Category Archives: Carolingians

What if Widukind was wrong about warfare?

I feel a little bad about returning to David Bachrach’s book Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany with my claws still out after his generous and lengthy responses to my previous critiques. I’m going to do it anyway, of course, but I feel it more necessary than usual to stress to the readership that I use this blog primarily as a platform on which to look clever, and that someone else’s work gives me the chance to do so is not necessarily an indictment of it. Indeed, the first two substantive chapters of Professor Bachrach’s book are possibly the clearest narrative of the politics of the Ottonian realm under Henry I (919-936) and Otto I (936-973) that I’ve read anywhere, militarily-focused or otherwise, and the whole book does the English-reading population of historically-minded people a favour by making the Ottonians more available to us.1 But every year I have a fresh cohort of first-year students who don’t really understand what I mean by critical use of primary sources, and those same first two chapters provide me with some really good object examples.

Monte Cassino, Museo storico, Codex Casinensis 298, showing a contents page from Widukind of Corvey's Sachsengeschichte

A contents page from the oldest manuscript of Widukind of Corvey’s Sachsengeschichte, Monte Cassino, Museo storico, Codex Casinensis 298, here p. 190 (apparently)

The crucial source for much of what Professor Bachrach sets out is the so-called Sachsengeschichte of Widukind of Corvey, written up in 968 and then edited after Otto I’s death in 973, and very lately translated into English by none other than the well-known firm of Bachrach & Bachrach, indeed.2 Widukind was a monk but seems to have been unusually interested in military campaigns, so the first object lesson for my notional students: just because someone is religiously-inclined does not prevent them having good information on secular matters! You have to go further than that and establish, if you can, what bees this particular author has in his or her bonnet about such things. Now, as I say, Widukind is very often the key testimony for Professor Bachrach’s account but the trouble is that sometimes he is flatly contradicted by other sources. Let’s work through an example.

Roman walls built into later structures at Regensburg, Germany

I’m not sure how much of Regensburg’s medieval walls are left but here is some Roman work that obviously must still have been there at the time we’re writing about… Photograph by Lance Longwell

Even by 921 King Henry I was not accepted by all his German subjects, and one particular hold-out was the duchy of Bavaria, then under one Arnulf. Henry had hitherto been occupied trying to arrange peace on his western borders but with that done was able to turn his attention to Bavaria, where Widukind tells us he laid siege to Arnulf at Regensburg and that Arnulf, realising the game was up, surrendered and terms were reached.3 Well, so far so good, but this is only one version of events. The Italian diplomat, gossip-monger and courtier of Otto I, Liudprand of Cremona, writing in the period 958-962, instead records that Henry and Arnulf met with armies on the battlefield but concluded the truce there rather than fight.4 And if that weren’t enough, another text records that Henry invaded Bavaria but was driven out by the forces of an unnamed city, with terms being reached after that.5 Now, I have all these references from Professor Bachrach himself who diligently records them in a footnote, but what he doesn’t give is any reason why we should accept Widukind’s version over the other two. One might meanly suspect that it is because Widukind alone mentions a siege and Professor Bachrach has hung his historiographical hat on the importance of sieges in the warfare of the period, as we have seen.6 I’m sure it is in fact otherwise, but what could we do instead?

Later tenth-century manuscript page of Liutprand's Antapodosis now in Münich

Later tenth-century manuscript page of Liutprand’s Antapodosis, now Münich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 6338, image from Wikimedia Commons

There are several ways this could be resolved, although none of them are conclusive. I think that the anonymous Fragmentum de Arnulfo duce Bavarie can probably be ignored; its purpose was to glorify Arnulf, so it had no interest in recording his defeat, but more importantly its version offers no explanation for Arnulf actually making terms, which he evidently did as Henry went away and Arnulf was willing to fight alongside him on the eastern frontier in later years.7 Liudprand is harder to dismiss, however; he was writing earlier than Widukind and with access to Otto I’s court and anyone there who might have had memories of these campaigns, and his obvious interest in praising the Ottonians (as compared to his previous employer, King Berengar II of Italy) still didn’t lead him to give Henry a decisive victory as did Widukind.8 In some senses both are telling the same essential story: Henry brought an army and Arnulf decided it wasn’t worth fighting. The difference is that Liudprand thought that was best set in the field and Widukind saw it at the city walls, and at least implies the fighting which Liudprand denies. We don’t know why but it is possible that Widukind was making a literary choice, in which case Professor Bachrach has a problem to deal with.

Reconstruction drawing of the Slavic fortress at Brandenburg

Reconstruction drawing of the Slavic fortress at Brandenburg

Can we get any other angles on Widukind’s historiographical preferences? Yes, we can. In 928 Henry I was busy dealing with the various Slav groups on his eastern border. First among these, because they had raided his territory a few years before and because they stood in the way of any major campaign in the middle Elbe region, were a group called the Hevelli who were centred at what is now Brandenburg, where they had a fortress.9 Professor Bachrach’s account is clear and concise, so let’s use that:

“Widukind, who is our best source for this war, makes clear that Henry’s campaign against the Hevelli involved several subsidiary military operations before the urbs at Brandenburg itself was captured. He stressed that the German forces wore out the Slavs in numerous battles (multis preliis fatigans) over a lengthy period.93 It was only after he had sufficiently isolated Brandenburg that Henry deployed his army in a close siege of the fortress. Widukind draws attention to the fact that by the time Henry actually began direct operations against the Hevelli princely seat, the coldest part of the winter had arrived. As a result, the army was forced to camp on ice (castris super glaciem positis).94 Ultimately, Henry captured Brandenburg by storm, after besieging the stronghold for some time.95

“93 Widukind, Res gestae, I.35.
“94 Widukind, Res gestae, I.35. In describing the siege and capture of Brandenburg, Widukind alludes to Cicero’s speech against Lucius Calpurnius Piso. Cicero, In Pisonem, 17 reads, “exercitus nostri interitus ferro, fame, frigore, pestilentia.” Here, Cicero was listing the causes for the casualties suffered by Piso’s troops when he served as governor of Macedonia. Widukind paraphrases here listing only hunger, arms (literally iron), and cold as the causes for the casualties suffered by the defenders of Brandenburg.
“95 Widukind, Res gestae, I.35.”

There’s quite a lot that can be read between the lines here, it seems to me. One is Henry’s determination in pursuing the campaign, which may well be what Widukind wanted to illustrate: the king presumably hadn’t meant to be campaigning still in the dead of winter, which would have been nearly as difficult for his troops as for the defenders and was an occasional cause of mutiny in the Byzantine world.10 It looks rather as if siege was his last resort after trying to beat the enemy decisively in the field had failed several times. Even then, he seems to have waited before risking an assault. Presumably at each stage he hoped for a surrender that the Hevelli weren’t willing to offer. That, at least, seems as fair a reading as one that makes it all strategic wearing down of the enemy; who would have planned to make their army camp on ice? (Though that does suggest that perhaps the fortress was unreachable previously because of surrounding water—as indeed above though the Ottonian forces presumably didn’t camp on the moat—in which case Henry probably didn’t start out meaning to besiege it.)

Portrait bust of M. Tullius Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero, no less

But you saw the footnote, right? Object lesson number two for the notional students: always glance at the footnotes. Perhaps more important than the campaign’s duration is the unexpected presence of this guy in the text, this of course being Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman orator and politican of the first century B. C., and with him arrives a possibility unsettling for someone wanting to read Widukind straight here, to wit that he had a written model in mind for how this situation should be described that was nothing to do with what had happened. For most history undergraduates in the UK I guess that this methodological problem is first opened up to them when briefly studying Charlemagne, because they will be set to read Einhard’s Life of Charles and if their teacher’s any good, will then be faced with the fact that Einhard borrowed almost all of his description of Charlemagne from Suetonius’s Twelve Cæsars, in order to make Charlemagne truly the image of his Roman imperial predecessors.11

Portrait denarius of Charlemagne as Emperor (812x814)

Silver denier of Charlemagne, struck at an uncertain mint in 812-814, Künker sale 205 (March 12 and 13, 2012), lot 1405, now in a private collection

Silver denarius of Emperor Vespasian struck at Rome in 69-71, Beast Coins Z2844

Silver denarius of Emperor Vespasian struck at Rome in 69-71, Beast Coins Z2844

The good ones will then work out, of course, that if Einhard was picking descriptions from twelve different emperors to describe one, the best reason for him to select the bits he did was probably because they actually fitted Charlemagne—it’s like my bit about formulae mentioning dovecotes in charters, most probably used because the property in question actually had a dovecote. Maybe the same thing was happening here, so that Widukind had a historical story to tell and saw how perfectly the Cicero quote could fit it. We can hope so, especially since there seems to be no other lifting from Cicero in the story. But one does have at least to think about it. Now, I’m sure that Professor Bachrach has thought about all these questions, for the very simple reason that he’s put the evidence that provokes them in his own footnotes! But I wish he’d had space also to explain how he resolved them in favour of Widukind’s accuracy each time.


