Category Archives: Carolingians

Leeds IMC report for 2015, part 2

Back to the conference reportage, then, and far from the end of that too; you can probably imagine how much I want to be through this backlog, so I shall launch in and try to be brief… But the second day of the 2015 International Medieval Congress was a good one for me, as the sessions I went to covered pretty much the range of my interests and mostly they had people in I’ll go out of my way to hear talking, too. It unrolled like this.

539. Texts and Politics in the Long 10th Century, I: the Western kingdom

  • Horst Lößlein, “Establishing Rule: Charles the Simple and the cases of Western Francia and Lotharingia”
  • Fraser McNair, “Histories in Diplomas: kings, archbishops, nobles and the disputes over St Servatius’s abbey, Maastricht, 898 and 919”
  • Ed Roberts, “Religious Patronage in the Reign of Louis IV: dynasty, memory and the monasteries of St-Corneille and St-Remi”
  • When I started in on this whole research thing there was approximately one chapter about tenth-century Francia that had been written in my lifetime, so it’s really good to see people interested in working over the difficult evidence of the period and trying to understand how we got from the imperial break-up of 887 to something quite like France, Germany, Italy and Flanders a century later. This is partly the fault of Geoff Koziol, who was invoked in all these papers, but the pieces still need assembly.1 Each of these speakers had a piece, Dr Lößlein looking at the patterns of attendance at King Charles the Simple (899-923)’s courts and noting that although Charles was able to fight and negotiate his way into his secondary kingdom of Lotharingia, his inability to cow Duke Robert of Neustria, his eventual and short-lived successor, meant that there were large areas of his main kingdom of the West Franks where Charles could not actually go.2 Not just Robert’s territories, too, I might have added, but the difference is that he had to work with Robert nonetheless, whereas he could wait for people from south of the Loire to come to him. Fraser, an old friend by now, appealed to my scholarly heart by pointing out that there are narrative sources for the early tenth century in Francia, they’re just in charters, and he showed the different spins that court and Archbishops of Trier put on one particular dispute when thus recounting it. I enjoyed this, but especially for the subtle observation that Charles the Simple’s diplomas stress consensus and participation much more than those of his predecessor in Lotharingia, King Zwentibold. Fraser may get me to revise my opinion of Charles yet. Lastly, Ed, who noted how difficult a relationship Charles’s son, the unlucky but dogged Louis IV, had with the legacy of his father, whose reign had ended in civil war and imprisonment by his magnates, something which Louis at least suffered only briefly. Ed argued that Louis made his own way rather than pursuing a ‘Carolingian’ policy and having now taught his reign, I’d be inclined to agree. Questions here revolved mainly around the Spanish March (I bet you can’t guess who asked that one) and queens, since Louis’s queen Gerberga seems to have been an awful lot of his support thanks to being sister of King Otto I of the Germans.3 All of this, I think, goes to show that the pieces are there, it just needs people to find the work interesting enough to make it so to others.

    Ottonian family tree from the twelfth-century Chronica Sancti Pantaleonis

    A rather wonderful Ottonian family tree from the twelfth-century Chronica Sancti Pantaleonis, image public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Note how Gerberga and her children appear but no mention is made of her unlucky husband…

Then coffee, and then a session about which I had no choice, because I was moderating it, but didn’t need one because it was also really interesting.

641. Re-Formed Coinage, Renewed Meaning: using, imitating, and disposing of Byzantine coins far beyond imperial frontiers

  • Lin Ying, “Byzantine Gold Coins in Chinese Contexts: three approaches”
  • Florent Audy, “Scandinavian Responses to Byzantine Coins”
  • Rebecca Darley, “Valuing Byzantine Gold Coins in Medieval South India”
  • The core question of this session is not hard to spot, I guess: Byzantine coins are found in faraway places where their context as imperial currency could not apply, so what were people doing with them? In China, Professor Ying told us, they were mainly burying them with dead people, and along the Silk Routes and into Sogdia making things that looked like solidi to do that with as well, usually doubly or triply pierced for wearing; there’s very little indication that this was more than a species of jewellery to a population to whom normal coins would have looked very different. In Viking Scandinavia, that was also happening but there is more sign of a discerning user-base: although Byzantine coins are a tiny fraction of the foreign money and bullion that was accumulating in Scandinavia in this period, the gold is never pecked or tested and very often set as jewellery, whereas the silver usually had been pecked but only when it was real coins; there were also imitations of Byzantine miliaresia but except in Finland, these don’t seem to have actually circulated even as bullion. So why make them? As with the Chinese context there is more to do here. Lastly Rebecca provided the Indian context, not unlike the Chinese one in as much as Byzantine coins were apparently commodities here but treated fairly consistently, usually double-pierced above the bust and also imitated but only in gold, not as plated knock-offs; the contexts are almost all lost but use in temple contexts seems a better fit to what there is than anything to do with commerce or ports. That provoked a sharp question in discussion, because while in India the focus is clearly on the imperial portrait, in China it can often be on the reverse, leading someone to wonder if the coins were appreciated as Christian symbols, which Professor Ying thought possible. Certainly, as someone else observed, that would be about all you could see on a coin someone was wearing as jewellery unless you were impolitely close! This all hung together very well and I gather that publication of something deriving from this is in distant prospect; it should be fun.

