Category Archives: England

Thoughts on two exhibitions

By one of those occasional happy chances which look like coincidence but are actually probably consistent foci of interest, I’ve had this post intended for ages to follow the previous one, even before I fully realised the previous one was about a cemetery excavation and so would involve me using or not using photos of skeletons. And one commentator has even obligingly passed comment on the fact that I mentioned making that choice. Well, this post is about that very issue. This arises out of my having been to an exhibition which also raised that very issue, but that trip followed very hard on another exhibition opening which we’ve already mentioned, so I’m going just to mention it again first of all and then get onto the big issue for the day. That will involve one, slightly blurry, photo of skeletons, which I have put below a cut, so please don’t press for ‘more’ if such things distress you (already).

The Winchester Coin Cabinet in the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

The Winchester Coin Cabinet, in the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

So, we are at this point in very early October 2017 in terms of my backlog, and it was then that the project I had raised money for called Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet came to fruition and we opened both its physical exhibition and the virtual one that goes with it.1 I’ve talked about both of these before, and how they are very much mostly not my work but that of Leeds student, then undergraduate, now doctoral, Emma Herbert-Davies, so I won’t repeat that story here. However, for value added, I can at least explain how it came to be that the physical exhibition is deep in the Brotherton Library in the entry corridor outside Special Collections, where only people with library access can see it. You see, back in the 1990s when the rather extensive University of Leeds coin collection was in its first phase of care and curation under Christopher Challis, there was a wall display case outside the Library barriers, and it had been used for regular, but quite small, coin displays. Now, the case is still in position, and we had initially hoped to use it for this, but it turned out that it isn’t alarmed, and while that may have been OK in the 1990s it wasn’t going to pass security and insurance muster now. So we replanned for the current location, which has given us about twice as much display space, admittedly, but not where the actual public can see it. On the other hand, it’s also meant that no-one has yet seen a need to change it, so if you can get into the Brotherton Library, you can go see our exhibition still!

The Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet exhibition, curated by Emma Herbert-Davies and Jonathan Jarrett, in Special Collections, the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

The exhibition in place: photo by Emma Herbert-Davies and used by permission

But the exhibition which is this post’s real topic I went to see a few days after our one opened, and was nothing to do with the University. It was in Leeds City Museum, and it was called Skeletons: Our Buried Bones.2 It was a single gallery, and the centrepiece displays were twelve skeletons, which had been gathered from collections in London, Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford, in the latter two cases university collections but not, perhaps thankfully, in Leeds’s case. (The London ones came from the Wellcome Collection.) The point of the exhibition was mainly to showcase the different things and personal histories which archaeologists and forensic scientists could learn about the people whose bodies these had been, using just their bones. On that score, I will freely admit, it was extremely well-done, pitched at a low enough level to be comprehensible and a high enough one to sound scientific, and with some fascinating stories to reconstruct, such as…

  • … the Iron Age man and woman with a life of labour and disease behind them who were buried together in a small mound near Wetherby!
  • … the Black Death victim from one of the mass burials in Spitalfields, London, who turned out to have an arrowhead embedded in his spine in what must have been a seriously painful old war wound!
  • … the fifteenth-century woman buried at All Saints York who may have been an anchoress there but also turned out to be suffering from not just severe osteoporosis but syphilis! [Edit: some excellent discussion about this in comments; we begin to think that the anchoress is not guilty here, in so far as guilt is even appropriate to apportion…]
  • … the casualty from the Battle of Towton whose assailant didn’t know or care when to stop: the body had been, “struck by a poleaxe, leaving square injuries in his skull, stabbed in the right shoulder, and decapitated.”3

And of course all these stars of the show were actually physically there, laid out clinically in glass cases with careful explanations of how their histories had been deduced, suitable pointers to things like the arrowhead, and handy display panels around the walls about the sites where these people had been found and the wider archaeological context of which they came to form part. It was really very well-curated. And the one photo below the cut is as close as I’m going to showing you any of it. Continue reading

Some words for Richard Sharpe

I seem to have spent quite a lot of last year not hearing about people dying. I guess the specifics of personal mortality were getting lost in the global version, and I also wasn’t looking at news very much, but still, there are those I would have expected to hear about somehow that I didn’t, and such a one was Richard Sharpe, Professor of Diplomatic at Oxford, who died suddenly of a heart attack all the way back in March 2020. I found out last week.

The late Professor Richard Sharpe, in life

The late Professor Richard Sharpe, in life; the image is all over the web but I borrow it from the Cultures of Knowledge obituary linked through since, perhaps ironically, they mention no copyright.

I didn’t know Richard very well, but I did know him. We first met, as with about half my academic contacts really, when he was presenting at the Institute of Historical Research, in 2002, on intellectual contacts in very early medieval Northern Italy, when I was much too junior to say anything much to such an eminence. It would have been fine, I subsequently learned, not least because he was back there again in 2006 to present a paper about a putative daughter of King Harold II of England (he of Hastings fame), who of course survived her father into the reign of the man who defeated him.1 That got a bit of a conversation going, as I recall, and then a few years after that I was in the same institution as him, in so far as Oxford is one institution, and considering whether or not to get him to lecture on the Celtic parts of the early medieval British syllabus. (I didn’t get him to, though I don’t now remember why.) Before I was gone from Oxford, we’d been thrown together by someone going on leave and thus making us supposedly the two most qualified people to run the Norman Conquest Special Subject that year. That’s where I really first had dealings with him. He was tremendously helpful and energetic and made me feel very much as if I were the person who knew what was going on, which compared to him could hardly have been further from the truth; but we got on fine and it ran OK. I think I ran into him twice after that, once at a paper in Cambridge and once again at the IHR, and thus (as it has transpired) ended our acquaintance. Still, his death has shocked me somewhat, not least because he was an active man in robust health bar one deaf ear, and everyone else seems to have been just as shocked when it happened, I imagine not least himself.