1. David Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012, repr. 2014), pp. 14-69.

2. Widukind, Res gestae Saxonicae, ed. & (German) transl. Albert Bauer & Reinhold Rau as “Die Sachsengeschichte des Widukind von Korvei” in Bauer & Rau (edd.), Quellen zur Geschichte der sächsischen Kaiserzeit (Fontes ad historiam aevi Saxonici illustrandam), Ausgewählte Quellen zur deutschen Geschichte des Mittelalters 8 (Darmstadt 1971), pp. 1-183, (English) transl. Bernard S. Bachrach & David Bachrach as Widukind of Corvey, Deeds of the Saxons, translated with an introduction and notes (Washington DC 2014).

3. Widukind, Res gestae, I.27; Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, pp. 20-21, citing Widukind at p. 20 n. 38.

4. Liudprand of Cremona, Antapodosis, ed. Paolo Chiesa in Chiesa (ed.), Liudprandi Cremonensis Opera omnia: Antapodosis, Homelia paschalis; Historia Ottonis; Relatio de legatione Constantinopolitana, Corpus Christianorum: Continuatio Medievalis 156 (Turnhout 1998), pp. 1-150, transl. in F. A. Wright (transl.), The Works of Liudprand of Cremona (London 1930), pp. 27-212, II.21, cit. by Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, p. 20 n. 38.

5. Fragmentum de Arnulfo Bavariae, ed. Philipp Jaffé in Jaffé (ed.), “Annales et notae S. Emmerami Ratisbonensis et Weltenburgenses” in Georg Heinrich Pertz (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores in folio) XVII (Hannover 1861, repr. 1990), p. 570 of pp. 567-576, cit. by Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, p. 20 n. 38.

6. Thus also ibid. p. 22 where Adalbert of Magdeburg, who describes a siege at Metz in 923, is preferred over Flodoard of Reims who describes a different sort of campaign by the German king. They both make it look as if their preferred king won, of course, and maybe there’s something going on where Flodoard focuses on the invading king as a general force of unjust destruction and Adalbert has him single-mindedly focused on the target, Bishop Wigeric of Metz, who had attacked a royal estate. That’s only my speculation, though, and doesn’t settle the question.

7. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, pp. 29-30.

8. On Liudprand’s agenda, see Karl Leyser, “Ends and Means in Liudprand of Cremona” in James Howard-Johnston (ed.), Byzantium and the West c. 850 – c. 1200: proceedings of the XVIII Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Oxford 30. March – 1. April 1984, Byzantinische Forschungen 13 (Amsterdam 1988), pp. 119-143, repr. in Leyser, Communications and Power in the Middle Ages, ed. Timothy Reuter (London 1994), 2 vols, I, pp. 125-142, but in searching out that reference I find also the very relevant-looking Antoni Grabowski, “‘Duel’ between Henry I and Arnulf of Bavaria according to Liudprand of Cremona” in Roman Czaja, Eduard Mühle & Andrzej Radziminski (edd.), Konfliktbewältigung und Friedensstiftung im Mittelalter (Torún 2012), pp. 387-400, which I have not seen but seems worth mentioning.

9. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, pp. 27-28, quote below on p. 28.

10. As under Maurice in 592: see Andrew Louth, “Justinian and his Legacy (500-600)” in Jonathan Shepard (ed.), The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire (Cambridge 2007), pp. 99-129 at p. 127.

11. See Matthew Innes, “The classical tradition in the Carolingian Renaissance: ninth-century encounters with Suetonius” in International Journal of the Classical Tradition Vol. 3 (New Brunswick 1997), pp. 265-282.

Seminar CCXXXVII: East-West links in the ninth-century Mediterranean

I write this while waiting for two captured lectures finally to save my edits and be available for my doubtless-eager students, and this may take a while, so what better way to while away the time than to go back nearly a year—ouch—and report on a seminar from back in Birmingham, on 26th March 2015, when Dr Federico Montinaro spoke to the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies with the title “The Photian Schism (858-880): towards a cultural history”. Now, I suspect that only the most erudite of my readership will immediately be responding, “Ah yes, the Photian Schism, I know it well”, so perhaps it’s best to start with a basic chronology as Dr Montinaro presented it. The events were:

  • 858: For reasons we didn’t cover, Emperor Michael III deposed Patriarch Ignatius of Constantinople, and replaced him with a layman called Photius; Ignatius went into exile.
  • 867: Patriarch Photius excommunicated Pope Nicholas I, of whom we have spoken here before, over a range of ‘errors of the Latins’ which he found intolerable, as well as the papacy’s interference in the Balkans, which Byzantium considered its ecclesiastical territory.
  • Still 867: Michael III was succeeded by Basil I, who immediately deposed Photius and recalled and reinstated Ignatius.
  • 870: a council was held in Constantinople over the East-West division, attended by representatives from the West (in particular the Greek-speaking historian and scholar Anastasius the Librarian), but didn’t really resolve much.
  • 871: meanwhile, a joint campaign by the Carolingian Emperor Louis II and Basil’s forces in Southern Italy had gone so badly that there was a falling-out there too, in which the legitimacy of Louis’s imperial title was called into question.
  • 877: Patriarch Ignatius died, and perhaps because the West was no longer in his good books, or perhaps because of local pressure, Basil reinstated Photius.
  • 879×80: Pope John VIII, anxious to rebuild bridges, confirmed Rome’s recognition of Photius’s election.

And thus ends the Schism, although by no means the difficulties between the new Western and old Eastern empires and their two patriarchal bishops.1 Now, Dr Montinaro’s quite short paper aimed to convince his audience that the extensive back and forth of embassies, letters, abuse and diplomacy actually brought the West and the East closer together during this period, increasing contact and familiarity at the highest levels. The dispute is certainly one of the few episodes involving both the West and Byzantium which we can usefully study with sources from both sides, not least the Historia Tripartita of the category-defying Anastasius, and if one does so (as Dr Montinaro has) the level of information the two sides had about each other does seem quite high; there were what seem to be quick reactions from one side to domestic controversies going on on the other, and theologians busy in both courts coming up with lists of the other side’s errors or defences of their own practices, all of which must have required some starting knowledge.2 Nor was this traffic all one-way; this is also the sort of time that the Greeks started to use a minuscule book-script such as the Carolingians had invented for Latin, and manuscript preservation in the Greek area also begins to climb in this general period. So Dr Montinaro closed with a plea that we should expect, and look for, more influences between East and West than is usually imagined.

Venice, Biblioteca Marciana, Codex Marcianus Graecus 822

A tenth-century manuscript of the Iliad in Greek minuscule, not to me looking very much like a case of Carolingian influence but the minuscule script itself is the novelty, I understand… This is Venice, Biblioteca Marciana, Codex Marcianus Graecus 822.

