Category Archives: Islamic Crescent

Digenes Akrites was not el Cid

It’s almost not news to say I’m on strike today, partly because there’s been so much of that on the blog in recent months but also because today, really, it might be quicker to say who isn’t. It might reasonably be said that something is wrong with the UK at the moment, and it is coming out in strikes the way a human body would come out in hives. But with the trains being part of that, I couldn’t get to join the picket or the rally so I have done strike blog instead! I hope it will make the point that all promises made to university staff since last time have been ignored and we are many of us still without a third to a quarter of our pensions despite the reason we lost them being admitted false, without pay that keeps pace with inflation, without equality between genders or races when it comes to that pay, without much progress away from temporary, prospect-less contracts for a decent part of the profession, and with unsustainable, impossible workloads with respect to which we are promised only ‘fairness’, but never reduction.1 I know there are other workers’ unions protesting worse situations, but I think my reasons for being out are reasonable even so. And besides, how very, pathologically, British even to consider not making a fuss because there are still some people who have it worse! Where can that end except with everyone squashed down into the bottom of the barrel, unwilling to complain because by then ‘we’re all in the same boat’? Sorry, horribly mixed metaphor, but you see my point. So, no, I’m on strike, and so you get extra blog.

Painting of Digenes Akritis fighting the dragon on a twelfth-century dish now in the Agora Museum at Athens

Digenes Akrites, on whom see below, on a twelfth-century dish now in the Agora Museum at Athens. “3335 – Athens – Stoà of Attalus Museum – Byzantine plate – Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto, Nov 9 2009” by Giovanni Dall’Orto. – Own work. Licensed under Attribution via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve had this post in stub since November 2019, when, having fairly recently actually read the Byzantine poetic novel Digenes Akrites for the first time (in English, I should say) I found myself at last able to comment on a number of studies I’d seen comparing this ‘two-blooded border-lord’ (more or less what Digenes Akrites means, as a name) to the heroic Castilian frontiersman of the twelfth century, subject of film and more, Rodrigo Díaz, or as he’s better known, el Cid.2 The stub had the title you see above, and read only:

“Because he’s basically Hercules/Samson with nice relationship ethics, not a human man with an army; also the race thing, as well as many more; why do people do this?”

I read this out to my partner and she said, more or less, “why don’t you just post that? It gets straight to the point.” And I considered it briefly, but I thought in the end that that would be a post for a very few people, whereas if I explained it even slightly it might be, you know, enjoyable for a public. So here goes.

So Digenes, the character, seems to be meant to have existed on the Byzantine-Islamic frontier in Anatolia, i. e. roughly the north edge of the present, or rather recent, Turkish-Syrian border, maybe in the late tenth or early eleventh century? It doesn’t much matter when, as he is archetypal more than historical. His name derives from the fact that he is son of an Arabic emir who carries off his mother, daughter of a Byzantine military commander in a raid, and who is then induced to convert to Christianity so as to marry her; these are Digenes’s two bloods, in a back-and-forth of loyalties which belongs, if anywhere, in the messy politics of the early Komnenian era just before the First Crusade.3 As the child grows it becomes clear he’s a physical and military prodigy, who hunts and kills beasts many times his size, defeats entire armies alone and bare-handed, and so on, and the poem is basically about him carrying off his own wife and going and settling part of the border with her, by defeating all comers single-handedly in between building a wasteland palace on the Euphrates, occasionally being called on to solve impossible situations by the Byzantine emperor (Romanos, either I or II one presumes, in some versions of the text, and Basil, presumably II, in others—but we’re not really moving in history here) by means of his extraordinary prowess and finally dying undefeated in his effectively home-made Eden.

Modern statue of el Cid in Seville

A modern statue of el Cid in Seville, image by CarlosVdeHabsburgoown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

As for el Cid, here there is more certainty. For those who don’t know, the historical Rodrigo Díaz grew up in Bivar, near Burgos in Castile, and became a military celebrity in the service of the Castilian king, but fell into disfavour for some reason and moved out to then-Muslim Zaragoza, where he served the Emir as commander for some years with great success, including against Castilian and Aragonese forces both regular and rogue. He then had a brief rapprochement with King Alfonso VI of Castile, but it didn’t work out and then he went rogue himself, moving into the gap between the south of Aragón and the Muslim world and eventually making his big move by besieging and taking the Muslim city of Valencia, where he ruled as king for the few years of his life, including repelling attacks by the Berber fundamentalist Almoravids who had reunified Muslim resistance to the recent Christian conquests. When he died, Valencia was abandoned as no-one else thought they could hold it. His earliest biographer records that, “Never was he defeated by any man,” though it should be said that that is at least in part because even that biographer shows him being quite picky about his battles.4 Still, after you’ve defied the king of Castile with one hand, the Commander of the Faithful with the other and taken the Count of Barcelona prisoner and ransomed him twice, it’s hard for anyone not to admit you knew what you were doing with an army.

Opening page of the manuscript of the Poema del Mio Cid, Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España, Vitr. 17 7, fo 1r

Opening page of the manuscript of the Poema del Mio Cid, Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional de España, Vitr. 17 7, fo 1r, by Per Abbat – originally, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Now, I say ‘earliest biographer’ there because this picture comes straight out of the Historia Roderici, a Latin Life that was written about him, perhaps by a bishop of Salamanca who had been one of el Cid’s churchmen at Valencia, and so an eye-witness source, albeit here via quite a lot of interpretation by Richard Fletcher.5 But it’s not necessarily the standard view of the man, because much more famous is a rather later Spanish epic poem, the Poema or Cantar del Mio Cid, as seen above in its oldest preserved form. This leaves out all Rodrigo’s fighting for Muslims – in fact even has the King of Zaragoza becoming his vassal rather than the other way around – and makes much more of his loyalty in exile to the King of Castile despite that ruler’s misinformed maltreatment of him, which is partly caused in this version by the king’s failure to prevent the murder of Rodrigo’s daughters after their marriage, at royal command, to some noble ne’er-do-wells called the Infantes of Carrión. But the undefeated hero still stamps larger than life through this narrative, including the chief victory against the Almoravids. Now, this version of the story is one of the great literary monuments of the Castilian language, taught on literature syllabi in Spain like Beowulf is in the USA.6 Furthermore, it got taken up big-time by a very influential historian in the 1920s, Ramón Menéndez Pidal, and he based on it a book which was much translated but also very compatible with Franco’s subsequent vision of a Catholic Spain built on its unified Christian resistance to foreign ideologies, and which for both of those reasons was the basis of the eventual Technicolor epic film that you may indeed have seen.7 If you haven’t, by the way, do, it’s fantastic and contains some of the most realistic-looking medieval fight-scenes I think have ever been filmed, and it’s why anyone outside Spain usually knows the story, if they do.

El Cid and his army, including the Emir Muqtadir of Seville, from the 1961 film

El Cid, as played by Charlton Heston in that same film, with Emir Muqtadir of Seville at his left hand; image from Diego Califano, ‘Un guerrero debe encontrar el valor por sí mismo: la película de “El Cid” (1961)’ in Fundación para la Historia de España, 9 October 2020, online here

So, it is perhaps unsurprising that, especially among Spanish-origin Byzantinists, there has arisen this tendency to take the Iberian border independent who was never ever defeated and rack him up against the Anatolian one and say, look, er… And indeed, one of my objections to this work has always been that there seems to be no conclusion anyone can reach from doing this that goes deeper than, “maybe frontier culture bred similarities”.8 But my other objection is that despite their border setting, the stories aren’t actually very similar. I’m conscious that unless you’ve actually read both texts, you can only take my word for this or not. I’m also conscious that, by even doing this negative comparison, I’m in danger of writing yet another of these comparative articles about which I was complaining. But let’s embrace these ironies and move from environment inwards towards the hero:

  1. Digenes’s frontier is basically empty; he can take space in it and almost no-one even notices, he’s hard to find and there’s no other settlement for a basically irrelevant distance. Rodrigo’s frontier is studded with fortresses and every part of it belongs to someone, a fairly close city and then a kingdom which claims the city. Armies cross it all the time and no-one can hide in one place for long. It’s also a lot more mountainous, for what that’s worth.
  2. In Digenes’s world there’s only one Christian polity, ineffective and distant though it might be, while the Islamic one is indefinite, fragmented and unclear of hierarchy. In el Cid’s world, the Islamic world has unattended limbs you can lop off but it’s all one tree, and a tree that can sometimes swing all of its branches at you at once, while the Christian kingdoms are plural and always opposed to each other; in the Historia Roderici he is opposed by Christian and Muslim forces together but only once two Christian polities working together, and then they have Muslim help.9 One might say that these are mirror images, but if you ask it’s more like through the looking-glass.
  3. While we’re talking about single combat, that’s almost the only time el Cid is foolish enough to attempt such a thing. Otherwise, he always fights with an army behind him, and indeed one of the motives the Poema and the Historia share is his attempts to manage his men’s loyalty in difficulties, which the Poema uses to compare their fallibility to el Cid’s own undaunted loyalty to a lord who treats him far worse than he treats his men.10 Digenes, by contrast, almost never has a following, almost always fights single-handedly and is often naked and bare-handed when he does so.

And this is because the two characters are fundamentally not the same archetypes. As it says in that stub, Digenes is basically a demi-god, mixed parentage and supernaturally powerful, to whom the most obvious comparison is Hercules. Rodrigo has a historical basis, but I don’t even mean that; one could certainly argue that the Rodrigo of the Poema is a fictional figure to all intents and purposes, with the fact of his actual existence a mere complication. But even as a fictional figure, his archetype is the ultimate knight, a human being whose prowess, manifest almost always as skill at war rather than skill at arms, was realisable by other human beings. One could compare William Marshal, not least because of the same Belisarius-like motif of continuing loyalty despite a lord’s suspicion and contempt.11 This hero is a type we see elsewhere in his age. Digenes isn’t really meant to be from the age in which he’s set, I don’t think, and certainly not the one in which he was being told. And then there’s the question of blood, which in Spain would be an ugly one perhaps involving words like ‘limpieza‘; whatever el Cid is and whomever he served, there’s no doubt that his origins are safely Castilian and Christian.12 The whole point of Digenes, his very name, is that he combines two ancestries, and he mostly serves neither. And because of this, while Digenes Akrites the poem is also a monument of Greek literature in a way, it’s not the same way – Greek culture doesn’t need this medieval novel as a foundation stone, having the Classics, but even if it did, there are other medieval Greek novels – and Digenes the character is no kind of heroic archetype for the modern Greek nation.13 He’s someone set in a non-time and a non-place where impossible things can happen, and there may be a message in that but it’s not the same one as in the Poema del mio Cid, or indeed any other source about him.