Thankfully, rather a lot of people who knew him better have been busy since he died recording stories about Richard that give a better impression of him than I have managed there. I might just quote some:

“As an undergraduate he acquired a firm grounding in the medieval Celtic languages and literatures to add to his Classics. But his first love was to history. Professor Simon Keynes remembers teaching him: ‘The depth of engagement with the primary source material for any given subject was phenomenal . . . I distinctly remember the appearance of his essays: the top five or ten lines comprising main text, and the rest of the page the numbered footnotes, perfectly judged to fit the page—but of course all hand-written rather than typed let alone word processed.’”

Thomas Charles-Edwards, ‘Tribute to Professor Richard Sharpe (1954-2020)’

“His first job, in 1981, was as assistant editor of the Dictionary of Medieval Latin in Oxford; he made himself a formidable Latinist by reading nothing but Latin for a year.”

Nigel Ramsay, ‘Richard Sharpe obituary’

“Used to the testing limitations of evidence from the ‘Dark Ages’, Richard was not reluctant to express his view that the study of English political history after the publication of Magna Carta was ‘mere journalism’.”

Hugh Doherty and James Willoughby, ‘Richard Sharpe’

“Politically, he was liberal, and was a member of Oxford Town Council between 1987 and 1995, where he was a strong supporter of the rights of Headington freeholders to erect giant fibreglass sharks on their roofs. He felt such a thing could only add to the gaiety of the Oxford skyline, and enjoyed the self-answering objection of another councillor: ‘But if we give this shark permission, then everyone will want one!’”2


“The volume and versatility of his research were nothing short of mystifying. Richard confessed that he himself found it difficult at times to keep track of the state of his many projects and side projects, which could range, in a single year (2016), from an article on the earliest Norman sheriffs, through early nineteenth-century printing of Irish poetry, to the composer Tommaso Giordani (‘accidents happen, as I sometimes pick something up along the way’, he wrote on his webpage in relation to that one).”

Roy Flechner, ‘Richard Sharpe, 17 February 1954 – 22 March 2020’

“He was already working on Hebridean history: his first book, Raasay: A Study in Island History was published in 1977, the year he graduated, followed by a second the following year, Raasay: A Study in Island History. Documents and Sources, People and Places (Raasay lies between Skye and the mainland). At the same time he was working on editions of the two earliest Lives of Brigit, a saint of peculiar interest—as a female counterpart to St Patrick, as the premier patron-saint of Leinster, and as someone widely culted in Britain as well as Ireland. He never published his editions but was generous in allowing others to use them.”

Ramsay, ‘Richard Sharpe obituary’, as above

That last strikes chords with me all the way back from those years in Oxford. I remember hearing, on two different occasions, someone (Hugh Doherty once, I think; can’t remember who the other was) say that they’d been to talk to Richard up in his office about some new problem they’d just stumbled on in a project, a saint’s life or manuscript they’d never heard of before or similar and were going to have to track down, and Richard going, “Oh yes! I wrote a piece about that years ago”, striding over to a cupboard and after a short search pulling out a neat stapled and paper-covered typescript on the exact topic, existence unknown to anyone but him. I should say, it’s not that Richard was shy about publishing; as Roy Flechner’s obituary that I’ve linked above says, his total of works even at the point of death was at least 212 separate items. But apparently he still wrote more than he could manage to publish… If there is a tiny crumb of compensation for him being dead it’s that we will now presumably have found out what else was in the cupboard; but it’s not how either he, I’m guessing, or I would have wanted that learning to be made available. I don’t know how many other people the world can make like this, or what the academy looks like if ever we run out.

Next post will be a final short one about (early) medieval remains in Rome as of some time ago; and after that I promise some actual academic content for once; but having finally got this news I didn’t want to let a kind colleague go unrecorded when he was so very important in understanding records.

1. That paper eventually published as Richard Sharpe, “King Harold’s Daughter” in Haskins Society Journal Vol. 19 (Woodbridge 2008), pp. 1–27. No-one seems to have attempted a full bibliography of Richard’s work, for reasons which may be suggested by what follows, and I’m not up to the challenge; there was a lot…

2. I’m bravely assuming that most of these anecdotes can stand by themselves, but the Tale of the Headington Shark—in which I’d had no idea Richard had had any part—might need a link for the unfamiliar

Historians to remember

It is a distressing habit that seems to be developing on this blog where it is deaths that bring me out of a hiatus. Of course, there would be no such habit if there were no hiatuses, but the times are not good for that. Maybe that will get more explanation next post, whenever I can do that, but in the meantime, I shouldn’t go the whole holiday and post nothing, even if what must be posted is kind of awful. It is also delayed: this has been on my deck since February, when news of one significant death reached me and the person who’d told me then let me know about the five other major medievalists the reaper had claimed the previous month, and there were such among them that I knew I would have to write something next post instead of whatever I had planned. And finally, here we are.