That conclusion seems perfectly admirable to me, but some of the steps to it are not things I would personally tread on, because correlation does not equal causation. Certainly, if one compares this situation to the arguments over images of God in the time of Charlemagne and the Isaurian emperors, it is clear that whereas Bishop Theodulf of Orléans, commissioned to write the Carolingian response to that problem, seems not to have had a clear idea of what the Byzantine positions actually were and the Byzantines paid no attention to the Carolingian theology of images at all, by the time of Photius the bandwidth of intellectual communication was clearly much higher.3 But several things then seem to partway explain that: by the 860s, the Carolingians were no longer a new dynasty and had Greek-reading theologians at some of their courts, and in any case, most of the interactions in this scenario were with the Carolingians and the pope in Italy, where contact with Byzantium had been continuous and regular in a way that Charlemagne could not have managed even if he’d wanted to from north of the Alps.4

Patriarch Photios of Constantinople being interrogated by a panel of ecclesiastics, from the Madrid manuscript of the Chronicle of John Skylitzes

Photius himself being interrogated by a panel of ecclesiastics, from the Madrid manuscript of the Chronicle of John Skylitzes via Wikimedia Commons

The background signal of contact, in other words, might well be high enough that the Schism was not even the vehicle of such contact, but actually its result, as the East dealt with enough Latin churchmen that a catalogue of their ‘errors’ could even be collected. I also thought, and said, that what was missing from any explanation was much evidence of the people who actually went and made contact; in the schism Anastasius is almost the only one we can name, but there was clearly much more passing between the two empires than that, and at that rate, once we have to suppose any invisible contact, tying it to the Schism seems like that venerable game of medievalists, pushing two pieces of an incomplete jigsaw even though they don’t really fit because they’re the only ones we have. In other words, I was entertained but not convinced. Still, it would be nice to have all those references in print…


1. The standard work on the schism seems still to be František Dvornik, Le schisme de Photius : histoire et légende (Paris 1950).

2. Not least John Scot, Eriugena, Greek-literate and writing on such issues for King Charles the Bald in the 860s, as Dr Montinaro pointed out.

Seminar CCXXXVI: a few steps closer to Flodoard

Trying to get back on the horse while I’m still in sight of it, here is a report on a seminar I was at on 25th March 2015, which was when Dr Ed Roberts, then of KCL and now of the University of the Basque Country, presented to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research with the title, “The Composition, Structure and Audience of Flodoard’s Annals“. Flodoard of Reims was that rarest of things, a historian of the tenth century, so you’d think I’d know a bit about him, but in actual fact because his Annals finish in 966 and don’t mention Catalonia at all, and his massive History of the Church of Reims is understandably even more local, it’s just never been urgent.1 The result was that I learnt a lot from this, although predictably perhaps, a lot of what I learnt is what we don’t know about the Annals and their author.

One of the manuscripts of Flodoard's Annals, Biblioteca di Vaticano MS Reg. Lat. 633, fo. 42v

One of the manuscripts of Flodoard’s Annals, Biblioteca di Vaticano MS Reg. Lat. 633, fo. 42v, from the site of a French project that was in 2011 going to do what Ed is now starting towards

The things we do know, from Flodoard’s own works or those of his successor as Reims’s historian, Richer, can be reasonably quickly set out: Flodoard was born in 893 or 894, was in school at Reims cathedral between 900 and 922, was bounced out of the chapter in 925 for refusing to support the election of Archbishop Hugh (then 5 years old), went to Rome in 936 and was recalled in 937 by Archbishop Artold. Artold had been put in place of Hugh because of the age thing, but Hugh had strong supporters which was how that had happened in the first place and in 940 Artold was deposed and Hugh resumed his throne, at which point Flodoard was arrested. His position between then and 946, when Hugh was again deposed and Artold restored, is quite unclear, but some of it seems to have been at the court of King Otto I of the Germans, who was brought in with the pope and King Louis IV of the Franks to settle the rights to the see definitively in 948. After that Flodoard returned to his chapter, wrote the History of the Church of Reims and retired in 963. He seems to have started the Annals long before that, however, in 923 probably, and carried on adding yearly entries until his death in 966, so it was a lifetime project carried on through a quite turbulent life by the standards of a comfortably-placed medieval cleric.2

The seal of the cathedral of Reims

The seal of the cathedral of Reims, showing a building perhaps more like the one Flodoard knew than the current one. By G. Garitan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

These then are the things we know but there is also quite a lot which we don’t, and the obvious ones are why he wrote the Annals and who his audience was supposed to be (or even actually was). In a career like that one can see how axes could need grinding, and some of these are evident in the History, but the Annals are much more neutral, or perhaps better, more careful. Their author is hardly present in them, and six out of the seven manuscripts remove most of what biographical detail there was in the first version, as well as adding a short continuation for 976-978. Ed suggested that the very longevity of the project made it likely that Flodoard did not, in fact, know who his audience would be which was precisely why he was being so careful, which makes sense but is a little frustrating. In discussion both Alice Rio and Susan Reynolds raised the possibility that Flodoard wrote mainly for the love of doing so, which I think shows you what we were all getting from Ed’s study, a sense that this author about whom we mostly knew very little was on the cusp of being detectable as a personality in his work, but still at this point just over the threshold. There’s not much to compare him to, very little way therefore to check what he was including or leaving out, but I think that Ed did manage to convince us that there was still probably something more to be got from him, so I hope we get to see what it is that Ed finds out can be found!


1. The stock edition of the Annals is still, I believe, Philippe Lauer (ed.), Les Annales de Flodoard, publiées d’après les manuscrits, avec une introduction et des notes (Paris 1905), online here, but there is now also Steven Fanning & Bernard S. Bachrach (transl.), The Annals of Flodoard of Reims, 919-966, Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Culture IX (Toronto 2008). As for the rest, there is Flodoard von Reims, Historia Remensis Ecclesiae, ed. Martina Stratmann, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores in folio) XXXVI (Hannover 1998), online here, and there my knowledge runs out but I’m not sure there’s much more.

2. Most of this was coming from the work of Michel Sot, Un historien et son église : Flodoard de Reims (Paris 1993), which is more or less what Ed now has to replace…

What do I think of the Bíblia de Danila?

There has been a very long hiatus here, for which I’m sorry. The factors in this have basically been:

  • first-marking a bunch of exams;
  • reading enough to kickstart a course I have inherited that starts two hundred years before I usually teach, which is itself five hundred years before what I actually work on
  • second-marking a bunch of exams;
  • the death in traffic of one of my cats, a truly excellent little critter whom I will not now see grow out of his kittenhood;
  • second-marking a bunch more exams and first-marking a bunch of assignments, and
  • the fact that this post needed me to read a sixty-page article in my fifth language which I could only access via a library in London.

But mainly it’s been marking. I did tell myself at one point that I would only blog when there wasn’t marking due but it’s now clear that there will be marking due until at least April, and I can be silent no longer etc., and so we swing now back into substantive blogging with a post that I should have written even longer ago than this delay suggests! It was in October 2012, you see, that our esteemed commentator Mouguias asked me if I had ever heard of a manuscript known as the Bíblia de Danila and if so what I thought of it. I hadn’t, and made an ill-judged promise to find out more and then write about it, and then didn’t do so. Mouguias popped up again in January 2015 and teased me about this in passing, and at that point I stubbed this post to remind me to do something about it. And at last I have.

Cava de' Tirreni, Biblioteca statale del Monumento Nazionale Badia di Cava, Ms. memb. I, fo. 69r

A particularly decorated page from the Bília de Danila, Codex Cavensis or Cava Bible, call it what you will as long as you cite it as Cava de’ Tirreni, Biblioteca statale del Monumento Nazionale Badia di Cava, Ms. memb. I, this here being fo. 69r, and “LaCavaBibleFolio69r“. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

So, firstly, why is this bible a thing to investigate? The manuscript in question now resides in the Southern Italian monastery of la Cava de’ Terreni and this is the source of the manuscript’s other name, the Codex Cavensis. It seems to have come there in the twelfth century, however, from Spain, and probably actually dates to the early ninth century. Until recently it was held to have been nothing less than be a present of Charlemagne to King Alfonso II of Asturias, already, which would make it very early ninth-century indeed, but of late this has come under scrutiny and quite the reverse proposed, that it is fact a native Asturian product possibly even meant for display to the Carolingian Empire of Asturias’s newly-confident cultural self-expression. And for some reason in 2012 the web suddenly picked this up and ran with it. As Mouguias put it in his first comment: “Apparently this might be the ‘book’ that Alfonso II of Asturias mentions in his ‘Testament’, and some believe the bible was produced in order to preside over the Council that the king started in 812.” Well, it “might” be, of course, wherever Alfonso would then have got it from, and people can believe what they like about it but there’s no proving things like that from the manuscript itself and the manuscript is all we have here.

