Category Archives: Anglo-Saxons

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.

Seminar CCX: reading backwards into Frankish brooches

I have to start with the now-usual apology for lapse in posting; quite a lot is being required of me right now and mostly there is no time for blogging. In fact, like a proper obsessive compulsive I have a 12-step triage list for getting through the day without any of the spinning plates dropping, in which the blog is only no. 10 and in which on an ordinary day I’m rarely reaching no. 5… but we struggle on. In particular, I struggle on with the first seminar I went to in the Autumn term of 2014, and you can tell I was a bit busy then because that wasn’t till the 15th October. But on that date, Professor Guy Halsall, no less, was giving the David Wilson Lecture at the Institute of Archaeology in University College London, so obviously I was going to go. His title was “The Space Between: the ‘undead’ Roman Empire and the aesthetics of Salin’s Style I’.

A bronze clasp from Gotland

One of Salin’s own illustrations, a bronze clasp from Gotland busy with animal bits. Originally from Berhard Salin, Die altgermanische Tierornametik (Stockholm 1904).

For those that don’t know, Salin was a nineteenth-century archaeologist who worked on the artefacts of the period of the end of the Roman Empire in the West, particularly of the Franks, and he distinguished two styles of carving and ornament among their metalwork, which we still know as Style I and Style II.1 Style I is characterised by intertwined animal-form creatures (zoomorphs, is the rather splendid technical term) and disconnected animal or bird heads, in sometimes quite complex conjunction as you see above. Salin thought, and since he wrote many others have thought, that this was characteristic of the art of the barbarian peoples invading the Roman Empire, and could indeed be used as a proxy for their presence or at least influence.

Silver Style I bracteate with suspension loop

Silver Style I bracteate with suspension loop, a clearer but more abstract example of the style

With this, Guy began by arguing, and arguing that Style I is not, and was never, characteristically Germanic, not least because it only appears in the fifth century, so was obviously being generated within the Empire and could hardly therefore be barbarians’ imported ancestral custom, and still less the shared ancestral custom of a whole range of previously-unconnected groups. With that out of the way, and entirely in keeping with his other writing on the subject, he proceeded to what on earth this style of carving may have meant.

A sixth-century Anglo-Saxon square-headed brooch from Chessell Down, now British Museum 1867,0729.5

A good example case, a sixth-century Anglo-Saxon square-headed brooch from Chessell Down, now British Museum 1867,0729.5, with many significant-looking bearded heads to focus in on as this decoder page on the British Museum blog shows.

It’s not that no-one’s tried doing this, of course: people have seen in this art archetypes of Germanic folk heroes and gods and apotropaic serpents and so on, but as Guy pointed out such information can only be drawn from much later Norse sources, written after Christianization, which is thus in several ways the wrong direction to make these artefacts face; those traditions and that worldview not only come from later than the objects, but might have been partly formed by those objects or objects like them.2 Rather than being anachronistic like this, therefore, Guy opted to be ‘achronic’, and employ the work of the modern theorist Derrida to try and understand how these signifiers did their signifying.3

The Roman general Stilicho portrayed in the dress of a citizen with wife and child, though also with weapons, in Monza Cathedral

The master signifier made manifest, a supposed barbarian—none other than the Roman general Stilicho—portrayed in the dress of a citizen with wife and child, though also with weapons, in Monza Cathedral

The question here seems to me to be a good one, and perhaps it could not have been asked like that without the use of such modern work, but it still seems to me that this is not achronism but witting anachronism. That might not be bad, though, depending on what it gets you. What it got Guy was a development of his argument that Roman identity is idealised as the civil self-governed male, and that from the third century onwards that identity was challenged to the point of destruction by peripheral and destructive identifications, for Guy more or less what being ‘barbarian’ meant, the powerful other whom it became increasingly cool to be like. For Guy this only works because of the core referent, the old Roman identity against which this was expressed, a periphery set against a centre which comes to be the new defining cultural identification.4

Late Roman fourth-century military belt buckle

Late Roman fourth-century military belt buckle, with animal heads confined to its ends