My rules for giving someone an obituary on this blog are not very worked out. In general it is because, whether I knew them or not, their work has touched mine somehow or been the foundation of something I’ve done. In this, I persist in the blog’s basically self-serving purpose that it’s all about me somehow, I suppose, but to be fair, if I reported on deaths even of people I didn’t have much connection with, firstly it’d become a pretty grim blog and secondly I’d hardly be able to say much of use about them. Thus it is that I will not be saying more here about the late Jean-Marie Martin, leading expert on the society of the Italian area of Apulia on its journey from Byzantine through Lombard, Arab and Norman rules, or Jean Richard, eminent historian of the Crusades, than those notices, except to observe that apparently Richard, whose work I’ve put on many a reading list without myself giving it the attention it surely deserved, was only two weeks short of his hundredth birthday, and to provide links under their names to places where you can read more.1

Giles Constable, photographed by Randall Hagadorn

Giles Constable, photographed by Randall Hagadorn for Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study

Then come two about whom I have more to say, but still did not know. Firstly, Giles Constable, 91 at his death, and by that stage he had been Professor of Medieval History at Harvard and Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study, serving between times as Director of the Dumbarton Oaks Library and Research Collection in Washington DC, despite having been born in London. His was so productive a career it would hard to sum it up, and sufficiently long that I currently work with a doctoral grand-pupil of his. Wikipedia currently singles out his work on the key Benedictine reform abbey of Cluny, which I wrote about here long ago, on its abbot Peter the Venerable, a major figure in European theology and religious and intellectual life, and on twelfth-century thought in general, and certainly when making reading lists on Cluny or the twelfth-century Renaissance, I have always made sure as recent a dose of Constable as I could find was in there. That’s mostly because of reading bits of his work as an undergraduate myself, and finding that it carefully and clearly opened window after window on my understanding of the world he described.2 But what I still mainly cite him for is a short and brilliant article that did a similar thing for my understanding of the motivation of medieval monastic forgers, and sometimes for his work on monasteries’ claims to Church tithes, both of which are in that category of things which people still cite from decades ago because no-one has written a better thing on the subject.3 He seems to still have been working up to about 2016, at which point he’d have been 85 or so; may we all hope for so much…

Ronnie Ellenblum

Ronnie Ellenblum, from his page, which of course, does not record his death

Not active for as long, because only 68 when struck by a fatal heart attack, was Professor Ronnie Ellenblum. A more controversial figure, whom again I never met, every one of Ellenblum’s books seemed to upset a consensus, on how involved Frankish settlers were in the landscapes of the Holy Land where the Crusades brought some of them, on how much those Crusaders were willing to learn from their Muslim opponents in terms of fortifications and strategy (rather than the other way round), and more recently and noticeably, on the power of climate change to tip societies’ survivability over the edge.4 All of this, as you can probably tell, was born out of a deep acquaintance and close contact with the land in his native Israel. He also taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which by itself put him beyond some people’s pales. I did not know about that issue when, as was recorded here, I read a short piece of his that was effectively the entire impetus of my Rethinking the Medieval Frontier project, but that was, in a more direct way than usual, his fault; from my wrangling with that book chapter came all the conversations that brought the agenda for that project into being.5 If I had ever met him, I’d have thanked him for that, as well as being embarrassed about how little the project yet had to show for itself; now I will never be able to.

Cyril Mango at the American School at Athens

Cyril Mango at the American School at Athens

Then we reach the ones I did in fact know, at least a bit. The death whose news sparked off the exchange I reported above was that of the one I knew less well, Professor Cyril Mango. I met him twice, I think, at the Medieval History Seminar at All Soul’s College Oxford both times, and when I say met, I mean sat at a table while he talked, or while his wife Marlia Mundell Mango talked for him because, even then, he was very ill. Farflung Byzantinist colleagues would ask me if Cyril Mango was still alive when they were in contact with me for completely other reasons, so widely known was this, but the news was important because he truly was a ‘giant in the field‘, who had been responsible perhaps more than any other single scholar—and there really weren’t many in this competition when he began—for bringing the history and culture of the Byzantine Empire into a wider Anglophone awareness. This was not because he was a populariser, though I don’t think he had any shame about writing for a public, but because despite being extremely learned in his subject matter he remained able to communicate it to outsiders whilst still being recognised by insiders. The result was that, if someone in the UK owned one book not by John Julius Norwich about Byzantium, Mango was probably either the author or a contributor, but also that if one went on to study Byzantium, he was in all the experts’ references too.6 The field has been oddly quiet about his departure from it, perhaps because it had been expected for so long, and I’m sure there are people from his 92-year-long life who could give him a better write-up than I can—indeed, several already have—but for now I hope this does him at least some justice.

[The only pictures of Professor Michael Clanchy I can find which show him as I remember him are attached to things written by his daughter about his death, which was apparently preceded very narrowly by his wife’s, and they’re painful reading and I would feel bad stealing the pictures. The obituaries linked below have pictures of him in happier times.]

