Category Archives: Byzantium

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Site of a Byzantine Last Stand

This gallery contains 13 photos.

Having thus celebrated some achievement, it’s time to go back into the past again this post and pick up the story of the 2015 trip to Sicily. As you may remember, I had got through my report of the International … Continue reading

An awful lot of numismatists in Sicily, I

The progress of this blog continues surreal. I returned from India yesterday, and am nearly three years overdue in writing the next post, about going to Sicily. Nothing loath, here goes, in an attempt to write maybe my shortest ever conference review about one of the largest conferences I ever went to, the Fifteenth International Numismatic Congress, which was held in Taormina, already mentioned, from the 21st to the 25th September 2015. It is too large for one post, in fact, and there is a very obvious break-point in the middle, so this will be part I of II.

Logo of the XVth International Numismatic Congress

Logo of the XVth INC

I travelled to the INC in a sort of party of people one way or another connected to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts and its coin collection, which I’d still been in charge of when I signed up. We arrived the night before, I think, bussed in from Taormina’s delightfully, er, unreformed airport, past those Byzantine graves already mentioned, and stayed in a tiny but charming hostel room for the duration. The papers were split across four different venues in the town, all splendid and close by each other; it was easier and quicker getting between sessions here than at Kalamazoo, for example, than whose campus the whole town might even be smaller, but one had to resist buying tat (or just coffee) between each one in a very definite way. Proceedings began the next morning with a series of welcoming addresses, but I’ve no memory of those and no notes on them, and one was by someone I know, so I think that for one reason or another I didn’t get going until later. The best way to record what I did go to seems to be to list the papers for each day, then make remarks, but that still winds up fairly long. So I shall put it behind a cut, but encourage you to look even if only for the pictures, which are not what you’d expect from the average academic conference. Continue reading

Funding the study of medieval islands

It is by now long custom that I start my posts here with an apology for delay, and on bad days also some kind of explanation for it. Today I’ll keep that to, “I think the problem is establishing ownership of my weekends”, and muse on it in a footnote, but at the top I should just get on with it, I think.1 At the moment there are four kinds of post I want to be putting up here: firstly ones in the declared Chronicle series where I just tell you what was happening in my academic life in the period under discussion, secondly posts stubbed long ago during those actual periods which I should finish and get up here, thirdly posts arising from those Chronicle posts where there were just things that needed more explanation, and fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, out-of-sequence announcements of my various and brilliant successes! Only you may also remember that I have got backlogged even with those

So, this post is one of the self-publicity ones, and I’ll follow it with one of the stubbed relics, all of which is largely because I’m not enjoying the prospect of writing up the International Numismatic Congress in a single post. But why am I apologising? Surely the whole point of blogging is to make yourself more famous, right? So look, here’s something I’m proud of: in April 2017 I got given about £5,000 to fund a collaboration with a colleague in Turkey on a project called ‘Not the Final Frontier’: the World of Medieval Islands.

Dr Luca Zavagno of Bilkent University

Dr Luca Zavagno of Bilkent University, looking very cheerful for reasons that are about to be explained!

The backstory to this is quite happenstance, which is so often the best way for things like this to happen. Dr Luca Zavagno is a historian of the late antique Mediterranean who had at the time of writing lately been given a permanent job at Bilkent University, at Ankara in Turkey, but his Ph.D. is from Birmingham’s Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, in association with which I had worked between 2014 and 2015. We also have important people in common, and I can’t actually remember right now how we met, but Birmingham seems likely to explain it somehow or other. Luca, with a ridiculous amount of publication already behind him, was then (and is now) writing a book about how scholars have misunderstood the active rôle played by Mediterranean island communities in the Byzantine Empire after the emergence of Islam, and how we need to put them back on the map, as a kind of third space next to the Anatolian plateau and Ægean seaboard that have otherwise been determined as its major zones.2 And because Luca is a cautious scholar, he decided he needed help getting this right. That was precondition one.

