Category Archives: France

Where do viscounts come from, Mummy?

Being on strike, again, I have time to write. This post has a silly title but a serious question, as became clear to me late in 2018 when, at that point still working on the book of Borrell II, I decided that I needed to know more about the viscounts of Narbonne into whose family his elder niece, with whom he may have grown up, married.1 Looking for work on them turned up a fairly recent essay volume edited by Hélène Débax, who knows a thing or two about viscounts, and with grim determination I realised I’d have to read all of it, a luxury or necessity that modern-day academia rarely allows me.2 By the look of my Zotero files, that took place over October 2018 to January 2019 – because yes, by then I needed four months to read a book on work time – and revealed several things to me. For one, I’d assumed that pretty much everywhere had viscounts, while being aware that they basically don’t occur in England; but actually, the vicecomital dignity or office was pretty constrained in both space and time, in the former being largely confined to the peripheral areas of what became the kingdom of France, including most of the Midi, and in the latter to the ninth to twelfth centuries. Both of these things mean that the viscount is, like many things, a Carolingian and post-Carolingian phenomenon. But this is one of the ways in which Catalonia and its northern-neighbouring territories were Carolingian and its western neighbours were not. That is, however, not to say that Catalan viscounts were like other viscounts, and that’s where the stub for this post came from.

Cover of H&eacutelène Débax (ed.), Vicomtes et vicomtés dans l'Occident médiéval (Toulouse 2008)

The book and the colloquium that Débax put it together from both wisely distinguished viscounts and viscounties, “vicomtes et vicomtés”, the kind of distinction I use to point out to monolingual and xenophobic students why accents count as spelling. Not everywhere had both viscounts and viscounties; several sets of viscounts existed without developing an associated territory, either because their tenures were too discontinuous or because they worked under the shadows of counts, one or two places had viscounties from earlier on which were later run by other people who didn’t use the title, and several places developed viscounts first and then they developed viscounties later.3 Catalonia, interestingly, had viscounts from really quite early, albeit perhaps not continuously, and the eventually established families mostly did get themselves viscounties but these were almost always located outside their official jurisdictions, which remained counties with counts (apart from Conflent, which we’ve already discussed and is weird).4 So Catalonia may not exactly have fitted the pattern, but Débax and colleagues thought they had a pattern, albeit one not universal and open to variation. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to any of them except Henri Dolset, speaking for my patch alongside the already-discussed Élisabeth Bille, there is a different pattern in use in the Catalan scholarship to explain the emergence of these major nobles. And then there’s me. So it seems meet to set up the two competing patterns in the scholarship first and then comment with what I can bring to the question.

So what is the ‘vicomtes et vicomtés’ pattern? For Débax herself and most of her contributors, viscounts were a symptom of comital weakness. They popped up where there were no active counts, taking over unattended jurisdictions, and some of them effectively became counts under a lesser name, with no superior officers between them and a very distant king. This was what happened at Narbonne, where I started, and at Castillon in the Dordogne among other places.5. Some viscounts who set up in such a fashion even managed to become counts, by obscure processes in most cases; we see this at Millau, whose viscounts managed to inherit the comital dignity of Rouergue, and in la Marche, where there had never been a county as far as we know until the viscounts managed to upgrade.6 Even viscounts who had a count to whom they were notionally subordinate often managed to achieve quasi-independence in parts of their territories, unaffected for the most part by their relations with their bosses at bosses’ courts; such were the viscounts of Trencavel whom Débax has made her own, Auvergne, Thouars and Marseille in its third round of vicecomitogenesis, as well as in Béarn with some special conditions.7 A strong count, however, didn’t let this happen in his core territories (best shown in these studies by the viscounts of Tursan, just too close to the biggest counts in the south at Toulouse) and even where it had, once in the general revival of civil government in twelth-century France the counts were powerful enough again, they put a stop to it (as at Bruniquel, Marsan and indeed eventually Narbonne).8 This often followed on an equally-revived Church mobilising the force of Gregorian reform to push these upstart officers out of the Church properties and revenues which were often a major prop to their standing.9 Nonetheless, it was not a universal that wherever the counts couldn’t assert themselves, viscounts sprang up; some noble families occupied what was far as we can see were positions just as powerful (and some northern viscounts, especially, were not major players in their areas) and never took such a title, prime examples in the south being the Castelnau of Cahors.10 So there remains something unusual about the title which the pattern developed in these studies doesn’t overall explain.

Map of the Catalan counties c.950, by Philip Judge and Jonathan Jarrett

Map of the Catalan counties c. 950, by Philip Judge and myself. We’ve not seen this for a while, have we? But now it helps. Of these counties, Empúries and Roussillon were usually both ruled by one count, Barcelona, Girona and Osona by another (though only after 898), Urgell by a third and Besalú, and Cerdanya by a fourth family, usually providing plural counts. Pallars and Ribagorça started with one count for both and finished up with several for each. The rest of the areas never had named counts, but did sometimes have viscounts, most obviously Conflent. But so did the counties with counts!

The Catalan scholarship that I know best on these matters kind of comes at the question of origins from the other direction, which the more voluminous but also locally-specific evidence from the area partly explains, but not as much as the good old feudal transformation narrative does.11 Under that rubric, of course, we’re supposed to move from a fully-functional public system via a period of upheaval to an exploitative one of private jurisdiction which everyone’s happy to call ‘feudal’ that is slowly brought under control by the powers-that-were over the eleventh or twelfth centuries but which remains the new basis for power till the Age of Revolutions. Accordingly, the Catalan scholarship points at ninth-century viscounts who appear sporadically, but sometimes with counts, as being the public system working and the viscounts as official delegates of the counts, and mostly argues this for the tenth-century ones as well, though as we’ve seen I have my doubts.12 The delegation was necessary because there were more counties than counts: a count of Barcelona, Girona and Osona couldn’t be everywhere at once, so someone had to hold the fort or forts while he was elsewhere. This idea is echoed in the Débax volume in a few places, for Rouergue before the Millau swallowed it, for example, but in general they have too many viscounties springing up out of nowhere for the idea of delegation to look normal.13

That suits me fine, because I’ve never liked the delegation argument, which goes back to Ramon d’Abadal but wasn’t up to his usual standard of analysis.14 In the first place, the plurality of comital holdings really doesn’t reach back to the ninth century, when one county per count was much more normal, but there were viscounts already then. In the second place, a count couldn’t be everywhere in a county either, so what makes those quite big units the natural level at which jurisdiction does not need dividing or delegating? And in the third place, to which I’ll come in a bit, other than sometimes presiding over courts, which was a thing that many sorts of person could do, viscounts don’t seem to have done the same jobs as counts in many ways. The only place where we arguably do see viscounts behaving like delegates of the counts is in Osona, a county that was created ex novo by a count in the 880s; the best example is the rights given to Viscount Ermemir II over Cardona in its franchise of 986, but we see older members of the family doing things at comital bidding too.15 That’s harder to find where the jurisdiction was older; there, the counts don’t seem to have had this kind of systematic direction of their viscounts. There is also some echo of this in the Débax volume: in Marseille and the Limousin the counts of Toulouse acquired these areas as new concerns and then set up viscounts there, and in Poitou a different family did, because they had no immediate local basis of power themselves and other places they needed to be, so they had to. But it’s clearly not where the idea of viscounts comes from.

My own copy of my book, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power

Cover of Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), available from at least some good booksellers!

For me, it’s actually that idea that is crucial. In 2010, in my so-far-only monograph, I had a section entitled ‘Power with a name’ that I think still bears some weight. The thing is, you see, if Duby and the other feudal transformationists demonstrated anything they demonstrated that a local magnate who was beyond the control of a higher authority did not need a title for his power; he (or indeed she) could just appropriate revenues and turn them into custom by means of threat and force.16 But to call yourself a ‘vicescomes’ was to emphasise that there was in fact an officer called a ‘comes’ who you weren’t; in fact, you stood in place of him in a way that uncomfortably suggested responsibility to him. ‘Vicarius’ was even worse, but essentially meant the same thing. As with the counts themselves, these were all claims to exercise power on behalf of someone else, not by your own hand. So there must have been substance to such a claim which made that potential liability worth
admitting.17 The old Carolingan legislation that people in all these areas, Catalan or not, occasionally copied up, give some ideas from what it forbids viscounts to do to those whom the kings had given immunities: it might have included demanding labour services from people on roads or fortifications, calling out militarily-liable people or charging them not to, taking fines and penalties at court, and a good few other things probably.18 But these rights can only have been restricted to such ‘public’ officials as long as the public power existed, so in that sense the very existence of viscounts tells us that there were rights that people still recognised as being restricted to people who had certain sorts of power only, and not others.