And then lastly, and for me saddest because I knew him best, there was Michael Clanchy. Since he worked mostly in the same kind of fields as Giles Constable, and especially on the intellectual ferment around the creation of the first university in Paris and one of that ferment’s principal products, the philosopher, theologian and leading candidate for history’s worst boyfriend Peter Abelard, you might wonder why I knew Michael Clanchy at all, and then be surprised at how many papers of his, including one (before the blog) which was both his inaugural and retirement lecture, I’d been to. But, investigating, you would quickly then discover that that lecture was given at the Institute of Historical Research in London, one of my academic homes, and although he really only tuned in the eleventh century in terms of his own work, he was a regular at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, because he found everything interesting as far as I can see. Consequently, because kindness returns kindness, people used to go to his stuff as well, but this was also because he made it all so interesting. His biography of Abelard may still be the only work that manages to make the man interesting personally as well as significant intellectually, as well as at least halfway comprehensible to the non-expert, not least because as its title suggests it is about far more than just Abelard.7 But as far as I know, excellent though that book is, especially if accompanied by his revision of the Penguin translation of Abelard’s and Héloïse’s letters, it only had the one edition, unlike the one that most people had heard of Michael Clanchy for, From Memory to Written Record, which argued for a fundamental shift in the way people used and stored information over the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and in which by the third edition, under pressure from those who knew England before the Conquest better than after (and better than he did), he was beginning to extend that thinking backwards into a new way of thinking about how writing was being used then that I’m not sure anyone has really picked up.8 And there’s an article of Michael’s from 1970, even, that still gets cited, another of those things that are just too good to replace.9 But it is his kindness for which he might deserve to be remembered best. I don’t know how many conversations I had with him in the IHR tea-room in which he not just professed but maintained an interest in what I did, even once or twice asking very junior me for advice on early medieval archives, none of which, since he could never teach me and our periods barely even met at the edges, he needed to do. I will of course remember him for his work, but I will also remember those conversations and be thankful for him. I can picture him trying bashfully to shrug off the praise, and of course, again, I shan’t ever get to deliver it, but also again, I hope this is something.

I need to rethink what I am doing with this blog, again, since the backlog and the available time obviously don’t work together. I will try and do some of that rethinking for the next post, but even if that doesn’t sound thrilling, at least it more or less must be more cheerful than this one. Thanks for still reading and I hope to write more soon.

1. For Martin, the work for which he was famous beyond Apulia was probably his first book, which made that area well-known to a wider audience, J.-M. Martin, La Pouille du VIe au XIIe siècle, Collection de l’École française de Rome 179 (Rome 1993), but I confess, it is one of those I know I ought to have read, and actually what I know him for most is his contribution to Pierre Bonnassie’s Festschrift, “Quelques réflexions sur l’évolution des droits banaux en Italie méridionale (XIe-XIIIe siècle)” in Hélène Débax (ed.), Les sociétés méridionales à l’âge féodal (l’Espagne, Italie et sud de France Xe-XIIIe s.). Hommage à Pierre Bonnassie, Méridiennes 8 (Toulouse 1999), pp. 339–344. Richard is easily most famous for The Crusades, c. 1071–c. 1291, transl. Jean Birrell (Cambridge 1999), one of the only textbook histories of the Crusades that gets beyond the Fourth one.

2. Embarrassingly, I now can’t work out what work it was that I was then reading; I apparently didn’t make notes on it, and several of the obvious things came out too late. It could, just about, have been, G. Constable, Three Studies in Medieval Religious and Social Thought: The Interpretation of Mary and Martha; The Ideal of the Imitation of Christ; The Orders of Society (Cambridge 1995), then very new, and may more likely have been idem, “Renewal and Reform in Religious Life: Concepts and Realities” in Robert L. Benson (ed.), Renaissance and Renewal in the Twelfth Century(Cambridge MA 1982), pp. 37–67, but one could also mention Constable, The Reformation of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge 1996) or idem, The Abbey of Cluny: A Collection of Essays to Mark the Eleventh-Hundredth Anniversary of its Foundation, Abhandlungen Vita Regularis: Ordnungen und Deutungen religiosen Lebens im Mittelalter, 43 (Münster 2010), as only two. For me especially, there’s also the quite out-of-area Constable, “Frontiers in the Middle Ages” in O. Merisalo (ed.), Frontiers in the Middle Ages, Textes et études du Moyen Âge 35 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 3–28.

3. Constable, “Forgery and Plagiarism in the Middle Ages” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 39 (München 1983), pp. 1–41; idem, Monastic Tithes from their Origins to the Twelfth Century, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 2nd Series 10 (Cambridge 1964).

4. Respectively, Ellenblum, Frankish Rural Settlement in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Cambridge 2003); idem, Crusader Castles and Modern Histories (Cambridge 2007) and idem, The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean: Climate Change and the Decline of the East, 950–1072 (Cambridge 2012).

5. Ronnie Ellenblum, “Were there Borders and Borderlines in the Middle Ages? The Example of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem” in David Abulafia and Nora Berend (edd.), Medieval Frontiers: concepts and practices (Aldershot 2002), pp. 105–118.

