Category Archives: Carolingians

An argument for Merovingian control in Álava

So, I promised there would be more academic content soon, and I think this is some of it, though there might be room for debate. You see, we’re still back about four years in my academic life here, in October 2017, at which point something happened which I had never before experienced, which was… research leave. It was only one semester, and I had to finish four articles in it, but still, it was a bit of a shock to the system, as I had to learn how to manage unstructured time again.1 Probably the below has nothing to do with anything I was supposed to be doing, but I’m going to explain my happening on it as part of that learning process and just tell you about it.

Agustín Azkarate-Olgaun

Professor Agustín Azkarate-Olgaun of the Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea

So, in a fairly obscure volume of proceedings from a conference in Galbiate, Northern Italy, in 1991, there is a paper by Basque archaeologist Agustín Azkarate Garai-Olaun called “The Western Pyrenees during the Late Antiquity: Reflections for a reconsideration of the issue”.2 I’m not sure why he decided to publish this in English, but I’m glad he did or when noting the contents of the volume I might not have bothered to skim it. Having done so, though, this is what I found, summarised as bullets:

  1. We know very little with any security about the history of the ‘Wascons’ (as he unfortunately chose to translate Vascones) in late Antiquity, because writers about them tend just to repeat stereotypes about obstreporous barbarians who wouldn’t toe political lines (pp. 179-180).
  2. Since the fifth century saw them attacked by Romans, Sueves then Visigoths, all coming through the Western Pyrenees, the Basques must have been involved in things (pp. 180-183).
  3. Nonetheless, the first real textual whisper we get of their existence after the collapse of Roman government is a Visigothic royal campaign against them in 581, followed by many more, after a few of which we also start to have records of Basque raiding and even settlement in south-western Gaul, in the patch, indeed, which is now Gascony (pp. 183-184).
  4. However, archaeologically, these violent settlers are basically undetectable; they did not apparently use a distinctive material culture which can be recognised in finds or organise settlement in any distinctive way (pp. 184-185), BUT!
  5. A cemetery at Aldaieta, close to Vitoria, has instead shown, as well as quite a variety of burial rites, weaponry and dress fittings of decidedly Frankish types, rather than the Visigothic ones which the Visigothic sources’ claims of dominion might lead one to expect (pp. 184-186). So, what’s up with that?
  6. Well, others have noted place-names south of the Pyrenees based on the word ‘Frank’, and the pseudonymous Frankish chronicler Fredegar reports sixth-century Frankish campaigns into the Iberian Peninsula as far south as Saragossa, and even Frankish rule of the northern province of Cantabria under a duke actually (and suspiciously) called Franco; but in general no-one much from either side of the Pyrenees in the modern era has thought this at all likely and have pointed to the lack of material evidence which might support it (pp. 186-188).3
  7. So, obviously, Aldaieta looks a lot like that material evidence, as does further burial evidence from a cemetery in Pamplona, where the excavator classed the goods as Merovingian (i e. Frankish) and everyone who’s written about it since has called them Visigothic, and another then-unpublished site called Buzaga adds to this sample (pp. 188-190).
  8. So, maybe this is how come the Basques could keep chasing off the much-more-powerful Visigoths: they had Frankish back-up (pp. 190-191)! He promises more support for this soon (p. 191), and I have not come across it but the man has published a lot, I haven’t read it all, perhaps it’s out there. But this is enough to think with.

It’s an unusual argument: I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else contend that the Merovingian Franks had any control in the Iberian Peninsula, though he has cites for others. But there are things one can line up with the idea. Gregory of Tours records a number of sixth-century Frankish campaigns bound for the Peninsula. They didn’t all get there, but it was still evidently Frankish campaigning space.4 It would also make a certain amount more sense of the Carolingians’ repeated attempts to intervene over the Pyrenees, which have never really fitted with their expressed idea of renovatio regnum francorum, ‘renewal of the kingdom of the Franks’, if some of that territory had in fact previously been claimed by Frankish kings, and an ongoing idea of that kind might even explain the otherwise rather odd apparent obeisance on the part of King Alfonso II of Asturias to Charlemagne recorded by the Royal Frankish Annals in 798, odd because as we normally understand things their territories didn’t meet so you’d think Alfonso could cheerfully ignore Big Chas across the mountains.5

An early medieval belt-buckle found in the Basque cemetery of Buzaga, now in the Museo Romano Oiasso

All the images I can find of the Aldaieta excavation are full of skeletons, perhaps naturally enough given it was a cemetery dig but still perhaps not what you need with your possibly-breakfast reading. Instead, here is an early medieval belt-buckle found in the Basque cemetery of Buzaga, now in the Museo Romano Oiasso.

On the other hand… Gregory’s reports, unlike Fredegar’s, don’t imply any Frankish success in establishing a presence south of the Pyrenees; indeed, as Azkarate notes, what Gregory implicitly records is Basque settlers pushing north, not Franks south. It might be that the Merovingians set out to reverse that, but no-one says so. The Carolingians intervened in plenty of places that didn’thave old Frankish claims and always found a justification, and by the time they did it the government on the other side was even foreign and hostile of religion, though the Basques were not and still got hurt badly by the Carolingian efforts.6 Furthermore, the argument that the Basques would have needed Frankish support to throw off Visigothic overrule looks weaker when one remembers that they threw off Carolingian overrule long after the Visigoths were gone (though by then, we could probably use other evidence, including burials at Pamplona again, to suggest that they may have had Muslim back-up…7 The Asturian appeals to the Franks have by now been plausibly put in the context of long-term contests for the Asturian kingship, which may have been split down party lines over exactly the issue of ties to the Franks and, perhaps, consequent choices of Christian sect according to ‘Mozarabic’ Adoptionism led from Toledo and ‘Frankish’ or ‘Roman’ Orthodoxy led from Aachen, and that may be enough to explain both Alfonso II’s sending a tent to Charlemagne and some Frankish-looking architecture in Oviedo.8

An early medieval belt buckle and weapon fittings from burials at Aldaieta, Basque Country

Actually, I tell a lie, here is some of the Aldaieta kit, apparently on display at the Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseum Mainz, or at least on their website (linked through)

But all that is textual argumentation, you may say, and Azkarate was presenting archaeological evidence, as he points out, indeed, “archaeological data which is often more truthful given its involuntary nature” (p. 180), so hasn’t he still got a point? Well, obviously, material culture is portable, and anyone can use it unless there is some restriction, economic or social, on doing so. I’m conscious that in England there are good cases of proven-locals buried with ‘Germanic’ weapons, that on the eastern Frankish border there have been found Saxons with Thuringian kit and that in the territories of the Avars, to judge by their chosen dress fittings, as someone put it at a seminar I was at once, ‘men are from Bavaria and women are from Byzantium’.9 This stuff is chosen, that’s the point; pots don’t mean people and Frankish weapons do not have to mean Frankish occupation, rather than Frankish arms sales, or raided Frankish armouries, since even arms sales would tell us about contact and a power balance; I’m not sure, given their concern about exporting weapons to the Vikings, that the Franks would have been kitting out Basques when they had to fight them nearly as often.10 But that is to look back from the Carolingian period and its concerns onto the Merovingian one, whose kings surely had their own ideas (and no Vikings).

So at the end I’m not sure. I’ve never seen anyone else pick this up; but given where this came out, in a conference volume almost all of which is Italian-focused, would anyone else who needed it have found it? I didn’t come across this by deliberate search, I know that much.11 Obviously a lot hangs on the ‘ethnic’ identification of these weapons and grave-goods, and they were all a small number of the burials in their cemeteries, which again opens up questions about who carried (or at least was buried with) weapons in these societies. I’m no kind of archaeologist, barely know my Salin from my Saxon, so I shouldn’t be allowed to pronounce, really. But I wonder if there is anyone reading who has a better idea, or fewer scruples…

1. To be completed: Jonathan Jarrett, “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (2018 for 2017), pp. 514–535; idem, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: Cereal Yields in Early Medieval Europe and the 2:1 Misapprehension” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67.2 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28; idem, “Keeping it in the Family? Consanguineous Marriage and the Counts of Barcelona, Reviewed” (forthcoming) and idem, “Miles or militia: war-service and castle-guard in tenth-century Catalonia” in English Historical Review (forthcoming). Actually completed: Jarrett, “Middle Byzantine Numismatics”; idem, “Coinage in the Western World at the End of the Roman Empire and After: Tradition, Imitation and Innovation” in Journal of Ancient Civilizations Vol. 34 (forthcoming); “Nuns, Signatures and Literacy in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, for Michelle Armstrong-Partida, Dana Wessell Lightfoot and Alexandra Guerson (edd.), Women and Community in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia (Lincoln NB 2020), but rejected from that volume and only later accepted to be published in Traditio Vol. 74 (Cambridge 2019), 125-152; and Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages”. Some difficult meetings followed those relevations… But we’ll tell that story, or not, as we get there.

2. Agostin Azkarate Garai-Olaun, “The Western Pyrenees during the Late Antiquity: Reflections for a reconsideration of the issue” in Gian Pietro Brogiolo and Lanfredo Castelletti (edd.), Il territorio tra tardoantico e altomedioevo: metodi di indagine e risultati (Firenze 1992), pp. 179–191.

3. The Fredegar reference is equivalent to J. M. Wallace-Hadrill (ed.), The Fourth Book of the Chronicle of Fredegar with its Continuations, translated from the Latin with introduction and notes (London 1960), XXXIII (p. 21), though I don’t have access to that and get the reference from Roger Collins, The Basques, 2nd edn (Oxford 1990), pp. 91-92, who gives the translation as: “He [King Sisebut of the Visigoths] won Cantabria, previously held by the Franks, for the Gothic kingdom; a duke named Francio had conquered Cantabria in the time of the Franks, and it had long paid tribute to the Frankish kings.” For me this raises the question, when the heck was ‘the time of the Franks’ from Fredegar’s perspective? But for most other people it has raised the question of whether Cantabria must mean Cantabria as we know it or whether it could include modern-day Álava (Collins, Basques, pp. 91-92). For Azkarate’s purposes, however, it doesn’t matter, since he’s focused on Álava.

4. Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (London 1974), III.9 (pp. 170-171), III.29 (pp. 186-187), VI.41 (p. 375), VIII.28 (pp. 456-457) and VIII.30 (pp. 459-460), of which only the first, second and fifth were actually more than plans.

5. On the Carolingian ideological pitch, as evinced by the man who actually secured their transpyrenean territories, Louis the Pious as King of Aquitaine, see Josef Semmler, “Renovatio Regni Francorum: die Herrschaft Ludwigs des Frommen im Frankenreich 814-829/830″ in Peter Godman and Roger Collins (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (Oxford 1990), pp. 125–145. On Charlemagne and Asturias, try Roger Collins, “Spain: the Northern Kingdoms and the Basques, 711-910” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History Volume II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 272–289, DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521362924.014, pp. 279-280. He only gives it a paragraph but that is really about all the evidence by itself is worth.

6. Quite a debate has developed in recent years about the Carolingian motivations for intervening in the Iberian peninsula. Compare Jonathan P. Conant, “Louis the Pious and the Contours of Empire” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 22 (Oxford 2014), pp. 336–360, Daniel G. König, “Charlemagne’s ›Jihād‹ Revisited: Debating the Islamic Contribution to an Epochal Change in the History of Christianization” in Medieval Worlds Vol. 3 (Vienna 2016), pp. 3–40, and Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, “‘Those same cursed Saracens’: Charlemagne’s campaigns in the Iberian Peninsula as religious warfare” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 42 (Abingdon 2016), pp. 405–428.