    Double-pierced Byzantine solidus of Emperor Justin II, found in a tomb at Guyuan

    Double-pierced solidus of Justin II, found in a tomb at Guyuan; click through to an article on Lin Ying’s in which further context and some comparator finds are presented

That got me to lunch, and then it was off to a different bit of my interests! I do begin to understand how someone like me must be almost impossible to schedule for…

733. The Early Islamic World, VI: Iberia

  • Nicola Clarke, “Law, Families, and the Frontier in Umayyad Iberia”
  • Mateusz Wilk, “Power, Law, and Ideology in Umayyad Spain”
  • Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “Conquest and Settlement: what al-Andalus can tell us about the Arab expansion at the time of the Umayyad Caliphate”
  • I will pretty much always go to hear Eduardo Manzano speak, but here there were obviously other things to interest me too. Dr Clarke dug into the agendas of the Arabic sources for the conquest of al-Andalus, all significantly posterior to events and for the most part more interested in trying to settle questions of how the caliph should behave to his lieutenants when they exceed his authority, and indeed who should have been caliph at all and why (for example, being able to restrain those same lieutenants), the result of which is that it’s quite hard to say how far either Caliph al-Walīd or the lieutenant in question, Mūsā ibn Nusayr, were in any real control of events. Dr Wilk, on the other hand, saw in them an attempt to picture Muslim Spain as a new and better Umayyad Syria, but with shifts once the Malikite school of law took hold there in the ninth or tenth centuries (and with no useful ninth-century sources, which is hard to say). This provoked surprising amounts of argument; commentators proved very invested in the importance of Malikism in al-Andalus either as a mark of Arabian connection or as the ineluctable result of fugitives from Arabia turning up there, and it would perhaps have been more fun to set these people arguing with each other than with Dr Wilk. Lastly Professor Manzano pointed out some odd things about the Muslim conquest of Spain, not least that it was accomplished largely by Berber auxiliaries whose acculturation to Islam took place largely in the peninsula, not before getting there, and that by moving a large salaried army into the peninsula and keeping it that way rather than settling it, at least at first, the new rulers committed themselves to importing a whole fiscal system, including gold coin for tax and copper coin for pay, where nothing like it had existed for a long time, which more or less required the cooperation of Christian worthies to make it work. This got Professor Manzano and me into an argument about the survival of the Visigothic taxation system and how far that involved copper, an argument that Ann Christys had to stop but in which I would now graciously concede that we were both wrong, which I’m sure would amuse him.4

    Copper-alloy fals of the unlocated al-Andalus mint

    A coin on the importance of which we could agree, a copper-alloy fals of the unlocated al-Andalus mint, struck in somewhen during the eighth or ninth centuries I guess, Jean Elsen & ses Fils,
    Auction 120, 15 March 2014, lot 1594

Revitalised by dispute, I imagine I needed tea less than usual at the end of this session, but with the last session of the day still to come I certainly did still need it.

814. Networks and Neighbours, IV: tracing aristocratic networks in three early medieval kingdoms

I was here partly because the title involved some of my keywords and partly out of a loyalty to a related journal that was at that stage (this is a story for another time) still supposedly about to publish me, but also because Roger Collins was supposed to be moderating and that, unfortunately, proved not to be so. The running order was this:

  • Paulo Henrique de Carvalho Pachá, “Searching for the Visigothic State: monarchy and aristocracy in the Visigothic kingdom of Toledo”
  • Karen Torres da Rosa, “Merovingian Testaments and Power Relations in the Transference of Goods”
  • Renato Rodrigues Da Silva, “Northumbrian Aristocracy through Archaeological Evidence: coins and coinage”
  • Señor de Carvalho engaged directly with the work of Luis García Moreno, arguing that rather than an eternal opposition between kings and nobles in Visigothic Spain we should see a periodic rebuilding of consensus between these and other elements of the state which could break down in a variety of ways, not just that defining cleavage, since the monarchy was obviously unable to operate without any aristocratic support at all and the aristocracy was frequently divided.5 This made sense to me and the only thing that surprised was the age of the scholarship being engaged, surely written before the speaker was born. Discussion here was very constitutional, and made my normal ‘realpolitikal’ take on such power dealings feel very out of place. Miss da Rosa’s work was at too early a stage for it to be fair for me to comment on it here, though, and Señor Rodrigues’s paper, about the early Northumbrian silver coinage as a tool of aristocratic power, I thought rested on some pretty unprovable assumptions about moneyers; there were many ideas here that needed better links to the evidence. I’m afraid that at the end of this, incipient local loyalties not withstanding, I was minded not to come to another Networks and Neighbours IMC session.

    Obverse of a silver penny of King Aldfrith of Northumbria (685-704), Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1980-2007

    Obverse of a silver penny of King Aldfrith of Northumbria (685-704), Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1980-2007

    Reverse of silver penny of King Aldfrith of Northumbria (685-704), Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.1980-2007

    Reverse of the same coin. I think the triple-tailed wolf probably militates against this being an attempt to churchify the coinage, myself…

Looking back over this as I write it up, it strikes me suddenly how generalised the use of coin evidence is becoming in the fields of history I follow. Granted, one of these sessions was explicitly about it, but coins were part of one speaker’s evidence in two of the other sessions as well, which as you see makes hunting down suitable illustrations much easier for me! It’s nice to think, though, that the numismatic gospel might be getting out there. Anyway. What I did with the evening, I cannot now recall; I fervently hope that it was spent drinking with friends and colleagues, and certainly on one night of the conference I went hunting curry houses with two of the Birmingham posse; perhaps that was this evening? But in any case, it is another day recounted. Next one in two posts’ time!


1. My point of reference would have been Rosamond McKitterick, The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, 751-987 (Harlow 1987), pp. 305-339, but now as I say there is also Geoffrey Koziol, The Politics of Memory and Identity in Carolingian Royal Diplomas: the West Frankish kingdom (840–987) (Turnhout 2012), and we’re still reacting.

2. On this I cannot resist citing Koziol, “Is Robert I in Hell? The Diploma for Saint-Denis and the Mind of a Rebel King (Jan. 25, 923)” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 14 (Oxford 2006), pp. 233-267, which is fun.