Now, if someone who can handle both languages enough to convince wants to write that up as an article, go right ahead; I ask only to be named as co-author and to do the proof checks before submission if it’s being written in English. (Nothing personal, I just care a lot about punctuation and referencing.) But otherwise: can we stop, now? They aren’t the same thing.

1. This is a common enough trick in academia now that there is actually academic literature about it: see Jack Grove, “Academic workload models: a tool to exploit staff and cut costs?” in Times Higher Education (THE) (6 February 2019), online here, reporting on Rebecca Hewett, Amanda Shantz & Julia Mundy, “Information, Beliefs, and Motivation: The antecedents to human resource attributions” in Journal of Organizational Behavior Special Issue (2019), pp. 1–17, DOI: 10.1002/job.2353.

2. For example, Ioannis Kioridis, “The Wife’s Prayer for her Husband in the Cantar de mio Cid and the Escorial version of Digenis Akritis” in Scandinavian Journal of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies Vol. 1 (Stockholm 2015), pp. 65–80, and Marina Díaz Bourgeal and Francisco López-Santos Kornberger, “El Cantar de Mio Cid y el Diyenís Akritas (manuscrito de El Escorial): Un estudio comparativo desde el legado clásico” in Estudios medievales hispánicos Vol. 5 (Madrid 2016), pp. 83–107. Cf. also n. 8 below.

3. John Mavrogordato (ed./transl.), Digenes Akrites, edited, with an introduction, translation and commentary (Oxford 1956), has a really useful study of the manuscripts as well as the actual thing, but there are several other translations; that’s just the one I have. For the Komnenian situation here, see Peter Frankopan, The First Crusade: the call from the East (London 2012), pp. 42-86.

4. “Historia Roderici”, transl. by Richard Fletcher in Simon Barton & Richard Fletcher (transl.), The World of el Cid: Chronicles of the Spanish Reconquest, pp. 90-147, c. 74 (p. 146); cf. c. 15 (p. 107). I should say, by the way, that I could probably double these notes if I were also giving references in Spanish; but I’m guessing that if you read Spanish and are reading this, you probably already know where that stuff is…

5. Ibid., pp. 90-98, based on Richard Fletcher, The Quest for El Cid (New York City NY 1990).

6. For the Poema, see in English Peter Such & John Hodgkinson (edd./transl.), The Poem of My Cid (Warminster 1987), or otherwise R. Selden Rose and Leonard Bacon (transl.), The Lay of the Cid (Berkeley CA 1919), online here.

7. Ramón Menéndez Pidal, The Cid and his Spain, trans. Harold Sunderland (London 1934, repr. 2016); Helen Nader, “Encountering the Cid” in Jason Glenn (ed.), The Middle Ages in Texts and Texture: Reflections on Medieval Sources (Toronto 2011), pp. 177–188, more or less retells this work’s story in summary, with Fletcher’s critique noted only in references. For an analysis of the politics which led to the making of the film, see John Aberth, A Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film (London), pp. 63‒148.

8. A conclusion already reached by Ralph-Johannes Lilie, “The Byzantine-Arab Borderland from the Seventh to the Ninth Centuries” in Florin Curta (ed.), Borders, Barriers, and Ethnogenesis: Frontiers in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 12 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 13–22, which I might have thought got all there was to be got out of the theme, but cf. n. 1 above

9. “Historia Roderici”, c. 37 (pp. 122-123 in Fletcher & Barton).

10. Geoffrey West, “King and Vassal in History and Poetry: A Contrast between the ‘Historia Roderici’ and the ‘Poema de Mio Cid'”, in Alan Deyermond (ed.), ‘Mio Cid’ Studies (London: Támesis, 1977), pp. 195–208.

11. For William Marshal, see among numerous (so many) biographies David Crouch, William Marshal, 3rd ed. (London 2016; 1st ed. London 1990).

12. “Historia Roderici”, c. 2 (p. 99 in Fletcher & Barton) tracks his ancestry back 9 generations in the northern part of Castile.

13. Margaret Mullett, “Novelisation in Byzantium: Narrative after the Revival of Fiction” in John Burke (ed.), Byzantine Narrative: papers in honour of Roger Scott, Byzantina Australiensia 16 (Leiden 2006), pp. 1–28; cf. Michael Angold, “The Poem of Digenes Akrites: the frontier and the Byzantine identity” in Convivencia, defensa y comunicación en la frontera: En memoria de Don Juan de Mata Carriazo y Arroquia, Estudios de Frontera 3 (Jaén 2000), pp. 69–79, online here.

The conference before the storm: Leeds International Medieval Congress, 2019

Looking back on the last pre-Covid International Medieval Congress seems like a different world by now, even though we’ve but recently had the 2022 one, where, ironically or not, I caught my first dose of Covid. I guess that, because of that and because of the big push towards online hybrid participation that the pandemic gave us, it’s clear already that we’re never going back to quite the same experience of a campus full of medievalists meeting and interacting, but will now live with the sense, firstly, that that may be dangerous as well as desirable and that some people just aren’t going to be able to take part, and secondly that a lot of the action is in fact happening off-stage, in the ether.1 So this was the end of an era, or the last stop before a change of trains, or some other metaphor. And, to be honest, because of that, before picking up my notes on it I would have said I remembered very little of what happened at the 2019 Congress, as opposed to any other year since the IMC moved to the Central campus. I didn’t organise anything myself, is all I would have told you this morning, and on inspection that is completely untrue: Rethinking the Medieval Frontier ran for a full day, with people speaking from two continents about places from the Canaries to Kashmir. So as it transpires, I was there (obviously) and was pretty busy (nearly as obviously) and learnt a good few things (thankfully), and it was actually an impressively international and intersectional gathering that had all kinds of promise for the future threaded through it, and it still seems worth writing a report on it. It’s just that the future took a different turn… Because these reports are always huge, however, and not necessarily of interest to all (certainly not throughout), I’ll do what has become my practice and give you the running order of my conference experience, and then put actual commentary below a cut and let you decide (the few of you reading on the actual site rather than in your e-mail, anyway) how much further you care to go.

Monday 1st July 2019

119. Materialities at Birkbeck, I: between mind and matter in medieval monetary policy

  • Rebecca Darley, “Discourses on Absence, or Kalabhra and Vakataka Monetary Policy in Early Medieval Southern India”
  • Chris Budleigh, “Surplus and Scarcity: the contested relationship between monetary supply and aristocratic land management in Comnenian Byzantium”
  • Sidin Sunny, “The Lighter Dirham: power relationships in medieval Spanish society and tendencies in coin fineness and debasement.”

240. The Use and Construction of Place, Space, and Materiality in Late Antiquity

334. Seas and Floods in the Islamic West

  • Andrew Marsham, “Nile Flood Levels and Egyptian Revolts in the Early Medieval Period”
  • Xavier Ballestín, “Ships, Seafarers, Sails and Bows: a source approach to marine networks and coastal settlement in the Western Mediterranean basin on the eve of the rabaḍ uprising in Córdoba, 202 AH/818 AD”
  • Maribel Fierro, “Sea in the Life Narratives of Andalusi Scholars and Saints”

Tuesday 2nd July

530. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier 2018, I: Iberian Spaces

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Ends of Empire: Two Island Frontiers between Byzantium and Islam”
  • Stacey Murrell, “Centering the Marginal: concubines on Castilian frontiers, c. 1050-1350
  • Sandra Schieweck, “Iberian Border Regimes: the case of Castile and Navarre in the late Middle Ages”

630. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, 2018, II: Administration and Control

  • Luca Zavagno, “‘The Byzantine Liquid Frontiers’, or How to Administer Insular and Coastal Peripheral Spaces and Stop Worrying About It”
  • Davor Salihović, “The Distribution of Bordering in Late Medieval Hungary”

730. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier 2018, III: between religions

  • Roberta Denaro, “Far from the Corrupting City: building the frontier as a stage for martyrdom and asceticism, 8th-10th centuries”
  • Turaç Hakalmaz, “‘Islandness’ of a Coastal Kingdom: the case of Cilician Armenia”
  • Aniket Tathagata Chettry, “Exploring the Complexities of a Brahmanical Frontier in Bengal”

830. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier 2018, IV: dealing with power on the frontier

  • Jakub Kabala, “Claiming Authority over the Edge of the World: Frontier Strategies in Salzburg, c. 870″
  • Zeynep Aydoğan, “Conquest and Territoriality in the Late Medieval Anatolian Frontiers”
  • Andreas Obenaus, “To Whom Might/Do They Belong? Claims to Newly-Discovered Atlantic Islands in the Late Medieval Period”

Wednesday 3rd July 2019

1048. Forging Memory: false documents and historical consciousness in the Middle Ages, I

  • Graham Barrett, “Charters, Forgeries, and the Diplomatic of Salvation in Medieval Iberia”
  • Daria Safranova, “Using and Detecting Forged Charters in Northern Iberia, c. 900-1100″
  • Levi Roach, “True Lies: Leo of Vercelli, Arduin of Ivrea, and the Struggle for Piedmont”

1140. Byzantine Materialities, II: Ephemera and Iconoclasm

  • Rachel Banes, “You Can’t Write That Here! Mapping Religious and Secular Graffiti in Asia Minor, c. 300-700 CE”
  • Daniel K. Reynolds, “Images, Icons and Apologetic: Christian Iconoclasm in Early Islamic Palestine”
  • Leslie Brubaker, “Dancing in the Streets: the ephemera of Byzantine processions”

1252. Transport, Traders, and Trade Routes in Early Medieval Europe

  • Ewa Magdalena Charowska, “Dugout Builders: the trademark of the Sclaveni in the 6th and 7th Centuries”
  • Daniel Melleno, “From Strangers to Neighbors: Franks and Vikings in the late 9th century”
  • Thomas Freudenhammer, “Rafica: early medieval caravan trade between the West Frankish kingdom and al-Andalus”
  • Victor Farías Zurita, “Response”

1340. Byzantine Materialities, IV: workshops, trade and manuscripts

  • Shaun Tougher, “Macedonian Materialities: the Menologion of Basil II”
  • Chris Wickham, “Materialities of Middle Byzantine Exchange in the Aegean”
  • Flavia Vanni, “Men at work: stucco workshops on Mount Athos”