6. While it doesn’t cover his whole œuvre by any means, I guess one has to mention Mango, Byzantium: The Empire of New Rome (New York City, NY, 1980), idem, Le développement urbain de Constantinople, IVe-VIIe siècles, Travaux et Mémoires du Centre de recherche d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance, Collège de France, Monographies, 2, 2nd edn (Paris 2004) and idem (ed.), The Oxford History of Byzantium (Oxford 2002). Even that omits a number of critical source translations and a vital textual anthology of sources for Byzantine art, idem (ed.), The Art of Byzantine Empire (New York City NY 1972), and I could go on.

7. M. T. Clanchy, Abelard: a medieval life (Oxford 1999).

8. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England, 1066-1307, 3rd edn (Chichester 2013); one should probably also mention his England and its Rulers, 1066–1307, 3rd edn (Oxford 2006).

9. Clanchy, “Remembering the Past and the Good Old Law” in History Vol. 55 (London 1970), pp. 165–176.


A visit to my local castle

This gallery contains 13 photos.

By the time this post goes up, my officially-ordained break from work will be over and there will be, already is, really quite a lot to try to catch up on before teaching restarts and we resume the will-we-won’t-we dance … Continue reading

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


Bolton Abbey Priory

This gallery contains 13 photos.

By way of a light break between the last post, arguably intended to start an argument, and the likely next one, intended to record a conference, here’s some pictures. At the end of April 2017, with a relative visiting, m’partner … Continue reading


Taking in York Minster

This gallery contains 16 photos.

At the very beginning of the period covered by the last post, April 2017, I had a relative visiting and so decided to do one of the obvious bits of Yorkshire touristing I had not yet done, which is to … Continue reading

Seminar CCXLVII: remains of unrestrained lordship

We now come to the other paper from the first quarter of 2017 I said I still wanted to talk about, which was one of the open lectures which the Institute for Medieval Studies at Leeds runs. These can cover quite a range of topics, and in this instance it was high medieval English archaeology. It’s been a while since Leeds had any medieval archaeologists but we like to stay in touch, and accordingly on 7th March Professor Oliver Creighton of the University of Exeter came to talk to us and the willing public with the title, “The Archaeology of Anarchy? Landscapes of War and Status in Twelfth-Century England”.

Marginal illustration of King Stephen directing one of his commanders, drawn c. 1230, British Library, MS Arundel 48, fo. 168v

Marginal illustration of King Stephen directing one of his commanders at the Battle of Lincoln, 1141, drawn c. 1230, British Library, MS Arundel 48, fo. 168v, from the British Library’s website under their normal terms of use but also available through Wikimedia Commons

The ‘Anarchy’ in question is what historians have for a long time tended to call the wider civil situation engendered by the struggle for the English throne between the Empress Matilda, widow of Emperor Henry V of Germany hence her title, by this time husband of Count Geoffrey of Anjou and most relevantly heir designate of King Henry I of England, and King Stephen, who despite having sworn support for Matilda to the dying Henry still swept in and grabbed the English throne for himself in 1135 when Henry died. During the ensuing struggle, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “Christ and His saints slept,” and every lord who could got away with whatever injustices and self-aggrandisements he could.1 Taking its rhetoric more or less literally, scholars of the older generation observed that a wash of castles got built without the theoretically-required royal permission, that some lords even started minting their own coin and in general everything went badly until it became possible to arrange terms between Stephen, whose eldest son died at a critical point, and Matilda’s son the future Henry II, so that England could finally concede without enduring a woman on the throne.2 The scholarship has moved on since then, recognising that obviously quite a lot of people were willing to see a woman on the throne rather than Stephen, that for others the problem might have been more with this particular woman than gender as such, given that Stephen’s queen (also Matilda, just to help) gets a much more positive write-up in the same sources, and that the castles and mints were probably in many cases begun with one or other royal permission, because the lords were able to play the contendors off against each other in this situation.3 What hasn’t really been done is to see what this looked like on the ground on any scale, and that is what, with the help of the Leverhulme Trust, Professor Creighton had been doing. He had picked 12 sites in or around the key zones of contention, Wessex and the Thames Valley, and gone over them with resistivity sensors and a fine-toothed field survey, and thus had some sense of what kind of remains the supposed anarchy had left behind, which I didn’t at the time realise had already produced a book whose summary we must have been hearing.4

Pickering Castle depicted with the twelfth-century counter-castle visible, from Wikimedia Commons

Pickering Castle as it still stands, with the Anarchy counter-castle visible as a mound at the top left of the picture; photo by Pauline E, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

The findings broke down roughly into two headings, I suppose, one of which was definitely war. Several of the castles involved in Professor Creighton’s study area had been built as part of military campaigns (including one incomplete siege castle and the town of Wallingford where the siege castle itself wound up being besieged), and the resistivity surveys had often shown up subsidiary earthworks and fortifications that had probably formed part of trying to reduce or outflank these places.5 Given the work that Henry II later had to do to raze castles of which he didn’t approve and the fact that at least one of these ‘temporary’ fortresses, the Rings at Corfe, was besieged again in the English Civil War (as opposed to the civil war in England that we’re now discussing…), I do wonder if we can always be sure that these extra works were early-twelfth-century in date.6 The other thing that comes up a lot round them is arrowheads, apparently, however, where the dating is a bit more certain, and I certainly have no interest in suggesting there wasn’t fighting at these locations.