The Newton Fund logo

Precondition no. 2

Precondition two was the existence of Newton Mobility Grants. These are run together by the British Academy, the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences, and are fundamentally about establishing links from the academy in Britain with scholars further afield than our usual spheres of collaboration. At the momemt, they’re focused particularly upon China, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand and Turkey. You can see where this is going…

So it was Luca’s idea really, but we put in together for a three-part extravaganza, in which first of all Luca would come to Leeds and meet people there and run a graduate seminar, then to Birkbeck in London where our most important mutual friend, Rebecca Darley, is based, for similar activities, at each stage honing Luca’s project agenda and identifying its key areas of importance and difficulty, and finally ending up with a workshop for us all in Ankara. It was surprisingly easy to get, though I’m not going to say that without making all due obeisance to Rebecca and to the Leeds Humanities Research Institute for making the application better and easier, respectively, without whom I doubt we would have been as successful. But nonetheless, successful we were, and actually that was already so long ago that we have now done all the activities we promised. Indeed, you can see some of the details on our dedicated website, which is all the work of Luca and his excellent intern Harun and for which I can take no credit.

So, how did it all go? Well, Leeds went OK; we wound up doing it at such short notice that attendance at the events, especially the graduate seminar, was not what it could have been, but it did what was needed, which was to get Luca project feedback from many different levels and interest people here in his project. Learning from this, the London events were constructed more ambitiously and were more about Luca leading other people through his learning, and I wasn’t there but understand they went excellently. Somehow, however, none of this had cost as much as we’d expected. Once I had convinced Luca that this was actually a bad thing, due to the weird perversity of UK grant economics, he stepped up with a will and the Ankara workshop suddenly inflated from being just a project meeting to being a small but fully-fledged international conference! I will talk about that in its due season, but the programme details are visible here.

Now in theory it could have ended there, as we’d really done all that we promised, but we were so pleased by how the conference had gone that Luca was determined to do something with it, and the obvious thing to do with a seven-paper conference seemed to be a themed journal issue that we co-edited. And that is what we’re doing! Now, this is a publication in process, and I am always superstitiously worried about talking about those until they come out—what if they get rejected after I’ve told you all about them?—but we have had two of the eventual six articles accepted already, so probably something is going to happen. Mine isn’t yet one of them, though, so I still won’t tell you what or where, just that as you can tell the timing for that to all have happened so soon was really quite tight, and I had to put aside or postpone a number of other important things to get it done on time. It is also my first time co-editing a journal, and managing the peer review has been a weird experience, though doubtless very useful. For anyone other than Luca I might not have put myself through all this; but as it is, gods willing, it’s an extra article and co-written intro that may be out next year that I wouldn’t otherwise have, on stuff I’d never otherwise have looked at, all because Luca thought we could do some good trying to get money to make his book better. I’m rather proud of it all. See how great a matter a little fire kindleth!


1. What do I mean? Well, in the great work crisis of 2016-17, I was basically working every weekend to stay afloat, just on the stuff that needed to happen next week, let alone research. At that point blogging was a long way out of the realm of possibility, but when things got easier, as they now are, it was still hard to see where it fitted. There was still, and likely always will be, more to be done than would fit in any reasonable time, but I’d begun to realise the importance of taking time off as well. (Yes, I was late to that party, I know.) The trouble since then has been finding where blogging can fit. It’s not that I think my bosses would get angry at my blogging on work time, but I certainly don’t think they’d see it as a core task. As it is, I have a work triage list: blogging sits at no. 10 on it and so far, in the entire history of my employment at Leeds, I have not made it below no. 9, and in an ordinary week even out of term won’t usually see no. 7. So it has to be done outside work time, but I struggle to allocate that, and usually succeed only by going out or doing something entirely non-academic. If I’m in and have a computer up, I’m probably working. Today, I made a deliberate decision to blog instead of whatever my other tasks might be, but that’s what it has taken. The problem is that blogging is no longer a habit for me, and there isn’t really room for it to recover that status. I will work it out, but I’m not there yet. Saying to myself, ‘it’s Saturday and nothing’s in crisis; today they don’t own me’, is a start, however.