3. On Gerberga, see Simon MacLean, “Reform, Queenship and the End of the World in Tenth-Century France: Adso’s ‘Letter on the Origin and Time of the Antichrist'” in Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire Vol. 86 (Bruxelles 2008), pp. 645-675, DOI: 10.3406/rbph.2008.7582.

4. I’m wrong because I hadn’t realised quite how early the Visigothic copper coinage we know about was, and it almost certainly wasn’t still running by 711; he’s wrong because it existed at all, dammit. See Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, “The Copper Coinage of the Visigoths of Spain” in Mário Gomes Marques and D. Michael Metcalf (edd.), Problems of Medieval Coinage in the Iberian Area: a Symposium held by the Sociedade Numismática Scalabitana and the Instituto de Sintra on 4-8 October, 1988 (Santarém 1988), pp. 35-70, but now also Crusafont, Jaume Benages, Jaume Noguera Guillén, Eduard Ble Gimeno, Pau Valdés Matias, Tomi Cartes, Xavier Sicart & Joan Enric Vila, “La sèrie de plata de la monarquia visigoda” in Acta numismàtica Vol. 45 (2014), pp. 71-80, which changes the picture quite a lot!

5. That work being Luís Agustín García Moreno, Historia de España visigoda (Madrid 1989), to which one might for example compare Javier Arce Martínez, “The Visigoths in Spain: old and new historical problems” in Walter Pohl & Veronika Wieser (edd.), Der frühmittelalterliche Staat – europäische Perspektiven, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 16 (Wien 2009), pp. 31-42.

Dealings with Jerusalem before the eleventh century

A vice that I am prone to is that of poking at other people’s research areas without knowing very much about it, as has often been evidenced here—I won’t link, out of embarrassment. Nonetheless, I can’t help it; if someone is doing something interesting it seems only natural to me to turn it around and over mentally looking for the questions that I would ask if I were doing this thing. This post is about such a question, and I can’t remember exactly what sparked it off; it may have been getting ready to teach Carolingians and picking up on the peculiar ways in which Charlemagne’s empire tried to make itself felt in the Mediterranean, but it is more likely to have been sparked by a conversation with Daniel Reynolds, currently of Birmingham, who is the person whose research area this is and who will doubtless be the one to tell me what’s wrong with this post.1

Medieval map of Jerusalem

Medieval map of Jerusalem, source unclear

Dan is a man who works on a broad swathe of related things but central to many of them is the theme of pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the era before the Crusades. It’s not that there is no work on this, but it is almost all done from the perspective of the pilgrims, and Jerusalem itself, its community and its patriarchal rulers, are not really studied as part of what was going on, or such is the argument.2 And fair enough! I shall leave that to him and await his publications eagerly. But thinking about this left me with a question of my own, which he will in fact probably answer but still has me wondering meanwhile. If you look at the very few times that we know about the actual patriarchs being involved in contact with the West, other than supposedly providing bags of relics to passing pilgrims, until the tenth century at least, it was really distant rulers with whom they engaged; St Martin of Tours, if he counts as a ruler, St Radegund of Poitiers (who was at least royal), Charlemagne and Louis the Pious as Kings of the Franks, and the outlier case, King Alfred the Great of Wessex, and sometimes, though not that often, the popes in Rome. Once the tenth century gets going the number of high-ranking pilgrims becomes such that the picture clouds and in the eleventh century everyone and his wife was going or so it sometime seems, but before that official contact was almost limited to these kings of the Western seaboard, rulers with at best a contested presence on the Mediterranean coast and at worst, none.3 Odd, no?

The Aedicule, inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, containing the tomb that is said to be Jesus's, as it now is

The Aedicule, inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, containing the tomb that is said to be Jesus’s, as it now is. Photo by Jlascarhttps://www.flickr.com/photos/jlascar/10350934835/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34030982

It’s usually clear enough what these rulers got from their contact with the Holy Sepulchre, that being the reinforcement of their position and status by the recognition of Christ’s own shrine and its custodians, although that only had the value it did because so few other people put themselves in a position to claim it. Only Charlemagne could be said to have provided anything very much for the patriarchs and the actual Church of Jerusalem, however, and they had to make some pretty big gestures to get even that, ‘that’ probably being a hostel for Frankish pilgrims and a certain amount of support for refurbishment of the city’s churches.4 Alfred sent alms, at least, but it’s not really clear what more they could give or what the patriarchs wanted from them, apart from recognition themselves I suppose. Was this something they didn’t get much of closer to home?

Medieval image of the Council of Chalcedon, 451

Medieval image of the Council of Chalcedon, 451, source unclear

Well, it doesn’t take long to think of reasons why that might be so. From pretty much the year 451 the Christian Church of the Empire was riven by disputes over the nature of Christ’s incarnation as man, exactly how divine He remained and how far He took on human characteristics. This sounds like a fine point for theologians only but consider, if He was not really human but fully divine, and therefore omnipotent and immortal, the meaning of His sacrifice on the Cross becomes hard to see, whereas if He was entirely human, then it was in some sense not really God who died for us, robbing the sacrifice of much of its significance. It gets right at the heart of Christian belief if you let it.5 A middle way proved hard to find, and for much of the Middle Ages Jerusalem was not on the same path as the imperial capital at Constantinople. Such was the case when the Persians captured the city in 614, and when Emperor Heraclius returned the True Cross to Jerusalem in 630, he didn’t let it stay there long for precisely that reason. Then within a few years the city fell to the armies of Islam, and was in some sense cut off from the Empire; its patriarchs still went to a few councils (perhaps because no-one dared tell Justinian II no) but the emperors in Constantinople were in some sense enemies of the lords of the land in a way that perhaps the Westerners were not.6 But it’s still surprising that we don’t know of more contact across this boundary: the empire was for a while shipping in money for its erstwhile citizens, after all…

Again, this changed in the eleventh century, as the Byzantines muscled back in to some kind of management of the Christian places of the city, which had indeed suffered considerably under Caliph al-Hakim (996-1021),7 but before then can it really be that the Franks looked like a safer, better bet? Or was it perhaps a problem finding interested support any closer to home? Was Jerusalem seen as enemy territory in some way? Or was it just that all the good relics were in Constantinople already and fascination with the actual places was a more Western phenomenon?8 I don’t know the answers to these questions. I probably know a man who does, but for now it seems a sort of fun to indicate what my questions, with me being an outsider to this bit of the field, would be if I started in on it.