So on this occasion Guy tried to fit Style I into this framework, as an artform in which the periphery takes over, the beasts and interlace erasing the geometric centres common in late Roman ornamental metalwork. He argued that this was a deliberate artistic expression of uncertainty, in which it is no accident that we can’t tell,that contemporaries could not have told, how many animals there actually are on the brooch. It was born ‘out of disturbance’, that disturbance presumably being the breakdown of the Roman West with all its concomitant changes in social and economic organisation and prosperities. The areas worst hit by all this are not where Style I seems to have originated, Guy admitted, but it spread into them very quickly. The signification of the Empire was now uncertain, indeterminate and ‘undead’, in the sense that no-one could be sure it wouldn’t yet rise again, as it had done before.5 And the art that best captured that mood was Style I.

The Sutton Hoo belt buckle now in the British Museum

I’m not sure if this is technically Style I, but it gets the point about indeterminacy over nicely… It is of course the Sutton Hoo belt buckle now in the British Museum. “Belt buckle” by Michel walOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

I like that this lays such emphasis on uptake of material culture by an audience, rather than requiring it to move with immigrants as per the nineteenth century narrative that likewise refuses to die. Nonetheless, I have reservations. One of these is chronology: it was very recently, for example, that the relative stylistic chronology of lots of Anglo-Saxon metalwork was pushed back by fifty years.6 Even that preserves a stylistic chronology where some of the directional links are assumption. My limited knowledge of the Frankish metalwork suggests to me that there are lots more of those assumed links, many of which Guy has contested. With them uncertain, however, a similar shift backwards of the dating of this stuff would possibly radically change its relationship to other styles of metalwork. I am just not sure that we know well enough what comes before what and whether people necessarily only used one of these styles at once to hang such large arguments about cultural change off them. Then secondly, of course this is an argument Guy has also made from other evidence. With the aid of Derrida he is now able to fit the metalwork into that theory comfortably too, and he might not even have needed the theorist. But it’s not a free reading of the evidence, if that were even possible.

And thirdly, of course, we cannot know what this stuff meant to people, not least because of a lot of it presumably being unconscious: how many people who wear black leather jackets have consciously thought “I want to look like a nineteen-fifties motorcyclist” rather than, “that’s cool?” How many people who wear Ramones t-shirts have actually heard any of the songs? And so on. “What were they thinking?” is one thing to ask; “what did they not realise they were thinking?” is a whole new order of superiority to take over our study subjects… So I am still fairly clear that what Guy was offering was, explicitly in fact, a theory brought from outside to bear upon dead people who can’t be questioned, and whatever it was that they thought about their dress accessories, they weren’t reading Derrida to do it. I don’t know that we can work out what this stuff meant to its users, but if we must try I would rather start with tools that they also had.7

1. The starting point for Salin style is of course Bernhard Salin, Die altgermanische Tierornamentik (Stockholm 1904), but an Anglophone introduction can be found in Günther Haseloff, “Salin’s Style I” in Medieval Archaeology 18 (Leeds 1974), pp. 1-18, online here.

2. An example of the kind of work Guy meant here, I guess, is Lotte Hedeager, “Myth and Art: a passport to political authority in Scandinavia during the Migration Period” in Tania Dickinson & David Griffiths (edd.), The Making of Kingdoms. Papers from the 47th Sachsensymposium, York, September 1996, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 10 (Oxford 1999), pp. 151-156.

3. I don’t know Derrida’s writings, but I guess from this webpage that the key text here is Jacques Derrida, L’écriture et la différence (Paris 1967), in which case I should probably think twice about calling it modern; that’s older than Geertz…

4. See most obviously G. Halsall, “Gender and the End of Empire” in Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies Vol. 34 (Durham NC 2004), pp. 17-40.

5. On this I thoroughly recommend Guy’s Barbarian Migrations and the End of the Roman West 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), which has become part of how I think about this period.

6. John Hines (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: a chronological framework, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 33 (London 2013). the primary text of reference for Merovingian stuff other than the work of Patrick Périn, which has its own problems, seems still to be Edward James, The Merovingian Archaeology of South-West Gaul, British Archaeological Reports (Supplementary Series) 25 (Oxford 1977), 2 vols, so some such reevaluation can’t be too far away! Guy’s Cemeteries and society in Merovingian Gaul: selected studies in history and archaeology, 1992-2009, On the Early Middle Ages 18 (Leiden 2009) starts this work but a systematic review will be necessary for a while yet.