7. José Antonio Faro Carballa, María García-Barbarena Unzu and Mercedes Unzu Urmeneta, “Pamplona y el Islam: Nuevos testimonios arqueológicos” in Trabajos de arqueología Navarra Vol. 20 (Pamplona 2007), pp. 229–284. There’s also the fact that the Arabic sources in the Peninsula for this area seem to think that the Kings of Pamplona were under pact to the Emir, which could very easily have been true: see Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, La dawla de los Banū Qasī: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus Estudios Árabes e Islámicos: Monografías 17 (Madrid 2010), pp. 194-198.

8. Julio Escalona, “Family Memories: Inventing Alfonso I of Asturias” in Isabel Alfonso Antón, Hugh Kennedy and Escalona (edd.), Building Legitimacy: Political Discourses and Forms of Legitimacy in Medieval Societies, The Medieval Mediterranean 53 (Leiden 2004), pp. 223–262.

9. England: Janet Montgomery, Jane A. Evans, Dominic Powlesland and Charlotte A. Roberts, “Continuity or Colonization in Anglo-Saxon England? Isotope Evidence for Mobility, Subsistence Practice, and Status at West Heslerton” in American Journal of Physical Anthropology Vol. 126 (Washington DC 2005), pp. 123–138, cf. Heinrich Härke, “‘Warrior graves’? The background of the Anglo-Saxon weapon burial rite” in Past & Present no. 126 (Oxford 1990), pp. 22–43, though to be fair to Härke his views have shifted in the light of critique, and idem, “Anglo-Saxon Immigration and Ethnogenesis” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 55 (Reading 2011), pp. 1–28, is probably a better reflection of them, if less relevant. For the Saxon-Thuringian example see Patrick Geary, “Rethinking Barbarian Invasions through Genomic History” in Magyar Régészet / Hungarian Archaeology (Autumn 2014), pp. 1–8. A less anonymous reference for Avar material culture could be Falko Daim, “Avars and Avar Archaeology: an introduction”, trans. Ingrid Bühler, in Hans-Werner Goetz, Jörg Jarnut and Walter Pohl (eds), Regna and gentes: the relationship between late antique and early medieval peoples and kingdoms in the transformation of the Roman world, Transformation of the Roman World 13 (Leiden 2003), pp. 463–570.

10. On the Carolingian bans on weapon export, the reference I most easily have is Anne Stalsberg, “Herstellung und Verbreitung der Vlfberht-Schwertklingen: Eine Neubewertung” in Zeitschrift für Archäologie des Mittelalters Vol. 36 (Bonn 2008), pp. 89–118. On the Basques getting away from their rule, see Collins, “Spain”, pp. 284-289. As for the fact that goods transfer need not mean trade, of course you have all got bored by now with me citing Philip Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: A Critique of the Evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123–140, but it’s still really important.

11. It must be admitted that Professor Azkárate has tried addressing other audiences: while looking for images for this post, I found out about A. Azkárate Garai-Olaun, “Francos, Aquitanos y Vascones: Testimonios arqueológicos al Sur de los Pirineos” in Archivo Español de Arqueología Vol. 66 (Madrid 1993), pp. 149–175, online here, which is very much the same argument as idem, “Western Pyrenees”, and Agustín Azkarate, Aldaieta: necrópolis tardoantigua de Aldaieta (Nanclares de Gamboa, Alava), Memorias de yacimientos alaveses 6 (Vitoria 1999).

A mistaken impression of an embassy to Córdoba

This is a post that arose from the 2017 International Medieval Congress, believe it or not, and it’s about a literary motif that crops up in a couple of my sources of resort. The basic shape of it is that someone said something in a paper at the Congress that made me trot out an old theory of mind in discussion and they had, kindly but clearly, to point out a reason that that theory was wrong. And then a week or two later, once back from Lleida, I did a tiny bit of looking into it, with that occasional luxury to follow threads that summers used sometimes to permit, and found that on the one hand was I considerably more wrong than I had thought, but on the other hand that maybe no-one has before combined the sources I now apparently know about. That last probably isn’t true, but at least I can perform putting the pieces together for you all.

Illustration of Notker the Stammerer

St Gall illustration of Notker the Stammerer, from Wikimedia Commons

So, let’s start where I started, with the Gesta Karoli by the Frankish monk Notker. This supposed biography of Charlemagne was written for one of Charlemagne’s grandsons, Charles the Fat about whom we have spoken here, and really contains very little factual information at all; it’s basically a set of kingship parables for the young Charles, using Charlemagne as its ideal monarch.1 One of these stories is about a Byzantine embassy to Charlemagne, and its basic thrust is this. Charlemagne was supposedly trying to make a point to the ‘other’ emperor about the mistreatment of some of his envoys, so had had the incoming delegation escorted by the longest possible route so that their money ran out, then brought them to Aachen.2

“When the envoys finally arrived, [Charlemagne’s masters of ceremonies] ordered the official in charge of the stables to sit on a lofty throne in the midts of his ostlers, in such pomp that it was impossible to believe that he was anyone else but the emperor. The moment the envoys saw him, they fell to the ground and wanted to worship him… Those who were present said: ‘That is not the emperor! That is not the emperor!’ and hit them to compel them to move on.’

This gimmick is replayed several times, with the Count of the Palace, then the Master of the King’s Table, then his steward, each one more splendidly caparisoned than the last, but eventually they finally get taken to the boss man:

“Charlemagne, of all kings the most glorious, was standing by a window through which the sun shone with dazzling brightness. He was clad in gold and precious stones and he glittered himself like the sun at its first rising.”

He is leaning on the originally mistreated envoy, and abject apologies and grovelling therefore ensue, moral victory for the Franks and the clear model to follow is established. As I say, there’s no real sign that this happened but the story is a good one.

Safavid miniature illustration of Ibn al-Arabī with students

16th-century Persian miniature illustration of the philosopher Ibn al-Arabī with some students, author unknown –, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Now, I must have read that story first as an undergraduate, but then I had nothing to connect it to and it wasn’t till I first taught the Carolingians some years later that I came across it again and by then it struck a chord in my memory because of my having since read, I think in the fundamental work about the first autonomous Catalan counts and how they got that way, Ramon d’Abadal’s Els primers comtes catalans, a very similar story.3 This story was, Abadal thought, about an embassy of the counts of Barcelona, my boys, to Córdoba in the reign of the first Andalusi caliph, ‘Abd al-Rahmān III, perhaps around 950, and in the story the same trick is played on the ambassadors. This time, however, the punchline is different, because after falling on their faces before officials enough times they are finally brought to the presence of the caliph, who is seated on a wooden stool, ‘in a white robe worth less than four dirhams’, in a room otherwise empty apart from a copy of the Qu’rān on a stand, a sword on another, and a small brazier busily aflame, and he tells the terrfied envoys that they have a choice between the authority of the first or death by the second and consumption in the third.4 Result, abject grovelling and all caliphal terms gratefully accepted, moral victory for Islam and the model is established, and so on.

So when I first made this association I had to wonder if there was a connection, and once I speculated about the possibility that, in an earlier embassy which we know brought down a chronicle of the Frankish kings to Córdoba, either a copy of Notker travelled too or else that that chronicle, of which we only have the barest abstract, contained this story from Notker.5 I still think this was an ingenious solution, but as it turns out there is a much much simpler one which makes me very likely to be wrong, and this is what I found out about at the IMC, because it turns out the instances I knew of this story were not the only ones. In his paper, Professor Stefan Esders had made passing reference to another, and when I quizzed him about later he said that he’d got it from a conference paper by one Jacek Banaszkiewicz, whom he believed was publishing it.6 Actually, it turns out that paper was already out, but it’s in Polish and so I cannot claim to have fully absorbed it.7 Still, the basic thrust of it is possible for me to pick up by grabbing at recognisable terms and references. Professor Banaskiewicz is interested because another of the users of the story is the pseudonymous chronicler Gallus, who uses a slightly different version in which Emperor Otto I of the Germans comes to visit King Bolesław I of Poland and is so dazzled by the reception that he hands over his imperial diadem to the Polish ruler. The way this plays to validate the Polish kingship and its own wider claims is pretty obvious. However, Banaskiewicz also finds the story in the Chronicum Salernitanum, in which it’s Charlemagne visiting Duke Arechis II of Benevento, and this time the dance with a long diversion and officials set up to look like the ruler is in place. And there are further, later, instances too. At the very end of the paper he introduces Notker as an older version, but the underlying trope as he sees it is very much older, being the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon in the Biblical book of Kings (Kings 1:10).

Medieval manuscript illustration of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

Medieval manuscript illustration of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, from the 15th-century Speculum Humanae Salvationis, image public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Now, the Biblical story does not have the increasing levels of false identification thing going on, but the Ancient History Encyclopedia quickly tells me that it acquires them in some later Jewish and Islamic versions, and as Banaskiewicz is mainly concerned to show, it’s not an uncommon device, so the interesting question now perhaps becomes how Notker got hold of one of those versions, or what the common source is. In any case, though, it’s no longer necessary to draw the link from him to Córdoba; the Arabic writer in question, the Andalusī philosopher Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad Ibn al-ʿArabī, could obviously have picked up the trope more locally, though his inversion of it is still quite original and cute. However, my being wrong sadly didn’t end there…

You see, having got Professor Esders’s message and done my first bits of digging, I went to a book I hadn’t had when I previously made the connection between Notker and Ibn al-Arabī, the invaluable little anthology of Arabic sources which refer to Catalonia edited and translated by Dolors Bramon. The extract is there, of course, because she is a thorough scholar, but with it came several notes that forced me to rethink again.8 You see, no other Arabic source, let alone any Christian one, records this embassy; it doesn’t name the participants, like all of Ibn Hayyān’s records based on the work of people who had actual court archives do, and the outcome seems to imply the conversion of the ambassadors to Islam, which definitely wasn’t required of any of the Christian rulers in the Iberian Peninsula even at the height of the Umayyads’ aggressiveness there. For all of these reasons, in 1974 Fernando de la Granja had concluded that the whole thing was probably just a literary construction, placed in the reign of ‘Abd al-Rahmān III because Ibn Hayyān and so on made that the obvious context for such a meeting.9 In other words, they think it’s fictive. Bother.

The very episode, depicted in Dionisio Baixeras Verdaguer, ‘Abd al-Rahman III Receiving the Ambassador at the Court of Cordoba’, 1885, Universitat de Barcelona, image allegedly public domain via the Ancient History Encyclopedia

Now, there is actually some evidence to suggest that ‘Abd al-Rahmān did play court ceremonial like this, as something vaguely similar appears in the tale of another ambassador to the court, The Life of John of Gorze, which has the long-delayed ambassador finally meet the caliph alone in a space only adorned with fountains, but he has a reclining bench rather than a stool and John told his biographer that was the custom.10 For that reason, it doesn’t seem as if this tale is a clone of Notker or indeed of the Bible, and I’m inclined to think the caliph really did use such presentational tricks, but of course he and his advisors may also have known the story! This would then be life imitating art. All that said, however, there’s no really sound evidence for the actual embassy detailed, or rather left undetailed, by Ibn al-‘Arabī, and I probably have to delete it from my list of data about Count-Marquis Borrell II. That will only hurt my ego, rather than my arguments, so that’s fine.

However, there are a lot of pieces to this jigsaw now. Banaskiewicz knows Notker, Gallus, the Chronicon Salernitanum and some more stuff besides, but not the Arabic version of the story. He also doesn’t cover the Biblical story’s development as far as I can see, and the sources I can quickly find for that don’t realise that there are medieval tropes of it. Meanwhile, de la Granja seems not to have known and Bramon shows no sign of knowing that there is a Biblical tradition behind the story, and they don’t mention the Latin analogues. Right now, as far as I know, it is I, I alone, who have all the pieces of the puzzle! Well, and now you, of course. But we can keep a secret, right… ?