Cava de' Tirreni, Biblioteca statale del Monumento Nazionale Badia di Cava, Ms. memb. I, fo. 220v

Fo. 220v. is, as you can see, written in white and red on indigo-stained parchment. Someone did put a lot of work and wealth into this manuscript! “LaCavaBibleFolio220v“. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Now, you can immediately see how this is what one might expect from an area with a proud and important history within the Iberian peninsula that has since been sidelined by national politics, but for Mouguias this was coming from web reports of work by a researcher by the name of Paolo Cherubini, who is no less than the Vice-Prefect of the Vatican Secret Archive and thus more like a neutral in the contest.1 His work is not easy to get at, however, and it perhaps shouldn’t have surprised me that the web was not reporting it totally accurately.2 Actually, to judge from the unusually scholarly Wikipedia article on the Bible, the germ of the idea of reattributing the Cava Bible to Asturias came from the late great John W. Williams.3 I’m not sure that he would have stood by all of this, however:

“The location of the scriptorium in which Danila worked is not known. However the hand, textual variations, and orthography indicate that the manuscript was produced in Spain, during the early 9th century. It is unlikely that such a luxury manuscript could have been produced in the Muslim-controlled areas of the Iberian Peninsula. This makes Asturias, which was the largest Christian kingdom of the time, the most probable source for codex. Additional evidence of an Asturian origin is provided by the decoration of the manuscript. The Cross which appears in four locations in the La Cava Bible, is the only explicitly Christian decoration in the manuscript. Although the form of the Crosses in the La Cava Bible do not appear in other surviving Asturian art, the Cross was emphasized in Asturian devotional art.”

Well, taking this piece by piece, I am pretty much happy that spelling and textual variants can be used to place this manuscript’s production, or at least its scribe’s training, in Spain, as can the script. After that, however, I back off rapidly, especially from this bit:

“It is unlikely that such a luxury manuscript could have been produced in the Muslim-controlled areas of the Iberian Peninsula. This makes Asturias, which was the largest Christian kingdom of the time, the most probable source for codex [sic].”

What, really, do we know about the size of Asturias under Alfonso II? Mostly, we know what people working for Alfonso III subsequently claimed it had been, in order to justify what were probably really new claims on that territory. Alfonso II’s kingdom was clearly a cultural centre, his rebuild of the royal palace and his attempts to link out to the Carolingians show that, but very big it may not have been, not least because those very links to the Carolingians may indicate a difficulty obtaining local support in some areas.4

Remains of the palace of Alfonso II in Oviedo adjacent to the cathedral of San Salvador

What there remains above ground of the palace of Alfonso II in Oviedo, which is to say, a few bits now sticking out of the cathedral of San Salvador

And in any case, why on earth is it “unlikely” that such a manuscript could have been produced in al-Andalus, the which polity contained Seville, Toledo and the as-yet-apparently-untaxed Christian community of Córdoba as well as many other cathedral communities? The Asturian cultural efflorescence used to be supposed, after all, to have been powered by super-cultured fugitive immigrants from the south who brought their skills and ideas for decoration with them, and indeed often their manuscripts.5 You can’t have that along with the assumption that all Christians living in Muslim-controlled areas had become culturally bankrupt. So we need some better basis for this identification.

The supposedly 'Mozarabic' church of San Miguel d'Escalada, Asturias

The supposedly ‘Mozarabic’ church of San Miguel d’Escalada, Asturias, which could of course have been built by anyone who’d ever seen such arches and had sufficient skill, wherever they’d been born, but hey. «SMdE exterior portico» por Desarrollo Local GradefesSan Miguel de Escalada 05. Disponible bajo la licencia CC BY-SA 2.0 vía Wikimedia Commons.

It does have to be admitted that the Bíblia’s decoration is not very Andalusi as we understand it, but then, decorated manuscripts from al-Andalus are rare, full stop. Furthermore, this decoration contains no human figures, although as you see it has some splendid fish, which might cause some to say that an Andalusi context is more, not less, plausible. Even our Wikipedian commentator, you’ll note, has to admit that in terms of manuscript art this decoration is unusual for Asturias, and hangs on the number of ornamented crosses that survive in metalwork from the area as a proxy. But while the Asturian ones are lovely, pretty much everywhere in the Latin West had ornamental processional crosses, you know? In whose Christian devotional art has the cross not been a focus? It’s really not enough by itself.

The Cruz de la Victoria, in San Salvador d'Oviedo

The superb Cruz de la Victoria, in San Salvador d’Oviedo, and yes, it is lovely and inescapably Asturian, but it is also from a century later than our Bible and also nothing like as geometric as the cross patterns therein. «Oviedo – Catedral, Camara Santa 02» por ZaratemanTrabajo propio. Disponible bajo la licencia CC0 vía Wikimedia Commons.

So, I went and got hold of Cherubini’s article, and slowly I read it. It may not surprise you that it is more careful than the Wikipedia article for the most part. In particular, he does nothing with the argument about the crosses at all; he mentions that others have made it, but then never comes back to it.6 Instead he is focused on the palæography, and this turns out to be not as simple a question as you might expect. The main text is by two scribes, and they have differing but high levels of Iberian Latin habits that, for Cherubini and I’m happy to go along with this, place this manuscript in a zone where Visigothic script and Iberian Latin were the common ways of writing texts, and he argues reasonably for a date in the ninth century and probably in the early part of it (no tighter than that, from palæography alone). The headings, rubrics and other sorts of display script, however, all look a lot older, in half-uncials or uncials which would fit equally well in the late fifth or sixth centuries, so that there was clearly an exemplar before the scribes of a much older date, which they were partly mimicking and partly updating; they wanted what they were making to look old but also usable. It then has annotations, cross-references and glosses which suggest that among several other purposes, it was being mined by people concerned especially with the nature of the Trinity and with issues of predestination, the latter of which probably suggests use in the later ninth century when Gottschalk of Orbais had freshly brought such issues to the fore.7

Page of the Facundus Beatus, Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS. Vit. 14.2, made 1047, fo. 43v

Human figures and God made flesh, yet, already, from the Facundus Beatus, Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS. Vit. 14.2, made 1047, fo. 43v, image from WIkimedia Commons

Cherubini also notes that there are no human figures depicted in the manuscript, but for him this suggests use rather than origin, an involvement in the controversy over images of God and the saints that convulsed Mediterranean theology in the late eighth century and early ninth.8 But this is where Cherubini starts to go further than I think he should, and it was evident from his title that despite his palæographical caution he would have to: the article, after all, proclaims this Bible to be “a triumphal monument to Alfonso II”.9 First of all, the image controversy is (as we have seen here before) often associated with Spanish theologians because they would have been in contact with Islam, which prohibits (or rather, again as we’ve seen, has at times prohibited) images of the human form. But actually the scholars we see worrying about such issues in the eighth and ninth centuries were based at the Carolingian court, in Italy, in the Byzantine Empire, but not the Iberian peninsula, where presumably Adoptionism was still giving them quite enough to debate. Beatus of Liébana’s famous Commentary on the Apocalypse is full of pictures of people, as you see above, and so are many other Asturian manuscripts of this and following centuries.10 So this doesn’t pin it to the Iberian Peninsula for me, still less to Asturias, though I’m happy to accept the Peninsular attribution on the basis of the palæography still.

The Cruz de las Angeles, Oviedo Cathedral

The Cruz de las Angeles, Oviedo Cathedral, another supposed parallel for the cross art in the Cava Bible but again, as you see here, not geometrical or shaped in the same way really. By Zarateman (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 es], via Wikimedia Commons.