7. I am aware in writing that that Guy posted on social media shortly after the lecture that he thought it was beyond the understanding of most of his audience. I may well have misunderstood it, given both that and that I’m reconstructing from year-old notes, but the text is online should you want to try it yourself, and I’m sure he will correct any misunderstandings too awful to be allowed to stand…

Towards a Global Middle Ages III and final: bits and pieces from around the world

I’ve put in two quite heavy posts now about thoughts arising from the meeting of the Global Middle Ages Network I was invited to in September last year, and although they have not exhausted those thoughts they have used up all the big ones, so this last one collects the small stuff. Consequently it’s a bit less structured than the others and I will use headings to gather it up, but hopefully there’s something in it for most readers.

The Rôle of Cities

Cities were one of the things that those assembled thought would be most obviously comparable across a wide area, because most areas of the world had cities in the Middle Ages. But this set off my erstwhile Insular early medievalist’s alarm bells somewhat, because there’s a substantial debate in Anglo-Saxonist circles about when we can start talking about England having had towns, let alone cities, and in Ireland agreement is pretty universal that, unless big monasteries and their dependent settlements count, towns arrived only with the Vikings.1 This has led to some fairly theorised wrangling about how to define a town, with words like Kriterienbundel (a bundle of criteria) flying around it, and I’ve written about this here before. This was not a debate that we seemed to be having here and I wondered why not.

The ghost town of Craco, Italy

In the thirteenth century this place had a bishop, a lord and a university, and yet I cannot help thinking it is not necessarily what we all meant by the word city… It is the ghost town of Craco, in Italy. “Craco0001” by No machine readable author provided. Idéfix~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims).. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

It’s not that no-one asked what a city might actually be, not least because I did. The answer that Alan Strathern came up with, a settlement that can’t feed itself, presumably meaning by the agriculture or hunting of its own inhabitants, is actually a pretty good one in basic economic terms, but could again easily encompass a big monastery or an army camp while maybe not including, for example, fifth-century London as we currently envisage it, so I see some problems still.2 There’s also an important difference between a settlement that can’t feed itself and one that could, but is structured so as not to have to; some quite small places running on tribute were not necessarily doing so out of economic necessity, but because it was how they demonstrated and enacted importance. This kind of blur is why we need multiple criteria, but the western Kriterienbundel, which classically includes defences, planned streets, a market, a mint, legal autonomy, a rôle as a central place, population density, economic diversification, plot-type settlement, social stratification, religious organisation and political centrality, might not all make sense in, say, northern China.3 So I leave that there to wonder about, as I think it still needs it.

Map of Anglo-Saxon London in the seventh century

So, OK, we have defences and religious centrality, but probably not political centrality and while we do have economic diversification it’s not in the same place as the defences… I think I’ll leave this to them. Map borrowed from the Musem of London blog, linked through.

Anthropologists of resort

Here just a short note that there was, in some ways surprisingly little resort to anthropological models in this meeting but when the anthropologists did come in it tended to be the same one. I am of the opinion that while we can almost always profit from talking to anthropologists and then taking their models home to try on, a meeting and project with as broad a comparative framework as this one might need the outside help least of all; there are already an immense number of models flying about, surely, or ought to be. This is in fact more or the less the state I want to get my frontiers network to (had you considered offering a paper, by the way?), where we actually make our own theory. But until this group gets itself there, one name seems likely to recur, and that name was David Graeber. I have not read Graeber, though he is one of my anthropologist of resort‘s own anthropologists of resort and I know that I need to, and I see that he works on concepts that should indeed be comparable between societies, here mainly economic value, but I will need to read him before I can stop worrying about how well work based on him will encompass societies that didn’t use money and in which honour was something you could put a price on in law (which was supposed to be paid in money they didn’t have).4 I suppose this misgiving only exposes my ignorance and I ought to just knuckle down and get one of his books out of a library when I have long-term access to one again next month.5