1. Here accessed from Einhard and Notker the Stammerer, Two Lives of Charlemagne, trans. by Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Classics, L213 (Harmondsworth 1969); I know the newer translation by David Ganz is better, but right now this is the one I can reach…

2. Ibid., II.6.

3. Ramon de Abadal i de Vinyals, Els primers comtes catalans, Biografies catalans: sèrie històrica 1, 2nd ed. (Barcelona 1965), pp. 316-317.

4. Although I now have Abadal to hand, the account here is paraphrased from the version in Dolors Bramon (ed.), De quan érem o no musulmans: textos del 713 al 1010. Continuació de l’obra de J. M. Millàs i Vallicrosa, Jaume Caresmar 13 (Vic 2000), §396.

5. The chronicle was carried by Bishop Godmar II of Girona, around 940, and is recorded for us in the Meadows of Gold of al-Mas’ūdī, which is accessible only in very abridged English as El-Mas’ūdī, Historical Encyclopedia, entitled ‘Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems;’ translated from the Arabic, transl. Aloys Sprenger, 1 vol (London 1841-), online here; the whole thing is in French, as Maçoudi, Les prairies d’or : Texte et traduction, edd. C. Barbier de Meynard and Pavet De Courtelle, 9 vols (Paris 1861-1877), all on the Internet Archive, but I admit I did not go look for this anecdote there and have it right now from Bramon, De quan érem o no musulmans, §400.

6. Professor Esders’s paper, by the way, was S. Esders, “The Synod of Erfurt: Ottonian and Mediterranean Politics in 932”, paper presented at the International Medieval Congressm University of Leeds, 5th July 2017.

7. Jacek Banaszkiewicz-Pokorny, ‘„Na koronę mego cesarstwa! To, co widzę, większe jest, niż wieść niesie”. Mechanizm fabularny „wizyty Saby u Salomona” w średniowiecznych realizacjach kronikarsko-epickich (Kronika salernitańska, Kronika Galla, Pèlerinage de Charlemagne, Galien Restoré)’ in Agnieszka Teterycz-Puzio (ed.), Na szlakach dwóch światów: Studia ofiarowane Profesorowi Jerzemu Hauzińskiemu (Słupsk 2016), pp. 365–382. I have to thank Professor Esders for sending me an English version of the paper he saw, without which I’d not have got far with this.

8. Bramon, De quan érem o no musulmans, §396.

9. Fernando de la Granja, “A propósito de una embajada cristiana en la corte de ‘Abd al-Rahmān III” in al-Andalus Vol. 39 (Madrid 1974), pp. 391-406, cited in Bramon, De quan érem o no musulmans, p. 291 n. 111.

10. I’ve actually done my own translation of this text for my students, which may even some day be published, but until then there is most of the relevant bit in Colin Smith (ed.), Christians and Moors in Spain, volume 1: AD 711 – 1150 (Warminster 1988), no. 14.

Reporting on the International Medieval Congress of 2017

I’m sorry for another long absence. Teaching in the time of Covid is just doing me in, and largely for reasons of our beloved government. History at Leeds are currently teaching online, to which we switched at pretty much the last minute possible. Prior to that we had been getting ready for mixed face-to-face and online teaching, because the Office for Students had indicated that they might support fees refunds for students offered only online teaching. However, we obviously knew that we’d have some students who could not come in, because of being infected or shielding or whatever, and so there had to be online provision as well, which had to be as good as the face-to-face in some unmeasurable way that, if we didn’t manage it, could also result in fees refunds. So at least we had it ready, if some of us more than others, but in addition to this we simultaneously had new legislation that is nothing to do with the pandemic, about making digital resources maximally accessible to the disabled, according to the W3C’s rules; that’s now English law, and again if we don’t do it we can expect fines, at least in theory. What this all means in practical terms is that quite a lot of the last week has gone on correcting closed captions for my and other people’s pre-recorded or live-recorded lectures, and this has been a relatively good week, or I wouldn’t be writing at all; the last three were worse… So here we are.

Leeds IMC 2017 banner image

So, for all those reasons I can’t do my normal scale of justice to a report of a conference from three years ago, even though it was a good and big one. Indeed, the idea of being among that many fellow academics with something worthwhile to say seems almost impossibly distant right now, and indeed my own involvement in it was unusually small, suggesting that I was short of time to organise something decent. I certainly can’t do my usual list of papers attended. But I will try and address the conference’s main theme a bit, because a number of people did make me think differently about it with their contributions; I will also light on four sessions in particular that I thought were notable for one reason or another; and I will give a few snippets of reflection on other single papers, and hopefully then there’ll be something interesting to read even if the whole conference can’t be here.


The conference theme was Otherness. As usual, many papers continued as normal without paying much attention to that, but there were certainly plenty that did pay attention, some (as the academic media made abundantly clear for the next few days) with less care than others. A rapid trawl through my notes looking for the asterisks that mean something struck me at the time note a couple of things here, about how the category of Other is philosophically constructed and about how it is then put to social use. The idea that a community or interest group establishes its identity by means of identifying something that it is not and then defining against it is now a pretty established one in sociology and history has not been as slow as it often is to borrow this bit of theory, but as so often when you use theory to reflect on the past it bounces back looking different…

Two sharp points about this came out of two of the keynote lectures on the first day, for me, which is as it should be I suppose, but they were these. Firstly, Felicitas Schmieder, talking about “The Other Part of the World for Late Medieval Latin Christendom”, made the point that invocation of ‘the Other’ is inherently a binary system that can support only two categories: there’s Them, and there’s Us, and no room for anyone not to be either. Earlier in the day Nikolas Jaspert, talking about “The Mediterranean Other and the Other Mediterranean: perspectives of alterity in the Middle Ages”, had made a similar point, which I think is about scale (as so many things are); invoking competing mercantile élites as a case, he pointed out that, for example, the Venetians and Genoese might well have been each other’s ‘other’ at times but when a Muslim city (or indeed Constantinople) rose against Italian merchants, they were the same from the mob’s point of view and indeed right then probably each other’s; so both perspective and size of the lens matter a lot when we make these categorisations from where we now stand with respect to the medieval (or any) past. Much later in the conference, Rebecca Darley, in a response to a session about ‘Writing the Other in the Middle Ages, III: discovering new knowledge of the world‘, pointed out that for some medieval people everything was inside the group, her example being the unknown author of the Christian Topography, a sixth-century author determined to prove theologically that the Earth was flat in surface and constructed in the image of the Biblical Tabernacle, and who therefore has to encompass everyone on it as part of God’s scheme, even the Persians for whom he plainly had little but disdain. Detecting othering may sometimes therefore miss the point…

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.

There were also three sharply-pointed examples of othering being used as a political tactic; in fact, I’m sure there were more but these ones talked to me because of referencing contexts that I interest myself in. Firstly, in the second keynote of the conference, entitled “Drawing Boundaries: inclusion and exclusion in medieval islamic societies”, Eduardo Manzano Moreno posed that contentious document, the so-called Covenant of ‘Umar, as a marker of a change of direction within Islam, from a position that, like the Christian Topography‘s theology, could potentially include everyone in the world, to one which would actually prefer to slow assimilation to Islam, maintaining an Other so as to preserve the superior position of the in-group.1 Subsequently, Nik Matheou, speaking about “Armenians in East Roman Cappadocia, c. 900–1071: settlement, the state apparatus, and the material reproduction of ethnicity”, invoked James Scott’s idea of the Zomia to classify rural populations in Armenia during a phase of Byzantine control as being subjected, by the laying out of an administrative structure but also by church-building, to an ‘Armenian’ identity they might well not have felt had anything to do with them, since it was largely being imported by a foreign power; in that respect at least this version of ‘Armenian’ identity was an Other constructed around these people.2 I found the argument here possible but remembered the deliberate production of an Armenian identity in a foreign space less than a century later and wondered if, assuming those groups were in fact uncontrolled, the Byzantine construction of Armenian-ness was necessarily the first which had been imported there.

Obverse of a silver tram of King Levon I of Armenian Cilicia struck in 1198-1219, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/MED/AR/1

Obverse of a silver tram of King Levon I of Armenian Cilicia struck in 1198-1219, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/MED/AR/1, which you will notice if you look is lettered in Armenian and represents the king, somewhat Byzantine-like, but fundamentally on a throne made of lions, a bit of a unique iconographic departure…

Lastly, and furthest off my normal map, Reinier Langelaar, in a paper called “Tales of Foreign Descent in Tibetan Ruling House Genealogies”, made the point that in zones of particular cultural coherence—like medieval Tibet—a hint of difference might actually distinguish one usefully from ones’s competitors, which was, he thought, why so many would-be ruling families in the area attempted to claim some kind of outsider descent. Quite what the advantages of such distinction might be I needed more time to work out, but it was at least a positive spin on Otherness that some other papers were finding it harder to find.

Stand-Out Sessions

Not every session I might remark on here would stand out for good reasons, but quite a few did and it seems nicest to concentrate on those. Simplest to pick out was a round table on “An Other Middle Ages: What Can Europeanists Learn from Medieval Chinese History?” Naturally enough, this was essentially composed of some people who work on China who wanted the rest of us to realise that China is cool and useful to think with, and some people who thought that sounded great but had no idea how to start, especially if they don’t read Chinese as most scholars of the European Middle Ages don’t. (Wǒ huì shuō yīdiǎn, yīdiǎn zhōng wén… now, but I couldn’t then and I certainly can’t read it. Yet.) That was itself not too surprising – the language barriers exist and so does Otherness – but I don’t think I’ve ever been in a round table where so many people contributed, from all over the discipline, Sinologists, Byzantinists, late medieval Italianists, high medieval Germanists, high medieval Englishists (Anglologists?) and several more I couldn’t identify, all there because one way or another they did want to know more. I may later look back and see a sea change as having started here.

After that, and much much closer to my home interests, was a session entitled “10th-Century Uses of the Past, II“—I’d missed the first one—in which Simon Maclean, no less, managed persuasively to set the epic poem Waltharius into the context of the struggle between the last Carolingians and upcoming Ottonians in the middle tenth century, in which the dedicatee of the poem, Bishop Erchembold of Strasbourg was deeply involved; this did, as Simon said, explain why he might have laughed.3 Elina Screen then looked at the history of the monastery of Prüm, important to her as the burial place of her great subject, Emperor Lothar I (ruled 817-55, kind of) and best known to us through the Chronicle of one of its abbots, Regino (which indeed Simon has translated) and the monastery cartulary, the so-called Liber Aureus.4 Regino is famous for his gloomy opinion of the Carolingians, whose collapse of power he lived through, partly in exile; the Liber Aureus however makes a huge deal of them, and Elina suggested that a lot might be explained if we notice that Regino was apparently unable to extract any donations from the Carolingian kings and that his specific relationship with the royal family might have been one of the reasons his tenure as abbot didn’t work out, in which case we might want to be careful about generalising from him!

There were also two sessions on another bit of my tenth-century world, mainly Galicia, that overlapped a bit. The first, entitled “Ladies and Lords in 10th and 11th-Century Iberia: rivalries, factions, and networks“, featured Lucy K. Pick, in “The Queen, the Abbess, and the Saint’s Body: Faction and Network in 10th-Century Galicia”, recounting the use made by Queen Elvira of León of the body of Saint Pelagius, supposedly a boy martyr killed because he would not submit to the homosexual lusts of the future Caliph ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III. Although there certainly were some Christians put to death for denouncing the Prophet in tenth-century al-Andalus, this story is probably not true (despite what Wikipedia currently says); but it was put to serious work positioning the queen and her husband King Ramiro I as heads of the resistance to Islam in a Leonese court world then quite divided by faction.5 I’ve always wondered why that cult became such a big deal, given its likely fictionality, and some kind of home context for it—Pelagius was claimed as a local boy from Galicia—would certainly help with that.