So in 2010 I suggested that the viscounts in Catalonia were best understood as powerful independents who had, for one reason or another, decided to engage with the effective takeover of royal powers by the counts, recognising perhaps that they could not, or could not yet, be counts themselves but could retain command in their key areas by pretending that they were comital delegates, and acting that part when required.19 Then their descendants were stuck with the legacies of that choice, which often allowed them room for powerful expansion but on someone else’s agenda. I’m not sure if that was true of all of them, but I think it works as an explanation for the ones I know best. And it also fits with some of the Débax team’s cases: Auvergne, predictably covered by Christian Lauranson-Rosaz, had viscounts whose origins he couldn’t explain as anything other than independents who coralled themselves a piece of the surviving public power, and André Constant, for all that his chapter floats what seems to me a quite unjustifiable theory that all his viscounts were also archdeacons in the Church by right till reform stopped that, sees the same thing in the bits of Catalonia I know less well.20

It seems clear that one size won’t fit all here. Even in Catalonia viscounts seem to have had diverse origins, with the Osona family who became the Cardonas presumably having some prominence that made them locally useful but then relying on comitally-driven expansion to turn that into anything substantial, whereas as far as we can see the family that emerged as viscounts of Conflent and sometimes Urgell owed nothing to the counts and were basically irremovable.21 No-one seems to be sure where the Girona viscounts who became the Cabrera developed, and the picture is complicated by the fact that it’s much easier to see them outside their county than within it because there are far fewer surviving documents from Girona than from the frontier counties where they show up as landowners.22 Barcelona has had much more work done on it, partly because it’s the capital but also because one viscount and his brother the bishop ended up besieging the count in his palace at one point, so there’s a story to explain; I haven’t read all that work yet, so I won’t try and guess how they fit.23 But if there’s a pattern there, it seems to me that it is the one of powerful independents accepting a space in a hierarchy which they could work to advantage that explains most cases, and in that case the dignity has still to have meant something that wasn’t just ‘I’m in charge now’. It’s not clear to me how far this applies north of the Pyrenees, given the even greater variety of circumstances plotted by Débax and colleagues, but as so often I wonder what happens if rather than taking France as normal and wondering why Catalonia looks weird we start by looking at Catalonia and then seeing if it explains France.


1. Her name was Riquilda, and the relationship is made clear in her will, which is printed as Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic: segles IX-X, ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Documents 1, 5 fascs (Vic 1980-1996), doc. no. 346, and also in the Catalunya Carolíngia but I haven’t internalised that reference yet and this post is already late, so the old one will have to do.

2. Hélène Débax (ed.), Vicomtes et vicomtés dans l’Occident médiéval, Tempus 37 (Toulouse 2008), Freemium version online here.

3. Viscounts who never got viscounties in Bas-Quercy and the Toulousain, as described by Didier Panfili, “Bas-Quercy et Haut-Toulousain, un kaléidoscope à vicomtes – IXe à XIIe siècles”, ibid., pp. 73–86; viscounty only developing after some time at Béziers, covered by Claudie Amado, “Les vicomtes de Béziers et d’Agde : Deploiement lignager et bipolarité du pouvoir”, ibid., pp. 21–31.

4. A point made in Roland Viader, “Conclusions”, ibid. pp. 319-333 at pp. 326-327.

5. The overall pattern is asserted in Hélène Débax, “Des vice-comtes aux vicomtes, des vicomtes aux vicomtés : Introduction”, ibid. pp. 7-19; Narbonne is covered in Jacqueline Caille, “Vicomtes et vicomté de Narbonne des origines au début du XIIIe siècle”, ibid. pp. 47–60, and Castillon by Frédéric Boutoulle, “Les vicomtes de Castillon et leur dominium (XIe–début XIIIe siècle)”, ibid. pp. 103–113.

6. Millau: Jérome Belmon, “Aux sources du pouvoir des vicomtes de Millau (XIe siècle)”, ibid. pp. 189–202; la Marche, whose viscounts began as castellans and finished up as counts, is covered by Didier Delhoume and Christian Remy, “Le phénomène vicomtal en Limousin, Xe – XVe siècles”, ibid. pp. 237–250 at Annexe p. 228.

7. For the Trencavel, see most obviously Hélène Débax, La feodalité languedocienne XI-XII siècles : serments, hommages et fiefs dans le Languedoc des Trencavel (Toulouse 2003), but if you have only the volume under discussion then an extremely brief summary is in Débax, “Des vice-comtes aux vicomtes”, p. 15, and they also come into Amado, “Vicomtes de Béziers et d’Agde” at pp. 26-30 and Pierre Chastaing, “La donation de la vicomté d’Agde (1187) ou les vicissitudes du vicecomitatus aux XIIe et XIIIe siècles” in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 33–45. Auvergne is covered by, who else, Christian Lauranson-Rosaz, “Vicomtes et vicomtés en Auvergne et dans ses marges (IXe-XIe s.)”, ibid., pp. 213–222; Thouars is covered in Géraldine Damon, “Vicomtes et vicomtés dans le Poitou médiéval (IXe-XIIe siècle) : Genèse, modalités et transformations”, ibid. pp. 223–235 at pp. 224-235 and Annexe pp. 200-201; Marseille in Florian Mazel, “Du modèle comtal à la « chatelainisation » : vicomtes provençaux aux Xe–XIIIe siècles”, ibid. pp. 251–264 at pp. 253-257 & 260. For Béarn see Bénoît Cursente, “Les Centulles de Béarn (fin Xe siècle-1134)”, ibid. pp. 129–142. Their special circumstances were the availability of the counts then kings of Aragón as an alternative source of patronage, culminating in one of the line dying at Fraga next to Alfonso I the Battler, but that didn’t stop them coming to the court of the Duke of Aquitaine when summoned, it seems.

8. On that revival of governmental strength see now most easily Thomas N. Bisson, The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government (Princeton NJ 2015), but it’s present in all the studies in the Débax volume whose viscounts survived long enough, and it’s really interesting how independent lords got squeezed between it and Church reform, without any necessary coincidence of interests between those two pressures. On the individual cases see Jeanne-Marie Fritz, “Marsan et Tursan : deux vicomtés Gasconnes”, in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 115–127, Tursan at pp. 122-127 and Marsan at pp. 115-118; Bruniquel in Panfili, “Bas-Quercy et Haut-Toulosain”, pp. 75-79 & 83-84 and Laurent Macé, “Le nom de cire : Jalons pour une enquête sur les sceaux vicomtaux du Midi (XIIe-XIIIe siècles)” in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 305–317 at pp. 311-312; Narbonne in Caille, “Vicomtes et vicomté”, pp. 56-59.

9. Reform as the enemy in Mazel, “Du modèle comtal à la « chatelainisation »”, pp. 258-261;, Jacques Péricard, “Les vicomtes de Bourges (IXsup>e-XIIe siècle) : une éphemère émancipation” in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 279–289 at p. 288, and Viader, “Conclusions”, pp. 329-330, and also in André Constant, “Entre Elne et Gérone : Essor des chapitres et stratégies vicomtales (IXe-XIe siècle)” in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 169–187 at pp. 178-186, but that goes to heroically unsustainable lengths to associate the viscounts with Church office in the first place, which for the period I know I’m pretty sure are faulty, and admits that the viscounts managed the Augustinian reform very well, so in general I have doubts about this as a case.

10. On viscounts in the north see Jean-François Nieus, “Vicomtes et vicomtés dans le nord de la France (XIe-XIIIe siècles) : Un monde d’officiers au service du pouvoir princier”, in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 291–303; on Castelnau see Florent Hautefeuille, “Une vicomté sans vicomte : les Gausbert de Castelnau”, ibid. pp. 61–72.

11. The people who’ve been following me a while will know the classic references by now, but they are Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : Croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail, Sèrie A, 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, and Josep M. Salrach, El procés de feudalització (segles III-XII), Història de Catalunya 2 (Barcelona 1987), now updated somewhat by the lighter but no less interesting Salrach, Catalunya a la fi del primer mil·lenni, Biblioteca de Història de Catalunya 4 (Lleida 2005).

12. Here I principally mean Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “La institució comtal carolíngia en la pre-Catalunya del segle IX” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 1 (Barcelona 1964), pp. 29–75, reprinted in Abadal, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i Documents 13 & 14 (Barcelona 1969), 2 vols, I pp. 181–226, and reprised and updated in Abadal and José María Font i Rius, “El regímen político carolingio” in José Manuel Jover Zamora (ed.), La España cristiana de los siglos VIII al XI, volumen II: Los nucleos pirenaicos (718-1035): Navarra, Aragón, Cataluña, ed. Manuel Riu i Riu, Historia de España Menéndez Pidal 7 (Madrid 1999), pp. 427–577. The Catalan perspective in the Débax volume comes from Henri Dolset, “Vicomtes et vicomtés en Catalogne frontalière aux Xe-XIIe siècles (Barcelone, Gérone, Osona, Tarragone) : territoire et pouvoir” in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 157–168 and Constant, “Entre Elne et Gérone”, as well as Élisabeth Bille, “Des vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne : du fidèle du comte au seigneur féodal (IXe-XIIe siècle)” in Débax, Vicomtes et vicomtés, pp. 143–155, which was discussed in a previous post.

13. Belmon, “Aux sources du pouvoir des vicomtes”, Annexe pp. 179-181.

14. Abadal, “La institució comtal carolíngia”.

15. The Cardona franchise is printed in Antoni Galera i Pedrosa (ed.), Diplomatari de la Vila de Cardona (anys 966-1276): Arxiu Parroquial de Sant Miquel i Sant Vicenç de Cardona, Arxiu Abacial de Cardona, Arxiu Històric de Cardona, Arxius Patrimonials de les Masies Garriga de Bergús, Palà de Coma i Pinell, Diplomataris 15 (Barcelona 1998), doc. no. 7 – again, it’s in the Catalunya Carolíngia but I don’t right now have the space to look it up. On the creation of the county see Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, La Plana de Vich en els segles VIII i IX (717 – 886), Estudis d’història vigatana (Vich 1954), reprinted as “La reconquesta d’una regió interior de Catalunya: la plana de Vic (717-886)” in Abadal, Dels Visigots als Catalans (Barcelona 1969), I pp. 309–321. An earlier instance of the family’s cooperation with the counts is Viscount Ermemir I’s attendance at Count Sunyer’s marriage, seen in Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: Estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18 (Barcelona 1951), doc. no. 9; again, it will be in the Catalunya Carolíngia too but I haven’t looked on this occasion.