Models of Trust

Some of the most interesting conversations in the meeting for me were about whether trust might be a concept around which one could organise a global comparison of medieval-period societies. It’s hard to dig further into this without basically summarising Ian Forrest‘s presentation, but he made the excellent point that as long as we are looking at contact over distances, trust was crucial because so little of what people knew of each other could be checked or verified.6 There was much debate about, firstly, whether this was a medieval issue or a more general one and whether that made a difference to its potential for the project, which Ian thought was best answered in terms of scale, often my favourite terms as you know, and secondly how trust could have been tested in such milieux, whether religion secured it and how foreigners could access that or whether kinship might work better (and how they accessed that.7 Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias told us of work that broke trust relationships down into horizontal ones, as between brothers, and hierarchical ones, as between boss and subordinate, and that in some ways the most interesting points of comparison might be between things that wouldn’t fit that scheme, and that struck me as really clever but also murderously abstruse to try and carry out, especially (as Ian had up-front admitted) in areas where the evidence was largely archæological.8 Lots to think about here but less clear as yet how to test it all…

And, types of network

There was also some interesting talk around the idea of networks. Jonathan Shepard had diaarmingly admitted that he was trying to continue working on empires by seeing them as large top-down networks, but was quickly led into the alternatives, because if a network is not top-down, no-one is in overall control of its structure, which will instead presumably develop as needed and possible and die off where non-functional. There were also in-between states to be considered such as diasporas, where the initial distribution is very much directed from above but its effects and low-level distribution is basically uncontrolled, or the slave trade, where the initial gathering of points of linkage is very localised but subsequent transmission takes place through a highly-structured network which is, nonetheless, not always there because, as Rebecca Darley pointed out, the early Middle Ages at least has to deal with the idea of trading places that occupied only intermittently.9 These were all interesting ways to think about intermittency and duration in almost any area. How were such intermittent networks accessed? If people rarely went somewhere, how did anyone know where to go? I imagined, for example, Norse settlers in Newfoundland sometimes, in very hard winters, trying to find the Dorset people to trade with (as some people think they did, even if perhaps in better circumstances), and going to places they supposed they might be and hoping to coincide. Does that still count? And if so, did it have much effect? In some ways you could dismiss it as occasional and not how that society usually worked (or indeed as entirely hypothetical) but if it ever did, they must have been pretty profound experiences for those taking part…

Wool recovered from a Dorset site in Baffin Island that has been argued to be a Viking import to the area

Wool recovered from a Dorset site in Baffin Island that has been argued to be a Viking import to the area

That’s about enough, anyway, but it goes to show that despite some of my big-order doubts about the viability of this group’s concept, attempting the work at all involves enough productive thinking about difficult cases of comparison and contact that we can all profit from their attempt even if it doesn’t achieve its main goal, and that might be quite enough to count it as a success!

1. My go-to for this is still Martin Biddle, “Towns” in David Wilson (ed.), The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England (London 1976), pp. 99-150, and for Ireland Charles Doherty, “The monastic town in early medieval Ireland” in Howard B. Clarke and A. Simms (edd.), The comparative history of urban origins in non-Roman Europe: Ireland, Wales, Denmark, Germany, Poland and Russia from the 9th to the 13th century, British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 255 (Oxford 1985), 2 vols, II, pp. 45-75; both are old but make the point.

2. I haven’t read this, but a quick search makes look like the obvious thing on this Howard B. Clarke, “Kingdom, emporium and town: the impact of Viking Dublin” in History Studies Vol. 2 (Limerick 2000), pp. 13-24.

3. Biddle, “Towns”, pp. 99-100; the idea is older, though, perhaps as old as Edith Ennen, Frühgeschichte der europäischen Stadt (Bonn 1953).

4. See Elina Screen, “Anglo-Saxon law and numismatics: a reassessment in the light of Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law” in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 77 (London 2007), pp. 150-172.