The questions in the other session, “Iberian Monasticism, II: Early Middle Ages“, involved quite a discussion about Galicia, indeed, which another of the papers in the first one, by Rob Portass, had also featured. In this one, Rob resisted the idea that Galicia was a frontier, wanting I guess to frame it as a centre of its own, and Jorge López Quiroga and Artemio Manuel Martínez Tejera maintained that basically everything in the north of early medieval Iberia was a frontier space because of its vulnerability to attack from the south. The context was that Rob was contending for a movement of ideas rather than people to explain material-culture similarities between south and north, and the others were still basically looking for fugitive Mozarabs from the south with heads full of architecture they wanted to keep, and I don’t really know how we solve that.

Last in this list of sessions that struck me was one of two whole sessions, quite early on, on the Alans, one of the more obscure but long-lived migratory peoples of the early Middle Ages, called “Bringing in the Alans, II: Society and Economy of Alania“. Apparently Turkic of language and best known around the Caspian Sea, some people so considered were already up on the Rhine by the early fifth century and some settled in Gaul, eventually to become the source of some really quite overstretched historiographical claims.6 Two of the papers in the session, “Alans in the North Caucasus: settlement and identity”, by Irina Arzhantseva, and “Population and Society in the Sarmatian and Early Alanic North Caucasus: the cemetery of Klin-Yar (near Kislovodsk, Russia)”, by Heinrich Härke, were mainly about identifying Alan settlement in one of the zones to which these people supposedly migrated, which was a bit pots-means-people to be honest, but the third one, Nicholas Evans‘s “Alans on the Move: a case study in the archaeology of mobility”, despite coming out of the the same project as Härke’s, stood out for mentioning the Alans who stayed behind, still to be a factor in Caspian-era politics in the ninth century and dealings with the Khazars, and apparently looking quite different in material-cultural terms. The fact that all these people were called Alans by outsiders really became the question that was getting begged for me here.

Individual notes

Also, two things that don’t really fit anywhere else. In a session I will actually write about separately, “The Transformation of the Carolingian World, III“, Charles West, in a paper he had written with Giorgia Vocino called “Why Shouldn’t Judges Get Married? An Ottonian Perspective”, noted in passing that Emperor Otto III owned a copy of a commentary on the Codex Justinianus, the sixth-century Roman lawcode that was supposedly forgotten in the West until the twelfth century but which, as we’ve seen here before, wasn’t, at least in Rome, where Otto III also hung out.

Then lastly, there was my paper. I might have organised more sessions on frontiers, but I had been hoping to do something with the proceedings from the previous year and hadn’t really felt I could ask people to contribute more things with which I could not promise to do anything. So I wound up accepting an invitation to participate in a session being run by a friend of a friend, entitled, “Writing the Other in the Middle Ages, I: Travellers and their Cultural Preconceptions“. This was, as is so often the case for me, the morning after the dance, and my paper was called “Hagrites, Hagarenes, Chaldeans and Saracens: Missing Muslims on the Spanish march, 800-1000”. This wasn’t really much to do with travellers, but picked up on the scholarship I’ve mentioned here once or twice on people with Arabic names in tenth-century León, the very people about whom that debate over cultural transfer or physical migration already mentioned mainly arises, and tried to replicate it for Catalonia.7 And what I basically found is that you can’t; despite a much denser sample of charter evidence, there are all of 13 such persons in the documents I could check, as opposed to maybe 300 in the Leonese stuff. It is possible that, not having access then to the documents from Barcelona, I was missing out the capital to which, as in León, such migrants might have flocked, but the order of difference is still significant, and furthermore, I do now have the Barcelona documents and on a very quick run through the indices just now I don’t think they would add more than three or four.8 So that is something which might need explaining, but I think it must show support for the idea of a very low level of Islamization or Arabicization during the eighty-odd years in which the future Catalonia was in fact Muslim-run, no matter what some people would have you believe.9


Oh, also, it would not be a Leeds IMC report if I didn’t also report on books. The world’s second-biggest medievalist bookfair is a dangerous thing when you are paid for being an academic, and I came away with this list:

  • Norman H. Baynes, Byzantine Studies and Other Essays (Westport 1974), I admit I’m now not sure why;
  • Neil Christie and Hajnalka Herold (eds), Fortified settlements in early medieval Europe: defended communities of the 8th-10th centuries (Oxford 2016), because by and containing friends and papers I’d been to in previous years;
  • Janina M. Safran, Defining Boundaries in al-Andalus: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Islamic Iberia (Ithaca 2015), largely because I had been telling students to read it without having done so myself and wanted to know why, having done so, they never seemed to cite it for anything;
  • Mark Whittow, The Making of Orthodox Byzantium, 600–1025 (Basingstoke 1996), because it’s great; and
  • Patrick J. Geary (ed.), Readings in Medieval History, 1st ed. (Peterborough 1991), because it’s the archetypal sourcebook except for all those other older ones and has a wider idea of what sources might be than they do.

Even this seems to speak somewhat of being subdued, doesn’t it? And of course, I haven’t read them, not so much as opened two of them except to get them into Zotero. Oh well… But I did have fun at the conference, even if I was exhausted for a lot of it. It just seems a very long time ago now!

1. It has been established since 1930 that the Covenant of ‘Umar probably does not date, as it seems to claim, from the reign of Caliph ‘Umar I (634-644 CE), but perhaps from that of ‘Umar II (717-720), for which see A. S. Tritton, The Caliphs and their Non-Muslim Subjects: A Critical Study of the Covenant of ‘Umar (London 1930), online here except in China, but the article in which I first read about it, Norman Daniel, “Spanish Christian Sources of Information about Islam (ninth-thirteenth centuries)” in al-Qanṭara Vol. 15 (Madrid 1994), pp. 365–384, raises doubts about even that, pointing out that no-one in al-Andalus ever seems to have been aware of it, which suggests that it should come from the ‘Abbāsid period of rule in the East, not the Umayyad one.

2. Scott’s relevant work is James C. Scott, The art of not being governed: an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia (New Haven 2009), online here, but you can hear Nik’s application of it here if you like.

3. There is still no better account of that sporadic contest between a failing and a rising royal dynasty who shared claims on some territories than Rosamond McKitterick, The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, 751-987 (London 1983), pp. 305-339; one day either I or Fraser McNair, or, most worryingly as a possibility, both of us, will have to write one…

4. For the Chronicle, therefore, see Simon MacLean (ed./transl.), History and Politics in Late Carolingian and Ottonian Europe: The Chronicle of Regino of Prüm and Adalbert of Metz (Manchester 2009); for the cartulary, you have to go to H. Beyer, L. Eltester & A. Goerz (ed.), Urkundenbuch zur Geschichte der Mittelrheinischen Territorien, band I: von den ältesten Zeiten bis zum Jahre 1169 (Koblenz 1860; reprinted Aalen 1974), which has most of the documents in.

5. On this story see Ann Christys, Christians in al-Andalus (711 – 1000) (Richmond 2002), pp. 88-101; there were certainly martyrs in the reign, as witness C. P. Melville and Aḥmad ‘Ubaydlī (edd.), Christians and Moors in Spain, Volume III: Arabic Sources (711–1501) (Warminster 1992), pp. 38-43, but perhaps not as many as have been claimed; see Christys, Christians in al-Andalus, pp. 80-88 and 101-107 for critical review.

6. Meaning Bernard S. Bachrach, A History of the Alans in the West (Minneapolis 1973) and his pathfinder work for that book, idem, “The Alans in Gaul” in Traditio Vol. 23 (Fordham 1967), pp.476-489, reprinted in idem, Armies and Politics in the Early Medieval West, Collected Studies 405 (Aldershot 1993), chapter III.

7. Such work being mainly Victoria Aguilar Sebastián and Fernando Rodríguez Mediano, “Antroponimia de origen árabe en la documentación leonesa (siglos VIII-XIII)” in El reino de León en la alta edad media VI, Fuentes de Estudios de Historia Leonesa 53 (León 1994), pp. 497–633, Sebastián, “Onomástica de origen árabe en el Reino de León (siglo X)” in al-Qanṭara Vol. 15 (Madrid 1994), pp. 351–364 and Rodríguez, “Acerca de la población arabizada del reino de León (siglos X y XI)”, ibid. pp. 465–472, now added to by Richard Hitchcock, Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain: identities and influences (Aldershot 2008), pp. 53-74.

8. They now being published as Ignasi J. Baiges i Jardí and Pere Puig i Ustrell (eds), Catalunya carolíngia volum VII: el Comtat de Barcelona, Memòries de la Secció Històrica-Arqueològica 110 (Barcelona 2019), 3 vols, my copies of which I owe to the great generosity of Professor Josep María Salrach.

9. Most recently, Ramón Martí, “De la conquesta d’al-Andalus a la majoria musulmana: el cas dels territoris de Catalunya (segles VIII-X)’ in Pilar Giráldez and Màrius Vendrell Saz (edd.), L’empremta de l’Islam a Catalunya: materials, tècniques i cultura (Barcelona 2013), pp. 11–35.

A trip across the pond some time ago

I don’t know about you, but in the current medical and economic climate, I am finding my identity as a researcher quite hard to maintain. As Dirk Gently would have put it, its waveform has collapsed. I have been letting correspondence about research projects and plans drop, just because I can’t see through to a point where they will be practical again, and I was already doing this before the pandemic to be honest. I am also, concomitantly, finding it increasingly hard to engage with the research that people are still managing to do, or at least present, like the recent virtual International Medieval Congress, which I didn’t attend. I mention this mainly because it’s one reason I’ve found it hard to get round to writing this post about the 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in 2017; I was there and I learnt things and I had fun, although I wasn’t really presenting anything new, but it seems very far from what matters now. But maybe that means it’s important to retain, and in any case it did happen, however unlikely that large a gathering now seems. So here we are, an account. Continue reading

Seminar CCXLVI: controversies in studying Carolingian coinage

As promised, the Bank Holiday bonus blog post is also about coins. I promise you only very minimal quantities of numismatics in the next post, but for now we’re still in my whirl of monetary study at the beginning of 2017. On 22nd February of that year, I did something that was already becoming a rarity, which was to head down to London to hear someone speak at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar of the Institute of Historical Research, and as previously mentioned that someone was the Reverend Dr Simon Coupland and his topic was “New Light from Carolingian Coinage”, and this bears on enough things I care about that I wanted to write it up separately in old style.

Obverse of a silver portrait denier of Charlemagne, probably struck at Aachen between 813 and 814, now in the Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, image from Wikimedia Commons

Here at least is a Charlemagne denier I haven’t pictured before, in the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Cabinet des Médailles, image by PHGCOM – own work by uploader, photographed at Cabinet des Médailles, Paris, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The reason there is new light to be shone, it turned out, is because the stuff keeps being discovered. Although the Carolingian coinage is still probably smaller in survival than its Merovingian predecessor, and there are still therefore questions about its actual use to settle—we’ll come back to that—the hoards corpus has trebled in size since Dr Coupland began his study of the subject, and weird and wonderful groupings keep turning up, especially in the border areas of the Empire where foreign coin didn’t get reminted at entry. Dr Coupland also has the kind of contacts that means he hears about the single finds that Continental antiquities laws tend otherwise to prevent coming to light. Who knows what has come up even while I haven’t been writing this paper up, indeed?1 So there were a number of big-ticket declarations he felt he could now make, and then some curiosities we have still to resolve.