16. The locus classicus here obviously Georges Duby, La société aux XIe et XIIe siècles dans le région mâconnais, Bibliothèque de l’École Pratique des Hautes Études, VIe Section (Paris 1971), but, as with the Nestorians, the founder of the doctrine has been surpassed by his followers, by whom in this instance I mainly mean Jean-Pierre Poly and Éric Bournazel, The Feudal Transformation: 900-1200, trans. Caroline Higgitt, Europe Past and Present (New York City NY 1991). In both cases I cite the editions I’ve used, but there are updated ones.

17. Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power, Studies in History: New Series (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 129-133.

18. For example, see Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia volum II: Els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 1 & 2 (Barcelona 1926-1952, repr. 2007), 2 vols, Particulars VII: “Et nullus comes, nec vicarius, nec juniores eorum, nec ullus iudex publicus illorum homines, qui super illorum aprisione habitant, distringere nec iudicare presumant.” Thus spoke Emperor Louis the Pious to Joan of Fontjoncouse in 815. It doesn’t specifically mention viscounts, I admit – in fact none of the royal legislation for the area does even though they were sporadically there – but it would be hard for one to argue they weren’t included in the ban, I reckon.

19. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 133-135.

20. See nn. 7 and 9 above respectively.

21. M. Rovira i Solà, “Noves dades sobre els vescomtes d’Osona-Cardona” in Ausa Vol. 9 no. 98 (Vic 1981), pp. 249–260, online here, covers both families, and I add some details on Conflent in Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 136-141; cf. Bille, “Des vicomtes dans le comté de Cerdagne”.

22. Three pretty much incompatible views of the membership and relationships of this family can be found between Jaume Coll i Castanyer, “Els vescomtes de Girona” in Annals de l’Institut d’Estudis Gironins Vol. 30 (Girona 1989), pp. 39–98, online here, Dolset, “Vicomtes et vicomtés en Catalogne frontalière”, and Constant, “Entre Elne et Gérone”.

23. Obviously I have read Dolset, “Vicomtes et vicomtés en Catalogne frontalière”, but behind him there’re Francesc Carreras y Candi, “Lo Montjuích de Barcelona” in Memorias de la Real Academia de Buenas Letras de Barcelona Vol. 8 (Barcelona 1902), pp. 195–451, and now José Enrique Ruiz-Domènec, Quan els vescomtes de Barcelona eren: història, crònica i documents d'una familia catalana dels segles X, XI i XII, Textos y documents 39 (Barcelona 2006), both of which have had exciting differences from my views wherever I’ve dipped into them and so need proper treatment some time in a mythical future.

Seminars CCLIII-CCLVI: Friends and the Famous Speaking at Leeds

There is a lot of unpleasantness going on just now, he says in a classic understatement. I had most of a series of angry posts about the state of the English university done when Russia invaded Ukraine, something I’d barely seen coming and which is starting, as people break out the word ‘nuclear’, to sound a lot like the bad dreams of my Cold War childhood over again. Now it seems a bit selfish to complain about having secure if worsening employment while others are losing their homes and lives. The Ukraine conflict has also got some pretty deep and obvious medievalist resonances, but with fighting going on at this moment, I cannot look at that now. Instead I’m staying safe around the turn of 2018/2019, when because I was not on Action Short of Strike and being threatened with total pay deduction because of it, I was still going to seminars. I cannot get to many seminars down south any more, so it is always important when people come north (or in one of these cases, east), and in normal circumstances I try to be there whoever’s speaking. But for these four I was there because I knew or knew of the people and was glad to have them visiting us, and so they each get a short report despite this having happened three years ago plus, sorry.

Real Royal Protection for the Carolingian Church?

First up, then, and coming from least far was my sort-of-opposite number in Manchester, Dr Ingrid Rembold, who on 28th November 2018 was in Leeds to address our Medieval History Seminar with the title, “Widows, Orphans and the Church: protection and virtue signalling in the Carolingian world”. Here, Ingrid was looking at the three categories of society whom Carolingian Western Europe considered it a royal duty to protect, and asking why and what it actually got them. For the Church we mainly had monasteries to talk about, and she had some good critical things to say about the legal category of ‘royal’ monastery, which I have myself also always struggled to find expressed in the actual sources; and her general argument that these obligations (which the previous royal dynasty don’t seem to have felt anything like as keenly) mainly sprang from the Old Testament and the idea of the Church as the bride of Christ, temporarily ‘widowed’ by His absence from Earth, I thought was new and sounded right.1

The Torhalle of the Lorsch monastery

The Torhalle of Lorsch monastery, supposedly a ‘royal’ house but whatever that means, this is a building through which Carolingian kings almost certainly passed. Image by Kuebi – Armin Kübelbeck – self-made with 36 single shots (Lens: 1:1.8 85 mm; 1:5.6; 1/500s; ISO 100; manual focus and manual exposure) made by stitching with Hugin, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Where there was more disagreement, however, although mainly between me and Fraser McNair, then of this parish, was about what this protection meant and how it was delivered. Ingrid had quite early on argued that Carolingian local power was so reliant on the local powerful that its legislation of this kind could only be exhortatory, without real force except as those locals cared to enforce it, which for her presented the problem that monasteries sometimes sought royal protection against exactly those locals, which makes no sense if they were the ones who would have to deliver it. If, after all, they actually did behave differently because the king told them to, even if he couldn’t coerce them, that is arguably a more powerful king, not less, than if he had to send the boys round. And that does seem to have happened in Catalonia, I will admit, with royal grant after royal grant coming south from kings who could not appoint, remove or direct anyone there; but I have explained how I think that worked, and it’s not universal.2 I just think there was more use of force available to the Carolingian state than Ingrid does, apparently. She fairly asked whether it counts as state power if a local person does it, too, and this was where Fraser and I disagreed. I think the Carolingians mostly could send someone else into a local area with legitimate power to act, if they needed to, because of the three-legged structure of counts, Church and vassals they maintained, whereas Fraser argued that their trick was to recruit the locals into the wider power ideology of ministerium, so that yes, it absolutely did count as state enforcement if a local man did it, as long as he was the right local man.3 I just think that, optimally at least, there were plural right local men, and maybe the lengthy conversations between myself and Joseph Brown in comments on my old posts at the moment are partly about what happened once there was only a singular one in many areas.

Middle-Age spread in the English village

Then, on 4th December, no less a celebrity than Professor Carenza Lewis visited to deliver one of the Institute for Medieval Studies’ open lectures, with the title, “Triumph and Disaster: new archaeological evidence for the turbulent development of rural settlement”. This was showcasing a then-new project of which she was leader, which was seeking to redress the fact that we have a pretty skewed and partial sample of medieval rural settlement in England from archæology, mostly either deserted sites or along a belt from Hampshire to Lincolnshire and then up the Eastern Pennines. To remedy this, her team had been digging dozens and dozens of test pits of a meter square or so in people’s gardens, which was excellent for public engagement as well as data, and what they had mainly discovered was change. Thinly-documented phenomena like the ‘Middle Saxon shuffle’ (a general but not well understood shift of early English villages) showed up well, but the starkest two phenomena were, most of all, desertion of sites after the Black Death, to levels like 40-45% of sites with a concomitant implication of moves into towns as well as, you know, ‘Death’; and, secondly, the long period of high medieval growth before it. Those, perhaps, were not surprises, but they are often assumed from a small sample, so anything that puts such generalisations on firmer footings is probably worthwhile. What was weird to me then and remains so now, however, is that the Roman period, when we suspect settlement in lowland Britain to have been at its densest really until quite recently, showed up very poorly. Professor Lewis didn’t offer an explanation for this, but it made me wonder whether the method was somehow missing an object signature that would be significant. Since Roman ceramics are usually both plentiful and easy to recognise, however, as are Roman coins, I can’t imagine what it would have been! The Saxon period is usually poorer in material remains…4

Making Manuscripts under the Conquistadors

Then, finally ticking over the clock in 2019 and bringing this blog close to only three years behind at last, on 28th January 2019 Dr Claudia Rogers, then of Leeds and as we’ve seen a valued teaching colleague, presented some of her work in a workshop for the Medieval Group under the title of “Encountering Pictorials: a a workshop on sixteenth-century Meso-American manuscripts”. I know that this is not medieval on the usual European clock, but in the first place we have the debate about whether that counts outside Europe – but of course it’s kind of patronising and colonial to assert that, outside Europe, other places were ‘medieval’ for longer, so that’s not my justification here. Instead, I’ll argue that these manuscripts are some of our windows on the pre-Columbian time before, which is medieval on the European clock at least, and also that they’re just really cool.