So Cherubini has a palæographical dating, which is roughly the early end of the ninth century but with scribes using a much older and probably Visigothic exemplar. He also has from that good reason to suppose an Iberian-peninsula production, but how do we get to Asturias? And sadly it turns out that the answer is twofold: by using an outdated historiographical context and by using a charter for proof it can’t provide. Signor Cherubini knows quite a lot about the glories of the court of Alfonso II, but this is because he has read quite a lot of 1940s and 1950s articles written by Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz and others who agreed with him about the heroic Christian recovery of Asturias against the Muslims and took quite literally the claims about Alfonso II’s conquests of ninth-century sources which aimed to use them as precedents for those of Alfonso III.11 But as said above, we are now somewhat more critical about how marvellous Alfonso II’s court and achievements were.12

Top of the Testament of King Alfonso II of Oviedo

Top of the Testament of King Alfonso II of Oviedo; note the apparent depiction of the above Cruz de las Angeles… Image by Denis Soria Fernández, whose blog linked through

But we do have his will, which is the charter that Cherubini abuses. The text of this has been much disputed, not least because the oldest version of it (and there are several) appears to be the one that is in verse, which already makes it quite odd, but importantly for us, and as Mouguias said, it mentions the gift of a Bible to the newly-established cathedral of Oviedo in 812.13 And if it’s ninth-century, there’s only 800-812 for it to fit before it has to be in the cathedral, right? Pretty tight dating!14 Unhappily, as Cherubini himself points out, in a tenth-century inventory of its good the cathedral had by then got two Bibles, and it describes them: “unam spalitanam, quam beatus Isidorus manu sua ferunt scripsisse manu quadra, et alia cordobense, quam nobis nefandus Alboaldi direxit”, “one from Seville, which the blessed Isidore wrote with his own hand in square script [i. e. capitals], and the other from Córdoba, which the infamous Alboald sent to us”, a story I’d personally love to know more about but, alas, we don’t.15 Now, for Cherubini at least, neither of these Bibles could easily be the gift of the king in 812, so that one must have already gone somewhere else by 908. I actually don’t see why the king couldn’t have given the cathedral the supposed Isidore Bible but obviously that isn’t the Codex Cavensis, though it might be the late antique exemplar from which Danila and companion copied the headings of that book. Or, of course, it might not be. But the simplest answer here is not to fit the one Bible we do have (though Cherubini thinks a fragment of the Córdoba one may have survived in the time of “Alfonso de Morales”, unspecified…16) into the words of a text that is plainly about something else. I’m afraid it is still to admit that we have no better reason to place this marvellous manuscript in Asturias than really anywhere else in ninth-century Spain with some proper old books in the library, and Oviedo is actually not really the most likely of those places.


1. P. Cherubini, “La Bibbia di Danila: un monumento ‘trionfale’ per Alfonso II di Asturie” in Scrittura e Civiltà Vol. 23 (Torino 1999), pp. 75-131; Luciano Pedicini (ed.), La Bíblia de Danila (Codex Biblicus Cavensis, MS 1 de la abadí de la Santísima Trinidad de Cava dei Tirreni): Edicón facsímil ([Oviedo] 2010) and Paolo Cherubini, José Antonio Valdés Gallego & Alfonso García Leal, La Biblia de Danila (Codex Biblicus Cavensis, MS. 1 de la Abadía de la Santísima Trinidad de Cava dei Tirreni) ([Oviedo] 2010).

2. It is also possible that he has changed his mind; the review of the newer facsimile volumes, which I can’t get hold of, in n. 2 above by Carlos Benjamín Pereira Mira in Territorio y Sociedad Vol. 7 (Oviedo 2012), pp. 259-264, online here, takes a noticeably more precise line than the 1999 article I’m using here.

3. The Wikipedia article’s only reference is J. W. Williams, Early Spanish Manuscript Illumination (New York City 1977).

4. This perspective is based on Roger Collins, “Spain: The Northern Kingdoms and the Basques, 711-910” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History Vol. II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 272-289 and Julio Escalona, “Family Memories: inventing Alfonso I of Asturias” in Isabel Alfonso, Hugh Kennedy & Julio Escalona, (edd.), Building Legitimacy: political discourses and forms of legitimacy in medieval societies, The Medieval Mediterranean: peoples, economies and cultures 400-1500, 53 (Leiden 2004), pp. 223-262.

5. Classically in Manuel Gómez Moreno, Iglesias mozárabes: arte español de los siglos IX a XI (Madrid 1919), online here.

6. Cherubini, “Bibbia de Danila”, p. 107.

7. Ibid., pp. 80-86 on the main text, 86-95 on the apparatus and 95-106 on the glosses. On the ninth-century predestination debate see David Ganz, “The debate on predestination” in Margaret T. Gibson and Janet L. Nelson (edd.), Charles the Bald: Court and Kingdom, 2nd edn. (Aldershot 1990), pp. 283-302.

8. On which see Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia 2009) and Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconcoclast Era, c. 650-850: a history (Cambridge 2011); sadly, you still need both.

9. See his title in n. 1 above.

10. Of course, we don’t actually have Beatus’s manuscript, but the general similarity between the century-or-more-later copies we do have is such that it has been generally accepted that they probably reflect an original sequence of images: see Kenneth B. Steinhauser, “Narrative and Illumination in the Beatus Apocalypse” in Catholic Historical Review Vol. 85 (Washington DC 1995), pp. 185-210.

11. Particularly influential seem to have been C. Sánchez-Albornoz, “¿Una crónica asturiana perdida?” in Revista de filología hispanica Vol. 7 (Madrid 1945), pp. 105-146, rev. in idem, Investigaciones sobre historiografía hispana medieval (siglos VIII al XII) (Buenos Aires 1979), pp. 111-160, idem, “Asturias resiste: Alfonso el Casto salva a la España cristiana” in Logos (La Serena 1946), pp. 5-29 and Gonzalo Menéndez Pidal, “Mozarabes y asturianos en la cultura de la Alta Edad Media” in Boletín de la Real Academia de Historia Vol. 134 (Madrid 1954), pp. 137-178, none of them what you would call modern references and all written from deep within the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Cherubini’s reprise of these works’ heroic picture is given in “Bibbia de Danila”, pp. 124-131.

12. See n. 4 above.

13. The verse version of the will is edited in Antonio C. Floriano, Diploma;tica Española del Periodo Astur. Estudio de las Fuentes Documentales del Reino de Asturias (718-910). I: Cartulario Crítico (Oviedo 1949-1951), 2 vols, I no. 24, as cit. by Cherubini, “Bibbia de Danila”, p. 128 n. 228; cf. the prose version, printed as Santiago García Larragueta (ed.), Colección de Documentos de la Catedral de Oviedo (Oviedo 1962), no. 3. On its authenticity compare Claudio Sánchez-Albórnoz, “Alfonso III y el particularismo castellano” in Cuadernos de Historia de España Vol. 13 (Buenos Aires 1950), pp. 19-100 at pp. 90-100, that section being repr. with addenda as “Otra vez sobre la crónica de Alfonso III” in idem, Investigaciones sobre historiografía, pp. 97-108, at pp. 98-99 of the reprint & n. 8 and “Addenda”, ibid. p. 108, and A. Floriano Cumbreño, “El testamento de Alfonso II (Estudio paleográfico y diplomático)” in Boletín del Instituto de Estudios Asturianos Vol. 86 (Oviedo 1975), pp. 593-617, and Escalona, “Family Memories”, pp. 251-254.

14. This dating seems to have been adopted in Cherubini, Valdes & García, Bíblia de Danila, to judge from Pereira, review, p. 260: “Materializado, grafiado y decorado con visos de verosimilitud en Oviedo -concretamente en el scriptorium aúlico alfonsino- en el primer decenio del siglo IX….”

15. Presumably in García, Documentos de Oviedo, but known to Cherubini through Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz (ed.), “Serie de documentos ineditos del reino de Asturias” in Cuadernos de Historia de España Vol. 2 (Buenos Aires 1944), pp. 298-351 at pp. 329-344, cit. Cherubini, “Bibbia de Danila”, p. 130 and n. 233, whence quoted; the English is my translation of the Latin.

16. Ibid., p. 130.

Seminar CCXXXV: putting Archbishop Chrodegang in his place

Again, rather than alternate I’ll follow a seminar report with a seminar report, partly because at this point in the notional sequence I was lamenting dead entertainers but mainly because of the sixty pages of Italian already mentioned. It only advances the seminar backlog by one day, however, since on 18th March 2015 I was apparently back in London again, to see a then-fellow-citizen of the Midlands 3 Cities University Partnership do his stuff at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research. He was (and is) Stephen Ling and his paper was called “Regulating the Life of the Clergy between Chrodegang’s Rule and the Council of Aachen, c. 750-816″.