Thursday 4th July 2019

1509. Gold, Coins and Power in the Early Middle Ages

  • Marco Cristini, “The War of the Coins: Numismatic Evidence for the Gothic War”
  • Nicholas Rogers, “Angels and the King’s Evil: projections of royal authority”
  • Vera Kemper, “‘All that glitters is not gold’: heroes and material wealth”

1652. The Monetary System and Currency in Eurasia in the Pre-Modern Era, II: money and its circulation in British Isles and Scandinavia

  • Yuta Uchikawa, “Commerce and Coin Circulation around the Irish Sea in the 9th and 10th Centuries”
  • Hiroko Yanagawa, “The Irish-Sea Imitations and their Circulation during the Middle Ages”
  • Kenji Nishioka, “The Use of Money in Scotland during the 12th and 13th Centuries”
  • Takahiro Narikawa, “Church and the Money Circulation in High Medieval Norway”

1738. Materialities and Religion in Medieval Armenia and Byzantium

  • Katherine New, “The Representations of Material Objects in Medieval Culture: statue or doll in Byzantine mythography”
  • Carmen Morais Puche, “Medieval Byzantine Coinage in Patrimonio Nacional: image, materiality and religions”

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Detective work in ninth-century Córdoba

The next thing in my stack of things to blog about is the 2019 International Medieval Congress; but I just did a conference report, and this is basically a good day, so rather than put that task into it – you can wait till next week for that – I’m going to jump slightly ahead, to something that I read and decided to blog about while on the holiday I went on straight after the IMC. The holiday itself will generate a few posts of photos, but we’ll get there in something more like due course. For the time being, all you need to know for this was that I went on holiday with some academic reading off our shelves that I was determined just to read for fun, without taking notes. The lucky selection was Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle (very interesting, but hard to track an argument through), the collected works of Liudprand of Cremona (always good, but I’d never read them all through before), and the translation by David James of the History of al-Andalus by Ibn al-Qūṭīyah.1 And it’s in the last of those, in the section on Emir ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II of Córdoba (ruled 822-852 CE) that I found the story below, which I’ll transcribe from James’s English.2 If you ever find yourself in one of those arguments where someone is maintaining that we’re just smarter now than people in the ‘dark ages’ could have been, it’s a good counter-example.

One of the things told about ‘Abd al-Raḥmān: So many complaints were made against successive civil governors (wulāt al-madīna) of Cordova that he swore that he would never appoint another person from among the inhabitants of the capital. He searched for some one suitable among his clients who were inhabitants of the provinces. One, Muḥammad ibn Sālim was brought to his notice, who – it was said – had made the Pilgrimage, and was a clever but modest man. So he sent for him and appointed him.
“On the first day after his appointment, while riding to the palace, some one told him, ‘A dead body has been found in a straw basket in the al-Qaṣṣābīn [Street or Quarter of the Butchers]. ‘Let us be taken to it!’ he replied. Now, when it was before him, he ordered that the body be exposed on the quay (raṣīf), in case a passer-by might recognise the dead man. Then he ordered that the basket be brought to him, and upon seeing that it was a new one, said, ‘Let all in the straw trade (ḥaṣṣārūn) be brought to me – merchants and workers alike!’
“When they were before him, he took the leaders aside and said, ‘Are baskets and panniers all alike; or can you tell the work of individual makers apart?’ They said, ‘Yes, of course, you can tell them apart; and you can tell the work of those in the provinces from those of Cordova.’
“So he commanded that the basket be brought to them, and they told him, ‘This is the work of so-and-so, who is in the group waiting here.’ Muḥammad ordered that the man be brought to him, which was done. He showed him the basket and he said, ‘Yes this basket was bought from me yesterday by a servant (fatā) in royal uniform’; and he described him. Then the police and vendors said, ‘This is the description of one of the al-akhras, ‘the dumb ones’ [those who do not speak Arabic] who lives at Ruṣāfa!’ They went off to search for him. Some of the clothes of the murdered man were found in his possession.
“Now, when ‘Abd al-Raḥmān heard this, he ordered that Muḥammad be made a minister as well as civil governor; and when he entered the chamber of ministers (bayt al-wuzarā’) all paid attention to his opinion.”

So there you have it, a tenthninth-century Islamic impromptu detective inspector! This said, of course there are some things worth drawing out. Firstly, this obviously wasn’t in any way usual: not only is the reward for cracking the case an indication that this was well above and beyond usual intellectual application to such things, but also the foreign slave soldier (for that’s what the ‘dumb ones’ usually were) obviously didn’t expect anyone to try following his trail, so I suspect on both of those counts that actual investigation of murders in Córdoba of this time was a bit above and beyond. On the other hand, there was a police force, and someone did report the crime to the magistrate-equivalent; it’s not a million miles from French police procedure even if there wasn’t much of a crime-scene investigation or establishment of motive. (I imagine there also wasn’t much of a trial…) But it’s still a forensic resolution of a hidden murder by a man in his second day in a job, and as Ibn al-Qūṭīyah tells it, they had the murderer identified even before they knew who the victim was. Beat that, Maigret!

The Roman bridge over the Guadalqivir in Córdoba, Spain

One of the few bits of Córdoba that’s still roughly as Ibn al-Qūṭīyah would have known it, bar the lighting at least, the Roman bridge over the Guadalqivir looking onto the mosque-cathedral, image from Farhana Nitol, ‘Once Upon a Time Europe Had Its Very Own Flourishing Islamic City’, Mvslim, 25th April 2016, linked through

It’s also worth asking why Ibn al-Qūṭīyah tells the tale, of course. He was writing in the time of ‘Abd al-Raḥmān’s great-grandson of the same name, the one who would claim the caliphate, so some of it is surely the glorification of an ancestor of the current ruler. On the other hand, it’s also plainly a tale of his own streets, even if seventy years before he was born; the numerous local place-names that go unglossed (except by James, thankfully) expect a Cordoban audience who knew they were listening to a Cordoban author. But the message is also clear: appoint your subordinates from wherever good people can be found and reward the ones who deserve it, never mind existing power interests. For a writer at that point claiming descent from the displaced Visigothic kings of two centuries before, that might have been an important message to sneak through in such a genealogical compliment.3 But it isn’t as if the ruler himself was going to turn up to Ibn al-Qūṭīyah’s mosque to hear him teach (which is thought to be how this text was assembled4); the beneficiaries of this message were presumably those who might hope to be appointed, not the ones appointing. And even Muḥammad ibn Sālim was a client of the emir, though it doesn’t sound as if the emir himself knew that, and the audience for this story was in Córdoba while he was not. The most plausible role for the audience’s members might in fact be the anonymous people who made the link between the distant client and the emir by telling the latter about the former, and who presumably also profited from their contact’s sudden and lofty advancement. Oh, and we’re also presumably supposed to be unsurprised that non-Arabic-speaking foreigners are suspect and violent, they’ll murder you for the clothes on your back most of them so watch out, and so on. But for all that the story has messages in it and meanings that lurk below the text, the actual text is still really interesting as a picture from an age we might so easily characterise as incapable of producing it.

1. Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350‒550 AD (Princeton NJ 2013); The Works of Liudprand of Cremona: Antapodosis; Liber de Rebus Gestis Ottonis; Relatio de Legatione Constantinopolitana, transl. F. A. Wright (London 1930), online here; and Early Islamic Spain: the history of Ibn al-Qutiya, transl. David James (London 2011).

2. Ibid. p. 103.

3. On him and his social position see Ann Christys, Christians in al-Andalus (711 – 1000) (Richmond 2002), pp. 158-183, or eadem, “How the Royal House of Witiza Survived the Islamic Conquest of Spain” in Walter Pohl and Maximilian Diesenberger (eds), Integration und Herrschaft: ethnische Identitäten und soziale Organisation im Frühmittelalter, Denkschriften der Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-Historische Klasse 301 (Wien 2002), pp. 233–246.

4. James, Early Islamic Spain, pp. 8-19.

Seminars CCLXVII & CCLXVIII: the Normans return to Leeds

As usual, apologies are owed to you, dear readers, for a long absence; sorry. We stopped working to contract at about the time all my marking came in, and the result of marking arriving was as usual disappearance from civilisation. This last weekend that was compounded by a breakdown and impromptu eight-hour stop in Brecon, as well, which cut back my blogging chances somewhat. But quite a lot else has been happening and I have news as well as olds to report. I had some olds half-set-up to go, however, so that’s where we’ll start, with two papers from two successive days at the University of Leeds in 2019, both on the Normans in Sicily.

Now, for those in on the medieval scene it may not be surprising to hear of work on Norman Sicily at Leeds; in fact the main thing that might be surprising is that we were bussing it in, because is Leeds not after all the seat of Graham Loud, doyen of the field and supervisor of many protégés therein? And this was true even then, but Graham was at this point in the second of three years of a research project which would take him neatly up to retirement, and his students had pretty much all completed. Furthermore, because of his absence, we weren’t even really teaching Norman Sicily any more. The thing that can happen when a specialist retires, where a whole section of the library quietly ceases to be used, was already in progress. But this did not mean that there was no audience when firstly, on the 19th February, Jeremy Johns hauled up from Oxford to give an Institute for Medieval Studies Open Lecture with the title, “Documenting Multi-Culturalism in Norman Sicily”, and then the very next day Francesca Petrizzo, one of those completed students of Graham Loud’s indeed, spoke to the Medieval History Seminar with the title “‘Normans Don’t Cry’: grief, anger and the Hautevilles”.