The Rings earthwork at Corfe Castle

The Rings at Corfe Castle, supposedly a siege earthwork set up by King Stephen and then used again in 1646, photo from Castles and Fortifications of England and Wales

There was, apparently, a great variety of castles in this era. It wasn’t as simple as every lord flinging up a motte and bailey and daring all comers to challenge his right to exploit the local peasantry. While I expect a lot of that was happening, what is more obvious is bigger ventures like whole fortified villages (Boteler’s Castle), whole towns (Cricklade or Wallingford) or whole fortified islands even, or just very large castles, and even reactivated hillfort settlements whose roots are probably very old indeed. Some churches and monasteries were fortified too, and all of these places tended to reorganise their local landscape in ways that must have outlasted the military purposes they were possibly only meant to fulfil briefly.

Motte of the erstwhile Beaudesert Castle in Henley-in-Arden

Motte of the erstwhile Beaudesert Castle in Henley-in-Arden, on what was probably also an Iron Age fortified site, photo from Castles and Fortifications of England and Wales

The other thread that is visible in the material culture, therefore, is in fact the lordly self-aggrandisement that the old scholarship was so keen on condemning. We already had the coins from which the quasi-independent minting is known, of course, but we also see a sharp increase in the preservation of seal matrices, of heraldic decorations (including harness pendants and strap-ends with devices on), fancy architecture and new Church and monastic foundations, all the works, it seems, of lords whose position now either allowed or required them to make more effort in saying something about themselves and their status, which of course makes one wonder who the audience was for all this material and architectural display.7

Five silver pennies of the Anarchy in England, on display at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow

Five silver pennies of the Anarchy in England, on display at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, image used as masthead for the exhibition’s extremely informative website, linked through

One could choose to see it all as a vulgar display of power meant to cow the local peasantry and gentry into falling into line behind these newly assertive lordships, one could see it as competition between the lords, perhaps for the loyalty of exactly those same gentry and peasantry, one could see it as an attempt to gain sufficient ground by half-forced concessions from more-or-less-royal authority that when things eventually settled down the lords would be established as much grander than circumstances had previously allowed, or one could just see it as defiance of the crown and a genuine attempt at independent lordship, and this just being what that looked like. Obviously, the archaeology does not itself tell us which if any of these things it represents, and Professor Creighton didn’t try, but just like the similar kinds of activities that people studying the south of France and Catalonia a century or so before have spotted, it is tempting for historians to try and make patterns out of it anyway.8

It has to be said that the lecture didn’t do much, or even try, to shake me out of the impression that if you were not in charge of one of these castles, it must have been a bad time to be trying to make a living in England; the scale at which people, settlements and stuff seem to have been being moved around, presumably without much choice in the matter, and the lack of recourse they can have had about it, all helped me understand in more depth where the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle‘s picture was coming from. In that respect, although Professor Creighton had not done what one commentator, local postgraduate Victoria Yuskaitis, wondered about, mapping textual and archaeological data together, he was already making them work together in a new way, yet one that seemed to reinforce the older scholarship as much or more than the newer stuff. That may be something for people in the field to consider…

1. Michael Swanton (transl.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1996), s. a. 1137, at the end of a full page-and-a-half complaining of seigneurial abuse, extortion and torture.

2. For an old-fashioned view like that you’d have to go to R. H. C. Davis, King Stephen, 1135-1154, 3rd edn. (London 1990) or the less durable H. A. Cronne, The Reign of Stephen, 1135-1154: Anarchy in England (London 1970), though even then cf. John le Patourel, “What Did Not Happen in Stephen’s Reign” in History Vol. 58 (London 1973), pp. 1-18, on JSTOR here, or Edward J. Kealey, “King Stephen: Government and Anarchy” in Albion Vol. 6 (Boone NC 1974), pp. 201–217, on JSTOR here.

3. Now you could get your updates in any or all of Marjorie Chibnall, The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother, and Lady of the English (Oxford 1992); Edmund King (ed.), The Anarchy of King Stephen’s Reign (Oxford 1994); Jim Bradbury, Stephen and Matilda: the Civil War of 1139-53 (Stroud 1998); David Crouch, The Reign of King Stephen, 1135-1154 (Harlow 2000); Donald Matthew, King Stephen (London 2002); Edmund King, King Stephen (New Haven CT 2012) or Paul Dalton and Graeme J. White (edd.), King Stephen’s Reign (1135-1154) (Cambridge 2012); it’s not what you’d call an under-researched area. On Matilda and gender-expectations specifically, though, add Jean A. Truax, “Winning over the Londoners: King Stephen, the Empress Matilda and the Politics of Personality” in Haskins Society Journal Vol. 13 (Woodbridge 1996), pp. 42–62; Heather J. Tanner, “Queenship: Office, Custom, or Ad Hoc?: the Case of Queen Matilda III of England (1135-1152)” in Bonnie Wheeler and John Carmi Parsons (edd.), Eleanor of Aquitaine: Lord and Lady (New York City NY 2003), pp. 133–158; and Patricia A. Dark, “‘A woman of Sublety and a Man’s Resolution’: Matilda of Boulogne in the Power Struggles of the Anarchy” in Brenda M. Bolton and Christine E. Meek (edd.), Aspects of Power and Authority in the Middle Ages, International Medieval Research 14 (Turnhout 2007), pp. 147–164.