Reliquary of Saint Chrodegang in Metz cathedral

Contemporary pictures, or indeed any pictures, of Chrodegang are quite hard to find, which in itself tells us something about how important he was to the Carolingians, but to my surprise one Paul Budde has provided the Internet with a picture that is in some sense of the actual man, in as much as his mortal remains are supposedly in this casket in Metz cathedral!

Now you can be forgiven for never having heard of Archbishop Chrodegang of Metz—it’s OK, really—but in a certain part of the historiography of the Carolingian Empire, and specifically of its longest-lived impact, the Carolingian Renaissance, he has a great importance as a forerunner, a man with the vision to see what needed doing before the opportunity really existed to do it. What he thought needed doing, it is said, was a general tightening-up of discipline and standards in the Frankish Church, and especially of the lifestyle of cathedral priests, or canons (students: note spelling), and to this end he wrote a Rule for their lives which involved having no individual property as such, living off stipends paid from a common purse, as well as more basically necessary things like priests not carrying weapons in church and so on. All of this he was doing in the 740s and 750s when he was effectively number one churchman in the Frankish kingdoms, but its full impact didn’t really come around until the 780s and 790s when Charlemagne’s international brains trust developed very similar agendas that went even further and found Chrodegang’s Rule exactly the sort of thing they needed. So, at least, the conventional wisdom goes.1

London, British Library Additional MS 34652, fo. 3r.

One reason for this conventional wisdom in English-language scholarship may not least be that the Rule was later picked up in England; here is an eleventh-century translation of it, London, British Library Additional MS 34652, fo. 3r, although that is the only leaf of it in the manuscript!

Well, of course, every now and then these things need checking. Mr Ling has been doing this, looking firstly into what can be verified of Chrodegang’s importance in the church of his days and secondly into the uptake, use and impact of his Rule, and it’s not looking as good as the archbishop might have hoped. It is only possible to verify his attendance at two of the five big councils he supposedly convened to sort out the Church, and he was not by any means the sole player at these events; Abbot Fulrad of St-Denis and Angilramn, Chrodegang’s successor at Metz, were not only also big names but lasted into the Carolingian period, so had a more direct influence on what was done then, both indeed being heads of the court chapel in their day. As for the Rule, well, firstly there are only four manuscripts of it surviving, two of which, significantly, were added to by Angilramn. More importantly, though, it is quoted only rarely, and most of the instances that Stephen had gathered were from Metz, which you might indeed expect but isn’t exactly widespread impact. It’s not that Chrodegang wasn’t known to the Carolingian reformers: Theodulf Bishop of Orléans used it in laying down rules for his diocese’s clergy and a council of 813 refers to the Rule direct, although it then goes on to apply part of it to parish clergy rather than canons. But it was not the only source of authority, with Isidore of Seville and Saint Jerome coming in much more often, and at times the Carolingian legislation flatly contradicted what Chrodegang had laid down. Compare these two, Chrodegang’s Rule and the Council of Frankfurt in 794 respectively:

“If we cannot bring ourselves to renounce everything, we should confine ourselves to keeping only the income from our property, and ensure that, whether we like it or not, our property descends to our not to our earthly heirs and relations, but to the Church.”2

“The relatives or heirs of a bishop should in no circumstances inherit after his death any property which was acquired by him after he was consecrated bishop… rather, it should go in full to his church. Such property as he had before then shall, unless he make a gift from it to the Church, pass to his heirs and relatives.”3

OK, it is true that the two don’t expressly contradict: a bishop, let alone a canon, could make a donation such as Chrodegang recommends and still be within the ruling of the Council, but the Council also allows for him doing exactly the opposite, as long as it’s not with anything that could be considered Church property. And this is kind of the way it goes with Chrodegang’s Rule: it’s a model way of being, but other ways are usually considered preferable. I’ve given only one of Stephen’s numerous examples, and I found the case basically convincing. It’s not so much that Chrodegang didn’t show the way: it’s more that, when someone has cut a cart-track through woodland and then forty years later the local authority widens, levels and grades it and puts tarmac down you can’t really trace the original route in any detail…

Cologne, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 68, f. 6v

The replacement! The opening of a manuscript copy of the Aachen Rule for Canons of 816, it being Cologne, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 68, f. 6v

Indeed, looking back at it with ten months to reflect, I can see how perhaps Chrodegang’s lack of impact shouldn’t be surprising. The Carolingian reformers liked antiquity in their authority, and Chrodegang was a figure of living memory (indeed, died only two years before Charlemagne’s succession), one who had, furthermore, become a figure of importance under the notional kingship of the last Merovingian, Childeric III, whom Charlemagne’s father had deposed. It would thus have been awkward for the new régime to admit that, even with the help of the noble Mayor of the Palace and eventual replacement king, Pippin III, good things had been done then, rather than everything needing fixing.4 This is perhaps why rather than contesting the basic thesis, except for Jinty Nelson pointing out that a council of 791 comes a lot closer to Chrodegangian positions than the more definitive Frankfurt three years later, most of the questions revolved around canons, and whether they were at all usual or well-defined in the age that Chrodegang was legislating for. Was, in short, the reason this Rule mostly got used at Metz because that was one of the few places that had the relevant institution defined? Certainly, the eventual Institute of Canons laid down by Emperor Louis the Pious’s council of Aachen in 816 not only allowed for a lot of variety but closed even more down. In my metaphor of above, that was the tarmac, which just like many a modern road turned out to need continual patching and maintenance and probably went further than the old track. People working on that project did at least know the track had been there; but they also had other ideas.


1. Classically this position is developed in J. Michael Wallace-Hadrill, The Frankish Church (Oxford 1983), but there is now a much more detailed attempt in Michael Claussen, The Reform of the Frankish Church: Chrodegang of Metz and the Regula canonicorum in the Eighth Century (Cambridge 2004). [Edit: I should also have remembered to add to this the obvious starting point, Julia Barrow, “Chrodegang, his rule and its successors” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 14 (Oxford 2006), pp. 201-212, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0254.2006.00180.x.]

2. I take this from Mr Ling’s handout, which tells me that he took it from Jerome Bertram (transl.), The Chrodegang Rules: the rules for the common life of the secular clergy from the eighth and ninth centuries. Critical Texts with Translations and Commentary (Aldershot 2005), p. 78.

3. Again from the handout but this time from Henry Loyn & John Percival (edd./transl.), The Reign of Charlemagne: documents on Carolingian government and administration, Documents of Medieval History 2 (London 1975), pp. 61-62.

4. See Paul Fouracre, “The Long Shadow of the Merovingians” in Joanna Story (ed.), Charlemagne: Empire and Society (Manchester 2005), pp. 5-21.

What happened to Roman municipal archives: an old problem solved?