Among the big-ticket items were things like:

  1. Charlemagne’s monogram coinage is found further from its mints than any preceding Carolingian coinage; whatever it is was that joined up his empire, it meant that his late money travelled further than the early stuff.2
  2. His son Louis the Pious, however, seems to have minted more coin per year than any Carolingian ruler before or after him; the latter fact was because the civil war between his sons seriously damaged the production and circulation of the currency and Charles the Bald’s reset of his coinage in 864 did not fully repair the situation even in the West (though if it had, we might conceivably not know, since coins from after that point are very hard to date).
  3. On the other side of the war of the Carolingian brothers, Emperor Lothar I seems to have lost control of his coinage somewhat: there seem to be a lot of Viking imitations, which may be because he had farmed out his biggest mint, Dorestad in Frisia, to a Viking warlord called Rorik and apparently Rorik’s moneyers didn’t much care what Lothar’s name was. This, however, raises the question whether the Frisian imitations of gold solidi of Louis the Pious are also Viking occupation productions, which against this background suddenly seems likely…3
Anglo-Frisian imitation of a gold solidus of Emperor Louis the Pious found in Aldingbourn area, Sussex, UK, Portable Antiquities Scheme SUSS-2A93DC

Viking-made? An imitation of a gold solidus of Emperor Louis the Pious found in Aldingbourn area , Sussex, UK, 5th May 2019, Portable Antiquities Scheme SUSS-2A93DC, image licensed under CC-BY.

On the scale of smaller curiosities, we had observations like this:

  1. We now know that King Pepin III struck a very small portrait coinage, so that’s pretty much every mainline Carolingian with one now.
  2. On the same subject, we now have 47 examples of Charlemagne’s portrait coinage, and the persistently small number of them against the background of his wider coinage makes the question of what they were for still harder to answer, not least because we now have 362 of Louis the Pious’s; it seems clearer that the son of Charlemagne was keener on circulating his imperial image, so what was Charlemagne doing?4
  3. Hoards from around Dorestad continue to indicate the place’s major rôle as a clearing house for international economic contact even before the Vikings were running it, with not just now five hoards of Pepin III and quite a mixture of other Carolingiana but also now a small hoard of King Eanred of Northumbria…5
  4. Despite that, coins from Venice, which was in some ways outside the actual Empire, actually form as large a part of the single finds distribution as do coins from supposed no. 1 port Dorestad, so the high level of finds recovery from the Netherlands may be bending our picture somewhat.
  5. Two hoards from near the major Carolingian mint of Melle, meanwhile, add considerably to the confusion of what was going on in Aquitaine while it was contested between King Charles the Bald and King Pepin II of Aquitaine, as we now have one hoard each of coins in the name of Charles but with Pepin’s monogram (Dr Coupland’s ‘Poitou-Charente 2014’) and one of coins in the name of Pepin but with Charles’s monogram.6 Is it possible some kind of joint rule is reflected here, or was it just blundering, or mint officials trying to play it safe? Why did they have dies of both to mix up? And so on…
  6. Lastly, of many other snippets I could mention, a hoard of 2000 Temple-type coins of Lothar I from Tzimmingen gives us a robust die sample for the coinage and suggests that, if one accepts the infamous Metcalf multiplier of 10,000 coins usually struck per die, that this would have been a coinage of around 4,000,000 pieces.7 But of course, we should not accept the infamous Metcalf multiplier8

You may get the impression that this paper was substantially composed of numismatic gossip, and you wouldn’t be all wrong about that, but behind all this, especially when one starts dealing with numbers like that, are bigger questions. Long ago now Michael Hendy argued that whereas Roman coinage had been primarily intended for tax and was run in the state interest rather than out of any concern for commerce, something in which he has been much disputed since, by the Carolingian era enabling trade was a primary concern of coin-issuing powers, not least because they didn’t really use coin for anything else, since the imperial tax system was gone and they raised troops on obligations relating to land, not by paying them wages.9 We might, now, have enough additional respect for the Carolingians’ estate management and desire to transport wealth in durable forms around their empire to suspect that they did, in fact, have at least some governmental uses for coin, and Hendy would probably not have denied that, but when we’ve got figures like these, and coins moving so far before then getting lost, as Metcalf managed to argue for the early Anglo-Saxon coinages, it seems like trade must be the bigger part of the answer. That raises its own questions about whether this relatively high-value silver coinage was actually very generally available or whether it was, effectively, a tool of professionals. That goes double when one factors in professional soldiery or banditry that might explain hoards in Viking territories, I suppose, but Dr Coupland would argue for a trading factor there too, and I think Mark Blackburn would have agreed with him.10

Silver denier of Emperor Louis the Pious struck at Venice in 819-822, CNG Coins 407389

Silver denier of Emperor Louis the Pious struck at Venice in 819-822, CNG Coins 407389, ex Coin Galleries sale, 14 November 2000, lot 576

As Rory Naismith raised in questions, the place that doesn’t fit into this picture as one would expect is Italy, part of the Carolingian realms at least down to Rome and sometimes further from 774. While it’s probably not ideal metal detector territory for much of its surface, Italy is nevertheless pretty thoroughly archaeologically surveyed and dug, and yet, as Alessia Rovelli has repeatedly argued, the finds of coins from the Carolingian era are way fewer than from the Roman, Byzantine and even Lombard eras before it.11 She has therefore concluded that the Carolingians didn’t really strike much coin in Italy, and yet beyond the Alps Venice and Milan are major parts of the sample. If those mints were primarily striking for what turned out to be export, it’s hard to argue that this was a coinage for the market, when Italy’s concentration of cities even then should have provided a much more urgent market context than the other side of the Alps. In this respect, at least, this coinage looks like a tax one, a point made on this occasion by Caroline Goodson, in which case why does it look like a trading one inside Frankish territories? For Dr Coupland this was probably something do with the finding circumstances, but an alternative might be that Italy was something of a colonised territory under the Carolingians, from which they extracted wealth that was really only being spent in the heartland, whereafter it spread more normally. But what was Italy doing for money in its own markets if that was so? There is a bigger answer needed here if it is to contain all this evidence, but of course, one has to know what the evidence is. Certainly, the audience of this paper had to ask their questions differently by the end of it from how they would have at the beginning, such was the new evidence presented. As you can tell, I am still thinking with it now, and now, after much delay, so can you!

1. Dr Coupland has been trying to keep track of this for a while: see Simon Coupland, “A Checklist of Carolingian Coin Hoards 751-987” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 171 (London 2011), pp. 203–256, on JSTOR here; idem, “A Supplement to the Checklist of Carolingian Coin Hoards, 751-987”, ibid. Vol. 174 (London 2014), pp. 213–222, on JSTOR here; idem, “Seven Recent Carolingian Hoards”, ibid. pp. 317–332, on JSTOR here; idem, “A Hoard of Charles the Bald (840-77) and Pippin II (845-8)”, ibid. Vol. 175 (London 2015), pp. 273–284, and Simon Coupland and Jens Christian Moesgaard, “Carolingian Hoards”, ibid., pp. 267–272, are just the ones I easily have reference to; I suspect there are more…

2. See now Simon Coupland, “The Formation of a European Identity: Revisiting Charlemagne’s Coinage” in Elina Screen and Charles West (eds), Writing the Early Medieval West: studies in honour of Rosamond McKitterick (Cambridge 2018), pp. 213–229.

3. See Simon Coupland, “Recent Finds of Imitation Gold Solidi in the Netherlands” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 176 (London 2016), pp. 261–269.

4. Simon Coupland, “The Portrait Coinage of Charlemagne” in Rory Naismith, Martin Allen and Elina Screen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: Studies in Memory of Mark Blackburn (Farnham 2014), pp. 145–156.

5. For a view predating these recent finds, see Simon Coupland, “Boom and Bust at 9th-century Dorestad” in Annemarieke Willemsen and H. Kik (edd.), Dorestad in an International Framework: New Research on Centres of Trade and Coinage in Carolingian Times (Turnhout 2010), pp. 95–103.

6. This is presumably that covered in Coupland, “A Hoard of Charles the Bald (840-77) and Pippin II (845-8)”, and I guess the other one is in either idem, “A Checklist of Carolingian Coin Hoards” or idem, “A Supplement to the Checklist of Carolingian Coin Hoards”.

7. Metcalf in D. M. Metcalf, “How Large was the Anglo-Saxon Currency?” in Economic History Review 2nd Series Vol. 18 (London 1965), pp. 475-482, on JSTOR here, but for a statistical sanity check of the methods (which basically aren’t sane) see Warren W. Esty, “Estimation of the Size of a Coinage: a Survey and Comparison of Methods” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 146 (London 1986), pp. 185–215, on JSTOR here.

8. See for a final word on this, at least as it should have been, S. E. Buttrey and T. V. Buttrey, “Calculating Ancient Coin Production, Again” in American Journal of Numismatics Vol. 9 (Washington DC 1997), pp. 113–135.

9. Michael F. Hendy, “From Public to Private: The Western Barbarian Coinages as a Mirror of the Disintegration of Late Roman State Structures” in Viator Vol. 19 (Turnhout 1988), pp. 29–78, DOI: 10.1484/J.VIATOR.2.301364.

10. Obviously there are the important methodological cautions of Philip Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: A Critique of the Evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123–140, on JSTOR here, which I do love to cite still, but against it in this context see D. M. Metcalf, “Viking-Age Numismatics 4: The Currency of German and Anglo-Saxon Coins in the Northern Lands” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 148 (London 1998), pp. 345–371, on JSTOR here, and idem, “English Money, Foreign Money: The Circulation of Tremisses and Sceattas in the East Midlands, and the Monetary Role of ‘Productive Sites'” in Tony Abramson (ed.), Studies in Early Medieval Coinage 2: New Perspectives (Woodbridge 2011), pp. 15–48.

11. Alessia Rovelli, “Coins and Trade in Early Medieval Italy” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 17 (Oxford 2009), pp. 45–76.

Rites de passage: judging a doctorate for the first time

As said last post, as 2017, when the world was quite different, rolled around, I began the year by examining my first doctorate. Pretty much as soon as the public transport started working again, in fact, I was on my way to Cambridge. Now, in fact, the thesis was fine; I’ve not yet been placed in the position of examining a thesis that wasn’t more or less OK, thankfully, and if and when I am I doubt I’ll write about it here.1 When I say it was fine, I mean our biggest objection as examiners was that there was more in it about elephants than was strictly speaking required by the topic, but I want to reflect on the actual process a bit, just because it is a set of rituals not shared everywhere and merits reflection.

Sam Ottewill-Soulsby speaking to the Medieval History Seminar, University of Cambridge

Sam Ottewill-Soulsby, discoursing on ‘”Useless Peace”: Carolingian-Umayyad Diplomacy, 810-820’, for the University of Cambridge in 2014; click through to find it as a podcast…

In the first place, my involvement in this was very much being stepped back into old networks. The person being examined was Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, seen above, whom I had met at seminars at the Institute of Historical Research and who had also helped put on a conference three years before at which I presented. I was co-examining with someone I’d known for much longer, Dr Marios Costambeys, of the University of Liverpool but who, because of holding his doctorate from Cambridge, allowed to function as internal examiner there. Meanwhile I was the external, who has the easier job (as I now know): all the external has to do is read the thesis, write a report, sit in a room with the candidate for a couple of hours talking about their thesis, decide the judgement with the internal examiner, inform the candidate and then write up actions for the candidate if necessary, and then hand the rest over to the internal examiner for dealing with, take one’s honorarium and go home. Given the timing, I was reading Sam’s thesis over the Christmas holiday and New Year, but I have had worse tasks to take away to relatives to pore over while everyone else is celebrating the change of the calendar, and this task got much easier once it became clear that the thesis was going to be perfectly possible to pass.