4. Oliver H. Creighton and Duncan W. Wright, with Michael Fradley and Stephen Trick, The Anarchy: War and Status in 12th-Century Landscapes of Conflict (Liverpool 2016), to which we can now add Duncan W. Wright and O. H. Creighton (edd.), Castles, siegeworks and settlements: surveying the archaeology of the twelfth century (Oxford 2016), which seems to be the fieldwork reports from this project.

5. On the incomplete siege-work at Burwell, see as well as the coverage in Wright and Creighton, Castles, siegeworks and settlements, Duncan W. Wright, Oliver Creighton, Steven Trick and Michael Fradley, “Power, conflict and ritual on the fen-edge: the Anarchy-period castle at Burwell, Cambridgeshire, and its pre-Conquest landscape” in Landscape History Vol. 37 (Abingdon 2016), pp. 25–50.

6. I had special reservations about the use of beakheads in architecture, such as we have seen here from Iffley Church in Oxford, as hard dating indicators for building in the 1120s-1160s, on the basis that they weren’t used outside that time. That sounds like a self-fulfilling diagnostic to me, and even Iffley threatens to stretch it.

7. The ways seals fit into this also seems to me a possible area of question, mainly because their use was spreading all over Europe at this time, which probably wasn’t a result of the conditions in England; see Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, When Ego was Imago: signs of identity in the Middle Ages, Visualising the Middle Ages 3 (Leiden 2011). On the coins, meanwhile, see M. A. S. Blackburn, “Coinage and Currency” in King, Anarchy, pp. 101–124, updated by Martin Allen, “The York Local Coinage of the Reign of Stephen (1135–54)” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 176 (London 2016), pp. 283–318 and Allen, “Pembroke: a New Mint of the Empress Matilda in the Reign of Stephen?”, ibid. Vol. 179 (London 2019), pp. 295–297.

8. As the previous note suggests, there were ways in which looking outside the British Isles might have added to this study. I’m thinking here straight away of Pierre Bonnassie, “Descriptions of Fortresses in the Book of Miracles of Sainte-Foy of Conques”, transl. Jean Birrell, in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe (Cambridge 1991), pp. 132–148, but as well as Bedos-Rezak, When Ego was Imago, one could suggest Thomas N. Bisson, The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government (Princeton NJ 2015) or even Karl Leyser, “The Crisis of Medieval Germany” in Leyser, Communications and Power in Medieval Europe: the Gregorian revolution and beyond, ed. Timothy Reuter (London 1994), pp. 21–49, for a sense that some of these developments were being experienced more widely.

Seminar CCXLIV: an East vs. West clerical normality contest

Today I am not on strike, because it is a Sunday, and thanks to the Working Time Directive I can blog if I like and no-one can tell me not to. I promised a few posts ago that I would do a proper write-up on a paper which Dr Maroula Perisanidi gave at the University of Leeds a long time ago, 16th November 2016 in fact, at the outset of what has proved to be a quite durable association with us, and before that association lapses I should at least manage to give m’colleague some blog space; besides which, it was an interesting paper. I think, in fact, it was a presentation of a topic which Maroula was even then moving away from—the book of it came out in 2019, but I have the impression that that was a long process—and this can serve as a plug for the book, therefore.1 Her title was “Clerical Marriage in A Comparative Perspective”.

Now a title like that raises one reaction that is perhaps natural to any enquiring mind, and another that is maybe only natural to a modern Catholic audience, which such an audience may indeed not realise is not natural to others. The first reaction would be, “where are we comparing?” and the second reaction would be, “but clergymen aren’t supposed to marry!” And this was exactly the point of the paper. Since the Church trying to prohibit clerical marriage is one of those things like monastic reform or plague outbreaks that can easily seem to have come round in a fairly frequent cycle during the Middle Ages, one could be forgiven for accepting a narrative that says it was always technically prohibited but that blind eyes were turned for long periods and then occasionally there was a back-to-basics campaign that got people into trouble.2 Thing is, that would be very much a Western narrative, which becomes very obvious when, as Maroula was doing, you compare somewhere like medieval England with Byzantium. There aren’t many people who can do that, but Maroula had spent some time becoming one of them, and what we got now was the fruits of that learning.

The famous unexplained scene from the Bayeux Tapestry “where a cleric and Æfgyva…” We have no idea who either were or whether the suggestive figure in the lower margin relates to them and their story. It’s actually quite hard to find pictures of medieval priests and their wives, but it’s probably easier than trying to find pictures of Byzantine and English churches meeting. Maroula’s poster for the seminar also opted for this image, which tells you that perhaps no search would find what I was looking for…

As my students often find, it’s very hard to know when the Greek Christian Church and the Latin one finally parted ways and became Orthodox and Catholic (rather than both being both); there’s about six different definitive dates of separation depending on what you count, but relatively few people would put them before, say, the mid-9th century, not least because not long before that you have Charlemagne trying to interfere in the imperial theological wrangling over icons, which you’d think he wouldn’t have bothered to do if he’d thought they weren’t the same Church over there.3 But still, there were divisions between Latin and Greek Christianities that went a way back even then, and this was then; from the 4th century onwards, about as early as organised Christianity can be called a single body (albeit by ignoring those groups already splintered), the Latin Church has either objected to the marriage of priests or been quiet about it, whereas the Greek one is basically cool with it. That is, of course, a massive over-simplification: both sides had variant views in play, many of which Maroula has found. But that general picture might still be fair.