Every now and then, when I can still find the time to read, I read something really clever. One of my favourite sorts of cleverness, furthermore, is that which takes an old old historiographical problem and finds an elegant and satisfying solution to it, and this post was occasioned by me finding one. The problem is the fate of the Roman municipal archives known as the gesta municipalia and its solver is quite possibly Warren Brown.1

One obviously needs to start by explaining what the gesta were, and this is part of the problem. Where we see them most clearly, in Northern Italy in the sixth century, they seem to have been city tax registers, in which transfers of property had to be noted so that the liability to tax travelled with the owner. If you did this, you got a docket saying that you had, so that no-one could get you for tax evasion. The trouble is firstly that this process is not evidenced very much outside Northern Italy, which raises the prospect that we are seeing something either regional or else the result of Emperor Justinian’s fiddling with documentary practice, but the gesta themselves are evidenced, across quite a lot of Frankish Europe, and the further trouble is that they are almost always attested in formulae, that is, documents abstracted from once-real charters to provide models for future practice.2 This means that it’s possible reasonably to hold opinions right the way from ‘the gesta were all gone by the sixth century at the latest and the formulae are just throwbacks that people copied because they were old but which no-one actually used’ through to ‘the gesta were still going in some places in the Carolingian era’.3

Early woodcut image of Ravenna

Images for this post are really hard to find. No-one seems to have put images of any of the relevant manuscripts online and the one ancient book that has one which is on Google Books is there in a scan for which the operatuve didn’t open the gatefold, so you can only see the left margin. Consequently, here is an early woodcut image of early modern Ravenna, which is where most of the relevant documents survive, you’ll just have to imagine the documents somewhere in it, invisible…

Of late the weight of the argument seems to have fallen into ‘the Church sort of replaced the gesta as a place where you could store documents’, but on the other hand in the Lay Archives book I lauded so much when it came out (and even before I’d read it, though now that I am I’m not changing my mind) Nicholas Everett now pushes the scepticism still further out, to ‘the gesta are not some ancient practice, they were new in the fifth century and died with the tax system, which is why we only functionally see them in Italy where that survived longest’.4 He doesn’t know about my colleague Arkady Hodge’s suggestion that the gesta are attested in Cherson in the Crimea also, but Arkady’s astute observation would not actually make the theory wrong: Cherson too could have held a limited tax system together quite late, and there are all kinds of reasons why it might have had a central institution of record like this, starting with it being a tiny exclave miles away from any other government.5

Ruins of the Byzantine city walls of Cherson

Ruins of the Byzantine city walls of Cherson

So it is debated! I have always felt uncomfortably torn between sides here: I am persuaded that the mentions of the gesta in a formula probably mean something, but if they had survived into the era in which the formulae were being copied, the ninth century, it seems too much to explain away the fact that we have nothing surviving that looks like actual gesta records like those from Italy, and i don’t think churches filled the role because they obviously preserve actual charters, not records that such existed somewhere else. So I wind up uncomfortably believing that there probably were gesta municipalia in Frankish Europe but that our best evidence for them is atypical because of Justinian, and though this sort of works I’d really like a better answer.

The mosaic of Emperor Justinian I and Empress Theodora in San Vitale di Ravenna

It’s all his fault! As with so much else. “Meister von San Vitale in Ravenna 003” by Meister von San Vitale in Ravenna – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

This, however, Warren has now provided! But! he is on record in several places arguing that the Frankish formulae were fairly flexible resources that people copied, and changed, because they were useful, not just out of some antiquarian spirit of editorialisation.6 How can he, therefore, follow Everett’s shattering argument, as he quite literally has to in the book in question? In two ways, it transpires; with a perceptive thesis and a wealth of previously uncollected examples (the latter of which was, of course, what the Lay Archives project was supposed to find). The thesis is the clever bit, and goes roughly like this.

What do people get out of reporting a transaction to the gesta? Obviously, yes, protection against tax liability, but also and as well as that, they get an officially-witnessed documentation of their new property. That is a thing people might want almost as much as the protection against the taxman, and most importantly it is a thing that people plainly continued to want even once (and where) the Roman tax system was inarguably dead.7 There are lots of ways we see that being done: people took their documents to court and got royal confirmations, under Merovingians and Carolingian rulers both; they took them to an ordinary court and had a confirmation issued by the gathering; they even, arguably, set up spurious lawsuits between each other so as to get the verdict publically issued that the recipient did indeed own the land.8 And, in some places where the formulae were known and the practice remembered, they went to a town and got the local bigwigs to fill the rôles of the old Roman curiales and issue something saying they’d seen the transaction documents, and the scribes who were writing this up knew the old formulae and wrote the dockets or records up accordingly. There doesn’t need to have been any surviving central archive: that wasn’t why people still did this. What was important to them was the document they got to take home.

Well, then, you may ask, why don’t we have any? And the answer to that is probably because they took them home! It is odd how few we have, even so, but we do have some, and it’s enough to convince me. The latest one Warren can find is from Prüm in 804, that monastery’s only gift of land from Angers, a city where they had a formula collection and knew about gesta (though, oddly, the Angers formula is not the one this record uses).9 That illustrates a further preservation problem, however; the scribe there copied four separate documents up as if they were one, but the first was a donation charter and really, that’s all you would need for a later cartulary. What good would it do you in the eleventh or twelfth century to copy up how this document had been confirmed by courts that no longer existed? The purpose of copying was no longer to prove possession, but to list and to remember, and for that the original charter was quite sufficient.10 Really, we shouldn’t expect any such documents to survive outside the original, and where would preserve them in the original except the personal archives that we hardly ever still have, the whole problem the Lay Archives project was meant to address?

So I think it all works, personally. It’s certainly much better than my halfway house answer and I’m very glad to have read it, certainly glad enough to share!


1. W. C. Brown, “The Gesta municipalia and the Public Validation of Documents in Frankish Europe” in idem, Marios Costambeys, Matthew Innes & Adam J. Kosto (edd.), Documentary Culture and the Laity in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2013), pp. 95-124.

2. The surviving examples are almost all in Ravenna, and edited in Jan-Olof Tjäder (ed.), Die nichtliterarische Papyri Italiens aus der Zeit 445-700 (Lund 1955 and Stockholm 1969), 3 vols, and are now discussed in Nicholas Everett, “Lay Documents and Archives in Early Medieval Spain and Italy, c. 400-700″ in Brown, Costambeys, Innes & Kosto, Documentary Culture, pp. 63-94, with refs; for the Justinian problem see Francesca Macino, “Documenti d’Impero: precedenti di età tardoantica (V-VI sec.)” in Peter Erhart, Karl Heidecker & Bernhard Zeller (edd.), Die Privaturkunden der Karolingerzeit (Zürich 2009), pp. 23-30.

3. I first met this debate in Ian N. Wood, “Disputes in Late Fifth- and Sixth-Century Gaul: some problems” and Paul Fouracre, “‘Placita’ and the Settlement of Disputes in Later Merovingian France”, both in Wendy Davies & idem (edd.), The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1986), pp. 7-22 and pp. 23-43 respectively, and I never really thought either side had enough evidence for their case. Scepticism has more recently been raised in Warren C. Brown, “When Documents are Destroyed or Lost: lay people and archives in the early Middle Ages” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 337-366; Alice Rio, Legal practice and the written word in the early Middle Ages: Frankish formulae, c. 500-1000 (Cambridge 2009) argues for limited continuity and according to Brown at least, Josiane Barbier for rather more in her “‘Dotes’, donations après rapt et donations mutuelles : les transferts patrimoniaux entre époux dans le royaume franc d’après les formules (VIe-XIe s.)” in Régine Le Jan, Laurent Feller & François Bougard (edd.), Dots et douaires dans le haut Moyen Âge. Actes de la table ronde “Morgengabe, dos, tertia … et les autres …” réunie à Lille et Valenciennes les 2, 3 et 4 mars 2000, Collection de l’École française de Rome 357 (Roma 2002), pp.353-388, although in looking that up I find that she has now apparently got more to say in the subject in the form of Barbier, Archives oubliées du haut Moyen Âge : Les gesta municipalia en Gaule franque (VIe-IXe siècle) (Paris 2014), which must have been done without knowledge of Brown, “‘Gesta municipalia'”; I wonder how it compares?

4. The argument for Church replacement is started in Brown, “When Documents Are Destroyed” and made more fully by Rio in Legal Practice and the Written Word, but cf. Everett, “Lay Documents and Archives”.

5. A. Hodge, “When Is a Charter Not a Charter? Documents in Non-Conventional Contexts in Early Medieval Europe” in Jonathan Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout 2013), pp. 127-150.

6. Brown, “When Documents are Destroyed”; idem, “Die karolingischen Formelsammlungen – warum existieren sie?” in Erhart, Heidecker & Zeller, Privaturkunden, pp. 95-102; and there are certainly other things of his I haven’t read on similar subjects.

7. As to when that was, well… I can best refer you to Chris Wickham, “The Other Transition: from the ancient to feudalism” in Past and Present no. 103 (Oxford 1984), pp. 3-36, rev. in Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history 400-1200 (Londin 1994), pp. 7-42.