Hall Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, from Wikimedia Commons

Hall Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, photograph by Ardfernown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, naturally enough we had arguments and quibbles here and there. Sam’s topic was ‘Carolingian Diplomacy with the Islamic World’, which necessitated at least some examination of early medieval elephants in order to understand what would, at the time, have been understood by it when Caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd, of Arabian Nights fame, sent Charlemagne a lone bull elephant whose name was Abul ‘Abbas, this being a historical thing that actually happened between the real historical persons of those names in the late ninth century.2 It just, maybe, didn’t need quite as much about elephants as Sam had put in. We advised him to cut that back and pour out his elephantine concerns in a separate article.3 I was interested in deconstructing a distinction Sam was making between diplomacy of necessity (intended to produce an outcome between the two parties) and diplomacy of prestige (intended to impress and make you look splendid but not necessarily to change anything), on the grounds that some embassies could do both; as Sam pointed out, the other option is deliberate disengagement, which can also be pursued for different reasons. Marios was interested in what Sam thought he was adding to our overall picture of the Carolingian world, to which Sam’s answer was that Charlemagne and his court were much more capable of handling contradictions in their attitudes and philosophy than our own tradition of analysis by logic and categories makes easy for us to understand; that seemed to me and still seems to me a big point, which if we could grasp properly would help us understand these worlds better. In general, to whatever we asked, Sam had good answers, which is roughly what is supposed to happen in this exercise, and we were able to pass his thesis with only a few recommended corrections, which he completed in pretty short order and thereafter, once the University bureaucracy had processed Marios’s acknowledgement of that fact, he was and is entitled to call himself Dr Ottewill-Soulsby, and richly and rightly deserved too.

The School of History, University College London

The School of History, University College London

Still, it is strange to reflect upon. In 2006, in a room in University College London, I went through this same process as examinee, with quite a similar outcome (and I then got on a train to Brighton to see Clutch play with Stinking Lizaveta in support, got more than a little drunk and finally collapsed happily in what I then thought was the best company in the world, and it was really a very good day in my life).4 Then I went back to working in a museum for nearly five years, at last got an academic job, briefly went back into museums and then got my job at Leeds, and that last, along with having got through the process myself, now qualified me to judge whether someone else should be allowed to set out on this somewhat shaky bridge into academia, if they want to. My having some knowledge of Sam’s field was obviously also important, but it’s not the only qualification required. Consider also that, if they’ve done it right, the person being examined knows a lot more about the topic than the persons examining do; part of the job of the viva is almost to make sure of that. At the same time, it is ‘only’ an examination of a piece of written work done for a degree qualification, not a golden key to academic employment or anything. The fact that this process is the only summative assessment of a multi-year project means that the sunk costs and aspirations in it are huge but don’t change what it actually is. But nonetheless, it can mean somebody’s world. I’m very glad that the first one I was asked to do was possible to pass so uncontentiously. Thanks, Sam; you were not the only one performing a rite de passage in that room, and you made it a lot easier for both of us than it might have been…

1. I’m now up to four, because that’s what this blog’s backlog looks like. Each will be told a little of in its due season, though, because all their respective victors deserve their time on the podium.

2. On which, apart of course from Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, “Carolingian Diplomacy with the Islamic World” (Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge University, 2017), pp. 83-92, you could profitably see Leslie Brubaker, “The Elephant and the Ark: Cultural and Material Interchange across the Mediterranean in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries” in Dumbarton Oaks Papers Vol. 58 (Washington DC 2004), pp. 175–195, or more broadly Paul Edward Dutton, Charlemagne’s Mustache and Other Cultural Clusters of a Dark Age (New York City 2004), pp. 43-68.

3. It must be said that no elephantine article has yet come forth, but what has is Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, “The Camels of Charles the Bald” in Medieval Encounters Vol. 25 (Leiden 2019), pp. 263–292, if that’s any use to you instead…

4. The matter of that day then being Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia” (Ph.D. thesis, University of London, 2005), online here, as well of course as Clutch, Robot Hive / Exodus (DRT Entertainment 2005) and Stinking Lizaveta, Caught Between Worlds (At A Loss 2004), among others of their works.

Seminar CCXLIII: creating the law under Charlemagne

Pickets outside the University of Leeds on 26th February 2020

Pickets outside the University of Leeds today

It’s back to work for the UK’s academics tomorrow, in what for me will be one very frantic day of teaching followed by another one of marking, but then, unless some substantial progress is made in negotiations, we’re back on strike again on Monday. There is therefore time now, but maybe not later, for me to deliver on the first of the posts I just promised, by reactivating a long-dormant series with a post about a visit to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, like I used to do so much long ago. On this occasion the beneficiary is Professor Jennifer Davis, who had at this point just published an important book on Charlemagne’s government and had come to talk to us with the title, “Rethinking the Frankish Capitulary”.1 This is stuff that affects how the Frankish kings who separated Catalonia from the rest of the Iberian peninsula ruled there, so I care enough to make a post out of it so as to think more about it.

Barcelona, Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Ripoll, MS 40

The opening page of an actual Catalan text of some Frankish capitularies, in the copy of the collection of Ansegis in Barcelona, Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Ripoll, MS 40

Now, if you’ve never met the word ‘capitulary‘ that is not a reason to feel ignorant, because it’s arguably a word without a solid definition and is only used by scholars of the line of Frankish kings we call the Carolingians, but what they usually mean by it and what was meant here is documents of legislation arranged as headings or chapters, in Latin in capitula. This was how the rulers of the Carolingian kingdoms liked to issue new law, in collections of points that had needed ruling on at the same time. Some of them are more programmatic, when there was a policy at work that means lots of the laws connect up, and some are just the business of that particular assembly as it fell out.2 The ones that actually were issued in assembly, however—which by no means everything that’s ever been called a capitulary was—present a paradox, which is where this paper started: these are, as far as we can tell, legislation that was actually given out from royal assemblies, but the texts we have of them are all private copies, often slightly varying, with no clear sign that there was actually an ‘official’ text of the rulings anywhere. What kind of law is it that generates so much text but doesn’t actually stick to its own letter?

Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, MS Cod Guelf 130 Blank, fo. 35v

The end of the capitularies and the beginning of the laws, in a Carolingian legal collection now preserved as Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, MS Cod Guelf 130 Blank (fo. 35v)

There have, hitherto, been two fairly broad ways out of this particular difficulty and one newer, narrower one. The older one of the broad two is simply to assume that the Carolingians were way more ambitious in their legislation than was actually practical, that the ideals of the state outstripped its actual capacity.3 This seems necessarily to suppose that the Carolingians themselves didn’t know how well their own state worked, and while communications and knowledge networks were surely imperfect, then as now or more so, scholars have been less and less happy over time to assume in this way that we know better than our subjects did. The alternative broad way, therefore, associated forever with the name of Patrick Wormald, is to argue that the kings knew perfectly well that what they legislated probably wouldn’t actually happen but the point was to behave in a royal or imperial fashion by issuing law, by being seen to know what the good of the kingdom was and how it should be achieved, and in general to create the impression that royal government was doing what it should and living up to expectations. In this view legislation was primarily performative, and the number of texts we have of Carolingian legislation just indicate that the performance was well received.4

Drawing by L. Bethmann of a portrait of a Lombard king issuing law in the Codex Cavensis, c. 1005

Drawing by L. Bethmann of a portrait of a Lombard king issuing law in the Codex Cavensis, c. 1005; click through for a link to the full-size original drawing in context at the dMGH

In the last decade or so, however, law has become part of the material for a developing school of thought that says that although the Carolingians proclaimed a rhetoric of reform and correction and standardised a lot of texts, including those of the big traditional lawcodes that helped to define many of the identities within the Frankish Empire, uniformity may not have been the goal, as opposed to uniform participation, within which a certain amount of variety was not only tolerable, but maybe even necessary so as to be able to test different possible solutions to problems.5 By this reckoning the point of the capitularies was not to get everyone dancing to the same tunes, but to make it clear that the band was playing and they should listen. This was roughly where Professor Davis located her argument, but she did so only after touring us through a number of difficulties with any of the three solutions so far argued, based on a really good study of the manuscript evidence. For instance:

  • Charlemagne’s later capitularies repeatedly stress that everyone should know and even discuss what was in the laws, but there was still apparently no standard text or content for any collection of them; his son Louis the Pious had one made, but he did not.6
  • Apparently there were written copies in circulation, as well as the reports of the messengers who carried them, because some of the capitularies instruct their recipients to make copies of them upon receipt—so why don’t we have many copies that match? We have some, but few.
  • If you actually did have access to all the capitularies of the reign, they’d contradict each other quite a lot on some issues, so what were people supposed to learn?

Professor Davis’s overall suggestion was that, while details were sometimes important to know—and one particular capitulary was so keen on that that it required that a copy be made of itself and then signed by all present, and it’s possible we still have one copy of a lawcode – not a capitulary – that shows this happening, as you can see below—what the king was really after was a general knowledge of ‘the law’, writ broadly, in all its contradictory possibilities, whether canon law, Biblical law, ‘Frankish’ or other ‘ethnic’ law or the capitularies; as long as the royal right to be authoritative was recognised, and people did this work to discuss and know the law because the king required it, the fact that this might create the crazily-paved pattern of slightly different selections, determinations and versions of ‘the law’ all across the empire might not matter; people using it would still be doing right at royal behest.

The opening of the Law of the Ribuarian Franks in München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS Clm. 4115, fo. 1r, apparently signed in quite a variety of hands

I think this does help us squeeze through that narrow gap of conformity-not-uniformity while still recognising that these texts appear to require specific behaviour of their audience, but the contradictions from our point of view don’t entirely go away with this answer, and there was some pushback in discussion from well, me and Susan Reynolds, and I don’t like to consider myself the awkward squad but—no, that’s probably a lie actually; I kind of do. Anyway; Susan thought that it was more likely that the texts existed to provide governmentalised sanction of what people were already doing, so reflect steady practice rather than royal direction of change, to which Professor Davis reasonably argued that some of the texts are explicit about innovating, which would seem to lose some of the benefit of confirming custom if that’s what you were doing; and I argued from there that the centre sometimes aimed to change ‘custom’ by contradicting the big lawcodes which it itself had compiled, so clearly had a programme of sorts, and wondered whether there were limits on the variation the centre would allow. To this Professor Davis argued that considerable autonomy of interpretation would have been allowed to those making legal judgements, especially counts and judges, but that they were expected to be making those judgements on the basis of knowing this aggregate of usable law. I am sort of OK with that, as it is very much how law was being applied in tenth-century Catalonia, as we’ve seen. But that was another century, and besides the law was the Goths’, so I wouldn’t like to be sure that this is Catalonia being Carolingian; maybe we have something more broadly Wormaldian about what early medieval law was for here… In his absence, I guess we’ll figure it out by ourselves eventually! But this was a step along the way, I thought.

1. Jennifer R. Davis, Charlemagne’s Practice of Empire (Cambridge 2015).

2. A recent discussion with the kind of nuance I’m trying to imitate here is Christina Pössel, “Authors and Recipients of Carolingian Capitularies, 779–829” in Richard Corradini, Rob Meens, Pössel and Philip Shaw (edd.), Texts and Identities in the Early Middle Ages, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 12 (Wien 2006), pp. 253–274.

3. I think of this as being the domain of François-Louis Ganshof, in particular his “The Last Period of Charlemagne’s Reign: A Study in Decomposition”, in idem, The Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy: Studies in Carolingian History, transl. Janet Sondheimer (London 1971), pp. 240–255, online here, but more specifically on this issue Ganshof, Was waren die Kapitularien? (Darmstadt 1961).

4. Patrick Wormald, “Lex Scripta and Verbum Regis: legislation and Germanic kingship, from Euric to Cnut” in P. H. Sawyer and I. N. Wood (edd.), Early Medieval Kingship (Leeds 1977), pp. 105–138, repr. in Patrick Wormald, Legal Culture in the Early Medieval West: Law as Text, Image, and Experience (London 1999), pp. 1–44. The issue must also be covered in his The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the Twelfth Century, Volume I: Legislation and Its Limits (Oxford 1999), but I don’t have easy access to a copy just now to check.