Page from a Matrícula de Tributos, México City, Biblioteca Nacional de Antropologia, MS 35-52 fo 5r

Page from a Matrícula de Tributos showing just some of the stuff which the Aztecs had previously claimed in tribute every 80 days from their dependencies, México City, Biblioteca Nacional de Antropologia, MS 35-52 fo 5r

They are, however, wickedly complex to interpret. They are mostly on bark-paper, and come in three broad categories, organising knowledge by place (being, roughly, figured maps of significant things, people or events), events (iconographic treatments of single themes in detail, as here the tributes paid at conquest) or, to me most intriguing, by time, these being calendrical, cyclical, year-by-year chronicles with one image only per year to sum up everything in it. Obviously, one of their primary topics is the ‘Qashtilteca’ (‘Castile-people war’), but their reactions to it and involvements with it are quite complicated, and implicated: one group who produced several of these texts, the Tlaxcalans, had been in rebellion against the Aztecs when the Spanish arrived, and gladly accepted help against their overlords from the conquistadores, who, however, then turned on and subjugated their erstwhile allies. Tlaxcalan artist-scribes thus had a lot to explain. Smaller themes of the conquest can be picked up as well; apparently dog attacks on people became a new theme of depiction, for example. And these texts were produced in a world where the Spaniards were the new élite, and some were glossed in Castilian so we know that they were sometimes being explained to the conquerors. Are they therefore colonial or indigenous, collaborative or critical? Complications also arise when you compare these texts with solely-written ones of the same period: they seem to focus on different things, including giving more prominent roles to women. Was that a genre convention, or was one mode of discourse closer to (someone’s) truth than the other? And so on. And then there’s the question of what gets assumed or put back in the restorations that are making these texts increasingly available. Basically, you have to have a 360° critique going on at all times when trying to do history with these. Claudia did not necessarily have answers to these questions then, but even explaining the complexity of her questions was quite a feat, to be honest…5

Exemption by Whatever Means

Lastly for this post, a mere two days later I was back in probably the same room, I don’t remember, to hear then-Dr Levi Roach present to the Medieval History Seminar with the title, “Forging Exemption: Fleury from Abbo to William (997-1072)”. This was a paper dealing with no less fiendish, but much more focused, questions of source critique, revolving around the French monastery of Saint-Bénoît de Fleury (a ‘royal’ monastery in theory, but as we shall see and as Ingrid had already told us, that didn’t necessarily mean much). At the very end of the tenth century, Fleury found itself caught between a new dynasty of kings and their client, Bishop Arnulf of Orléans, Fleury’s local diocesan bishop, both of which were a problem for them (for reasons my notes don’t actually record). As well as Fleury’s own rights, they were in contention over the much bigger issue of who should be the Archbishop of Reims, a long-running fracas I will let someone else try and explain instead of me. For all these reasons, the monks found they needed extra support, and Abbot Abbo (or, I suppose, Abbo Abbot) went to Rome to get it, at that stage not yet a normal thing to do. Pope John XV apparently charged too much, but Pope Gregory V was more amenable and Abbo allegedly came back with a document detailing lots of things bishops could not demand from them.6 The problem is, however, that it’s not confirmed, and there is a nest of associated forgeries for other monasteries, and Levi’s work for about half his paper was to disentangle those from whatever the source of the copy of this document we now have actually was. Those who know my work well will realise that this twitched several of my interests, because only a few years before, I have argued that a count of Barcelona also went to the pope, on this occasion John XIII, to get a privilege which was not in fact awarded, and came back with the unconfirmed documents they’d presumably tried to get him to sign and pretended they were legit; but no-one believed them.7 Both that and the resort to the pope only when the king couldn’t or wouldn’t provide therefore looked quite familiar to me.8 I did raise these questions with Levi, indeed, and he defended his position by saying that when Fleury’s privilege was challenged, which it was, it was challenged on the basis of being unprecedented – quite literally uncanonical – rather than on being faked. To which I say, OK, but that doesn’t actually tell us what was going on. I need to check in on Levi’s subsequent work and find out what he now thinks, I guess! Had I but world enough and time, and did it not look like labour for my bosses when I’m on strike…9

But there you are, four good papers and only a selection of what I attended in November 2018 to January 2019 as well. Some of us clearly do find time to do research, or did! And I’m glad that they then come to Leeds when they have.


1. My picture of what the Carolingians did with monasteries probably relies principally on Matthew Innes, “Kings, Monks and Patrons: political identities and the Abbey of Lorsch” 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. 301–324, online here, which I still think is excellent, as I do most of Matthew’s stuff, but may still take that category of ‘royal monastery’ somewhat for granted.

2. Jonathan Jarrett, “Caliph, King, or Grandfather: Strategies of Legitimization on the Spanish March in the Reign of Lothar III” in The Mediaeval Journal Vol. 1 no. 2 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 1–22, DOI: 10.1484/J.TMJ.1.102535.

3. The odd thing is that I think we are both here channelling Matthew again, in the form of Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: the Middle Rhine Valley, 400-1000, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 47 (Cambridge 2000), just apparently from different directions.

4. When reporting at this distance, it’s always wise to check if something has actually come out that would represent a more up to date presentation of the same research, and in this case it seems to have, as Carenza Lewis, “A Thousand Years of Change: New Perspectives on Rural Settlement Development from Test Pit Excavations in Eastern England” in Medieval Settlement Research Vol. 35 (Leicester 2020), pp. 26–46.

5. In Claudia’s case the subsequent publication is newer media, John Gallagher, Nandini Das and Claudia Rogers, “New Thinking: First Encounters”, MP3, BBC Radio 3, Arts & Ideas, 23rd October 2019, online here.

6. This must be Maurice Prou and Alexandre Vidier (edd.), Recueil des chartes de l’abbaye de Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, Documents publiés par la Société archéologique du Gâtinais 5-6 (Paris 1907-1912), 2 vols, online here and here, I, doc. no. LXXI.

7. Jonathan Jarrett, “Archbishop Ató of Osona: False Metropolitans on the Marca Hispanica” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 56 (München 2010), pp. 1–42.

8. I can’t take any credit for noticing people from the Catalan counties heading for Rome like they’d used to head to the king; that observation goes back as far as Ramon d’Abadal, Com Catalunya s’obri al món mil anys enrera, Episodis de la història 3 (Barcelona 1960).

9. It’s at least easy enough to find out that is, because Levi has since been all over the web about a book he’s published, Levi Roach, Forgery and Memory at the End of the First Millennium (Princeton NJ 2021), DOI: 10.1515/9780691217871, where pp. 113-152 look very much like a version of this paper.

Carrying Things to War in Frankish Gaul

Pausing briefly with the photography, let’s drop back in on my more academic self in the latter part of 2018. One might observe that I seem to have spent much of the summer of 2018 abroad, and certainly, I don’t seem to have stubbed many blog posts, which itself suggests that I was not reading very much. An inspection of my Zotero library suggests that actually, what I was mainly doing was clearing up references for the final push on what became my ‘Outgrowing the Dark Ages’, but still, the trail goes faint in June, July and August and I suspect that I was mainly marking or prepping for next year’s teaching.1 I had also picked up again after a long time away – about twenty years in fact – Martin Aurell’s Les Noces du comte, which was to become its own whole big thing that more may be written of at some point, but at this point I was only restarting that. Two things I definitely did read that summer, however, for quite unrelated projects, were Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands / La Frontera and, quite unlike it in every detail except sharing the English language and a paperback format (and, of course, being excellent), Guy Halsall’s Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West.2 And on getting properly into the latter, I stubbed this post mainly to express surprise and delight at two incidental things I found there.

Cover of Guy Halsall's Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900 (London 2003)

Cover of Guy Halsall’s Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900 (London 2003)

In the template, issued by Charlemagne King of the Franks and his counsellors probably around 793 or 794, for how royal estates should manage their economy and renders, the text we call the Capitulare de Villis, there is so much interesting detail that one can’t take it all in at once.3 I had most recently gone to it looking for what happened to agricultural produce, and so had managed to skip straight over some of the regulations for military provisioning. But of course Guy was looking for the latter, and so he points out quite justly, firstly, that Charlemagne wanted people to send carts to the army from all over the place, which has one contemplating trails of carts wending their way across the various kingdoms towards wherever the muster was each year.4 But, later on, there are further specifications about these carts, namely, that they had not just to be waterproof but be able to float, so that if a river had to be crossed, none of their cargo (which should, for reference, be up to twelve modia of grain) would get wet. Also, each one was to be equipped with a shield, a lance, a javelin and a bow, which as Guy observes is equipment for at least one and maybe two defenders.5 At which rate, these swimmable, hide-covered battle carts stop sounding quite so much like produce wagons and just that bit more like ox-drawn armoured personnel carriers… It had me thinking of some of the odder-looking walker machines in the Star Wars prequel movies, and that storming a Carolingian baggage train might have been a prickly experience, as, presumably, was intended in these laws. Circle the wagons!

LEGO Star Wars AT-TE walker

This is the kind of thing I had in mind, although obviously made of wood rather than LEGO, with wheels rather than legs, oxen and men rather than mini-figs and weapons other than laser cannons, but come on, share my vision can’t you? Also, I should probably say at this point that I am not getting any money from Amazon for using their images like this, I just think they’re least likely to complain about the free advertising…

Now, I might not have noticed the waterproof castles on wheels that Charlemagne apparently wanted everyone to make, but I did at least register that people were supposed to send carts when I had previously read that text; it did not fall upon me as a complete surprise. Not so much the second thing, dealing with a much earlier episode in a civil war around Comminges. There, the would-be king Gundovald had taken refuge from the pursuing forces of his enthroned rival, and alleged brother, Guntram, and Bishop Gregory of Tours, whose Ten Books of Histories tell us all this, writes from the point of view of the pursuers here:

“In their search for Gundovald they came upon camels and horses, still carrying huge loads of gold and silver, which his men had abandoned along the roads because the animals were exhausted.”