Medieval scribes from three Sicilian traditions in Peter of Eboli's Liber in honorem Augusti

The masthead image of the project Documenting Multiculturalism: Co-existence, law and multiculturalism in the administrative and legal documents of Norman and Hohenstaufen Sicily, c.1060-c.1266, which although they don’t identify it on the website turns out to be from Peter of Eboli’s Liber ad honorem Augusti sive de rebus Siculis, Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 120 II, fo. 101r, online here. Really, academic websites should do better than this, but never mind, let’s move on…

Professor Johns was introducing us to a then-new project, Documenting Multiculturalism: Co-Existence, Law and Multiculturalism in the Administrative and Legal Documents of Norman and Hohenstaufen Sicily, c. 1060-c. 1266, funded by the European Research Council in a way that had just become rather political. The project probably also looked rather political to some, in so far as it was engaged in that most dangerous of things, attempting to check facts behind a cliché about religious, racial and cultural interaction. The cliché in question was that of Norman Sicily as a multicultural paradise of tolerance and shared artistic cultures; it is, now that Islamic Iberia is a bit more widely contested, almost the last of those we have left, but obviously it’s not everyone’s idea of paradise, and not everyone believes that it can have been possible despite certain signal memorials of it, because those are more or less by definition from élite; social strata deeply concerned in the success of the governmental project.1

Tombstone of Anna in St Michael's Palermo

The tombstone of Anna in St Michael’s Palermo, lettered in Greek, Latin, Arabic and Hebrew, commonly used as an emblem of Sicilian medieval multiculturalism; but Anna was mother of a priest of King Roger II, so may not have been precisely typical…

Well, this is a thing on which, to a certain extent, we can put numbers and for which we can find data, because the Normans arrived as French-speakers in a Sicily which had an Arabic administration and tax system, with older less Arabic components, staffed in part by Greek-speakers, and although survival of these systems’ documents is not what you’d call great (at least not by Catalan standards!), there are roughly 500 Latin, 350 Greek, 125 Arabic and 25 Judaeo-Arabic chancery records, quite a lot of inscriptions which at this point they had yet to count, and a good few other references that can be factored in.2 The difficulties or not that these documents describe are themselves qualitative instances of how these different cultural strata interacted, but also, and this was the main point of the paper, so is the choice and change of language in them. For example, one of the things coming out of this project will hopefully be the first ever study of Sicilian Arabic, because unsurprisingly it was a bit different. Ibn Hawqal, an Baghdadi merchant and probably Egyptian spy visiting in the 950s, thought it lamentably bad and ungrammatical; but the documents will tell us how it was actually written, and perhaps even spoken.3 Eventually, too, though this hasn’t happened yet, all the documents, in all languages of record, will be online in facsimile, transcription and translation, and that will be a fabulous resource to have.

What seems unlikely to emerge, however, is a simple narrative. The one we have at the moment is more or less that initially, the Normans needed the administration in working order so badly that they maintained it and its operators, thus practising tolerance by necessity and making a virtue of it while it did them good; but, after a century or so, partly because support for their endeavours from the Latin world was so necessary and partly just because the Normans did not naturalise very far, Latin tended to push out the other tongues and Christianity the other religions.4 What the project was already showing was that Arabic might have gone quiet, but had not completely gone, even in documents from close to the end of their sample, where boundary clauses might still sometimes be given in very local dialects of it in documents otherwise fully Latin.5 Who was the audience for that, nearly two centuries after Latin conquest? Likewise, it seems as if while the Normans may not have Arabised, they certainly naturalised to the extent that even by the 1190s, no-one seems to have been writing French on the island, rather than a local Romance more like that which would become Italian. Between Sicilian Arabic and Sicilian Romance, the most obvious outcome from the Norman period may actually have been, well, Sicily, admittedly not for the first time in its history, but ever reinvented as each wave washing over it dried into its shores.

Poster for the Medieval History Seminar, Institute for Medieval Studies, 20 February 2019

Poster for the seminar, designed by Thomas Smith

Francesca Petrizzo, meanwhile, had been one of my advisees while she was Graham Loud’s doctoral student, and so, disclaimer, can always be sure of a good write-up here, but I think more people than just me thought hers was a fun paper. Her doctoral thesis was on the political value of kinship among the most successful of the Norman families who made southern Italy and Sicily the new home for their endeavours in the eleventh century, by a process of hiring themselves into military disputes and slowly emerging as the masters of the situations into which they were hired, to the ultimate extent of becoming Kings of Sicily and counts of numerous other places nearby.6 However, what her thesis had not covered was emotional bonds, and this paper was an attempt to sound the evidence for that, and was therefore as much a methodological exercise as an empirical one: how can we get at emotions and feelings from the sources we have, and how can we ever be sure that they were what the subjects of report felt? There are some cases where it seems clear enough, relatively speaking: when Elvira of Castile, the wife of King Roger II of Sicily, died we are told by Alexander of Telese that Roger hid in his chambers for weeks, so that a rumour spread that he had died too and then his brother-in-law raised a revolt against his counsellors, whereupon Roger had to emerge in vengeful fashion and kill quite a few people. He then didn’t remarry for a decade, until he was down to one male heir. Love, grief and anger don’t seem unreasonable to attribute here, though one would like the hiding story to occur in more than one source.

Interior and crypt of Santissima Trinità di Venosa

Interior and crypt of Santissima Trinità di Venosa, with tombs of the Hauteville family visible beneath the floor, photo by Anna Nicoletta MenzellaOwn work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The main emotional outlet of the Hautevilles does seem to have been anger and venegance – the title quote came from a report by Amatus of Montecassino about a band of Normans whose lord was killed in a fray, who, he says, did not waste time on tears but went straight through the stages of mourning to vengeance without waiting (not his language, obviously, but the title quote is: “Normanni non plorent”, ‘the Normans don’t cry’).7 But seeing other emotions in the sources is hard: we can see patronage as an expression of affection, especially when it was extended to people who repeatedly caused trouble (though that was a lot of the Hautevilles, and there may just not have been much choice); we can also, however, therefore see a preference for kin over outsiders, despite how troublesome a kindred it was.8 And then there are memorials that show us some level of mourning, of which we have two above, though of course these are the public expression of mourning rather than a private one. Many of these emotional pathways, interestingly, occasionally let women through into what would normally be men’s roles; women counts regnant, several powerful consorts, daughters who witnessed charters, patronesses of chronicles, and so on.

The examples involving women may be the most powerful ones, for me, because they sit against the otherwise obvious possibility that these actions of violence, inclusion, patronage or dispute may have been pragmatic and political rather than emotional (in so far as the two spheres separate). Obviously female kinship ties had political value as well, but Tancred of Conversano having his daughter witness charters probably didn’t help anything except her sense of being a nobleman’s offspring. Nonetheless, most of the questions were about how results of an enquiry like this could be made reliable, with one person saying it simply couldn’t be done, as all we were getting was the emotions that the agent of record thought would have been appropriate, and another wondering if the chroniclers’ emotions weren’t the thing we should study here instead. Joanna Phillips, also of this parish, wondered if it might be more reliable to track responses to emotion than records of its expression. More interesting to me was the question that asked if this emotional profile was a Norman thing or more generally medieval, to which Francesca said that it wasn’t even general to the Normans; few other families had this kind of internal cohesion and, apparently, trust. But also, in most other cultures and kingroups of the era crying was a perfectly legitimate display of sincerely felt emotion; if these Normans didn’t cry, then they were modelling a different, less emotive kind of masculinity than was the fashion with others. That kind of relative history of emotions might work better for me; the chroniclers in question are still individual lenses which need to be gauged, of course, as are any non-chronicle sources (of which there were some) involved, but at least once we can say, this story presents appropriate emotions thus but this one elsewise, we can start to dig into why. The material for that seemed to be abundant here!

1. This is a lot to substantiate in one footnote, so maybe I can just give examples. For example, Iberia maybe not a multicultural paradise even if some current hate speechifiers go too far in denying it: Anna Akasoy, “Convivencia and its Discontents: Interfaith Life in al-Andalus” in International Journal of Middle East Studies Vol. 42 (Cambridge 2010), pp. 489–499. Sicily still in the frame: Sarah C. Davis-Secord, Where Three Worlds met: Sicily in the Early Medieval Mediterranean (Ithaca NY 2017). Critical reevaluation (maybe too critical): Brian A. Catlos, “Accursed, Superior Men: Ethno-Religious Minorities and Politics in the Medieval Mediterranean” in Comparative Studies in Society and History Vol. 56 (Cambridge 2014), pp. 844–869. Lots more could be cited, often with quite different views.

2. See Hiroshi Takayama, The Administration of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, The Medieval Mediterranean 5 (Leiden 1993), and indeed Jeremy Johns, Arabic Administration in Norman Sicily: The Royal Diwān, Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization (Cambridge 2002).

3. Professor Johns didn’t mention Ibn Hawqal, but the geographer’s peroration on Sicily is one of my favourite tenth-century sources, and can be found in French, at least, in Ibn Hauqal, Configuration de la terre (Kitab surat al-Ard) : Introduction et traduction, avec index, ed. J. H Kramers and trans. G. Wiet, Collection UNESCO d’œuvres représentatives : Série arabe, 1st edn (Paris 1964), 2 vols, I pp. 117-130. The only English version I know is a teaching translation of my own from that French, rather than the Arabic.

4. This is the picture you’d get from, for example, Donald Matthew, The Norman Kingdom of Sicily, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge 1992), which was the first thing I ever read on the subject (and was new then…).

5. The example here was a 1242 document by King Frederick II’s administrator Obbertus Fatamongelia, apparently the first charter in their sample to use Arabic for a space of forty years, but I’m afraid I have no tighter reference than that. When their website’s finished, though, we’ll all be able to find it from that I hope!

6. That thesis was, for the record, Francesca Petrizzo, “Band of Brothers: Kin Dynamics of the Hautevilles and Other Normans in Southern Italy and Syria, c. 1030-c. 1140” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Leeds, Leeds, 2018), online here.

7. Again, I don’t have a detailed reference here, but one can read Amatus in Amatus of Montecassino, The History of the Normans, trans. Prescott N. Dunbar, rev. Graham A. Loud (Woodbridge 2004).

8. As well as Petrizzo, “Band of Brothers”, see now Francesca Petrizzo, “Wars of our fathers: Hauteville kin networks and the making of Norman Antioch” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 48 (Abingdon 2022), pp. 1–31.