5. As well as Pössel, “Authors and Recipients”, see Carine van Rhijn, “Manuscripts for Local Priests and the Carolingian Reforms” in Steffen Patzold & van Rhijn (edd.), Men in the Middle: Local Priests in Early Medieval Europe, Ergänzungsband der Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde 93 (Berlin 2016), pp. 177–198.

6. That being the Collection of Ansegis, of which one copy is shown above, on which see Stuart Airlie, “‘For it is written in the law’: Ansegis and the writing of Carolingian royal authority” in Stephen Baxter, Catherine E. Karkov, Janet L. Nelson and David Pelteret (edd.), Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald (Farnham 2009), pp. 219–235.

Frontiers Day at the 2016 International Medieval Congress

When, two posts ago, I recounted what still seemed worth recounting of the first three days of the 2016 International Medieval Congress at Leeds, you may have noticed that because of now being employed by the host university, I was involved in a lot more sessions as moderator than in previous years. This is the deal I get as staff, effectively; I can go to the Congress for free, because they can hardly charge me for coming to work, but they expect me to do my bit to keep it running. So my timetable for the Congress is now a lot more preset than you’d ordinarily expect. But on the last day of the 2016 edition, though my timetable was entirely fixed, it was down to me, because that was when the sessions I’d organised for my Rethinking the Medieval Frontier project happened, and since that was my doing and I was in them all it seemed worth giving them their own post.

1510. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, I: Control and Authority in the Iberian Peninsula, 5th–10th Centuries

There are only three regular sessions on the last day of the Congress, and none of them are the slots you’d choose; the first one is early morning after the dance, so attendance is weaker and more woebegone than usual, and by the third, which is after lunch, most people have already set out for home. The second one is better than those, but still thinly populated. I couldn’t have planned for this, except out of bloody-minded certainty that I’d get the hangover slot, which has happened to me at a quarter of my IMCs (I have just counted) and two-thirds of my Kalamazoos, but as it happened I put the most Iberian-focused of my three sessions first, with me in it, and so hangover slot again it was but at least I had there most of the people I actually wanted to hear it. The more-or-less-willing participants and their titles were these:

  • Sam Ottewill-Soulsby, “The Long Frontier: The Ebro Valley from the 5th to the 9th Centuries”
  • Sam started us off with the intelligent argument that the Christian-Muslim frontier on the Ebro valley from the eighth to eleventh centuries has an obvious, religious, dynamic to it but actually the area had been a frontier space for long before that, repeatedly in rebellion against the rest of the Visigothic kingdom when that was going, in rebellion against its own Muslim superiors when Charlemagne first led an army into it, and before long also in rebellion against his son Louis the Pious. There was something about the space that made it a unit that was hard to control from a distance, and Sam saw this as a brake on bigger changes that might want to affect it. I would have liked more on the last bit, but the main point was a sharp one that I have continued to think with.

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Heartland and Frontier from the Perspective of the Banū Qāsī”
  • This paper’s task was firstly to synthesize in English the quite large amount of recent scholarship there has been about the archetypal Muslim frontier warlord family, the Banū Qāsī, which was slightly embarrassing as the man who’d written much of that was in the audience to hear me repeating him back to himself.1 Its point in the session was that the Banū Qāsī, with a position in that same hard-to-control space from which the Umayyad Muslim régime couldn’t easily displace them, so that they could only control it through them, and strong links to the nascent Basque kingdom at Pamplona which made the Banū Qāsī the sole agents of peace on that northern frontier, meant that they could choose where the frontier was—on the northern border of Pamplona when they were working for the régime, and on the south of the Ebro zone when they weren’t, switchable with a simple agreement. Their own frontier status was what made them powerful, and in the end, I argued, while the central régime wisely promoted an alternative family step by step into an alternative option for them, they also displaced the Banū Qāsī by aggressively marking the frontier to their south; once the family were placed outside, they lost their position as brokers for their northern allies and thus any value they could bring southwards.

  • Albert Pratdesaba, “Battlefront Ter-Llobregat: Traces of Carolingian Forward Operating Bases in Catalonia”
  • Lastly in this first session, Albert, whom I’d met on my then-recent trip to l’Esquerda where he was then digging, got us down to the ground of this frontier we were all three discussing, looking for place-names of fortification on the Carolingian edge and matching those that have been dug up to any wider patterns going. At all of l’Esquerda, Roca del Pujol and Savellana they’ve found post-holes that could have supported a wooden guard-tower, such as which they have subsequently attempted to reconstruct at l’Esquerda.2 The initial Carolingian line of defence is now quite closely mappable, if these places are indeed on it, and while there’s a danger of circularity here the more places they dig and find stuff that matches, the less dangerous that guess will get.

The reconstructed watchtower at l'Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Catalunya

The reconstructed watchtower at l’Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Catalunya

Because I was in it I don’t have notes on the discussion, which is sad. My memory is that all went well, but that the audience was definitely larger for the second, late-morning session.

1610. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier II: Defining and Dissolving Borders in the Late Roman and Byzantine Empires

Although my own frontier of reference is indubitably in the Iberian Peninsula, the ones that have arguably generated the most thinking other than those of modern nation-states are those of the Roman Empire.3 When it became clear we had three papers offered, all of which were about how people in the Empire, in its Roman or later, ‘Byzantine’, phases, understood and strove to define its borders, it was obvious that they belonged together. These were they:

  • Thomas Kitchen, “Fatal Permeability: the Roman Frontier in Late Antiquity”
  • Tom, a friend of mine from back in Cambridge, had been coaxed into returning to the academic sphere for this paper and completely justified my certainty that this would be good by laying out for us a subtle thesis in which Roman borders, geopolitical or social both, were usually very clear but meant to be permeable, with legitimate ways for people and ideas to cross them and be accepted on the more Roman side, even if they retained roles and origins from outside. Tom’s argument was that it’s visible in the writings of contemporaries that this permeability exposed the Empire to identities and sources of status alternative to its own hierarchies with which it became less and less able to compete, often embraced on a temporary basis to survive a certain crisis but never again adequately rivalled by what survived of the older Roman patterns. The most emblematic one of those changes is the adoption of kings where an emperor had once ruled, but it wasn’t the only one and might have been one of the last. The writers of our sources still saw the empire around them, as they walked the same streets and did business in the same buildings, but we can see in their works the changes they wanted to ignore. This was one of those papers that set the audience all thinking whether their own teaching versions of this story could exist alongside this one or needed changing; it seemed clear to everyone that he must be at least sort of right. I was very pleased by this outcome.

  • Rebecca Darley, “Trading with the Enemy across the Byzantine-Sasanian Frontier”
  • This paper had grown out of Rebecca’s persistent encounter with an idea that the Persian Empire was deeply invested in controlling and profiting from international trade.4 She went after the best-documented border, that with the Roman/Byzantine Empire, and argued that the sources we have, especially the treaties between the powers reported in Byzantine histories, saw this border as closed and trade across it as a problem, which might feed either of resource or information to a mistrusted enemy. Even the most optimistic communications between the two empires don’t discuss trade as an outcome of their peace, and there isn’t actually any proof that either state took toll at its borders with the other. Highly-placed people whom they could track, like ambassadors, were allowed to do some business on the side, but otherwise they wanted trade happening in certain places under careful watch, if at all. It could always be dispensed with, though: Rebecca pointed to Emperor Justinian I’s blockade of Lazica as an effective sanction on a place that relied on imports, but one which had arisen because of a Persian conquest that was itself possible because of an imperial governor having previously established a monopoly on several of those imports, i. e. excluding the operation of other traders, apparently using state power but to private ends.5 Trade was, in other words, not worth it for the state even where, as here, there was literally a captive market, and so it was done on the side even when the state did it. Rebecca argued that we should see these empires as more or less suspicious of and hostile to commerce, rather than reading modern global capitalism back onto their operations.

  • Alexander Sarantis, “The Lower Danube Frontier Zone, 441-602”
  • On the other side of the same Empire, meanwhile, and touching also on Tom’s paper, came Alex Sarantis, looking at the Byzantine border along, and sometimes across, the Danube. He viewed this border in a way that sat between the two other speakers, being a site of local interaction around fortresses but not moving much across it any distance, though some, and being home to a highly militarised, somewhat less civil, Roman culture that nonetheless still stopped at the actual front-line, with roads and cities behind and decentralised rural settlement before. This border was a space with a hard line at one edge, therefore, and a fuzzy one at the other, and as far as they could do so the Romans aimed to soak up and stop movement, both military and commercial, within the space between those lines rather than letting it escape into the Empire. And this more or less worked! The barbarian groups who arrived there all went west in the end, because the border was closed to them.

Two of the questions I had initially posed to the speakers of these sessions, in a sort of agenda document (which you can read here), were whether their borders of concern were open or closed, and whether people crossed them. The response in the two Byzantine cases here seemed clearly to be, ‘closed, but people crossed anyway even though it was risky, and the state could close them properly for short whiles’, whereas Tom had seen the Roman ones as ‘open, with limits’. Modernity suggests that it’s really hard for a state actually to close a border, but our Byzantine sources here are really thinking in terms of bulk trade, ships full of salt rather than a few chickens from a village on the ‘wrong’ side for grandma’s birthday—as so often, scale is a factor—and I can’t help feeling that if all three were right, the Byzantine Empire might here have learnt from its western progenitor’s errors.6 Anyway, there was clearly more to be got from getting these people talking to each other!

Entrance to the citadel of Berat, in modern Albania, from Wikimedia Commons

Entrance to the remains of the Byzantine citadel at Berat, in modern Albania, with a thirteenth-century church guarding rather older fortifications. Image by Jason Rogers – originally posted to Flickr as Berat, licensed under CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1710. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, III: Frankish Frontiers, Internal and External

Then, after lunch, fell the slot that nobody wants, in which nonetheless I had three brave speakers and, actually, more audience than I’d feared, because several of the earlier speakers and some of the audience stayed to hear more. I guess we were doing something right! And the beneficiaries of this were these:

  • Arkady Hodge, “The Idea of Aquitaine in the Early Middle Ages”
  • This was a longue durée study of an edge-space for a great many polities, running from the Phoenicians up to the Carolingians, and arguing that while there was quite possibly some consistent core identity here its edges were defined differently by each successive over-power that ruled it, and that its position on the edges of those powers let it alone to remain unchanged in ways that other more central provinces couldn’t. As is often the case with Arkady’s work, it drew on such a broad frame of reference that I wanted to check half a dozen things I’d never heard about before, but it certainly made comparison easier because of that breadth.

  • Jakub Kabala, “Rewriting the Border in Carolingian and Ottonian Historiography”
  • Kuba, our furthest-flung international guest star this time, arguing that borders are mainly mental constructions upon space, decided to look at the same border, the one of the East Frankish kingdom with Slavic-speaking polities, through two sets of eyes, one that of the Carolingian recorder of the Royal Frankish Annals and the other that of Thietmar of Merseburg.7 The Annals also have the advantage of going through progressive rewrites as they were adopted as the cores of other texts, and Kuba saw the border becoming clearer in each rewrite, a linear division in development. For the Ottonian writers, however, the border is indefinite, with even Germany only coalescing an edge when barbarians throw themselves against it. He thought that this might be because by then Poland, being on the way to Christianization, represented the outer edge in a way that the Carolingians hadn’t had available, but I thought it might be seen as an attempt to claim an open frontier, into which the Ottonians still hoped to expand as the Carolingians increasingly hadn’t.8

  • Niall Ó Súillheabáin, “Building Power on Feudal Frontiers: the Case of Landric of Nevers”
  • Lastly, after these two wide-ranging studies, we ended with a micro-study of an internal frontier, with the Nivernais sitting on the edges of both Burgundy, by the 980s more or less separate from the developing France, and of its old master kingdom in the west, but having also been held in subordination to Aquitaine against both in the recent past. Niall took us through the history of the area’s rulers and their contested loyalties until in the 990s our boy Landric became the first count of actual Nevers, a sort of independence with his own following of locals and a station of enough respect to broker deals between outsiders who thus accepted him as their equal. Nevers managed to become such a space because it could successfully be converted into a buffer everyone around it needed more than they needed the conflict that controlling it would have meant.