5. Presumably his Debt: the first 5,000 years (Bew York City 2011), but I’ll take recommendations…

6. For this I always think of Ernst Pitz, “Erschleichung und Anfechtung von Herrscher- und Papsturkunden vom 4. bis 10. Jahrhundert” in Fälschungen im Mittelalter. Internationaler Kongreß der Monumenta Germaniae Historica, München, 16.-19. September 1986, Schriften der Monumenta Germaniae Historica 33 (Hannover 1988), 5 vols, III, pp. 69-113, because of the stories in it about popes who just have no idea what is going on in many farflung places when people come from there to get it changed.

7. Some of these points came from Chris Wickham, who prefaced them with the name of Jessica Goldberg, whose most relevant work would seem to be Institutions and geographies of trade in the medieval Mediterranean: the business world of the Maghribi traders (Cambridge 2012).

8. I didn’t catch the reference here. My notes contain the word ‘Salura’, but I can’t tell if this is a cite or a place or what, sorry!

9. Professor Shepard’s examples were here coming largely from his (and others’) Dirhams for Slaves project, about which I have several reservations, but I can’t find that it’s as yet published anything, so I can’t tell you where to find the opportunity to think differently, sorry!

Calls for Papers: ‘Rethinking the Medieval Frontier’ at Leeds IMC 2016, and Conquest: 1016, 1066

I am getting ahead of my backlog somewhat to say it, but the two sessions I ran on Rethinking the Medieval Frontier at this year’s International Medieval Congress in Leeds went well, so well in fact that I/we want to do it some more. Therefore, please see, consider, circulate and publicify the following Call for Papers!

Poster masthead for the International Medieval Congress, Leeds 2016

Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, at Leeds International Medieval Congress 2016

Frontiers and boundaries offer one of the best areas to study societies and polities in their essence, the presence of rival identities allowing and even necessitating definition against them. The Middle Ages was especially rich in such situations, which often struggle within the theories now used to explain them. It is time for medievalists to reevaluate their frontiers and boundaries and to come together in generating new theories to inform both our colleagues and those in other disciplines. After a successful beginning in 2015, we now invite scholars across all fields of medieval studies to join us in Rethinking the Medieval Frontier at the International Medieval Congress, Leeds, 4-7 July 2016. Particular topics of interest are: what makes frontier societies different from the cores of which they are the edges? Where does that difference begin and end, and how we can detect it? What effects did militarisation have on medieval frontier space? We invite papers especially on these topics, on internal frontiers and on non-physical and non-conventional frontiers, as well as on any other aspects of the frontier from any area and period of the Middle Ages. Please send prospective titles and abstracts of 100-200 words to Dr Jonathan Jarrett at <> by 15 September 2015.

Masthead image for the conference Conquest: 1016, 1066, Oxford 2016

Meanwhile, I am not alone in trying to organise things; my old colleague and friend Dr Laura Ashe at Oxford alerts me to an event of a couple of weeks later, namely Conquest: 1016, 1066. An Interdisciplinary Anniversary Conference. The Call for Papers looks quite interesting enough to justify its posting here:

Conquest: 1016, 1066


Paper proposals are invited for this interdisciplinary anniversary conference 21-24 July 2016 at the Ioannou Centre and TORCH, Oxford. Papers may be on any topic relevant to the area, though the main suggested themes are listed below. Individual paper proposals (of 20 minutes’ length) are highly encouraged and are anticipated to make up the majority of the programme; proposals are also invited for consideration by a number of session organisers. Sessions which are filled may be replicated if enough paper proposals warrant it.


  1. The Church; monasticism, clerical reform, theology, religious experience
  2. Literature, authors, and patronage
  3. Language and multilingualism, language contact
  4. Institutions and governance; lordship; kingship
  5. Warfare, battles, conduct in war, fighting men
  6. Art and material culture; music; court life
  7. Society and peoples
  8. Trade and commerce
  9. Space, movement, contact, networks; England and Europe, England and Scandinavia
  10. Historiography

SESSIONS CALLING – proposals warmly invited

  1. Economies of Power
  2. The English Language in the Long Twelfth Century
  3. Domesday Debated
  4. The Norman Conquest and its Myth
  5. Representing Gender and Conquest
  6. Rewriting the Narrative: Archaeological methods and evidence
  7. Women and the Conquests
  8. Women and the Legitimization of Succession Revisited
  9. Neither 1016 nor 1066? Key moments in England’s eleventh-century conquests
  10. Conquest 911 – The (proto-)Norman Conquest of Neustria Reconsidered
  11. Stories of migration in a century of conquest