1. No way perhaps more peculiar than the apparent Carolingian-period survey of the Holy Land’s churches edited and studied in Michael McCormick, Charlemagne’s Survey of the Holy Land: wealth, personnel, and buildings of a Mediterranean church between antiquity and the Middle Ages, with a critical edition and translation of the original text (Washington DC 2011). As for Dan, some of his work is already available as Peter Darby and Daniel Reynolds, “Reassessing the ‘Jerusalem Pilgrims’: the case of Bede’s De locis sanctis” in Bulletin for the Council for British Research in the Levant Vol. 9 (London 2014), pp. 27-31, DOI: 10.1179/1752726014Z.00000000022.

2. Certainly true of my two default references on the subject, which I use for lack of any others, Sir Steven Runciman, “The Pilgrimages to Palestine before 1095” in Kenneth M. Setton (ed.), A History of the Crusades, volume 1: the first hundred years, ed. Marshall W. Baldwin, 2nd edn. (Madison WI 1969), pp. 68-80, online here, and Aryeh Grabois, “Charlemagne, Rome and Jerusalem” in Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire Vol. 58 (Bruxelles 1980), pp. 792-809, DOI: 10.3406/rbph.1981.3349, but also surprisingly common, if less so overall, in a more recent work I found while setting up this post, Colin Morris, The Sepulchre of Christ and the Medieval West: from the beginning to 1600 (Oxford 2005). The classic work for people in the field seems however to be John Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades, 2nd edn. (Warminster 2002), non vidi, on whose deficiencies see Darby & Reynolds, “Reassessing the ‘Jerusalem Pilgrims'”.

3. I realise that both Charlemagne and Louis the Pious could have reached the Mediterranean pretty much any time they wanted, but still, what with Venice, Benevento, rebellions on the Spanish March and so on they might not have had their choice about where to do so. Lists of these various dignitaries can be found in Runciman, “Pilgrimages to Palestine”, pp. 70-74, and Morris, Sepulchre of Christ, pp. 41-47 & 102-107 as well as, I assume, in Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims.

4. See Grabois, “Charlemagne, Rome and Jerusalem”, and for a more total statement of the possibilities, McCormick, Charlemagne’s Survey of the Holy Land.

5. That is kind of my teaching statement of the issue, which is of course woefully and possibly heretically over-simple. For more detail, try Bernard Hamilton, The Christian World of the Middle Ages (Stroud 2003), pp. 59-99.

6. Morris, Sepulchre of Christ, pp. 90-98.

7. Runciman, “Pilgrimages to Palestine”, pp. 74-77, which notes at p. 77 Byzantine officials levying tolls on pilgrim traffic entering Jerusalem in 1056 despite the city’s continuing government by the Fatimid Caliphate (and notional concession to Charlemagne of two centuries earlier!); cf. Morris, Sepulchre of Christ, pp. 134-146.

8. On that continuing fascination, see as well as Darby & Reynolds, “Reassessing the ‘Jerusalem Pilgrims'”, Robert Hoyland & Sarah Waidler, “Adomnán’s De Locis Sanctis and the Seventh-Century Near East” in English Historical Review Vol. 129 (Oxford 2014), pp. 787-807.

Leeds IMC report for 2015, part 1

It’s a bit ridiculous, isn’t it, this backlog, but yet it does reduce, and as a result I am now into the veritable height of the European medievalist’s conference season, the International Medieval Congress at what is now my home base at the University of Leeds. Now, in fact on this first day of the Congress there was a lot of sorting out of that ‘home’ aspect, so I missed the keynote lectures and the first session of papers, but finally arriving during the Monday lunchbreak, I was able to begin the academic day like this:

233. The Early Islamic World, II: Provinces and Frontiers – Syria and the West

  • Corisande Fenwick, “Berbers and Borderlands: frontier society in North Africa”
  • Anna Leone, Marco Nebbia, Ralf Bockmann, Hafed Abdouli, Moftah Haddad and Ahmed Masud, “Changing Landscape in the 8th Century to the 10th Century: the case of the Jebel Nefiya and Tripolitania”
  • Denis Genequand, “Elites in the Countryside: recent research on the Umayyad ‘desert castles’
  • I went to this session partly because of knowing Corisande, partly because of a vague fascination with the Umayyad desert palaces that has occasionally shown itself here and mainly because Corisande had waved the words ‘frontier’ and ‘borderlands’ at us, usually guaranteed to catch my interest. Certainly the area she was looking at challenges our usual ideas of borders, since the vast area of Africa taken over in the Umayyad conquests of the seventh century was so huge as for the presence of the notional occupiers to have to be very sporadic and consequently very concentrated, which leaves a distinct archæological profile marked off by garrison architecture, mosques, a greater range of foodstuffs and, most of all, coins from military pay, and beyond it, really very little presence. For me this paper was problematised by an assumption that Corisande verbalised in questions, that new buildings mean new people; if there were in fact assimilation of local populations into these fortress settlements going on, you could not detect it that way. Still, the extremity of the social division was a point well put.