2. Key texts here might be Telemachos Lounghis, Byzantium in the Eastern Mediterranean: Safeguarding East Roman Identity (407–1204) (Nicosia 2010); Filippo Burgarella, “Bisanzio e le Isole” in Paola Corrias (ed.), Forme e caratteri della presenza bizantina nel Mediterraneo occidentale: la Sardegna (secoli VI-XI) (Cagliari 2012), pp. 33‒42; Dominique Valérien, “The Medieval Mediterranean” in Peregrine Horden and Sharon Kinoshita (edd.), A Companion to Mediterranean History (Chichester 2014), pp. 77‒90; and most of all, Elizabeth Malamut, Les îles de l’Empire byzantin, VIIIe‒XIIe siècles, 2 vols (Paris 1988). For the two zones of Byzantium see Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400‒800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 29‒37, though the idea didn’t start with Chris. Luca’s own answers begin to be set out in Luca Zavagno, Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (ca. 600–800): An Island in Transition (London: Routledge, 2017) and Luca Zavagno, “Islands: not the Last Frontier: Insular Model in Early Medieval Byzantine Mediterranean, c. 650-c. 850″, in Giuseppe D’Angelo and Jorge Martins Ribeiro (edd.), Borders and Conflicts in the Mediterranean Basin, Mediterranean, Knowledge, Culture and Heritage 2 (Fisciano 2016), pp. 37‒50, and more is coming, evident not least in the fact that I have stolen all these references from draft versions of it!

15,000 more coins to play with

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… and reverse, photographed by me for teaching last year

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

All That Glitters, Phase 4

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

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

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

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

All That Glitters, Experiment 3

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

Bruker S8 TIGER XRF analyser open for business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Society for the Medieval Mediterranean 2015 (in Lincoln), part 1

Medieval depiction of the city of Genoa

Masthead image from the conference website, a medieval depiction of Genoa whose source I can’t track down

We’re back into term and there’s even less time available for blogging than usual, but there is a huge backlog still, and so I suppose it behoves me to slog onwards. I went to a lot of conferences the summer before last, and it’s the, er, fourth of them that’s up next, which was the 2015 meeting of the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean, held at the University of Lincoln over the 13th to 15th of July. The title of the conference was Law, Custom and Ritual in the Medieval Mediterranean. Despite this, I hadn’t straight away wanted to go, mainly because it fell straight after the International Medieval Congress and I rightly expected to be exhausted, but Lincoln is nice and the conference programme was also full of people from Spain I wanted to meet or be met by. Also, in retrospect, since of the fifty-four papers five, at a stretch, mentioned Catalonia, and one of those only Catalunya Nova, I almost had to speak just to show the flag… So I was there, and this was a good decision.

West front of Lincoln Cathedral

The cathedral is at least five good reasons to go to Lincoln, but I seem not to have taken a camera with me, so you’ll have to make do with this one by Anthony Shreeve, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

We began at a civilised hour on the 13th, which is to say after lunch, and then I made what will immediately seem an obvious decision for those who know me, which was to go and hear Wendy Davies. The session broke down like this.

Judicial Practices in Early Medieval Northwestern Iberia (1)

  • Wendy Davies, “Partial (? and Impartial) Records of Judicial Practice in Northern Iberia pre-1000”
  • Isabel Alfonso, José M. Andrade and André Evangelista Marques, “Recording Judicial Information: a comparative approach”
  • Wendy set up a distinction between full records of court proceedings, which in her tenth-century north-western area as in my tenth-century north-eastern one tend to be full-size formal records redacted by the winners with an often extensive narrative explaining how the winner was right (sometimes not so extensive, but…) and, on the other hand, informal notes of process which we find, when we look, quoted in other texts or jotted in the margins or on the dorses of our more formal charters, less constructed but sometimes more formulaic, sometimes being verbatim copies of oaths, agreements to come to a further hearing and so on. I seem to have asserted, as per usual, that we could find this in Catalonia too, but looking back now (at a point when I am running unusually dull of brain, I should admit) I struggle to think of some and it sounds as if Wendy has more. All good reasons to read her new book, anyway!1

    A marriage pact of 951 witnessed by the newly-succeded King Ordoño II in 951, Madrid, Archivo Historical Nacional, Carp. 1430 N.16

    This is not a charter of the right sort, but it is at least a charter from the right monastery, Celanova, and the right period, being a marriage pact of 951 witnessed by the newly-succeded King Ordoño II in 951, Madrid, Archivo Historical Nacional, Carp. 1430 N.16. and what a charter it is!