I don’t know about you, but the word that really struck me there was camels. I don’t think of camels as being normal beasts of burden around the Garonne area, even in the sixth century. But Gregory gives no further attention to it and rolls onward with the story (which, at the risk of spoilers, ends badly for Gundovald).6

Now, of course I was not the first person to notice this. I found out a month or two later that Bernard Bachrach notes it in his, er, classic, work Merovingian Military Organisation, but he does nothing with it at all.7 Sam Ottewill-Soulsby, no less, studying diplomacy of three centuries later in which some camels were sent to Charlemagne’s grandson Charles the Bald, emphasises the foreign, eastern resonance they would then have had, indicating Charles’s connections to the mysterious world of the caliphs.8 But does this leave us to suppose that, while a camel was an exotic rarity in the Francia of the ninth century, in the sixth the average king just had troops of them in his baggage train and they were an everyday animal for the time and place? I mean, come back Pirenne if so, right? But I think there might be another explanation.9

Detail of camel in wall-painting in a bedroom of the Château de Chillon

An actual medieval French camel picture, or very nearly, from the Château de Chillon in Switzerland

The question to ask is, where had this apparently-much-mocked apparently-pretender Gundovald got these vast quantities of precious metal to abandon anyway? And the answer may be in the next chapter of Gregory’s Histories, where in a set-piece of very useful exposition Gregory has Gundovald answer the taunts of his besiegers with a worked-out explanation of his claim to the throne. In the course of this he explains that, after he was driven out the second time (because yes, his career had been unsuccessful for a while), he’d run off to Constantinople and it was there that Guntram Boso (a duke, not a king, no relation to King Guntram, and the real target of Gregory’s rhetoric here) had sought him out to say, more or less, “all the other claimants are dead, come back and get what’s yours”. And Gundovald had then returned, under a safe-conduct which he now, not unreasonably, felt had been broken.10 But to my mind, when the Roman Emperor sends you west to try for your brother’s throne, especially when your brother’s kingdom is one the Romans were fighting in the Alps only twenty years before and which still threatens imperial possessions, he probably sends you with some gear. The Byzantine strategy of paying people to start civil wars with their enemies rather than risk their own forces was not new at this point, and would get much older, but it makes perfect sense here.11 In short, I suspect that much of Gundovald’s pay-chest and, therefore, quite possibly the baggage train that carried it, had come from Constantinople, which at this point still had control of almost all the lands which Caliph Muhammad would in 865. Emperor Justin II, in short, could have laid his hands on some camels (as it were). He could likewise then have sent them west laden with bullion or coin with which, with a bit of luck, this enterprising young Frank would embroil the Frankish kingdom in civil war for a good few years and leave the empire free to handle the increasingly bad situation in the Balkans. Sam is probably right that sending camels had a special valence, even in 585, but it would not then have been connection to the world of Islam, since that had not yet been created, but to the distant, but also quite close-by, Empire in whose erstwhile territory this was all being fought out. Gregory makes Gundovald look ridiculous, and perhaps he was, but by marching with camels and showering people with solidi he was probably supposed to look a good deal more serious and better connected than the Frankish bishop’s character assassination has let him be remembered.

Gold solidus of Emperor Justin II struck at Constantinople in 565-85 CE, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B1131

Perhaps the more powerful tool in Gundovald’s armoury, a gold solidus of Emperor Justin II struck at Constantinople in 565-585 CE, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B1131

All the same, Gregory apparently did not think his audience would need it explained what a camel was (though to be fair, neither did the annalist in 865). This is not like the single elephant sent to Charlemagne that Sam has also studied, or the occasional lions sent westwards or northwards in diplomacy, which occasioned wonder from most writers dealing with them; a camel was a known thing in this world.12 (And after all, what do we suppose happened to the camels of Gundovald’s baggage train? I doubt they got eaten; too useful! Perhaps there were generations of subsequent Garonne camels. I’m just waiting for the zooarchaeologists to find one now, it’d look ever so global…) We might, as with some other phenomena this blog has looked at, once again need that word we don’t have which means something that was conceptually normal but hardly ever happened. Such a thing, I suggest, was the sixth-century camel in Francia. It’s not by any means all I learnt from Guy’s book; but for the rest, you’ll have to wait for the article…


1. Of course I never miss a chance to reference my own work, and this time it’s Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1–28.

2. Referring to, in sequence, Martin Aurell, Les noces du comte : mariage et pouvoir en Catalogne (785-1213), Histoire ancienne et médiévale 32 (Paris 1995); Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands / la Frontera: the new Mestiza, 4th ed. (San Francisco 2012); and Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbaian West, 450-900 (London 2003).

3. It’s translated and explained at the link given, but if you need a critical edition (and indeed a facsimile , whose odd shape governs that of the whole book), then it’s Carl-Richard Bruhl (ed.), Capitulare de villis: cod. guelf. 254 Helmst. der Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, Dokumente zur deutschen Geschichte in Faksimiles, Reihe 1: Mittelalter 1 (Stuttgart 1971), and for scholarship see recently Darryl Campbell, “The Capitulare de Villis, the Brevium exempla, and the Carolingian court at Aachen” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 243–264.

4. Halsall, Warfare and Society, pp. 149-150 n. 97 citing Capitulare de villis cap. 30, where indeed you can see it yourself.

5. Ibid. but now looking at cap. 64, which is here.

6. Here quoting Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1974), VII.35, though Guy of course cites the Latin (at Warfare and Society, p. 151 n. 111), which you can see here; the relevant Latin word is camellos, which seems hard to misinterpret.

7. Bernard S. Bachrach, Merovingian Military Organization, 481-751 (Minneapolis MI 1972), p. 58.

8. Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, “The Camels of Charles the Bald” in Medieval Encounters Vol. 25 (Vienna 2019), pp. 263–292.

9. I cannot find that I have references to what I’m about to suggest anywhere, so I may have thought of it. However, something scratches in my brain when I try that idea, some sense that I have heard or seen parts of this before, and if I have, it may have been either (perhaps most likely) from talking to Sam Ottewill-Soulsby; possibly, from reading Bernard S. Bachrach, “Animals and Warfare in Early Medieval Europe” in Bachrach, Armies and Politics in the Early Medieval West, Collected Studies 405 (Aldershot 1993), chapter XVII, which I have done but where my notes don’t go into this kind of detail; or, longest shot, from a Kalamazoo paper of really long ago, Benjamin Wheaton, “Reasons for Byzantine Support of Gundovald through 584 C. E.”, 46th International Congress on Medieval Studies, West Michigan University, Kalamazoo, 14th May 2011, which I would tell you otherwise I remembered nothing of but which must have covered this material. If what I go on to say has been accidentally ripped off from any of these, or indeed someone else, I apologise…

10. Gregory, History, VII.36.

11. On the general practice, see Evangelos Chrysos, “Byzantine Diplomacy, A.D. 300–800: means and ends” in Jonathan Shepard & Simon Franklin (edd.), Byzantine Diplomacy: papers from the Twenty-fourth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Cambridge, March 1990 (Aldershot 1992), pp. 23–39, but for the specific context here, even though it doesn’t mention camels, still really good is Walter Goffart, “Rome, Constantinople, and the Barbarians” in American Historical Review Vol. 86 (Washington DC 1981), pp. 275–306, on JSTOR here.

12. On East-West diplomatic gifts of this period, you must expect me naturally to cite Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, “Carolingian Diplomacy with the Islamic World” (Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge University, Cambridge, 2017), or his marginally more accessible idem, “Carolingian Diplomacy”, in Gordon Martel (ed.), Encyclopedia of Diplomacy (Oxford 2018), DOI: 10.1002/9781118885154.dipl0042, so now I have.

What to remember from the 2018 International Medieval Congress?

Although I feel that it probably is a sign that I am catching up on my blogged past, I have to admit that I face the fact that the next thing in my blog pile is the International Medieval Congress of three-and-a-half years ago with a certain unwillingness. I mean, I’ve spent much of the last two years either trying to stay off or being told I can’t go onto the campus where it happened, for a start, so there is definitely a sense that this is deep past which doesn’t have so much to do with time as experience. But I’ve done all the rest and the format for them seems pretty well worked out now, and so I will give it a go.

Postcard advertisement for the International Medieval Congress 2018

Postcard advertisement from the IMC website

This was, I am reminded as I fish the programme off the shelf, the 25th International Medieval Congress, and the programme is the fattest of all the ones on that shelf. I can’t actually work out how many sessions there were: it says that there were 392 sessions on the conference theme of Memory, 9 keynote lectures and 394 further sessions, plus 4 lectures, so I think it’s 799, but firstly I’m not sure if that was everything and secondly, that was the programme as initially published, not the result of all the subsequent changes you find in the also-thick booklet of changes when you register. And in any case, however many sessions there are, you still can’t go to more than 17 because that’s how many slots there are in the programme, which is massively parallel, and most delegates won’t manage that because of their feeble needs for food and sleep or because of wisely placing socialising with people you otherwise never see over more direct forms of academic engagement. I do like, however, how this means that it’s probably mathematically possible for more paths through the Congress to exist than there are attendees, since there were this year 2,545 attendees and, if my GCSE maths does not fail me, 1 x 53 x 1 x 54 x 54 x 13 = 2,009,124 possible combinations of sessions just on the Monday not including any of the receptions. How would we know if it got too big? Anyway, this just means that what I have done the last few times, just listing my own path and then offering a few remarks where things still stand out for me, seems like the best approach still, because I can’t give an impression of 2 million plus possible other Congress experiences in one blog post, now can I? So mine is below the cut, day by day with brief commentary on each day to lighten the data dump. As ever, I’m happy to try and answer questions about the papers if people have them, but I will try and stay short unless you do. Here we go! Continue reading

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 Academia.edu 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 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

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”, Exarc.net, 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.