What was it that the Western Church couldn’t take about clerical marriage? Interestingly, it shifted over time. To start with, the places we find rulings about this are mainly concerned with Church property falling into lay hands, either because of a priest having children to whom he wanted, naturally, to leave some kind of inheritance, or for some more immediately offended people, because of him supporting his wife on the offerings of the faithful. The Byzantine perspective was much more that the revenue from offerings was disposable, as long as the offerings themselves remained with the Church, and this meant that priests could, for example, be salaried; in the West, whether because of a later-developing cash economy or for some other reason, that wasn’t a popular solution. Byzantium was not blind to these concerns, but it kept them to bishops, who were supposed to be unmarried; a priest hoping for promotion needed either to be single and celibate or to agree on celibate separation from his wife. (Indeed, as became clear in questions, while priests could be married, they were not allowed to marry once priests, or even deacons, so marriage was a decision one presumably made very early in a Byzantine Church career.) Here, the different economic bases of the two societies do seem likely to be a major part of the reason for the differences, and there was probably more similarity than at first appears, especially in practice, but a difference does remain.

Mosaic depiction of Patriarch John Chrysostomos of Constantinople in the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

John Chrysostom, salary-man? Perhaps the Patriarch of Constantinople isn’t the ideal example. This is the mosaic of him from inside Hagia Sofia, of which we have heard; image Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

However, the property concern died down over time in the West, and mainly because it was replaced by a growing concern about clerical purity and pollution.4 Now this was not a new concern either—you can find it in that translation of Bede’s Letter to Egbert I did ages back, and indeed in everyone else’s, and that’s eighth-century, but it seems to have taken a more popular root during the so-called Gregorian Reform, at the extreme points of which you had papally-supported mobs in Milan throwing priests and whoever they found them in bed with out of upstairs windows and so on.5 The concern seems to have been that anyone having sex might, you know, enjoy it, thus committing fornication, or just not be virginally pure, and thus perhaps not be in a very close relationship with God, in which case, what assurance had anyone that that person could truly be possessed with the Holy Spirit, Whom one would expect not to hang about in such dirty premises? I trivialise, but if what this meant was that maybe all your absolutions were invalid so your sins were still unforgiven, or that your marriage wasn’t valid so your children were the product of adultery and you a damned fornicator, you can see how it could start to have major implications for both this world and the next. The weird thing is that all these hang-ups seem to be basically Western; as close as Byzantine legislation gets is to ask for abstinence from sex with their wives for a certain time before and after performing the liturgy, so that the priest’s mind would be fully on God and his intercession would thus reach its intended recipient. There was in fact more Byzantine concern about this in the fifth than the twelfth century, whereas the West seems to have gone the other way.

Now, if Maroula offered any explanation of this, my notes don’t record it, but just to observe the fact is to raise not just the question “why”, but even the very fact of difference. Whose was the ‘normal’ position? (Erm, as it were.) Well, neither side’s, presumably, however natural they may have felt their own position was. (It would be interesting to get a third point of comparison in, of course: does or did the Church of the East require clerical celibacy? Wikipedia suggests not. The modern Anglican one of course does not, even of bishops. If that’s the game we’re playing, the Catholics look like the odd ones out now, but of course it was not so obviously so in the Middle Ages, before Anglicans…) This is the great value of comparative history, anyway; if done right, it makes one look at what one thinks is usual differently and question it.6 This paper was an example of it done right.

1. It is Maroula Perisanidi, Clerical Continence in Twelfth-Century England and Byzantium: Property, Family, and Purity (London 2019), and what I don’t provide cites for in what follows I am guessing you will find in there.

2. Some kind of prize for anyone who can tell me where, long ago, I read some historian glibly referring to some phenomenon which, “like the rise of the middle class, seems to have begun in every period”, which I presumably assumed I would never forget so didn’t record…

3. See now Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia, PA, 2009).

4. I feel as if I should mention Albrecht Diem’s Das monastische Experiment: die Rolle der Keuschheit bei der Entstehung des westlichen Klosterwesens (Münster 2005) here, but to do more than mention it would require me actually to have read it, which I confess I have not, as yet.

5. See H. E. J. Cowdrey, “The Papacy, the Patarenes and the Church of Milan” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 18 (London 1968), pp. 25-48, reprinted in idem, Popes, Monks and Crusaders (London 1984), chapter V.

6. Impossible to say such a thing, of course, without citing Chris Wickham, Problems in Doing Comparative History, Reuter Lecture 2004 (Southampton 2005), repr. in Patricia Skinner (ed.), Challenging the Boundaries of Medieval History: the legacy of Timothy Reuter (Turnhout 2009), pp. 5–28.


Mysterious Knights at Claverley Church

This gallery contains 19 photos.

I promised you a couple of posts ago a set of surprising medievalist photographs, and now the post has come. You may remember that I was being shown hidden bits of the Middle Ages lying in the general area of … Continue reading