    Remains of the Christian church at Henchir al-Faouar in Tunisia

    Ironically, the best images I can find from the sites named in this paper are of the Christian church at Henchir al-Faouar in Tunisia


    Of the other two papers, the former was the more peculiar, as only one of the authors had in fact been advertised on the program and she had been unable to come, so the paper was read by Andrew Marsham and had a title that was also different from that advertised. Nonetheless, it was interesting: the team in question have been carrying out a survey of mosques over much of the old province of Tripolitania in what is now Libya and were now proceeding to join this up to a survey of settlements. Oddly, the mosques are not all at the settlements, which tend to cluster on hilltops in defensively-clustered fashion at distances of 5-7 kilometres from each other, whereas the mosques could often be in the wilds between them. Dating all this is the next problem, since some of the settlements began in the fourth or fifth centuries and some are Ottoman, with pretty much everything in between too, so the changing landscape had yet to become visible but the possibilities were considerable.
    The fortified granary of Qasr Kabaw in the Jebel Nafusa

    Also, the architecture is amazing. This is thirteenth-century, apparently, but I don’t care; it is the fortified granary of Qasr Kabaw in the Jebel Nafusa, about which you can read slightly more here


    Lastly Dr Genequand took an overall survey of the various buildings in Syria that have been classed as Umayyad ‘desert palaces’, although he tried to avoid both of the words ‘palace’ and ‘castle’ because the variety between the 38 such sites is such as to make generalisations like that difficult; they are more normally estate centres, with areas around them irrigated for intensive farming and produce collection facilities in the complex, and while some are luxurious, with their own baths and mosque complex and so on, and some are fortified and a few are both, and they seem to have grown and changed over time, they are still probably more like really big desert villas than either palace or castle, if you have to find a single word at all.
    One of the erstwhile dams at Wadi al-Qanatir, the area around the Umayyad 'palace' of Umm al-Walid, in Jordan

    One of the erstwhile dams at Wadi al-Qanatir, the area around the Umayyad ‘palace’ of Umm al-Walid, in Jordan, image from Museum With no Frontiers

Then tea and a chance to see an old colleague kick up some fuss, as follows.

325. Byzantium in Context, II: Environment, Economy and Power – Crisis and Renewal in the Byzantine World

  • Mark Whittow, “Byzantium and Global History: towards a new determinism?”
  • Adam Izdebski, “The Middle Byzantine Revival from an Environmental Perspective: a return to antique models”
  • Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, “Topography, Ecology and (Byzantine) Power un Early Medieval Eastern Anatolia and Armenia, 750-1000”
  • Myrto Veikou, “A Concerted ‘Discourse’: interplay between environment and human agency in the area of Smyrna (modern Izmir) in the 13th century CE”
  • This session had gathered a much bigger crowd than would fit into the tiny room it had been allocated to, which is a lesson about the revival of interest in Byzantium more generally in medieval studies, I think. Mark, coming very visibly from his involvement with the Global Middle Ages project, accordingly set out a manifesto for a new medieval European history in which the continuing Byzantine Empire was the default comparator, not the weird remnant, a sign of what ‘should’ have happened everywhere. This would, he then further defined, need to include the perspective that in the Middle Bzyantine period prosperity became rural rather than urban, a phenomenon that we also see in other places and which Mark bravely suggested might have something to with climate. The obvious point of reference here was Ronnie Ellenblum’s work, which Mark hoped one might be less deterministic than, but mainly I wonder how once you have scaled up to the level of climate one can make any single place central to a hypothesis, however big it was.1 The other papers tried to make such connections more explicit, nonetheless, Dr Izdebski comparing coin circulation and pollen patterns across central Greece (the only place where adequate survey evidence exists, he said) and determining two very similar-looking phases of expansion in the fourth to sixth centuries and the first half of the second millennium, but the coins and the pollen don’t agree about when the latter was and neither make a great deal of sense next to the supposed climate profile. Dr Preiser-Kapeller, meanwhile, ran us very summarily through the history of Armenia from the seventh to tenth centuries and concluded that while the fragile local ecology would impact the two surviving noble houses’ grip on power in the area after the year 1000, up till that point military conquest by Persians and Arabs was a far better explanation of how the area wound up with only two such houses from fourteen than was anything environmental. The point of Ms Veikou’s paper, lastly, was mainly to put the URL of her project before us, a project that as far that URL now shows had by then already wound up and has produced no further publications since it did. So no points from me for that, I’m afraid.

    The tenth-century church of Akdamar Island, in the salt Lake Van in Armenia

    The tenth-century church of Akdamar Island, in the salt Lake Van in Armenia, from which lake Johannes’s climate evidence was largely coming, and fair enough


    I found the three actual papers in this session a paradoxical combination, and this came out in discussion. All three speakers were attracted by the idea that large-scale survey that factored in changes in the ecological sphere alongside more material evidence of human usage could tell us something, but when approached on what had to admit either that the data was not yet collected (as in Cappadocia, where much is visible but very little dated or interpreted, or that when it had been it had made sense only on a regional basis and not compared well with anywhere else or the global pattern (as at Lake Van or Miletus in Greece). The effect was to leave the audience, and indeed one at least of the speakers, much more sceptical that this was a useful approach than they had been when we all entered the room, as if Ellenblum’s book, like the first Velvet Underground album, has made every one of its readers determined to have a go too and then discover that trying to be less erratic and offhand than Lou Reed somehow doesn’t produce better rock and roll. I suppose the real point for us to work on here is the junction between macro-scale and micro-scale pictures; if at a local level one can entirely escape what is apparently the global trend one has to ask what difference the global trend really made to people, a problem that we have of course been seeing with generating concern about the current global ecological situation since, well, as long as I can remember really.