Links of hopefully-still relevant interest

Way back when I was a more diligent blogger and used to read other people’s stuff too, I used occasionally to gather up possible links of interest, most obviously for the rotating festival of such links that was Carnivalesque, which I now find is defunct; I guess a lot of us have suffered as I have with shortage of time, but I also suppose that such news goes round by Twitter now. Well, I am not a Twitteratus and will not be, so every now and then I still stash links in case someone reading would be interested, and in my massive backlog I now reach one such stash of material. Of course, these are all years old now, but as fellow blogger Saesferd (used to?) put it, “it’s mostly old news” in the first place, and maybe not all of it was on your radars when it was new… I’ll attempt some headings.

Discoveries in the West

Billon coins from the Cluny hoard

Billoin coins from the Cluny hoard, described below

Viking sword fragments from an Estonian hoard

Fragments from the Estonian hoard

Discoveries beyond the West

I owe notice of all these to Georgia Michael, to whom many thanks; this section is all her work, really.

A small hoard of Byzantine coins discovered down a well in Israel

Possibly actual dicovery photo, but either way, the small Byzantine hoard described below

Lastly, things people have put on the Internet

Photograph of medieval buildings in Mardin, Syria, from Dick Osseman's collection

Photograph of medieval buildings in Mardin, Syria, from Dick Osseman’s collection linked below

With several of the blog’s themes thus covered, I leave it for the weekend, hoping that some of you at least hadn’t already heard at least some of this… I think I am now through all the content I promised out of the last Chronicle post, so the next post, tomorrow unless strikes end very sharply indeed, will be the next one of those, covering July to September 2016. See you then maybe!

Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy, including X-rays

Since 2014 or 2015 there has been a large project running at Princeton University in the USA called Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy (acronymised to FLAME, rather than the more accurate but less sexy FLAEME). Its aim has been to put the study of the late antique and early medieval economy onto a firmer quantitative footing than has ever before been possible, by reasoning that coinage is the best proxy evidence for it and assembling an absolutely massive database of coin types and finds from all available data, published and where possible unpublished, in order that really large-scale conclusions can be drawn from it. In this respect, the project is either a rival of or a complement to Chris Wickham’s huge book Framing the Early Middle Ages, whose title of course the project is riffing off and which argued that ceramics were the best proxy evidence, though he does observe that it would be fantastic to do a parallel project with coinage.1 Well, this is that project, and it has reached substantial proportions; checking in on their website today tells me that they have 233,816 coins in the database from 2,806 finds, and I think that more are still being added.

Now, wherever a database is made questions arise about methodology, because data generated by actual live humans living their real lives tends not to fit analytical categories perfectly. When I first heard of this project, one of the concerns the people I discussed it with was that, by uncritically dumping every publication they could find into a database unchecked—because how could they possibly check them all, given available time and the difficulty of identifying and recruiting suitable expertise for some of the weird bits?—the project would just multiply errors of attribution and interpretation by completely unknowable amounts, leading to the kind of bad numismatic maths we have decried on this blog before now and doubtless will again. This turned out to be something they were thinking about at Princeton, but nonetheless, the temptation to make a snazzy visual can still outweigh such cautions: the animation above is based on several questionable assumptions, most of all steady output at the mints concerned throughout the possible period of issue of each coinage, averaged down to a yearly output. In short, you’re probably seeing most dots on that map for much longer than they would have been there, and of course a massive number of mints doesn’t mean a massive output of coinage; the Merovingian Franks ran 80+ mints at once at times, and for much of imperial history the Romans only struck at Rome, but it’s no difficulty guessing who was making more coin… But the video does at least illustrate where minting was happening and roughly when and shows what could be done with such data by people who know what they’re doing. And FLAME is or was full of people who do know what they’re doing, so there’s hope.

Now, that is roughly where things stood with my thinking when, in late 2015, while I was winding up my post at the Barber Institute, FLAME got in touch with me to announce that they were having their first project conference in April 2016 and asking if I would like to talk there about the All that Glitters project. I did, I admit, wonder why they had asked me rather than any of the people on our team who actually work on the late antique or early medieval economy; maybe the Barber job looked like seniority to them, in which case it’s ironic that by the time I went I no longer had it. But go I did, and this is my very very late report on the conference.

Princeton University campus

Princeton University campus, from their own website

I had never been to Princeton before, and found it a surreal experience. Everyone was extremely nice, but the campus looks somewhat as if some mythical giant that was into modelling had acquired a lot of Hornby-type buildings from a giant Ancient Universities series and then, having arranged them nicely on its lawn, subsequently moved away, leaving it free for a passing university to occupy. It is weirdly like walking around a curated exhibit that happens to be teaching space. Nonetheless, the conference facilities were top-notch, so I adjusted. This was the running order for the first day:

Coins, Minting and the Economy in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, 29th April 2016

  • Alan M. Stahl, “An Introduction to FLAME”
  • Lee Mordechai, “The FLAME Project: Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy: An Overview”
  • Alan M. Stahl, “A Numismatic Introduction to FLAME”
  • Peter Sarris, “Coinage and Economic Romanitas in the Early Middle Ages (c. 330-720)”
  • Florin Curta, “Remarks on Coins, Forts, and Commercial Exchanges in the 6th- and Early 7th-Century Balkans”
  • Vivien Prigent, “A Dark Age ‘Success Story’: Byzantine Sicily’s Monetary Economy”
  • Marek Jankowiak, “The Invisible Part of the Iceberg: Early Medieval Imitative Coinages”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “The Marriage of Numismatics and X-Rays: Difficulties with the X-ray-fluorescence-based Study of the Early Medieval Mediterranean Economy”
  • Richard Hobbs, “Hoards of Gold and Silver in the Late Roman Empire”

As you can see a lot of this first day was dedicated to explaining the project to an audience not necessarily directly connected with it (including, mirabile dictu, Peter Brown, though he didn’t stay around for my paper…), which involved explaining that it was starting with minting and production (because you can use any coin that can be identified as data for that), and that a second phase (in which they are even now engaged) would deal with circulation, as measured by where the coins actually wound up after leaving their mints. The questions that this raised were about what material, space- and time-wise, was included, but also about what questions the project was intended to answer, and I would have to say that we really only got answers to the former.

Alan Stahl’s paper was basically a summary of coinage history across the period and raised questions of tinier detail, but to all those that were of the form, “why were they doing that?” he raised the factor of user demand, which is indeed something people don’t think about much; lots of stuff was apparently usable as coin we don’t think should have been, but it must be we who are wrong there.

Peter Sarris’s paper stressed how many small ways the Empire had to alter the value of its coinage, whether by changing its weight or by changing the rate at which it could be exchanged for precious metal, for all of which the money-changers charged. Peter could speak of this with authority because of being nearly finished translating Emperor Justinian I’s new laws, which are now out.2 I still wonder how many of the practises described there were occasional preventatives rather than regular operation, but of course I haven’t read the laws yet. Here again, though, came up the theme of change that was and wasn’t acceptable to those who actually used the coinage; it seemed to me hard to reconcile the power attributed to the emperor and state and that attributed to the people, or really, the market, in this vision of Byzantium, and I still have to think that one out.

Florin Curta’s paper also touched on this by thinking that we have evidence of army pay-packets of large-denomination copper coins in military sites in the Balkans, but that smaller-value coins also got up there somehow in smaller numbers, the state and the market meeting here again and creating a different pattern doing so here than anywhere else. Andrei Gândilà suggested that fourth-century Roman small change was still in use in many of these sites so that the dearth of small denominations might not have mattered much, which of course as a factor threatens to unseat any of the deductions that one might try to make only from what was being minted

Vivien Prigent’s paper included his debatable (as in, I’ve debated it) belief that the term mancus refers to low-fineness Sicilian solidi, but also helped explain how those coins, about which I was also talking, as well as the inarguably slipshod small change of the era, came to be by setting them in the context of the short-lived relocation of imperial government to Syracuse in the reign of the justifiably paranoid Emperor Constans II, and the much increased demand for coin in which to make payments that the increased state apparatus there must have involved. Of course, Syracuse was an active mint before and after that, so until you can get quantitative representation into the sample, that wouldn’t show up in the video above.

Obverse of a copper-alloy forty-nummi struck onto a cut section of an old coin at Constantinople in 635/6, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/BYZ/58

Obverse of a copper-alloy forty-nummi struck onto a cut section of an old coin at Constantinople in 635/6, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/BYZ/58

Reverse of a copper-alloy forty-nummi struck onto a cut section of an old coin at Constantinople in 635/6, Leeds, Brotherton Library, Thackray Collection, CC/TH/BYZ/58

Reverse of the same coin. It’s not from Syracuse, but it makes the point!

Marek Jankowiak was there to represent the Oxford-based Dirhams for Slaves project, and was consequently talking about apparently-imitative Islamic coins that we get in the region once populated by the so-called Volga Bulgars, which exist either as isolated singletons in huge batches all struck from the same dies; he explained these through the slave trade, which I might doubt, but I had to agree that the best explanation of a find record like that is that local production of coinage had suddenly to be ramped up at very short notice now and then, and maybe the best explanation for that is a bunch of incoming people you have to pay at short notice… Still, slaves might not be the only reason for that. His general emphasis on counting the imitative coins as part of the sample is something I deeply agree with, however; but again, how could a project set up with FLAME’s premises (identifiable mints) do that? By being very vague about origin location, was one answer, but that means that the dots in that video above are sometimes artifical and sometimes historical, and to read it you have to know which…

Then there was me, and of course you know roughly what I was saying, which was, “we tried doing this analysis by XRF and it doesn’t work so don’t believe people who do that”, but I’m afraid the reactions it got were about equally split between “well yes, don’t do that then” (though the relevant person did then offer me use of a cyclotron if I could sort out the insurance…) and “man I gotta try that now”, so I’m not sure it really had the effect I was after!