8. Examples of all these in Brown, “‘Gesta municipalia'”, but on the fake trials, Scheinprozesse, see most of all Chris Wickham, “Land Disputes and their Social Framework in Lombard-Carolingian Italy, 700-900” in Davies & Fouracre, Settlement of Disputes, pp. 105-124, rev. in Wickham, Land and Power, pp. 229-256; there is more work to be done finding such cases for sure outside Italy, though see 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, for at least one.

Seminar CCXVI: Umayyad connections in early medieval architecture

The backlog remains larger than a year but the only way to deal with that, apart from ceasing to go to or think of things about which I want to blog, which ain’t gonna happen, is for me to keep writing. So, let me now bring you to the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies in the University of Birmingham on the 20th November 2014, where you could have found myself among a good number of others there to hear Professor John Mitchell speak to the title: “Abul-Abbas and all That: the West and the Caliphate in the age of Bede, Desiderius and Charlemagne”.1

The desert palace of Qasr Amra, in modern-day Jordan

The desert palace of Qasr Amra, in modern-day Jordan, which will be made to bear a great deal of weight in this report. “Qasr Amra“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Despite the venue, Professor Mitchell had come not to praise Byzantium but to sideline it, in as much as he was out to contend with the common idea that most early medieval art was basically attempting at one or more removes to look Byzantine, that being the current reflection of the inheritance of Rome to which so many western rulers and patrons wished to lay claim. Instead, he suggested that the evidence is just as strong for early Islam, the alternative and more recently successful superpower of the Eastern Mediterranean and in control of the Holy Places where Westerners more often voyaged than they probably did to Constantinople.2 For example, he argued that the idea of a palace with an inbuilt chapel, found in Byzantine and Lombard contexts and adopted from the latter by Charlemagne, most famously in Aachen, can be found earliest at Khirbat al-Mafjar; that the ornamental projecting towers found on Charlemagne’s palace at Paderborn were best paralleled from the Umayyad desert palaces at Qasr el-Hayr; that Khirbat and Qasr Amra both boast baths like the ones in which Charlemagne sometimes held councils at Aachen (and that Caliph al-Walid is said to have done this himself at Qasr al-Hallabat). More specifically, he pointed to the use of gypsum stucco, not a Roman technique but found at Saint-Germigny-des-Prés, Cividale and San Salvatore di Brescia anyway and for which there are many Islamic examples, and diagonal marbling of columns, another trick with no known Roman roots but good Islamic ones and also found at Brescia; and there was more besides.3

Diagonally-marbled columns at San Salvatore di Brescia

Diagonally-marbled columns at San Salvatore di Brescia, a Lombard foundation much modified by the Carolingians. By Stefano Bolognini (Own work) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

To this, Professor Mitchell met several kinds of counter-argument. Archie Dunn invoked parallels from Greece, and specifically a place with a name like ‘Lulutheis’ which my notes obviously don’t have right (Eleutherai maybe?), for the towers and bath-house, as evidence that such things could also be found in Byzantine contexts and Leslie Brubaker pointed out how much Byzantine evidence is gone, not least because this was the era of the supposedly Iconoclastic emperors whose works were subsequently largely derided and replaced, and both together argued that, if the traditional view is not to hold, at best it must be replaced with one of a three-way conversation, in which the two superpowers both influenced each other and which one then influenced the West is yet to be decided. I, meanwhile, was struggling with some of the supposed influence: the palace chapel idea seemed too vague of definition, since after all what is a palace? The projecting towers at issue seemed to me to clearly be echoes of Roman camps, rather than anything palatial, and in any case Paderborn’s towers were curved, unlike those at Qasr el-Hayr; arguments about connections showing in the fact that these places’ walls contained plumbing seemed to me to forget that they would presumably all have had latrines in; and the stucco work, while the technique may be as Professor Mitchell says unknown in the Roman world, was certainly being used for very different imagery on his Western and Eastern examples. The best parallels of all seemed to be at San Salvatore di Brescia, but that reduces the question to what was going on at that one centre, not over the West as a whole…

Theoldulf of Orléans's church at Saint-Germigny-des-Prés

Nothing survives of Paderborn above the surface, and we’ve had San Salvatore already, so here is Saint-Germigny-des-Prés which I suppose we have to remind ourselves was commissioned by someone who’d grown up in Muslim Spain, for what relevance that may have… « Germigny des Pres » par user:CancreTravail personnel. Sous licence CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Nonetheless, I don’t want to appear wholly sceptical; after all, it’s not as if there’s any good reason why people in the West who’d been East shouldn’t have tried to imitate some of the wonders they’d seen there, particularly if, as I speculated in questions, they didn’t necessarily know that these palaces and baths and so on were new and Muslim rather than slightly older and Roman or Byzantine, given how imitative of late Roman building some Umayyad stuff was. If even a tenth of what Professor Mitchell suggested was accurate, we probably should be thinking of such people’s ideas being thus inspired, and in that case what I find most intriguing about this paper in retrospect is the apparent importance of Lombardy as a conduit. I can see how, once someone in Benevento built a palace like the one he’d seen at Qasr Amra or wherever, and then people from there went north or someone from the Frankish court came south and saw it and wanted to build something ‘like they have in Italy’, the style might leak north. But the thing about Umayyad desert palaces is their location, you know? And now I wonder what on earth was taking Lombards to Qasr Amra about which we have no other idea…

Ruins of the Umayyad desert palace at Khirbat al-Mafjar, in Palestine

Again, we’ve had Qasr Arma, so here’s the ruins of the Umayyad palace at Khirbat al-Mafjar, in Palestine. “Hishams Palace site view Author MDarter” by MichaelDarter at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.


1. I was there not least because of an excellent chapter of Professor Mitchell’s I read a long time ago which was the first thing that made me think about monumentality as a political statement properly—who could see what and what would they take from it?—that being J. Mitchell, “Literacy Displayed: the use of inscriptions at the monastery of San Vincenzo al Volturno in the early ninth century” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 186-225.

2. On contacts of this kind between Islamic East and West Professor Mitchell cited Oleg Grabar, whose most relevant work would I suppose be his “Trade with the east and the influence of Islamic art on the ‘Luxury Arts’ in the west” in Atti del XXIV congresso internazionale di Storia dell’Arte (Bologna 1982), 10 vols, II pp. 27-34, but his “La place de Qusayr Amrah dans l’art profane du Haut Moyen Âge” in Cahiers Archéologiques Vol. 36 (Paris 1988), pp. 75-83 and his “Umayyad Palaces Reconsidered” in Ars Orientalis Vol. 23 (Ann Arbor 1993), pp. 23-38, also look worth investigating on the topic. One could add John Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades (Jerusalem 1977), to which cf. for now Peter Darby and Daniel Reynolds, “Reassessing the ‘Jerusalem Pilgrims’: the Case of Bede’s De locis sanctis” in Bulletin of the Council for British Research in the Levant Vol. 9 (London 2014), pp. 27-31, DOI: 10.1179/1752726014Z.00000000022; Dan has more work on this sort of thing under way.

3. I was wondering whether Professor Mitchell might have published some of this material by now, but websearching for it has brought to my attention Beatrice Leal, “The stuccoes of San Salvatore, Brescia, in their Mediterranean context” in Gian Pietro Brogiolo & Francesca Morandini (edd.), Dalla corte regia al monastero di San Salvatore – Santa Giulia di Brescia (Mantova 2014), pp. 221-247, which appears to be part of the same project. On the desert palaces more widely see Grabar, “Umayyad Palaces” as above and on the Carolingian palace at Paderborn the latest word seems to be Antonella Sveva Gai, “Die karolingische Pfalzanlage in Paderborn (776-1002). Vom militärischen Stützpunkt bis zum Bischofssitz” in Götz Alper (ed.), Sulzbach und das Land zwischen Naab und Vils im frühen Mittelalter, Schriftenreihe des Stadtmuseums und Stadtarchivs Sulzbach-Rosenberg 19 (Sulzbach-Rosenberg 2003), pp. 135-154, apparently transl. as “La residenza palatina di Paderborn in Westfalia tra la fine dell’VIII secolo e l’anno mille. Da centro militare a sede vescovile” in Sveva & Federico Marazzi (edd.), Il cammino di Carlo Magno (Napoli 2005), pp. 13-40, though I haven’t seen either so can’t be sure.