The final formal discussion, naturally, spent a while considering whether internal and external frontiers worked the same way, which our sources also seem to be unsure about, but for me mainly emphasised how our sources will tend, naturally enough, to redefine how a border worked according to their particular needs. That is only as much as to say that a critical approach to our texts is needed, and at the end of this session we were well equipped to provide that for each other. Thereafter the session decamped to the bar, where I think the informal discussion was even better. If Catalonia ever starts making whisky it will be because of us, take note…

Futbol Club de Barcelona Scotch Whisky

Still made in Scotland, sorry, doesn’t count

So that was 2016, that was the second year of these sessions and by the end of it we’d had 15 papers on such issues, all quite good. The previous time I attempted anything like that there was a book of the papers out within two years of us finishing; you might ask what’s going on this time. Well, I have had some money for the project, but what I ain’t had is time, and I have also repeatedly had to put work on this aside for higher-profile publications. It is still my intent to get one or two volumes of essays out of Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, not least because some of the people on these panels both deserve and need the exposure, but I’ll have to get external money before that can happen. The rub is that to get that money I’d ideally have some results to show from the project so far… and there, the Catch-22 of modern academia. But, as future posts will occasionally note, the absence of results or even a decent research plan doesn’t preclude people getting quite large grants, so that will have to be the hope for now. Even if I don’t manage to get things up to date here, the project blog on the Leeds website will reflect it quickly when there is any such news to report, and there is more that has already happened that needs reporting here, but as with All That Glitters, something will have to change before I can do with these projects what should be done, i. e. publish them. I continue to work towards that change…

1. That being Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, author of La dawla de los Banū Qasī: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus, Estudios Árabes e Islámicos: Monografías 17 (Madrid 2010).

2. I. Ollich-Castanyer, A. Pratdesaba, M. de Rocafiguera, M. Ocaña, O. Amblàs, M. À. Pujol & D. Serrat, “The Experimental Building of a Wooden Watchtower in the Carolingian Southern Frontier”,, 25th February 2018, online here; for more on the site and area in English see now Imma Ollich-Castanyer, Montserrat Rocafiguera-Espona and Maria Ocaña-Subirana, “The Southern Carolingian Frontier in Marca Hispanica along the River Ter: Roda Civitas and the Archaeological Site of l’Esquerda (Catalonia)” in Neil Christie and Hajnalka Herold (edd.), Fortified Settlements in Early Medieval Europe: defended communities of the 8th-10th centuries (Oxford 2016), pp. 205–217.

3. I’m thinking here especially, as so often, of Edward Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, from the first century A.D. to the third 40th Anniversary edn. (Baltimore MD 2016), opposed by Charles R. Whittaker, Frontiers of the Roman Empire: a social and economic study (Baltimore MD 1994). As you can tell from that, sadly, Luttwak’s work has shown better holding power…

4. This seems more or less to begin with David Whitehouse and Andrew Williamson, “Sasanian Maritime Trade” in Iran Vol. 11 (London 1973), pp. 29–49.

5. The primary source here is Procopius, printed in Procopius, History of the Wars, Books I and II, transl. H. B. Dewing, Loeb Classical Library 61 (London 1914), online here, II.XV.

6. For modern cases, see for example Sahana Ghosh, “Cross-Border Activities in Everyday Life: the Bengal borderland” in Contemporary South Asia Vol. 19 (Abingdon 2011), pp. 49–60, or Margaret E. Dorsey and Miguel Diaz-Barraga, “Beyond Surveillance and Moonscapes: An Alternative Imaginary of the U.S.–Mexico Border Wall” in Visual Anthropology Review Vol. 26 (New York City NY 2010), pp. 128–135.

7. Translations in Bernhard Walter Scholz and Barbara Rogers (edd. & transl.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, Ann Arbor Paperback 186 (Ann Arbor MI 1972), online here, and Thietmar of Merseburg, Ottonian Germany: the chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg, transl. David Warner (Manchester 2001).

8. On such language the best recent thing seems to me to be Juan Carlos Arriaga-Rodríguez, “Tres tesis del concepto frontera en la historiografía” in Gerardo Gurza Lavalle (ed.), Tres miradas a la historia contemporánea (San Juan Mixcoac 2013), pp. 9–47.

Leeds International Medieval Congress 2016, reflected upon from a distance

Somehow Action Short of a Strike still looks a lot like a really hard week—the contract I’m working to doesn’t have fixed hours—so I find myself blogging very late on a Sunday. Both because of that and because of the topic, I don’t want to write a long post (though when I say that it never works, not least because of parentheses like these…): what can there be to say about a conference three years ago? On the other hand, in so far as this blog is my academic record, I don’t want to miss it out: I was there, I did things I hope will matter, and I was for the first time able to host friends for it at the house then ours in Leeds, so it was a sociable occasion worth remembering. Indeed, I made quite a few new friends at Leeds 2016, looking back, so some sort of record is needed. I’ll restrict it, however, to a list of the papers I went to and limited commentary where I have some memory or good notes, and I’ll put it behind a cut so as not to bore those who think this a touch too obsessional. If I don’t feature your paper, please blame my memory, not your content; it was a long and tiring conference, as it always is. But I will take the last day in a separate post, because it was sort of a conference within a conference for me, for reasons that will become obvious in that other post. So this is 4th to 6th July 2016 in my world, as it unfolded… Continue reading

Chronicle V: July-September 2016

Hilary Benn MP addressing pickets at the University of Leeds, 2nd December 2019

Hilary Benn MP addressing pickets at the University of Leeds this morning

Some negotiations are afoot, but the strikes continue, and so I am free to write you more blog. Let’s, as I promised yesterday, look back now to happier times, to wit the summer of 2016, for my next Chronicle post. Admittedly, despite the recent rush, the last one of those three-month slices was a bit more than three months ago, but hopefully this one, covering as it mainly does the summer vacation, will catch things up a bit. So, what did this UK academic do with his summer before he was all unionized and on strike?


Well, you’d think teaching stopped over the summer, and of course it mostly does in as much as the undergraduates go home for a bit, but in actual fact as I look through the old diary it is obvious how one never quite gets clear. I got through July with only one Ph. D. supervision, for the visiting Chinese student I’ve mentioned, and in August I saw him again, for the last time, plus one of my postgraduate mentees, but I also spent an hour and a half in an empty classroom recording a canned lecture for our first-year medieval survey module I was taking over, so I was obviously also doing teaching planning. Then in September, as well as a meeting with a different postgraduate mentee, I did a taster lecture for prospective undergraduates, had various meetings to coordinate the upcoming year’s teaching and then in the last week of September of course normal undergraduate teaching began again, with me running three modules, including that whole-cohort survey and my all-new two-semester Special Subject, which had needed an immense amount of translation doing for it, and on the last day of that week I also had to do a transfer interview for one of our doctoral candidates. All of this, course, needed preparation previously. So, given that, I’m not sure I actually took that much time off from teaching in the summer. I certainly did have some actual time off, and I will show you photographs from it as well, but there was no point when teaching was all finished and could be put away. One of my lessons from that summer was that I needed to construct one of those, and I’ve been trying and failing ever since…

Other Efforts

Well, actually quite a lot of this time was spent house-hunting, for reasons I won’t go into, but I was also now starting that coin cataloguing project with an undergraduate that I’ve mentioned here before, which also meant a meeting every few weeks, and also some larger coordination with Special Collections about the further development of work on the coin collection, which at this point I was still also slowly inventorying for an afternoon a week when I could. So coins were definitely a feature of these three months. By September I was also undergoing training, because one of the things in the year ahead of me was my eventually-successful application for Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy, not a simple process at first. But here things were fairly light, which is how it should probably be during an academic summer.

Other People’s Research

Obviously, summer also means no seminars, but on the other hand, also obviously to those of us in the circuit, July also opens with Leeds’s own International Medieval Congress, so I definitely saw some other people talk. It was also my first one as staff, and I suppose that even after three years’ delay that may still make it worth blogging separately. That was actually my only conference that summer, however, so even here things were lighter than they might have been.

My Own Research

All the which, therefore, would lead you to suppose that I must mostly have been doing research. And sure, while the look of my diary is mainly house-hunting and (believe it or not) a holiday, there are also a lot of blanks which must have been so filled. I was presenting at the IMC in my Rethinking the Medieval Frontier strand, but of course that was (almost) done by the time July started. I must have been reading for ‘Outgrowing the Dark Ages’, because I had drafts of it done in June and October that this time must have made the difference between, and I also turned round a new version of my old piece ‘A Likely Story’, then as now still on its way to publication. Closer examination however reveals that what I was probably doing most of was trying to work out how many of Borrell II‘s relatives I could track down. (The answer, should you be interested, was 66 whom he could actually have met, not including relatives by marriage, whom I probably should have included, but, well, if the book ever emerges you’ll see there were reasons not to bother.) This involved getting deep into the early work of Martin Aurell, whom you may just know proposed long ago that the ninth- and early-tenth-century comital family of Catalonia was seriously and incestuously interbred.1 Let us suffice here to say that on closer examination of the sources I disagree, and that as long-term readers may remember there were just a lot of women called Adelaide in that area at that time, some of whom are not in fact the same as each other. By the end of the summer I was sure that this now needed to be a separate article, but I was not yet in a position to extract it, and I have to admit, have got little closer since then (though I did at least finish Aurell’s book, some two years later). So that was apparently where the rest of the summer went. Looking at that, I shouldn’t feel bad, really; I redrafted one piece for publication and did some serious work on an article and a book, which ought to be good enough for three months. Nonetheless, my life would have been easier in the following year if it had been more.

Whitby harbour and Whitby Abbey seen from the North Yorkshire Moors Railway service into the town

Whitby harbour and Whitby Abbey seen from the North Yorkshire Moor Railway service into the town, and about as close as I got to anything medieval on this trip, but sometimes that’s OK

What does this all tell us, then? Firstly, I guess, looking back, I was tired and fraught, but that was largely the stress of having to move house again, and my partner bore most of that weight. Even that was not all bad – I got a much better sense of West Yorkshire from going looking at many places – but also, I suspect I was still probably working full days most of these weeks, at least those where I was not actually on leave (and then sometimes in North Yorkshire, as above). I just don’t seem to have finished the summer with that much to show for it, and I think that has to be down to the lack of actual downtime and the need to have new teaching ready for the coming year. In fact, I wasn’t really ready, but I didn’t know that then.

1. Specifically, Martí Aurell i Cardona, “Jalons pour une enquête sur les stratégies matrimoniales des Comtes Catalans” in Frederic Udina i Martorell (ed.), Symposium Internacional sobre els orígens de Catalunya (segles VIII-XI) (Barcelona 1991-1992), 2 vols, I pp. 281–364, online here; Martin Aurell, Les noces du comte : mariage et pouvoir en Catalogne (785-1213), Histoire ancienne et médiévale 32 (Paris 1995); and idem, “Pouvoir et parenté des comtes de la Marche Hispanique (801-911)” in Régine Le Jan (ed.), La royauté et les élites dans l’Europe carolingienne (début IXe siècle aux environs de 920) (Villeneuve de l’Ascq 1998), pp. 467–480.