SESSIONS PRE-ARRANGED – further related proposals will be considered for replica sessions, and as individual paper proposals

  1. Saints Alive! Conquest and cult, 1010-1110
  2. Embroidering the Death of Harold: Adela of Blois, Edith Swanneck and the Bayeux Tapestry
  3. Rebels or Collaborators? The conquests of 1016 and 1066 compared
  4. Assandun to Hastings: The Archaeology of eleventh-century battlefields
  5. Landholding and society in Lonsdale and south Cumbria: the impact of 1066
  6. Artefacts in Transition: people and things in the eleventh century
  7. The Structure of Landed Society in England, 1066-1086
  8. Communication between Powers in the eleventh century – The Normans and mainland Europe
  9. Approaching the Conquests of England using Geospatial Analysis
  10. Repercussions across the North Sea: Post-Conquest Relations between Scandinavia and the British Isles

The Church and doubt, mostly in the Middle Ages

You may, by now, have had enough of my conference reporting from a year ago, and believe you me, by the time summer 2014 ended I had had enough of conferences for a bit. But, there is one more to go, which was the 53rd Summer Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, which took place at the University of Sheffield from 22nd-24th July, and I was there. The EHS publishes most of its proceedings and I liked the theme, which was ‘Doubt’, so I pitched a paper and they accepted it and so there I was. Now, in the event my paper was not sufficiently doubt-full to be accepted for publication, but it was still a good conference and slightly off my usual beat, which is generally good for one. Still, because I have less to say about most of the papers than usual, I’m going to get the three days done in one post, and because that will likely be large, I will just give you the list of what I saw and heard, and then stick my commentary below a cut so that those of you reading the actual front page can choose to skip on by if you like. Here’s that list, then:

    Tuesday 22nd July

    Plenary Session 1

  • Frances Andrews, “Doubting John”.
  • Session 1.1

  • Aideen O’Leary, “Devotion to St Andrew in Scotland and Anglo-Saxon England”.
  • Stephen Sharman, “Bede and the Credible Witness: a response to doubt”.
  • Christine Walsh, “Faith and Authenticity: eleventh- and twelfth-century concerns about the cult of saints and their relics”.
  • Session 2.1

  • Christine Oakland, “‘A Box Full of Hay?’ Doubt and Truth in the Diocese of Sens”.
  • Jan Vandeburie, “When in Doubt, Give Him the Finger: Ugolino di Conti’s loss of faith and Jacques de Vitry’s intervention”.
  • Wednesday 23rd July

    Plenary Session 2

  • Janet Nelson, “Carolingian Doubt?”
  • Session 3.1

  • Kimberley-Joy Knight, “Lachrymose Holiness and the Problem of Doubt in Thirteenth- and Fourteenth-Century Hagiographies”.
  • Anik Laferrière, “Doubting Monica: the deletion of Monica from fourteenth-century Vitae Augustini in the Augustinian Order of Hermits”.
  • Steven Watts, “Demons and Doubt: the peculiar account of Brother Bernard’s possession in Jordan of Saxony’s Libellus“.
  • Plenary Session 3

  • Ian Forrest, “Trust and DOubt: the late medieval bishop and local knowledge”
  • Session 4.2

  • Emily Ewing Graham, “Heresy and identity: late medieval friars and the kingdom of Aragón”.
  • Patrick Zutshi, “Evidence and Doubt: the beginning of the Great Schism according to the testimony collected at Medina del Campo in 1380-1”.
  • Thursday 24th July

    Session 5.1

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “The Anger of St Peter: the effects of spiritual sanctions in early medieval charters of donation”.
  • Thomas Smith, “Investigating the Pope’s Doubts: the validity of petitions from thirteenth-century England”.
  • Enrico Veneziani, “Doubting the Authority of Peter: the trial of Pontius of Cluny”.
  • Plenary Session 4

  • Kirstie Blair, “Unforming Faith: poetry, doubt and the Church of England in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”

And this is (some of) what I thought about it all… Continue reading