Murder of a factoid about Mallorca

My backlogged blog chronology is getting a bit out of step here, as I find this in my drafts folder from November 2018 referring to an unusual luxury I’d been able to permit myself that summer, which was a trip to Cambridge University Library. I was privileged enough to do most of my undergraduate and doctoral work out of that library (even though my doctorate’s from London) and there are still times when it’s invaluable to get there, for the simple reason that unlike most big research libraries a good proportion of its stock is on open shelves. The speed factor this adds to checking references is hard to exaggerate; when ordinarily you might have to wait an hour or two for your books to arrive, being able to go straight to not just the things you already knew you needed, but also then the things which they reveal you also need to check, which otherwise might normally mean a second trip at some future point, is invaluable. I was at that point up against a tight deadline to finish my article “Nests of Pirates” and, among other things, I was able to check the thing I want to tell you about now, and because of the open shelves track it to its root rather than just the next layer down. It’s about the Islamic conquest of Mallorca, I think by the definition offered some time ago by frequent commentator dearieme it counts as a ‘factoid’, and I think I killed it.1

The Balearic Islands had a rough Late Antiquity.2 Taking part fairly fully, as far as patchy archaeological evidence and a few textual anecdata can so far reveal, in both the third-century crisis (during which Mallorca’s then-capital, Pollentia, burned down) and then the general shrinkage of economy and settlement suffered by the western half of the Roman Empire over the fifth century, they fell in the course of that century into the maritime empire of the Vandal kings of Carthage, where they remained until returned to imperial control during the Byzantine conquest of that kingdom. They then remained under at least some kind of Byzantine obedience into the eighth century, to judge by seals found at the hilltop fort of Santueri in Mallorca, and perhaps even later, but that’s where the trouble begins, because the terminus post quem non is of course Islamic conquest, and we don’t really know when that happened.3

Wall of the castle site at Santueri, Mallorca

Wall of the castle site at Santueri, Mallorca

Now, first of all some important preconditions. There are five major islands in the Balearic archipelago, as you see above, in descending order of size Mallorca, Minorca, Ibiza, Formentera and Cabrera, of which Ibiza and Formentera sit apart as part of a separate group called the Pityuses, all over an area of about 150 square miles. There is much more evidence about what happened to Mallorca than any of the others; indeed, archaeologically and documentarily, we don’t actually have any proof so far identified that Cabrera, Formentara, Ibiza or even Menorca were actually occupied between the seventh (or for Menorca, eighth) and tenth centuries (mid-ninth for Menorca, as we’ll see), though it’s probably more likely that they were than they weren’t.4 Nonetheless, people who write about this area always seem to do so as if what happened in one island can be generalised to all the others, apparently believing that because they are governed as a unit now, and have been since, well, mumble mumble mumble, they must always have behaved as one. But it ain’t necessarily so.

Ruins of the late antique Christian basilica in Illa del Rei, off Menorca

Ruins of the late antique Christian basilica in Illa del Rei, its own separate islet off Menorca, by Pytxyown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

So what we’re actually able to discuss is the Islamic conquest of Mallorca, not the Balearics, and we just have to live with that. Now, currently the archaeology can really only tell us that at some point people started using Islamic-style ceramics and burying like Muslims, not when or why.5 For when or why the answers must for now come from texts. The terminus ante quem this time is 933 CE, by which time there was an Andalusī (i e. from al-Andalus, Muslim Iberia) fleet using Mallorca as a base for raiding Christian Francia, according at least to the chronicler Ibn Ḥayyān, who had access to some of the caliphal archives of Córdoba somehow and thus had reason to know.6 So the conquest was before that, but when? Excitingly, there are four different dates recorded, all in different sources, none of which seem to know the others’ stories. For dramatic reasons it’s most fun for me to go through them from latest date to earliest, which means that the first entrant is fourteenth-century CE polymath, bureaucrat, lawyer and underrated sociologist, but questionable historian, Abū Zayd ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān ibn Muḥammad ibn Khaldūn.

Bust of Ibn Khaldun at Casbah de Bejaia, Algeria

Bust of Ibn Khaldun at Casbah de Bejaia, Algeria, image by Reda Kerbushown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Ibn Khaldūn, who had excellent sources for the most part, including Ibn Ḥayyān, but notoriously scrambled them in his own work, offers the latest date for the conquest, placing it in 902/903 and explaining it as the result of an Andalusī pilgrim to the East having been stranded in the islands for a while and having thus learned their weak spots, and then offering to lead a conquest of them for the Emir of Córdoba, which succeeded.7 Opinions vary among the people who know this report as to whether the islands could possibly still have been Byzantine at so late a stage, or had been assimilated into the Carolingian sphere after an appeal to Charlemagne for help against pirates in 798, which was answered.8 That appeal is documented in the Carolingian court chronicle, the Royal Frankish Annals, but only in its early version, not its revision of 829, as if by then it was no longer a working claim. So if the Balearics did swing Carolingian, it may not have lasted long.9 Nonetheless, after 903, says Ibn Khaldūn, they were Islamic territory.

Approach to Puig d'Alaró, Mallorca

Approach to Puig d’Alaró, Mallorca

But! The twelfth-century Granadan geographer Muḥammad ibn Abi Bakr al-Zuhri has a different story. According to him, the conquest took place in the reign of “Muḥammad, son of the fifth Emir of al-Andalus”, and although it was mostly successful, the “Rūm” held out in one particular fort, Ḥisn Alarūn, almost certainly modern Alaró seen above, for a further eight years and five months before finally running out of supplies and surrendering.10 So for him Mallorca was definitely still Byzantine territory, but when? Muḥammad I ruled 852-886 CE, but the trouble is that he was the fifth Emir, and his son was called al-Mundhir (r. 886-888 CE). Professor Juan Signes Codoñer has suggested that the peculiar way in which the ruler is identified might be explained if the name of Muhammad’s father ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II had dropped out, supposing a correct text saying “Muḥammad son of [‘Abd al-Raḥmān], the fifth Emir…” and that looks like a good solution to me, but it’s still a 30-year window.11 Also, al-Zuhri said that he had heard this story told, not that it was a matter of record, and while he was nearer in time to the events than was Ibn Khaldūn, that distance was still four hundred years, so it’s not the best evidence.

But! Maybe we need neither of these, because the somewhat later Marrakech historian Abū al-ʽAbbās Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn ʽIḏārī has a different report again. He, frustratingly, doesn’t tell us when the conquest actually was, but notes that in 848/849, none other than ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II sent a punitive naval expedition against Mallorca because its inhabitants had “broken their pact” and were harassing Islamic shipping in their waters. Some kind of blockade seems to have been imposed and next year Mallorca and Menorca both sent envoys begging for the renewal of the pact, though Ibn ʽIḏārī doesn’t say that they got it.12 Nonetheless, as far as he was concerned, subjection of the islands to Islam, even if not conquest by it, had happened by then.

Romantic modern depiction of Ibn al-Qutiya

Modern depiction of Ibn al-Qutiya

Now it’s possible to reconcile that with either, but not both, of the previous two, and maybe even the Royal Frankish Annals, by saying that the Balearics, or at least Mallorca, had maybe been under a pact to the Muslim rulers in the Peninsula for some time but not actually conquered by them – this was also the case with Basque Pamplona, so it wouldn’t be unprecedented – and had perhaps flirted with a Carolingian alternative before being brought back into line by ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II.13 But! Now we reach the meat. Our earliest source for the conquest also gives the earliest date, or at least so it seems. If you look in the work of Juan Signes which I already mentioned, or that of Josep Amengual i Batle on which it often rests, you will find a report there that the tenth-century Sevillano lawyer and historian Muḥammad Ibn ʿUmar Ibn al-Qūṭiyya dated the conquest of the islands to 707/708 CE, when ‘Abd al-Malik, son of the then-governor of Muslim North Africa, Mūsā bin Nuṣayr, mounted a naval raid on Mallorca and Menorca and captured the “kings” (mulūk) who ruled there and sent them off to Damascus.14 I grant you that’s not quite the same as actual conquest, and it might even have led to the kind of pact subsequently reported by Ibn ʽIḏārī, but it is still quite surprising, not least because it’s a full four years before the actual conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, which Mūsā carried out in 711-712 CE. Now, that may just be presentism talking and it might have made more sense, before their permanent attachment (so far) to governments in the Peninsula in the thirteenth century, to see the islands as prone to African dependency, as under the Vandals and Byzantines, and not Iberian rule. But, this is also our factoid.

You see, when I first saw this report, in Signes I think, I was immediately struck by two things. One was how early it was, as I just said; but the other was that I really ought to have known about it because I own an English translation of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya’s History of the Conquest of al-Andalus.15 I’m not saying I’ve ever sat down and read it all through and made notes, but I have gone into it quite a lot for gobbets for my Special Subject at Leeds, and if I’d seen this bit I would have grabbed it because of what it implies about the conquest of the Peninsula following on naval raiding rather than being a spontaneous event.16 So I went and got my copy off the shelf, and this bit isn’t there.

Well, how odd, I thought. It seemed unlikely that Professor Signes had just made this up, so I looked up his reference, which was as I might have expected to the old Castilian translation of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya by Julián Ribera. And that was online then, so it was pretty easy to check that too and find that it’s not there either.17 But he gave a reference also to Josep Amengual’s two-volume history of the late Antique Balearics, and it was that which I arrived in Cambridge needing to check. And from that it became clear that the reference in question is in the Ribera volume after all.18 So for a moment it looked as if either David James had missed it out of his English translation, or it wasn’t in the manuscript of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya that he’d used. BUT! Not so! There are actually two texts translated in that volume of Ribera’s, Ibn al-Qūṭiyya and a similar history under the name of Abū Muhammad Abd-Allāh ibn Muslim ibn Qutayba, and our factoid is in the latter, not the former. Well, at least I now had the source. And in some ways it should be a better source, because although based in Iraq, Ibn Qutayba was writing even earlier than Ibn al-Qūṭiyya and brings the gap between source and event, otherwise so large in this saga, down to a mere 150-odd years.


Shamefully, I knew nothing about this Ibn Qutayba, so I did some rapid research. That told me that Reinhart Dozy had written about this very text in the 1880s.19 And this is the great virtue of the Cambridge UL: having found this out, within ten minutes I could sit down again with Dozy’s work before me, and it gave me pause. Dozy had spent some time with this Ahādith al-Imāma wa’l-siyāsa of Ibn Qutayba and in the end concluded that it was actually nothing of the kind, partly because no such work seemed to be attributed to that author by medieval biographers, partly because it claims to have had the Mallorca report from eye-witnesses but it had supposedly happened 134 years before, and mainly because there is a reference in it to Maroc, a city not founded until 1062 CE, difficult for a ninth-century CE author to have added. Dozy’s conclusion was that the whole thing is an Andalusī “romancing” of the work of Abū Marwān ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Ḥabīb, with some extra Iberian material from who knows where, and that its unique content – of which the notice with which we’re concerned is part – is late eleventh-century at the earliest and probably without earlier basis. So, let’s stack all this up.