Presumably there was then food, as my conference program is pretty much marked up with receptions for the evening so there wouldn’t have been time later. Between the food and the wine, however, came one final academic event for the day.

401. Early Medieval Europe Lecture

    Abbey church of Corbie, from Wikimedia Commons

    The modern state of the abbey church of Corbie, from Wikimedia Commons


    The annual Early Medieval Europe lecture was this year given by none other than Professor Mayke de Jong, speaking with the title “Carolingian Cultures of Dialogue and Debate”, so as you might expect I went. Mayke was speaking about a difficult text on which she has been working for a long time, the Epitaphium Arsenii of Paschasius Radbertus. This is an anonymised critique of the policies of the Carolingian Emperor Louis the Pious written in the form of a dialoguic account of the life of one of his relatives, Abbot Wala of Corbie (as he ended his earthly career).2 Just explaining what it is isn’t simple, therefore, but Mayke is one of three people who have recently written about it, all coming into the field (as she explained) with different historiographical demons to slay.3 The particular one she tackled here was the idea that the early Middle Ages was an era in which there was no public sphere and the ancient tradition of ‘speaking truth to power’ died off, in which rulers were influenced not by the voices of the crowd but a closed circle of advisors. Texts like the Epitaphium show that this is not true, at least if Mayke’s right that its much more polemical second book was intended for an audience beyond the monastery at Corbie where it was written. The whole text rests on the idea that it was not just all right but morally necessary to try to correct the emperor about his mistakes, after all, and that this could be done by this kind of literary device. Mayke had other examples of people rewriting events in literary fashion to put their view across, but it now strikes me after teaching it for a term again that another obvious one of these texts is Einhard’s Vita Karoli, because whatever its date and purpose was it’s certainly using praise of Charlemagne in the reign of his successor to do something. The whole lecture was full of wry wit and sharp observations about the way that people’s intellectual traditions have constructed their opinions, and she was quite right that if we as scholars of the early Middle Ages want to get our field away from the old idea of the Dark Ages we need better to understand why people find it useful to put it there.4 But her final point, that the Carolingian religious sphere was a public one that included laymen, shows how far our categories are crumbling as we better understand what authors like Paschasius were doing with their texts.

And so that wound up the first day of the IMC of 2015, and I will alternate the reports on the remaining three with shorter and more discursive content but I will, by my blogger’s pledge, get it done, and then continue onwards!


1. Ellenblum’s work referred to here is R. Ellenblum, The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean: climate change and the decline of the East, 950-1072 (Cambridge 2012), to which at some point I am also going to have to pay attention I suppose. On issues of scale, it always seems worth my citing Julio Escalona, “The Early Middle Ages: a scale-based approach” in idem & Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Scale and Scale Change in the Early Middle Ages: exploring landscape, local society, and the world beyond, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 9-29.

2. It is available in a deprecated but still unique translation for the English-speaker as Allen Cabaniss (trans.), Charlemagne’s Cousins: contemporary lives of Adalard and Wala (Syracuse NY 1967).

3. Referring to M. de Jong, The Penitential State: authority and atonement in the age of Louis the Pious, 814-840 (Cambridge 2010), but also to Courtney M. Booker, Past Convictions: the penance of Louis the Pious and the decline of the Carolingians (Philadelphia PA 2009) and some unnamed work by Steffen Patzold that I don’t know, but which might be (or be referred to in) his “Consensus – Concordia – Unitas: Überlegungen zu einem politisch-religiösen Ideal der Karolingerzeit” in Nikolaus Staubach (ed.), Exemplaris imago: Ideale in Mittelalter und früher Neuzeit, Tradition, Reform, Innovation 15 (Frankfurt 2012), pp. 31-56 (non vidi).

4. Mayke cited, among other things, Ian Wood, The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages (Oxford 2013), and I might add, with my original cautions as linked, Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia PA 2006).

Kalamazoo 2015, Part 3

Continuing the press through my reporting backlog, we now reach the third day of the 2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies, or as it’s otherwise known, Kalamazoo, 16th May 2015. Time is as ever short and the subject matter ageing, so I shall try and just do my brief list-and-comment format and I’m happy to provide more if they tweak people’s interest. But this is what I saw and some of what I thought…

Early Medieval Europe III

Obviously not one I could miss, given the participants:

  • Eric J. Goldberg, “The Hunting Death of King Carloman II (884)”
  • Cullen J. Chandler, “Nationalism and the Late Carolingian March”
  • Phyllis Jestice, “When Duchesses Were Dukes: female dukes and the rhetoric of power in tenth-century Germany
  • Professor Goldberg made a good attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of King Carloman II, who did indeed get himself killed in a boar-hunt thereby wrecking Western Francia’s chance of Carolingian security, but who had also received the text of advice we know as the De Ordine Palatii from Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims and the acts of whose single council speak in moralising terms of reform and a return to old law in a way that suggests he had taken it to heart, and intended to rule like the right sort of king had the boar not won in one of the court’s fairly essential mutual displays of valour; it might justly be noted, as did Professor Goldberg, that the hunt was happening on a royal estate freshly recovered from the Vikings. As usual, it turns out not to be simple. Cullen made a fresh attempt at explaining the details of Count-Marquis Borrell II‘s undesired escape from Frankish over-rule in the years 985-987 without the national determinism that the standard Catalan scholarship has attached to those events, painting Borrell’s position as one of local legitimacy via multiple fidelities to powerful rulers rather than independència; I might not quite agree, preferring to see something like a serial monogamous Königsfern (to use Cullen’s own concept), but there’s no doubt that nationalism distorts all our perspectives.1 Lastly Professor Jestice looked at three German noblewomen, Judith Duchess of Burgundy, Beatrice Duchess of Upper Lotharingia and Hedwig Duchess of Swabia, over the 960s to 980s, during which time all of them were in various ways in charge of their duchies in the absence of an adult male ruler, and who were all addressed as dux, ‘duke’ as we translate it, in the masculine, in that time, and were awarded charters and held courts like the rulers in whose places we usually consider them to have stood. As Professor Jestice said, it’s a lot easier just to say that they exercised power in their own right, isn’t it? After all, when Duke Dietrich of Lotharingia threw his mother out of power, the pope imposed a penance on him, so you have to wonder if their categories were where we expect them to be. Questions here were mainly about the gendering of the language, and whether it actually has significance, but the point is surely that we can’t mark a clear difference between these women and their male counterparts, so should maybe stop doing it.

