so on. There was a certain amount of surprise to see me! But I did, at last, make it to the M6 Seminar, and the blog backlog now crunches round to reporting on it. There were two papers, and they were “Medical Practitioners before Medical Schools: the evidence from Salernitan charters, ss. VIII-XI”, by Luca Larpi, and “Lords of the North Sea: comparative approaches to the aristocracies of the tenth and eleventh centuries” by Anthony Mansfield.

Medieval illustration of doctors attending a patient

As the below will make clear, having three doctors in attendance at once like this was probably out of reach for the early Middle Ages as far as we can document it. Speaking of documentation, I wish I knew where the University of Aberdeen got this image but their site isn’t saying so all I can do is link…

Luca is the lead researcher in a project I’d been hearing about for years by this time, trying to amass what information we have about the existence of professional doctors in the early Middle Ages by going through charters looking for them. This is my kind of work, but I’d already had to tell them long ago that I knew of none from Catalan materials prior to 1030. This is not surprising, though; even now, the database (which is online) contains the gleanings of 17,000 documents, and in those 17,000 documents they found 178 references to 109 medici, so their hit rate is either side of 1%, and most of it is from Italy and more than anywhere else from the monastery of Cava di Terreni, where 1787 pre-eleventh-century documents gave them 45 references to 22 doctors.1 That’s not really enough to process statistically, although Luca opined that most of the people we can see hang out with the kind of people that suggest they were high-status indiviudals, and more empirically 16 of the 22 were ecclesiastics. But the particular concentration in this archive is interesting, because it covers Salerno, which would (I had to find out later, so basic a fact was it for Luca) later come to boast a major medical school famous throughout Europe.2

Medieval illustration of the Scuola Medica di Salerno, from a manuscript of the Canons of Avicenna

And here is a medieval image of that school! “ScuolaMedicaMiniatura“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

So, does this mean the school was sort of there before it was a school, and if so, why? Characterising the sample led us down very quickly to individuals: only one Jew; an ecclesiastical kindred providing three of whom one, Bishop Pietro of Salerno, was son of the first, the Abbot of San Massimo; and a number of people associated with the harbour church of Santa Maria de Domno. From 989 that organisation shared pastoral care of the city with the cathedral and ran a hospital, for which purpose it at three points in the eleventh century retained doctors as part of its community, on terms that meant they couldn’t leave for more than two years and had to perform mass regularly when present (but not necessarily, apparently, treat people). Duke Gisulf of Salerno also retained a Sicilian doctor for the city in the 1060s. So there was a lot of medical traffic here, although Luca thought that the school only came into being on the back of the translation of Arabic scientific texts. But that ‘lot’ is still relative: at times, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, we can say that Salerno boasted two professional doctors, perhaps because of an ephemerally-attested drug trade. I can’t help remembering one charter of Obarra I blogged about once where two magistri witness, utterly without context and never appearing again. Two or three such charters mentioning medici at, say, Trier or Clermont (and at the latter it could happen, since unpublished charters survive there) and this picture would change quite sharply. Such is the thin sample we sometimes have…

Early modern pen drawing of the Chateau de Guines

Early modern pen drawing of the Chateau de Guines

Mr Mansfield’s paper, which came from his ongoing doctoral research, was more dogmatic, demanding that we try to stop seeing regional aristocracies as loyal, grudging or rebellious with respect to the centre and instead view their political choices in the context of their regions. The regions he picked for this were Essex in England, Guines in Flanders and Trøndelag in Norway, all of which areas he noted were delimited by water although as he was forced to admit in questions, some of those waters were pretty easy to cross; in one case one could jump it, though my notes annoyingly don’t name it. In all these places, argued Mr Mansfield, our texts show us the existence of a regional identity which must always have been those places’ lords’ first concern, because without support within the region they could do nothing, whether helpful to the centralising court or not. Much of the thinking here emerged in questions, and I imagine thateven by now the project is much further on, but for early work it was demandingly theorised and I suppose that many of the questions came from a feeling that evidence would probably bend the theory once there was enough of it in play.

Castell de Cabrera, Santa María de Corcó, by Ricardo Ballo

The obligatory Catalan counter-example, the Castell de Cabrera in Santa María de Corcó, Osona, where an outsider lineage very happily ruled an area with no clear identity beyond its name, though that’s not to say there wasn’t one. Photo by Ricardo Ballo.

For me, of course, the key question is how lords such as these are induced to take part in the enterprise of the centre, so it’s not that I don’t think they were there, quite the reverse; I’m not sure, however, that coercive lordship was getting enough consideration at the regional, rather than the supraregional level, to match with what I see in Catalonia where the local independents still don’t show much sign of participating in a wider community of their region.3 Nonetheless, it made me think, and as you can tell still is doing. And the gathering contained many people I’d otherwise only see once a year at conferences if that, so it was good to be there for many reasons and I got back all right. Whether I can make it again, even from Leeds, we shall see, but it should in theory now be easier! That hasn’t stopped me missing all this term’s papers, but I intend on being here a while, so watch out…


1. The publication of the charters of Cava is an ongoing effort with a long and painful history. There is Michele Morcaldi, Mauro Schianni & Silvano Di Stephano (edd.), Codex Diplomaticus Cavensis (Napoli & Milano, 1873-1970), 10 vols, but I gather that this is only about two-thirds of what there is and that work on the remainder since 1970 has met many difficulties.

2. This does, admittedly, from a literature search look like something that is mainly known by those writing in Italian. An introduction for others might be Paul Oskar Kristeller, “The school of Salerno: its development and its contribution to the history of learning” in his Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters, Storia e letteratura: Raccolta di studi e testi 54, 166, 178 & 193 (Roma, 1956-1996) 4 vols, III pp. 495-551.

3. Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 144-148.