  1. Some time after 1062 CE, someone decided to write a history of Muslim Iberia, which they based on an earlier work but to which they added some of their own material, including our notice about a 707/708 Muslim attack on Mallorca, and put the whole thing out under a respectable, plausible, but false name. Well, goodness knows they weren’t the last to do that, but then what?
  2. In the 1870s, Reinhart Dozy, having got curious about this, went into it and discovered the forgery, and wrote the discovery up as one of about a dozen unconnected little studies in one of his less well-known works. Not many people seem to have noticed.
  3. Juan Ribera had noticed, but for reasons that aren’t entirely clear thought that an earlier thought of Pascual de Gayangos that maybe this was more of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya still deserved to be taken seriously enough that the known text of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya and this one should be translated together, and so he did that.
  4. Several people, including Josep Amengual, presumably searching quite rapidly for all references to Mallorca they could find, then found this one, but apparently did not realise that it was not actually within Ibn al-Qūṭiyya’s text.
  5. Signes then presumably got the cite from Amengual, and repeated it even though he doesn’t seem to have been able to find it himself. And that paper, unlike Amengual’s book, went online and thus other people started to ‘know’ this thing as well. But unfortunately, it’s a dud…

Now, of course, this does not leave us with any kind of definitive answer. As I said in my article, you can even just about have it all: it could be that there was a 707/708 raid which sent the poor Mallorcan mulūk off to Syria, possibly even resulting in a pact to the then-governor of Ifrīqiya, which the islands then, finding that not keeping them safe, repudiated in favour of an approach to the Carolingians that didn’t last long, then went independent and possibly piratical for a bit before being reigned back in by ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II, but were not finally conquered till either the 850s-880s or 902/903.20 Or maybe those two dates are even for different islands in the archipelago and both true! It would be a bit weird that not one of our writers seems to have known other stories if they were all true, but they’re not actually incompatible, and even if the 707/708 story is from three hundred years later, that’s still closer to the supposed facts than Ibn Khaldūn or Ibn ʽIḏārī. But what that story is not is the work of Ibn al-Qūṭiyya. And that is a dead factoid, thankyou very much.

1. What that means, of course, is that if you’ve read Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates? ‘Islandness’ in the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet” in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101, at pp. 199-209 and esp. 206-209, none of what follows is going to be new to you, sorry. But given firewalls and time, I’m betting that mostly you haven’t, and I can forgive you.

2. Covered ibid. pp. 198-212, but see also Luca Zavagno, “‘Going to the Extremes’: The Balearics and Cyprus in the Early Medieval Byzantine Insular System” in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 140–157, and Miguel Ángel Cau Ontiveros and Catalina Mas Florit, “The Early Byzantine Period in the Balearic Islands” in Demetrios Michaelides, Philippa Pergola and Enrico Zanini (eds), The Insular System of the Early Byzantine Mediterranean: Archaeology and History, British Archaeological Reports International Series 2523 (Oxford 2013), pp. 31–45.

3. On the Santueri seals see Juan Nadal Cañellas, “Las bulas de plomo bizantinas del Castillo de Santueri” in Bolletí de la Societat Arqueològica Lul·liana Vol. 72 (La Palma 2006), pp. 325–340; they are the only part of the evidence from an extensive archæological dig that has been made public.

4. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, pp. 199-204.

5. This is changing as radiocarbon dating begins to make a difference, as witness Miguel Ángel Cau Ontiveros, M. Van Strondyck, M. Boudin, C. Mas Florit, J. S. Mestres, F. Cardona, E. Chávez-Álvarez & M. Orfila, “Christians in a Muslim World? Radiocarbon dating of the cemetery overlaying the forum of Pollentia (Mallorca, Balearic Islands)” in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences Vol. 9 (Cham 2017), pp. 1529–1538, DOI: 10.1007/s12520-016-0325-0, but as the title notes they had found Christian burials, not Islamic ones. The real problem is non-differentiation of pre- and post-conquest coarse-ware ceramics, which absent Islamic fine-wares makes it very hard to tell when a site stopped being used. Once this changes, it will probably no longer be viable to hypothesize non-occupation of any of the islands.

6. Dolors Bramon (ed.), De quan érem o no musulmans: textos del 713 al 1010. Continuació de l’obra de J. M. Millàs i Vallicrosa, Jaume Caresmar 13 (Vic 2000), &section;374; Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 207.

7. Juan Signes Codoñer, “Bizancio y las Islas Baleares en los siglos VIII y IX” in Rafael Durán Tapia (ed.), Mallorca y Bizancio (Palma de Mallorca 2005), pp. 45–99 at pp. 84-85; Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, pp. 208-209. The opinion of Ibn Khaldūn is mine, not Signes’s!

8. Basically, the Byzantinists see it as Byzantine till the last possible moment (as witness Signes), the Islamicists see it conquered as early as possible, and the Catalans see it as taken over by the Carolingians and thus effectively gathered into the future Catalonia with some unfortunate Islamic interludes that however serve to justify Aragonese ‘reconquest’. There are, admittedly, exceptions to this in every group except the Byzantinists.

9. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, pp. 205-206; the text is in English in Bernhard Walter Scholz and Barbara Rogers (edd.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, Ann Arbor Paperback 186 (Ann Arbor 1972), online here, pp. 1-128, s a. 798.

10. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 208.

11. Signes, “Bizancio y las Islas Baleares”, p. 85.

12. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 208, accessible to me from Ibn Idari, Historias de al-Andalus, transl. Francisco Fernández González (n. p. n. d.), pp. 81-82.

13. On the situation of Pamplona see Juan José Larrea & Jesús Lorenzo, “Barbarians of Dâr al-Islâm: The Upper March of al-Andalus and the Pyrenees in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries” in Guido Vannini & Michele Nucciotti (edd.), La Transgiordania nei secoli XII-XIII e le ‘frontiere’ del Mediterraneo medievale. Trans-Jordan in the 12th and 13th Centuries and the ‘Frontiers’ of the Medieval Mediterranean, British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 2386 (Oxford 2012), pp. 277–288.

14. Signes, “Bizancio y las Islas Baleares”, pp. 46-54; Josep Amengual i Batle, Els orígens del cristianisme a les Balears i el seu desenvolupament fins a l’època musulmana, Els Trebals i els dies 36 & 37 (Palma de Mallorca 1991), 2 vols, vol. I pp. 441-453; there are other people I could cite, as well, but these notes are crowded enough and anyway I do at Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 207 n. 64.

15. Muḥammad ibn ʻUmar Ibn al-Qūṭīyah, Early Islamic Spain: the history of Ibn al-Qutiya, transl. David James (London 2011).

16. I have, in fact, sat down and read all of it, while in bed in Venice in fact, and it has many excellent stories in it one of which will be a future blog post; but I don’t have notes. Anyway, while I’m trailing future blog posts we might note that if this thing were in there it would not be the only evidence for early raiding preceding the invasion of Iberia, as I will later disclose, and that was why I didn’t initially think anything need be wrong with the idea.

17. Signes, “Bizancio y las Islas Baleares”, p. 93 n. 5, cites Julián Ribera (ed./transl.), Historia de la Conquista de España de Abenalcotía el Cordobés, seguida de fragmentos históricos de Abencotaiba, etc., Colección de obras arábigas de historia y geografía que publica el Real Academia de Historia 2 (Madrid 1926), online here as of 10th July 2016 but sadly no longer, but he gives no page reference, I suspect because he could not find the passage in question either.

18. Amengual, Orígens del cristianisme, vol. I pp. 442-443, citing Ribera, Historia de la Conquista de España, p. 122, which is correct.

19. R. Dozy, Recherches sur l’histoire et littérature de l’Espagne pendant le moyen âge, 3ème ed. (Paris 1881), 2 vols, vol. I, online here, pp. 21-40.

20. Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates”, p. 210.


A Further Bit of Istanbul

This gallery contains 12 photos.

I have to apologise for an unannounced three-week hiatus here. The simple explanation is that teaching restarted, I’m afraid, but there were also a couple of very full weekends, one of which did itself generate some medievalist photography which some … Continue reading

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.

Al-Mansur’s failure to conquer the north of Iberia

This is the second of the reaction posts I promised following my much-backlogged report on the 2018 International Medieval Congress. One of the papers I’d been to see was by one Josep Suñé Arce, and was called "Was the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba as Strong as Arab Chroniclers Claimed?" I wanted to see this mainly because I couldn’t see how the question could be answered as framed, on the one hand because it’s two different grades of subjectivity – imagine an answer like, “Well, the chroniclers give it a clear 5 across the board but I score it B-!” – but on the other because the evidence from which the chroniclers would have to be falsified is, well, their chronicles. The only way I could intellectually conceive of the question being answered was as some version of ‘can we tell if the chroniclers were making stuff up?’, but if they were, then how would we know what was really the case?

Now, if he ever reads this I hope that Dr Suñé will forgive me that scepticism, because actually his paper was way more interesting than I’d unjustly feared. But, additionally, in early 2019 a fuller version of it came out in print.1 But because my first reactions were to the 20-minute conference paper, not the final article, I think it’s interesting to start with what I thought of the paper, and to see how the article differs. The argument of the paper fell into three parts, as follows:

  1. The sources are biased: they are based on official records which had no interest in a neutral viewpoint; and they are, especially in the case of the eleventh-century chronicler Ibn Hayyān, tinged by a nostalgia for the strong caliphate born of living through the subsequent taifa era in which Christian raids helped break up the Andalusī state and Ibn Hayyān’s own family were ruined and he had to flee to Morocco.
  2. The sources report victory much more than defeat, even when the Christian sources of the time tell the opposite story; but these victories didn’t lead to conquest or elimination of any of the targets.
  3. From other sources we can even see that the Catalans and Navarrese gained ground against Islam in the period; we also see that the Caliphate expended a lot of gold to try and keep the Christians from banding together, so they were actually making their enemies stronger.