432. Money in the Middle Ages

Another obviously-required choice, with later ramifications I couldn’t have anticipated.

  • Andrei Gândilâ, “Modern Money in a Pre-Modern Economy: Fiduciary Coinage in Early Byzantium”
  • Lee Mordechai, “East Roman Imperial Spending and the Eleventh-Century Crisis”
  • Lisa Wolverton, “War, Politics, and the Flow of Cash on the German-Czech-Polish Frontier”
  • Andrei opened up a question I have since pursued with him in other places (thanks not least to Lee, it’s all very circular), which is, how was Byzantine small change valued? From Anastasius (491-518) until the mid-ninth century Byzantine copper-alloy coinage usually carried a face value, which related to the gold coinage in which tax and military salaries were paid in ways we are occasionally told about, but its size didn’t just vary widely, with old 20-nummi pieces sometimes being bigger than newer 40-nummi ones, but was occasionally increased or restored, while old Roman and Byzantine bronze coins continued to run alongside this stuff in circulation at values we don’t understand.2 It seems obvious that the state could set the value of these coinages in ways that look very modern, but the supporting economic framework is largely invisible to us as yet. Lee, meanwhile, retold the economic history of the eleventh-century Byzantine empire, which is as he observed often graphed by means of tracking gold fineness, but could instead be seen as a series of policy reversals by very short-lived emperors that only Alexios I Komnenos, hero of that particular narrative, even had time to address in a way that had a chance of lasting.3 Lastly Professor Wolverton pointed at how often money was involved in the making and breaking of relations across her chosen frontier and argued that more should be done with this by historians, with which I am certainly not going to argue, although discussion made it seem as if the first problem is going to be the numbers provided by her sources.

Then coffee, much needed, and to the next building for…

472. Rethinking Medieval Maps

  • Rebecca Darley, “Eating the Edge of the World in Book Eleven of the Christian Topography
  • Thomas Franke, “Exceeding Expectations: appeasement and subversion in the Catalan Atlas (1375)”
  • Chet Van Duzer, “A Neglected Type of Mappamundi and its Re-Imaging in the Mare Historiarum (BnF MS Lat. 4995, fo. 26v)”
  • Anne Derbes, “Rethinking Maps in Late Medieval Italy: Giusto de’ Menabodi’s Creation of the World in the Baptistery of Padua”
  • Most of this session was somewhat late for me, though not uninteresting, but as keen readers will know Rebecca Darley’s research just about meets mine at Byzantium. She was here arguing in general that, in the early Middle Ages, maps were not tools to be used to find things but ways of imaging space that could not actually be experienced, and used the sixth-century Alexandrian text known as the Christian Topography as an example. It argues in ten books for a flat world the shape of the Tabernacle but then apparently adding an eleventh using quite different source materials to describe the voyage by sea to India and Sri Lanka, with details of the animals from there that the author had seen or indeed eaten. The thing is that the book’s earlier maps don’t show India or Sri Lanka at all, and the cited animals and foods make it seem that the author wasn’t at all clear where they really were; they were not abstract enough to be mapped, but could be directly experienced. QED!

    The world map from the Christian Topography of Cosmas

    The world map from the Christian Topography of Cosmas. “WorldMapCosmasIndicopleustes” by Cosmas Indicopleustes, 6th century – “Les Sciences au Moyen-Age”, “Pour la Science”. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.


    Then Mr Franke introduced us, or at least me, to the Catalan Atlas, a world map made by a Jewish artist for King Peter III or Aragón in 1375 which, according to Mr Franke, encodes in its numerous labels of sacred and indeed Apocalyptic locations and portrayals of their associated persons a message that Antichrist will look like the real Christ and that Jews will not be associated with him.
    An eight-page montage of the Catalan Atlas in its Paris manuscript

    An eight-page montage of the Catalan Atlas in its Paris manuscript, by Abraham Cresques – Bibliothèque Nationale de Fance, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41309380


    Mr Van Duzer, for his part, introduced us to another map-as-conceptual-diagram, not the well-known T-O map but a sort of V-in-a-box that shows the different destinations of the sons of Noah about the continents as per the Bible, developed and more less forgotten in the seventh century but revived in his fourteenth-century example manuscript as a vertical projection of a curved Earth, all of which together is more or less unparalleled.
    Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Lat 4915, fo. 26v

    Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Lat 4915, fo. 26v, showing the division of the world between the races


    Lastly Professor Derbes described a world map that can be found in the sixteenth-century baptistery of Padua built by the Carrara family as part of a larger effort of showing off the learning and artistry which they could command. As with much of the session, all I could do with this was nod and enjoy the pictures but the pictures were all pretty good.

And that was it for the third day of papers. Once again, I didn’t do any of the evening sessions but instead hunted dinner in Kalamazoo proper, which the waiter told us was among other things the first home of the Gibson Les Paul guitar. This also means I missed the dance, which is becoming something of a worrying conference trend and perhaps something I should combat, at Kalamazoo at least, but by now I needed the rest, and so this day also wound down.