    The second paper I was keen on seeing just because I have used José Andrade’s work, had occasional second-hand encouragement from him and wanted to meet the man, and he and his colleagues turned out to be presenting a new database, which should now be live though I can’t find it I’m afraid, and this had meant them having to think very hard about categories (which is, of course, one of the problems with that otherwise noble endeavour). They wound up with nine categories of which one was ‘mixed records’, which is how that usually works; it turns out that what people did doesn’t fit what we want to see… The database, anyway, includes the documents from the monastery of Sahagún as was and the much smaller but in some ways more interesting one of Otero de las Dueñas; Otero’s sample is much smaller (including physically) but far more of their records are judicial, and show a generally lower social level of action, local courts with decisions made by local worthies whereas Sahagún increasingly went to the king for its resolutions. Other components of the sample are the monasteries of Samos and Celanova, where the situation is partly inverse in as much as royally-founded Samos has much less information for us. Again, however, the smaller house preserved a greater proportion of lawsuits, including ones where they lost. The final components are the gathered samples from what is now Portugal, handled by André Evangelista, who compared the monasteries of Moreira and Guimaraes to a very similar effect: Guimaraes has less stuff but 40% of it is judicial records, all admittedly after the event, formal records as Wendy would have it. A short conclusion might be: if as a monastery you didn’t have wealth, you held power more aggressively.2

Interior view of the cloister at the Pousada Mosteiro de Guimaraes

The current state of the monastery of Guimaraes, which is to say, a rather expensive hotel

In discussion, however, the speakers were all keen to stress that the situation they had depicted changed a great deal in the eleventh century, not least because of King Alfonso VI. Here again, I feel sympathy; there is a divide between the societies I study and those of 1100 onwards that is, I think, why I find some kind of feudal transformation narrative compelling even as I disbelieve it in detail. People did things differently thereafter… Anyway, then after coffee from the mundane to the eternal, in subject matter at least.

Orthodoxy and Deviance

  • Elena Nonveiller, “‘Paganism’ in the 7th Century in Byzantium: the dynamics of exclusion and inclusion that defined Orthodoxy”
  • Laura Carlson, “Written & Oral Forms of Public Penitence during the Adoptionist Controversy”
  • Ms Nonveiller gave us a close analysis of the Council of Trullo of 692, in which Emperor Justinian II (of whom we have heard) tried to do a general regulation of belief that included, among other things, measures against Judaism and pagan practices. The word used for pagan in the council acts (which never got actually cited, so I can’t tell you where to find them) is apparently ‘hellenikos’, i. e. Classical Greek, but many of the usages they sought to ban were not Classical as far as we can tell, things like leaping over a fire at your door for the new year. Ms Nonveiler sought to reimpose the separation of origins that syncretism had, for her, by this time erased, and suggested that this custom was probably Jewish or Slavic; I saw no reason why it shouldn’t be local to wherever the relevant churchmen had found it, myself, and in general thought that tracking this stuff through texts was unlikely to relate much to what the people doing it actually thought. Ironically perhaps, Ms Nonveiller closed by noting that many of these provisions had to be repeated in the next council, and so were perhaps too theoretical to affect practice! But, warned by Carolingian precedent, I asked whether much of the council’s condemnations were themselves repeated from earlier texts, and of course it turned out that many of them were. A Western perspective would probably see this much less as active legislation and much more as an imperial performance of orthodoxy, speaking out against well-recognised bad things whether they were still happening since their first condemnation three centuries before or not, and I’m not sure that Westerner would be wrong.3

    Bibliothèque Carnegie de Reims, MS 385, fo. 134r

    The beginning of the profession of faith of Bishop Felix of Urgell, in Reims, Bibliothèque Carnegie de Reims, MS 385, fo. 134r