So the answer to my methodological objection was, obviously, use other sources, and fair enough, that’s me told. But I now had further questions, as the saying goes. The question I actually raised was whether this was even what Ibn Hayyān cared about, because at this stage I had a different dissertation pupil with whom I was coming to the conclusion that what Ibn Hayyān’s overall historical argument was that Islam has struggled with internal divisions pretty much from the death of the Prophet onwards, but that wherever they were involved the Berbers made things worse. But now I’d want to ask, most obviously, surely the Christian sources have exactly the same biases; can we really use them as a check on later Arabic sources when they’re just as interested in presenting their own side as ever-victorious and righteous, especially since the most relevant chronicles were actually written for rulers prosecuting campaigns against Islam whereas at least Ibn Hayyān wrote after the fall of the Umayyads and so out of reach of the distorting effect of their patronage (though admittedly, his main sources did not).2

On the other hand, and the reason I flagged this paper as one I needed to think about more, Dr Suñé was not wrong that despite everything that al-Mansur inflicted upon the Christian kingdoms, their territory did expand in this time. In the case of Catalonia, I think I can explain it as the filling-up (by government, rather than by people) of a substantial unclaimed space between the two polities; it wasn’t that the Muslims were losing ground, it’s more that since about 827 no-one beyond it had really ruled the space between, say, Lleida and Barcelona, and now, by creeping settlement and governmentalising processes I’ve written much too much about here already, the Christians partly did. I don’t know enough about Navarra but there it seems to be more complex: a land which had been notionally under the pact, and thus inside the dar al-Islam, but was really only controlled by the intercession of our favourite frontier warlord clan, the Banū Qāsī, was lost when they rebelled and were crushed, and so the edge of direct control actually expanded under the caliphate, as their territory was taken over, but its notional extent shrank because Navarra was now lost.3 Navarra then expanded somewhat during the reign of al-Mansur, sure, but mainly with respect to its Christian neighbours and, as I’ve pointed out, was by 1030 or so pretty much in charge of the north under Sancho the Great.4 But was that anything to do with the Caliphate? Perhaps only because its raids had diverted and weakened Navarra’s more exposed competitors, I’d say. So here I would have had counter-arguments, and it was presumably some sense of what these were that made me flag the paper.

(Obverse of) gold dinar of Caliph Hishām II of Spain, 999-1000, Grierson Collection, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.PG.1192

(Obverse of) gold dinar of Caliph Hishām II of Spain, 999-1000, Grierson Collection, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.PG.1192

Reverse of the same coin

Reverse of the same coin

But the bit I can’t contradict, or even explain, is the flow of gold, because it is very evident in the charters I know so well. I was by no means the first person to spot that over the course of the 970s and 980s the main operating currency around the city of Barcelona became Muslim gold – that was Gaspar Feliu, whom all praise – but I could see what he’d seen very easily. Even in the years after the sack of Barcelona in 985, a decent part of the payments that were made to sort out land tenure and endow repaired foundations were in mancuses.5 If they were at intermittent but perpetual war with the Caliphate, where was all the gold coming from? Both Feliu and after him Pierre Bonnassie opted for trade that we can’t really see as an explanation; we see the foreign goods people could acquire with this money and we see the money but we don’t see anyone actually doing the trade, and no-one is able to explain what the people of Barcelona had to sell that was bringing in so much gold except for waving their hands at the idea of slavery, which is fine except that again there’s no positive evidence; Arabic sources don’t talk about buying slaves in Barcelona and Christian ones don’t talk about importing slaves to Barcelona or enslaving people, or even really feature slaves in any number.6 Of course the goods were, in Graham Swift’s immortal wording, ‘perishable’, and therefore so might be the record, but it’s still a big silence.7 Maybe, therefore, diplomatic pay-offs are part of the answer (though I have to say that, prior to the succession Ramon Borrell in 993 at least, the counts did not pay for things they bought in mancuses, something that I’ve only just really realised this moment, so how those payments got into the market I don’t know).8

So there matters could have rested, except that firstly Dr Suñé published the article, in a journal I was about to turn up in myself indeed, and secondly I had a dissertation student who was essentially asking the same question, so I grabbed it down. But did I read it? Well, got to admit, no, I just never got to it. But because I care about you, my readership, and also about not looking badly underinformed when I write this blog, I have read it now, and it is a serious piece of work that I’ve had to think hard with. The basic contention Dr Suñé wants to make is that the Umayyad Caliphate was never really strong enough reliably to dominate all its Christian neighbours, that even at its most militarised it was unable to prevent them overall gaining territory from it, and that we should not see its fall as internally caused, but as the result of it having had to feed gold steadily to its enemies for some decades when what turned out to be a fatal civil war broke out in 1009 and both sides did what the government had been doing for ages and enlisted Christian help. Of course the chronicles don’t say this like this, but they wouldn’t, would they, and you can see it in the whole source complex even so. Such, anyway, is the argument. It’s quite a complex thesis, and it rests on a knowledge of both Christian and Arabic materials I’m not sure anyone’s brought to it before, and in particular a deep knowledge of the works of Ibn Idhārī, a thirteenth-century African chronicler with a very detailed account of the events in question.9 I have found about at least two Catalan border skirmishes I’d no idea were recorded by reading this article. I also don’t find the basic argument implausible in this fuller version. That being said, there are still a couple of things I think aren’t fully proven, and one of them prompts me to wonder if there isn’t another, slightly different way to read what was going on in the Iberian Peninsula over about 970 to 1010.

So, the first question I have is over the amount of ground the Christian principalities supposedly gained over the Caliphate during its purportedly dominant phase. To start with, there is the argument I raised above, about incursions into no-man’s land rather than conquest from an enemy. It’s not that Suñé has no evidence for this happening, but a lot of it is either very early, as in, dating to before the Caliphate proper and therefore during the period of Andalusī civil war around or just after 900, when to be honest it’s not really clear who owns these places even when they’re lost; or it’s very late, as in during or after that civil war of 1009-1013 we already mentioned; or it’s a bit weird.10 What do I mean, weird? Well, one reference, which is supposedly to prove Catalan gains in Anoià and Penedès, in Manresa and Barcelona respectively, cites a charter covering Castell Cornil in more northerly and easterly Osona instead, and not the earliest one from there either; I don’t understand what the point of this is, and it certainly doesn’t establish that these had previously been Muslim territories, rather than unclaimed.11 Another cite is la Garde-Freinet, the Muslim coastal fortress site in Provence that I’ve written about, which was indeed lost to the Christians in 972/73, but which was not clearly an Umayyad possession and which in any case hardly reflects on the situation in the Iberian Peninsula.12 I’m left thinking that there may not be that much good evidence for what Suñé argues here, as opposed to the governmental creep I know we can see in the charters.

La Garde-Freinet, seen from the fort on Massif des Maures

La Garde-Freinet, seen from the fort ruins on Massif des Maures, unquestionably a Muslim possession lost to the Christians but, importantly, not in the Iberian Peninsula… Photo by Patrick RouzetOwn work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

But there is also the question of the gold, as mentioned above. This is a problem that Dr Suñé faces head-on, because he sees the flow of wealth northwards even during the belligerent phase of the caliphate’s existence as crucial to the way it undermined itself. To his credit, he does not say it was trade or slaving that brought this money northwards, but his explanation still isn’t very convincing. Firstly he notes that Berber troops recruited from Africa were usually paid; then he notes that al-Mansur’s armies (but not those of his caliphal predecessors) had Christian contingents; so he assumes they must have been paid too. To this he adds the infamous tribute payments, the parías, which Anna Balaguer has shown funnelled huge amounts of wealth into Catalonia and Aragón. But the thing is, she shows it for later, because the parías, again, didn’t start till the civil war of 1009-1013. Suñé’s citation of her work says that it demonstrates, “the inflow of Andalusian gold into the Catalan counties during the period 941–1180”, but that date range is really misleading, because actually Anna notes a single raid of 945 (not 941), which is itself much debated, and then there’s nothing in her tables till the civil war.13 And this makes sense, because you’d hardly expect the Andalusī state to be paying tributes to the same people it was cyclically raiding at the same time. So that only leaves payment for military service, which worryingly is not actually attested, again, until the civil war. The only good example Suñé has before that is of exactly the thing he thinks didn’t normally happen, conquest and then subject military service, as some Leonese frontier counts around Astorga were apparently so subdued by al-Mansur’s attacks in 997 that they agreed to pay the Muslim tax on Christians and serve in the army when summoned, and were thus part of the infamous sack of Santiago de Compostela later that year, on the Muslim side.14 To me, this just doesn’t look like the kind of flow of money northwards that could fund a military recovery.

And yet, as said above, the gold did go north, whether we can explain it or not. So perhas a better question is whether Suñé is right about what the Umayyads, and their ‘Āmirid quasi-deputies, were actually trying to do. He reproaches them for not achieving the conquest of the places they attacked despite three or four or more goes, and says that without definitive military victory it’s clear that the Christians would always return to being a threat.15 I’m not sure what kind of victory would be definitive enough for him here; was such a victory achieved at any point in the history of Islamic Iberia? Maybe las Navas de Tolosa, supposedly the last hope of a unified Muslim resistance to the Christian conquests, but even that’s a debate.16 But it seems that Dr Suñé thinks that the natural aim should have been conquest and direct political takeover. To that I say that it just doesn’t seem to be what the rulers of al-Andalus set out to do, at least not since around 720 or so. Rather, their aim appears to have been to pillage, burn and terrorise, with the hope of two quite separate results: one, of immediate importance, booty with which to satisfy the military when they went off duty, and two, less important, possible submission from the enemy, thus guaranteeing safety of Muslims near the frontiers and, if there were any of those, beyond. Sometimes, as we’ve seen, that submission might one way or another technically bring the Christians into direct political subjection, at least for a while, but if they recognised the caliphate’s authority long enough not to interfere with it, that was often enough, as the caliphate usually had its own problems to sort out anyway. At any rate, this is how I see it after a few years teaching it.

Soldiers of al-Mansur, depicted in the thirteenth-century Cantigas de Santa Maria

Al-Mansur’s army, as depicted in the Cantigas de Santa Maria of King Alfonso X of Castile, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In the 970s, however, this shifted as al-Mansur realised that he could to a large extent solve those problems by recruiting soldiery from many more sources, so as to cut down on the ability of any one military power-base to defy him, and by paying for that by raiding the Christians much more often.17 Now, I think al-Mansur was smart enough to realise what many historians have said since, that the problem with a polity based on conquest is that it has to keep conquering, or else change its power-base. Any change to the power-base would probably have toppled al-Mansur from power, though; the continual, successful jihad he waged was critical to his importance. So conquest was not his aim; instead, the Christian principalities were, I think, a flock of metaphorical geese who, if killed, would stop laying the golden eggs of booty with which he paid his troops and celebrated his triumphs. Even removing their productive capacity would have made it harder for him to stay in control in Córdoba. So if gold got north, by trade, slavery, diplomatic payment, whatever, I think that was good for him, not least because he probably expected to take a decent tithe of it back southwards again every six or seven years. It might even have been a stable and reproducible system for a while. Now, I think Suñé may well be right that what went wrong with the system is that the Christians got too big to quell, and that al-Mansur’s less successful sons either couldn’t win so easily or picked their targets less well, lost the assurance of success and became vulnerable to internal opposition. But I think he may be missing the point of the ‘Āmirid strategy to say that they failed to conquer their opponents when they should have; to do so would probably have been the end of them. Instead, I think, like other rulers of many different sizes at the same sort of time, they found themselves facing the problem of what to do when enough people around you are getting rich that they no longer need to pay you as much attention as before to keep them important.