All of this had been interesting to me but in some ways the last paper, by Richard Hobbs, was the most so, and not least because it showed again how small the difference can be in terms of results between the dedicated lone scholar with a personal project (and, admittedly, the British Museum behind him) and a massive well-funded team effort like FLAME. Hobbs had been assembling a database of Roman precious-metal hoards, coins included, which he was comparing substantially by bullion value, but in the course of doing so had noticed many weird things, such as:

  1. During the third-century crisis, unsurprisingly, there were hoards buried all over the Empire, especially on the frontiers, but during the period 395-411 it’s almost only the coasts of the English Channel that show them.
  2. Only Gaul really hoarded silver plate in the third century, and not many more places thereafter until a generalisation of the habit during the sixth century. Did coinage not work as well in Gaul as everywhere else, or something?
  3. Despite the numerous wars there, fifth-century Italy either didn’t hoard stuff or always recovered it (or we haven’t found it, but that seems unlikely; it’s not as if hoards from other period of Italian history are unknown)….

While a lot of this is down to detector bias, for sure, there is something here about variation of response to crisis (and to wealth!) across regions that we would struggle to see any way, but it’s still quite hard to interpret. One thing is that we are looking at non-recovery, not necessarily hoarding per se; we only have hoards whose owners didn’t come back for them, and that’s important. But still: what does it all mean? That is is often the result that assembling a lot of data gives us, isn’t it?

All of this was therefore good for getting conversations going, but it was made additionally surreal by the fact that one of the attendees, Stefan Heidemann, had been prevented from actually attending by a series of small disasters. Not deterred, he was therefore present by Skype from Germany, but not on the main projection screen as might normally have been done, but on a laptop that was placed where he could see the screen, or on a trolley so that his field of view could be changed between presenters and audience. The latter meant that his window on us had to be rolled about like a trolley, but this more or less worked, and the link somehow stayed up throughout. In the final discussion people were wandering up to Stefan’s wheeled avatar to say hi, and I couldn’t shake the idea that we were looking at the future here somehow, as if the gap between this and an entirely virtual presence of a digital-only academic was just a matter of degree. It made things odder…

Florin Curta delivering his paper at the FLAME Conference

This is Florin Curta presenting, but, if you look carefully, in the centre of the table in front of the screen is a laptop, face towards the screen. If you could somehow see that face, it would be Stefan Heidemann’s…

Anyway, all of this had meant that Stefan, who had been supposed to be speaking on the first day, actually led off the second, whose running order was thus:

FLAME, Phase 1: Minting, 30 April 2016

  • Stefan Heidemann, “The Apex of Late Antiquity—Changing Concepts of Monetarization in the Early Islamic Empire”
  • Lee Mordechai, “The FLAME Project: Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy. Details and Future”
  • Andrei Gândilà, “Legacy of Rome: Money in the Early Byzantine Balkans and Asia Minor”
  • Jane Sancinito, “The Mint at Antioch: Disruptions in the Fifth Century”
  • Luca Zavagno, “Coinage from the Eastern Mediterranean: an insular perspective (ca. 600–ca. 750 C. E.”
  • Tommi Lankila, “Coinage in the South Central Mediterranean in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages”
  • Paolo Tedesco, “The Political Economy of Accomodation and Monetary Circulation: the case of Gothic Italy”
  • Ruth Pliego and Alejandro G. Sinner, “Minting in the Iberian Peninsula 350–725”
  • Merle Eisenberg, “Money as Governance: The Burgundian Revolution of 500 C E.”
  • Jan Van Doren, “Merovingian Gold Coinage in the Low Countries”
  • Rory Naismith, “From Feast to Famine and Back Again: Mints and Money in Britain from Fourth to the Eighth Century”
  • Round Table chaired by Cécile Morrisson

As may be evident, this second day was much more about project participants presenting their data. Stefan, however, was again demonstrating how much a lone scholar could do with his own database, as well as a sharp knowledge of sharia law. He emphasised how devolved jurisdiction over Islamic coin could get: while gold was controlled centrally where possible, silver could be run at provincial level and types and identification of authorities vary there, and we are quite unclear about who issued copper-alloy coinage as sharia doesn’t consider non-precious-metal to really be coin, rather than, I suppose, tokens; imitative production to answer demand thus probably happened rather a lot, as indeed we have seen here with the Arab-Byzantine coinages of Syria and Palestine. Their circulation was very local, however, so for any long-range transaction small change was made by cutting up legitimate coin, to generate the fragments we have so many of from Scandinavian hoards, which were presumably counted by weight. Clearly Stefan could have gone on for longer—I think he was trying to summarise a book here—but even what he was allowed to say left me a lot clearer about the systems behind what I have seen in the material.

Once we got into the actual project members’ papers, however, it becomes easier to be economical in the reporting. Lee Mordechai helpfully emphasised many of the difficulties with the project I’ve raised above, but hoped that the second phase, when findspots and hoards were more fully integrated, would help clean things up a bit. He also emphasised that there was far more data out there than they were using in the form of the trade, whether just harvesting eBay (for which, of course, software once existed…) or trying to gather all auction catalogues (and eliminate duplicates?). So how selective is their data, one might ask?

Andrei, meanwhile, painted us a picture of circulation in the Balkans (despite the project not being onto that yet) that showed a tremendous mixture of coinages from different Roman and Byzantine eras being used together; how were their values calculated? If they were strictly face-value, why change the size of the coins? If they weren’t, why tariff coins against each other as Constantine IV was evidently doing when he issued new large ones?

Copper-alloy 20-nummi of Constantine IV struck at Constantinople in 664-685, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4304

Copper-alloy 20-nummi of Emperor Constantine IV struck at Constantinople in 664-685, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4304; note the small M, apparently indicating that this big 20-nummi coin was equivalent to an old small 40-nummi one like the cut-up bit above

This paper and the discussion after it provoked me to write one of my own I’m giving in China in a couple of weeks, so I’m grateful, but it was a sharply divided discussion. Peter Sarris believed strongly that coin was basically moving by weight, in which case it seems stupid for the Empire to have issued coins of the same face value in larger sizes than previously; but this it repeatedly did. I tend more to believing in face value, seeing the size increase as essentially a PR exercise, which Andrei also suggested, and as others pointed out big and small coins did get used together, whereas if their value was different you’d expect only the big ones to be hoarded, but I admit it’s not unproblematic. Andrei wondered if old coin was treated as being equivalent to the piece of current issue that it weighed most like, and that seems murderously complicated, but it might be possible.3 Jane Sancinito was a Parthian specialist temporarily employed on sorting out the coins in the archive of excavations from Antioch that Princeton happens to have, which is what she told us about.4 Luca did roughly the same job for the Eastern Mediterranean island zone, as you’d expect, but again was able to emphasise how long-lived even the most basic small change could be, with Syracuse issues lasting a century or more in Crete and so on, and the overlap between supposedly conquered zones and still-imperial spaces in the wake of Islam, as has been said here, potentially telling us something quite important, but hard to specify. Paolo Tedesco was trying to link coin use patterns to the question of how ‘barbarian’ soldiers were settled in Italy that has generated so much scholarship, but it turns out that the coin finds don’t help, or at least suggest that very little money moved from the capitals to the south, as if everything there was sorted out locally.5 The two Hispanists summarised Visigothic gold coinage but noted that there was at least some silver and copper coinage too, which is still contentious among Spanish numismatists for some reason; this wasn’t news to me but I expect it was to others.6 Eisenberg was mounting an attempt to link the few Burgundian coins we can identify to known events that might let us date them, but wasn’t helped by the fact that the Burgundian laws refer to several sorts of coin we either haven’t got or can’t identify, and as Helmut Reimitz pointed out, were not even necessarily issued for the kings! The paper did provoke the useful announcement from Cécile Morrisson that all the Bibliothèque Nationale de France’s collection of Merovingian coinage is now online, however, which may be very useful to some people. Van Doren reminded us how much coinage the late antique Low Countries produced, almost all apparently for North Sea trade since it barely turns up in France. Lastly Rory Naismith did much the same exercise for Britain, but this involved calling into question the whole concept of mint as more than the identity carved onto a pair of coin dies, and in most British cases we don’t even have that, so how can these coins be attributed as a project like FLAME would want? The British record is however massively distorted by the huge volume of fourth-to-fifth-century Roman hoards; at a later point in the conference Alan Stahl revealed that they now had that data in FLAME, but its effect was simply to drown out everything that wasn’t British in whatever query one ran, so they’d had to exclude it again! What do you do when your evidence prevents you using your evidence? The round table addressed a lot of these questions, but it would be hard to say that it solved any of them…

Many of the same questions came up again in a final workshop the next day, along with many suggestions for how to get truer or more realistically qualified results out of the database. I think that this probably was useful to the project team, and maybe was the big point of bringing us all there; there as much can’t-do as can-do in their responses, but the discussion as a whole left me much happier than I had been going in that all this data would probably be more useful to have than not, and could answer many questions if flagged and curated with suitable cautions and references. (And indeed, work has continued and many useful things that were talked about at this meeting seem to have happened.) The labour still seemed immense, however, and it is perhaps not surprising that, although at this stage there was talk of publishing this conference, a journal issue, and many other things, in the end I’m not sure that anything has come of it except the still-developing database, which remains on closed access. The project director has moved on and now works on late antique environmental history; none of his publications seem to have come from the project, and I can’t find any signs that others have. Even the site’s blog is now inaccessible in full. One wonders how long the website itself will survive, and then what all this money and time will have been spent on. I suppose the message is: data is great, and could potentially change everything, but while they were right in these discussions to say that this dataset could answer a great many research questions, it may have turned out that having no questions has sadly doomed them to having produced no answers. Maybe this post can be an encouragement to others who do have questions to see if the FLAME database can answer them! But you will have to ask them first!


1. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), p. 702 & n. 16.

2. Peter Sarris (ed.) & David Miller (transl.), The Novels of Justinian: a complete annotated English translation (Cambridge 2018), 2 vols.

3. It was because of this discussion, and the following conversation with me, him and Peter in the bar, that I wrote in my “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (London 2018 for 2017), pp. 514–535, at p. 515 n. 4, that I think Andrei is going to solve this question for us. I was then thinking of Andrei Gândilă, “Heavy Money, Weightier Problems: the Justinianic reform of 538 and its economic consequences” in Revue numismatique Vol. 168 (Paris 2012), pp. 363–402, online here, but now there is also Andrei Gandila [sic], Cultural Encounters on Byzantium’s Northern Frontier, c. AD 500-700: coins, artifacts and history (Cambridge 2018), so I’d better read it and find out if he has!

4. For those of you watching closely, yes, that does mean the only female speaker on the whole programme didn’t get to present on her own work. I didn’t organise, I merely report, but I also note that among the people on the All That Glitters project for whom this would have been closer to their research area than it is to mine, two are women, so more women certainly could have been invited.

5. See for the debate S. J. B. Barnish, “Taxation, Land and Barbarian Settlement in the Western Empire” in Papers of the British School at Rome Vol. 54 (Rome 1986), pp. 170–195.

6. If it is to you, the new data can be met with in Ruth Pliego, “The Circulation of Copper Coins in the Iberian Peninsula during the Visigothic Period: new approaches” in Journal of Archaeological Numismatics Vol. 5/6 (Bruxelles 2015), pp. 125–160 and Miquel de Crusafont, Jaume Benages and Jaume Noguera, “Silver Visigothic Coinage” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 176 (2017 for 2016), pp. 241–260.

More Muslim invader genetics, but better

This is one of those posts with a long history suddenly brought into the light. I stubbed this in 2016, having just then found the article on which it is focused, but it relates to an older post of mine about a different article from 2008, so we are digging back a bit. And digging is the operative word, because what this post is about is three bodies that were excavated in Nîmes in 2007, whose erstwhile owners appear to have been the first Muslims in the area of modern France whom we can document archaeologically. A bold claim, you may think, though obviously somebody has to be, but the excitement here would be that they appear to date from the pretty brief period in which Nîmes was actually Muslim-ruled, more or less A. D. 719 to 737.1

Porte de France, Nîmes

The obvious thing to illustrate here would be the bodies, of course, but that might be a bit insensitive, so instead here’s a view through the Roman gate of Nîmes quite near to the burial site, the Porte de France. Image by Bruno Fadat — Collectif des Garrigues, CC BY-SA 4.0, licensed through Wikimedia Commons

Given my long record of scepticism of surprising claims by scientifically-focused archaeologists who don’t consult with historians (or when they do, don’t give them authorial credit), which this team seemingly didn’t, you might expect me to be about to challenge this, but actually in so far as such a claim can be demonstrated, I think they’ve done it. The bodies were uncovered lying on their right sides with their heads to the south-east, more or less the direction of Mecca, with a small niche at one side of each grave, and this matches what they can say about Muslim burial elsewhere, including more or less the same time in the Pyrenees thanks to an Islamic cemetery uncovered a few years ago in Pamplona.2 Christian burial would usually be on the back, heads east, and even the local pagan burials would usually have been face-up. So, that they were buried as Muslims rather than as Christians seems reasonable to me. Likewise the dating: they got radiocarbon samples from each skeleton, ran their tests against a good recent calibration curve and they came out centred on the beginning of the eighth century, which could hardly be better. And they also did genetic testing on DNA from tooth pulp, and one haplotype (I’m out of my depth with this terminology here still) and one Y-chromosome feature they detected, as well as a skeletal deformation, are common in modern African populations and vanishingly rare in modern French ones.3 So.

“Geographic repartition of the Y-chromosome lineage E-M81 characterised on the SP7080, SP7089 and SP9269 human remains”, from Yves Gleize et al., “Early Medieval Muslim Graves in France: First Archaeological, Anthropological and Palaeogenomic Evidence” in PLoS One Vol. 11 (San Francisco 2016), e0148583, fig. 4, with its own DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0148583.g004

It’s not that I have no quarrels with this piece, obviously; I remain myself. But relatively, they’re small. Firstly, I wish the authors didn’t finish by deciding that the men (for all three probably were men) were probably “Berbers”, because that’s a modern term and gets you into some awkward assumptions about ethnic continuity that otherwise this article does pretty well avoiding.4 At the time people from North Africa would probably have been called Mauri by their hosts in Nemausus, ‘Moors’ to us, and for all we know, they might have disagreed and thought themselves Vandals or Romans or who knows what, or alternatively they might have been doing their best to pass as Arabs, with all the social cachet that brought in the early Islamic world. That brings us to the second point, which is that old one, their skeletons don’t preserve their minds and just because we have a historical framework into which these men fit doesn’t mean we understand who they were. The authors of the article are alive to this to an extent: they say it would make sense if these men were soldiers but they show no skeletal features that would substantiate that guess, and other people also moved with Muslim armies.5 But there is also a Christian burial lying between our three, which the article authors tell us (without any evidence provided, this time) is also seventh- or eighth-century.6 Well, OK, that’s a long window, and if he or she was buried there in 650 and our Muslim men were buried in 725, or else the Christian followed them in in 775, then probably no connection really, or even necessarily any knowledge by whoever came second that the first burial had happened. If they are associated, though, which at least spatially they are, then we have to consider the possibility that whatever these Muslim men were, this Christian person also was, at least to those who chose where he or she should be buried, and that warns us that we might not be seeing the aspects of these people’s identity that most mattered. What can you tell now about someone from their choice to be buried or cremated, after all? Or about someone’s lifetime religious beliefs if they’re buried in a war cemetery?

Map of the medieval town of Nimes, with a zoom on the excavations area that revealed the Muslim burials SP7080, SP7089 and SP9269 (analysed in the present study) and the burial SP8138

“Map of the medieval town of Nimes, with a zoom on the excavations area that revealed the Muslim burials SP7080, SP7089 and SP9269 (analysed in the present study) and the burial SP8138”, from Gleize et al., “Medieval Muslim Graves”, fig. 2, DOI:nbsp;10.1371/journal.pone.0148583.g002

Oh yeah, that’s the third thing, the cemetery. The authors are circumspect about this, but it doesn’t seem really to have been one. The ground in question contained, as they say early on, “about twenty medieval and modern graves scattered across the countryside”. If we use the smallest spread over time that those words, strictly applied, make possible, and suppose that these burials are the earliest and the latest were from only just A. D. 1500, that would still only mean on average a burial every forty years, ‘scattered’.7 The site was inside the old Roman walls, and seems once to have been occupied, since Roman building stone had to be moved out of one grave, and it was close to a road, but I still think we mean more ‘abandoned ground’ than ‘organised burial plot’. The authors flannel and say that burial didn’t happen in centralised places yet, but I know the paper they cite for this and its author says that churchyards are late, not any kind of cemetery burial, and there were actually lots of early medieval cemeteries before churchyard burial became usual.8 This pretty obviously isn’t one, though. The authors admit that the burial location raises questions, but demand to see it as inclusion in the community in a complex way; I am less sure.

Nonetheless, this is a useful article; I’ve already taught with it twice since I stubbed this post, in fact, and undergraduate history students can get the point of it. What, however, makes it ‘better’ than the 2008 article I mentioned at the start? Well, there’s several things that give me more confidence in this one’s findings. Most obviously, we are dealing here with historic material, not modern DNA, and even if the historic DNA can only be compared with modern people’s at least the points of comparison are more or less known. Secondly, there is corroborating information; the chance of their being right about what they have just from the DNA is already higher here than with the 2008 study, but the radio-carbon dates clinch it, for me. The range of possible interpretations is so much more closely confined. The two studies weren’t, of course, trying to do the same thing really, but they were using some of the same techniques and for me this is just a safer use of them if what you want to do is history (or indeed archaeology). Still: I do wish they’d actually included a historian as part of the team…


1. Yves Gleize, Fanny Mendisco, Marie-Hélène Pemonge, Christophe Hubert, Alexis Groppi, Bertrand Houix, Marie-France Deguilloux, Jean-Yves Breuil, “Early Medieval Muslim Graves in France: First Archaeological, Anthropological and Palaeogenomic Evidence” in PLoS One Vol. 11 (San Francisco 2016), e0148583, online here.

2. Ibid., p. 2, citing J. A. Faro Carballa, M. García-Barberena Unzu, M. Unzu Urmeneta, “La presencia islámica en Pamplona” in Philippe Sénac (ed.), Villes et campagnes de Tarraconaise et d’al-Andalus VIe-XIe siècles :la transition (Toulouse 2007), pp. 97–139.

3. Gleize et al., pp. 6 for the radio-carbon and pp. 6-7 for the DNA.

4. Ibid. p. 9.

5. Ibid. p. 8.

6. Ibid. p. 6.

7. Ibid. pp. 3-4.

8. Ibid. p. 9, citing Elizabeth Zadora-Rio, “The making of churchyards and parish territories in the early-medieval landscape of France and England in the 7th-12th centuries: a reconsideration” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 47 (2003), pp. 1-19, DOI: 10.1179/med.2003.47.1.1, which I actually got to see given live, the second seminar I ever blogged in fact. As I said, this post has a long history…