    Laura, meanwhile, had found in a single Reims manuscript apparently (of course, constructed for Archbishop Hincmar) a copy of Bishop Felix of Urgell’s final profession of faith.4 For those who don’t know him, Felix had been both the Carolingians’ main bishop in Catalonia when they took it over and, as they saw it, a dangerous heretic, being part of the Adoptionist movement that had grown up in the peninsular Church. He was repeatedly made to disavow this belief but somehow remained in office with it until 799, which is the date of this letter. And it is a letter, to his canons (who are listed, very exciting for me), assuming the state of a penitent and thus demitting his office. Laura proposed that this was effectively a public penance by letter, making it known through to all that he was defeated and that he admitted Adoptionism was wrong, effectively pouring poison into his network but also, as I argued in discussion, opening the way for a Carolingian-approved election at Urgell. By contrast, his previous two confessions could have been considered ‘private’, a compromise intended to allow him to stay in office as the Carolingians’ agent. In 799 that was apparently decided insufficient and he was made to take this step of self-removal, but as Laura also pointed out, since the Carolingians were then reforming the practice of penance, by 800 it would have been impossible.5 Nonetheless, the situation and the fact that Felix quotes the profession of faith of none other than Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople, as condemned before Emperor Theodosius II at Ephesus in 431, made this council of 799 a kind of mirror of that one in which Charlemagne got to play Theodosius ending the divisive heresy in his lands. Again, I wonder how much Felix’s real practices mattered here against the possibility of the soon-to-be-imperial performance of orthodoxy…

    Alfonso X of Castile and his court, as shown in the 12th-century Libro de los Juegos

    Alfonso X of Castile and his court, as shown in the 12th-century Libro de los Juegos; from Wikimedia Commons

    Finally that day, we were treated to a keynote address by Professor Simon Doubleday, entitled “Illegitimate Concerns”. This was a lecture about bastardy, with specific reference to King Alfonso X of Castile, the Wise. Although his father Fernando I reportedly advised him to remain chaste, this seems to be something Alfonso had trouble with; as well as being betrothed to Yolanda, daughter of King Jaume of Aragón in 1246, marrying her in 1248 and starting to have children soon after, he was by then already father of one Beatriz by a long-term partner. At the point of Alfonso and Yolanda’s marriage, therefore, poor Beatriz, aged 8, was shipped off to Portugal to marry King Afonso III, despite him already being married. It’s complicated, as they say. But the point of the lecture lay in the relationship that King Alfonso and Beatriz maintained, especially after the coup that temporarily deposed him, during which time she came to live with him (although one may suspect that the 300 troops she apparently brought with her gladdened the king’s heart nearly as much). It doesn’t seem to have been a problem for the king to recognise that tie, nurture it with gifts of lands along the Portuguese border or exploit it in time of trouble, even though the law, to which of course Alfonso added, was pretty clear that children born out of wedlock had no real rights in the face of those legitimately born. Professor Doubleday wondered, therefore, where we’d lost this relative generosity to the illegitimate, and with those musings we wound up the day and headed for the wine reception, with brains pleasantly full.


    1. You didn’t know Wendy had a new book out? She does, and it is W. Davies, Windows on Justice in Northern Iberia, 800-1000 (London 2016). I need to read it before the end of term somehow, too…

    2. This must also be cyclical, and relate to Jinty Nelson’s long-ago point about how it takes time for monasteries to grow roots in the community, so they start by buying lands and only then go on to receiving donations and fighting people for their rights; see Janet L. Nelson, “Women and the Word in the Earlier Middle Ages” in W. J. Sheils & Diana Wood (edd.), Women in the Church: papers read at the 1989 summer meeting and the 1990 winter meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, Studies in Church History Vol. 27 (Oxford 1990), pp. 53-78, and indeed for early medieval Iberia Jonathan Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the Nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2005 for 2003), pp. 229-258.

    3. That Westerner would only have had to read Patrick Wormald, “Lex scripta and Verbum regis: legislation and Germanic kingship, from Euric to Cnut” in Peter Sawyer & Ian N. Wood (edd.), Early Medieval Kingship (Leeds 1977), pp. 105-138, but let’s remember how long it took me to do so I suppose…

    4. As in the caption above, this is Reims, Bibliothèque Carnegie de Reims, MS 385, fos 134r-138r and followed by a letter of his fos 138r-140r. If you care about such things, Archbishop Hincmar of Reims signed the bottom of fo. 136r…

    5. See Rob Meens, “The Frequency and Nature of Early Medieval Penance” in Peter Biller & A. J. Minnis (edd.), Handling Sin: Confession in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge 1998), pp. 35-61, and on the controversy over Felix and his beliefs, John C. Cavadini, The Last Christology of the West: Adoptionism in Spain and Gaul, 785-820 (Philadelphia 1993), a book I wish Pennsylvania University Press would reprint as there is so little else in English on this and it’s really expensive to get now.