There isn’t really a good account of the history of the Iberian Peninsula either side of the year 1000 in English. Roger Collins’s is good, but is only twenty pages; Peter Scales’s old book gets at many of the important issues, but essentially does so by silently transcribing Ibn Hayyān; and I find myself usually recommending the first chapter of David Wasserstein’s book on the taifa kings even though it’s even older and principally about something else.18 This article by Suñé is a big step towards one, but it’s necessarily involved in debates which would completely swamp someone who was new to the era. There’s still no adequate account. Maybe I have to write one, some day. Or maybe Dr Suñé should, because I would definitely read it if he did!

1. Josep Suñé Arce, “Was the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba as Strong as Arab Chroniclers Claimed?” in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 35–49, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2018.1553376.

2. Ibn Hayyān’s principal sources were, supposedly, mostly-lost chronicles by two father-and-son historians, ‘Isā and Ahmad al-Razī, who wrote under the Caliphate. For more on Ibn Hayyān’s chronicle and its problems for us, see Manuela Marín, “El «Halcón Maltés» del arabismo español: el volume II/1 de al-Muqtabis de Ibn Ḥayyān” in al-Qanṭara Vol. 20 (Madrid 1999), pp. 543–549. There’s nothing in English, which is going to be a bit of a theme for this post.

3. I covered this in an IMC paper of my own long ago, but it’s no closer to being in print so instead I have to refer you to Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, La dawla de los Banū Qasī: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus, Estudios Árabes e Islámicos: Monografías 17 (Madrid 2010), on which it was heavily based, because there’s (yes) nothing in English.

4. Jonathan Jarrett, “Before the Reconquista: frontier relations in medieval Iberia 718 to 1031” in Javier Muñoz-Basols, Laura Lonsdale and Manuel Delgado (edd.), The Routledge Companion to Iberian Studies (London 2017), pp. 27–40, DOI: 10.4324/9781315709895.ch3, at pp. 29-30. There’s nothing (else) in English on Sancho the Great, except as patron of sculpture, and I really wish there was.

5. Gaspar Feliu y Montfort, “El condado de Barcelona en los siglos IX y X: organización territorial y económico-social” in Cuadernos de Historia Económica de Cataluña Vol. 7 (Barcelona 1972), pp. 9-31, translated as Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, “El comtat de Barcelona als segles IX i X: Organització territorial i econòmico-social” in Feliu, La llarga nit feudal: mil anys de pugna entre senyors i pagesos (València 2011), pp. 63–91. Such work as there is in English just refers to this, including my own, Jonathan Jarrett, “Currency Change in Pre-Millennial Catalonia: Coinage, Counts and Economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2009), pp. 217–243.

6. The best recent attempt to put together what evidence there is for this trade is Thomas Freudenhammer, “Rafica: Frühmittelalterlicher Karawanenhandel zwischen dem Westfrankenreich und Al-Andalus” in Vierteljahrschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte Vol. 105 (Stuttgart 2018), pp. 391–406. There is nothing in English…

7. Graham Swift, Last Orders (London 1986), p. 285.

8. This’d be a long footnote if I gave all the references, but the short version is that in all of Borrell II’s sales he pays in solidi, or at least the price is given in them. Since there were no coins of that denomination in Catalonia, what the prices were actually paid in is another question, but since Borrell did run his own coinage—see Jarrett, “Currency Change”—you’d expect him to use that, really.

9. Very little of Ibn Idhārī is available to me, at least until and unless I actually learn Arabic. The bit I know is Giorgio Levi della Vida, “Córdoba de la primera a la segunda conquista de la ciudad por los berberiscos (Nov. 1009–May. 1013) seg&uuacute;n al-Bayān al-Mugrib de Ibn ‘Idārī”, ed. Claudio Sánchez Albornoz & trans. I. Arias in Cuadernos de Historia de España Vol. 5 (Buenos Aires 1946), pp. 148–169, which is fascinating but not the whole text by any means! It does, however, include the bit that Dr Suñé uses as a worked example (“Umayyad Caliphate”, pp. 4-5) of how, when faced with multiple accounts, the Arabic chroniclers choose the highest numbers for Christian casualties they can find. Now, this is actually an odd bit to choose, as though the sources do say what Dr Suñé says they say, on this occasion the victorious Muslims were Berber troops actually opposing the Catalan mercenaries bought in by one of the Ummayad claimants in the civil war of 1009-1013. This can’t really be pro-Umayyad bias, therefore, and I think this is an agenda that Dr Suñé misses. Ibn Idhārī seems to me, indeed, to have been writing at least partly to argue against Ibn Hayyān, who seems to have blamed Berbers for almost everything that went wrong in al-Andalus. Throughout his account of the civil war, therefore, Ibn Idhārī argues that the Berbers were always the staunch and righteous defenders of al-Andalus, but the corrosive fear and mistrust that they met from their supposedly fellow Muslims undid all their good attempts. What this means for the argument here is that we need to consider that the chroniclers had specific as well as general biases…

10. Referring especially to Suñé, “Umayyad Caliphate”, pp. 11-12, with conquests of 907-918 (p. 11) or of lands which we simply don’t know were ever Muslim ruled, because the evidence cited is the work of the team led by Ramon Martí on place-names in palatio. You know my views on that theory, but in case you thought I was a lone voice in the wilderness see also Xavier Ballestín, “Consideraciones acerca del termino árabe balāṭ, su equivalencia con la voz latina palatium y su presencia en las fuentes andalusíes, magrebíes y orientales” in Ballestín and Ernesto Pastor (eds), Lo que vino de oriente: horizontes, praxis y dimensión material de los sistemas de dominacion fiscal en al-Andalus (ss. VII-IX), British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 2525 (Oxford 2013), pp. 28–42.

11. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia volum IV: Els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica 53 (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, I, no. 654, cited by Suñé, “Umayyad Caliphate”, p. 12 n. 74. The other primary source in the note takes a 1022 report of Islamic presence at Montserrat four generations earlier as true; but not only do we have documentation from Montserrat from nearly a century before (e. g. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, I, no. 273, of 924) that makes no mention of this, there was an obvious value to the rhetoric of conquest (which I discuss in Jonathan Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2003), pp. 229–258, DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-9462.2004.00128.x), and here again I can’t but feel that Dr Suñé has not felt it necessary to subject his Christian sources to the same critique as he does his Arabic ones.

12. My piece is Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates? ‘Islandness’ in the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet” in al-Masāq Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 196–222, but Suñé cites Kees Versteegh, “The Arab Presence in France and Switzerland in the 10th Century” in Arabica Vol. 37 (Leiden 1990), pp. 359–388, which to be honest is a better starting point, as I had other points to make in mine.

13. Suñé, “Umayyad Caliphate”, pp. 13-14, citing p. 13 n. 84 Anna M. Balaguer, Del Mancús a la dobla: Or i paries d’Hispània, Col·lecció J. Botet i Siso 2 (Barcelona 1993), pp. 42 & 53, the table in question being on the latter.

14. Suñé, “Umayyad Caliphate”, p. 10, mentioned again p. 13.

15. Ibid. pp. 10-12.

16. For example, compare Martín Alvira Cabrer, “Las Navas de Tolosa: the beginning of the end of the ‘Reconquista’? The battle and its consequences according to the Christian sources of the thirteenth century” in Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies Vol. 14 (Abingdon 2012), pp. 45–51, and Bernard F. Reilly, “Las Navas de Tolosa and the changing balance of power”, ibid., pp. 83–87, part of a special issue of nine short articles about the significance of the battle.

17. For al-Mansur I tend to use Philippe Sénac, Almanzor: el azote del año mil, trans. Antoni Furió (Valencia 2011), simply because I own it, but there is also Xavier Ballestín, Al-Mansur y la dawla amiriya: una dinámica de poder y legitimidad en el occidente musulmán medieval, UB 78 (Barcelona 2004), which must also be worth a look, and at least an introduction in English can be found in Roger Collins, Caliphs and Kings: Spain, 796-1031, A History of Spain 5 (Chichester 2014), pp. 185-198.

18. Ibid., pp. 185-204; Peter C. Scales, The Fall of the Caliphate of Córdoba: Berbers and Andalusis in conflict, Medieval Iberian Peninsula 9 (Leiden 1994); David Wasserstein, The Rise and Fall of the Party-Kings: politics and society in Islamic Spain 1002-1086 (Princeton NJ 1985), pp. 55-82.

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


Different sorts of rulers on the edges

View over the Universitat de Girona

View over the Universitat de Girona taken earlier today by your author

Hullo again! I actually write this from a hotel in Girona, where I was kindly invited to give a guest lecture, because when I would ordinarily write the week’s post I’ll be travelling back by the dubious offices of Ryanair, so things are going on to which, let’s be optimistic, I will some day soon catch up. Right now, however, the post I promised you was about the culmination, for now, in 2018, of my network project for ‘rethinking the medieval frontier’. Now, I was more or less set last week for the need this week to write up a report on that conference, and then while writing last week’s, I was reminded as I linked to the project blog that I actually already did so, there rather than here, within literal months of the conference actually happening. So the first point of this post is to point you at that account, which is here:

Report on 1st Conference

There are photos and everything, and also links to others’ reports should you (rightly) think that something I put on a project blog might seek to emphasise the positive out of all proportion. But what, of course, that post has fairly little of, except in phrasing, is me, and what, as I have often said is the point of a blog except to give the Internet more of yourself? So secondarily in this post I want to talk a bit more about where my paper came from, where it was and is intended to lead, and why, in fact, I was even reading up on ‘Abd al-Rahmān ibn Marwān al-Ŷillīqī. Since that is kind of gratuitous, though hopefully interesting, I’ll stick it behind a cut even though it’s not very long, and encourage you to go read about other interesting people and their thoughts via that link first. Continue reading