1. Until Cullen has this in print, one can see Paul Freedman making some of the same points more gently (because of being in Barcelona to do it) in his ‘Symbolic implications of the events of 985-988’ in Federico Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium internacional sobre els orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-IX), 2 vols (Barcelona 1991-1992), also published as Memorias de la Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vols 23-24 (Barcelona 1991-1992), I pp. 117-129, online here.

2. The current state of the art on this question is more or less one article, Cécile Morrisson, “La monnaie fiduciaire à Byzance ou ‘Vraie monnaie’, ‘monnaie fiduciaire’ et ‘fausse monnaie’ à Byzance” in Bulletin de la Société Française de Numismatique Vol. 34 (Paris 1979), pp. 612-616.

Link

Busy-day links

Today is a day with no time in it, where the morning goes on training and the afternoon goes on meetings and in the evening I am celebrating someone’s viva, and there’a about half an hour all told to complete daily tasks such as updating the blog. Happily, I have a stash of links saved against just such an eventuality! Let me therefore distract you with things that others have put on the web, with headings!

Discoveries of stuff

Frescoes in underground church at Nevşehir, Turkey

Frescoes in underground church at Nevşehir, Turkey


You would think that Byzantine churches had little in common with London buses, but there is at least this, that as the saying goes, you wait ages for one then two come along at once, one in Turkey for which grand claims are being made (for which link a hat tip to Georgia Michael of the University of Birmingham) and one off Turkey which is just really cool to look at.
Submerged foundations of a Byzantine church in Lake Iznik, Turkey

Submerged foundations of a Byzantine church in Lake Iznik, Turkey


And then there’s an especially shiny hoard of Roman and non-Roman silver from Scotland which people are using to draw conclusions about the Picts in a period before all of us would be comfortable using the word, for which link I owe a tip of that same hat to the Crofter.1
Objects from the Gaulcross Hoard

Objects from the Gaulcross Hoard

Sad News

While writing the long-delayed post on the Bíblia de Danila, I noted briefly that to my sadness John Williams, a scholar of the art of the medieval Iberian peninsula whom I did not know but whose work has been very useful to me, had died; here’s a memorial of the sort he richly deserved.

Interesting Research

We have here a pedigree (as it were) of looking at work on genetics with a critical eye; this new study looks better than usual and I’ll have to give it its own post. The hat is here tipped to James Palmer at Merovingianworld.

Quality medievalism

If you’re going to try to relive the Middle Ages then your soundtrack needs to be right, amirite? Here’s an example of how to do it. Resuming my metaphorical hat, I now tip it to Z the Cold-Hearted Scientist for passing this my way.

Resources!

A museum in Japan has some old maps. Perhaps not surprising, even if they have obligingly put them on the web? But medieval maps don’t usually work the way we expect, and it turns out that there are eighth-century maps of field systems in here which kind of do. Obviously this is Japan so links to what I do not at all except that here are people using the kind of tools we would use for the kind of jobs that our study population must too have had but for which they used… well, we don’t know. But it’s one in the eye for all those who suggest that representational cartography has to postdate some major Western intellectual development innit? Maybe you don’t care as much as I do about this but Rebecca Darley, who provided me with the link and to whom the hat is now tipped, probably does so I bet there are others too.

Map of the field at Ikarugi, Tonami district, Etchū Province

Map of the field at Ikarugi, Tonami district, Etchū Province

Then, fellow frontiers and charters enthusiast Igor Santos Salazar has let me know about this monumental task on which he has been engaged, a database of the judicial records from medieval Tuscany which is now online. Lavoro erculaneo, Igor!

And lastly in this section, they said it would never happen; several people died in the course of trying to do it; it has been complicated by two world wars, international tension and the Iron Curtain, to say nothing of funding and staffing troubles, but it is done: the charters of Emperor Louis the Pious (814-840) are published at last.2 Here not a tip of the hat but sincere congratulations to Herr Professor Theo Kölzer for making it to the end of such an inauspicious task!

This is cool

Lastly, much more in my regular line, firstly just a really cool Spanish church site, well written up and photographed, for which thanks to José Manuel Serrano Esperanza for introducing it to me, and now to you.

San Zoilo de Cáseda, Navarra

San Zoilo de Cáseda, Navarra

And then last of all, heard of only today, an exhibition opening on Monday at the Yorkshire Museum (in York), entitled Constantius: York’s Forgotten Emperor, curated by an old colleague of mine, Andy Woods, which exhibition has been brought about by the discovery of a huge hoard of Constantius I’s coins that the Museum hopes to acquire. Do have a look!


1. There’s an actual article behind this one, which a quick websearch reveals as Gordon Noble, Martin Goldberg, Alistair McPherson and Oskar Sveinbjarnarson, “(Re)Discovering the Gaulcross Hoard” in Antiquity Vol. 90 (Cambridge 2016), pp. 726-741.

2. On the troubles of the project up to 1990 see Peter Johanek, “Probleme einer zukünftigen Edition der Urkunden Ludwigs der Frommen” in Roger Collins & Peter Godman (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (Oxford 1990), pp. 409-424.

Gallery

In Marca Hispanica XXXV: new archæology at l’Esquerda

This gallery contains 13 photos.

There has again been marking and now I am even further behind in backlog, because I still have one more post about my April 2015 trip to Catalonia to put up. It’s too good to skip, though, so here goes. … Continue reading

Anglo-Saxon England and the European Union

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

Map of the Carolingian Empire under Charlemagne

Map of the Carolingian Empire under Charlemagne

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

A silver penny of King Offa

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

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

A Mayen quernstone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buffalo mozzarella cheese

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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