Category Archives: Islamic Crescent

One ruler, one mint, one type (keep moving)

Apparently I was mainly thinking about coins in late spring of 2016, as I seem to have stubbed a lot of posts in a row about numismatics. This is the third and last of them for a little while, which was occasioned by teaching the rise of Islam for my first-year module Empire and Aftermath at Leeds. I like to do this using the coinage as the key primary evidence, because I can and because, as has been observed by greater scholars than me, basically all the Islamic textual evidence for the actual seventh-century spread and conquest is post facto, written deep in hindsight, while the limited contemporary evidence we have is either largely written by outsiders and deeply hostile or written by non-Islamic insiders whose perspectives were unhelpfully local.1 Getting a picture of what was going on over, say, all of Syria, Palestine and Iraq between about 650 and 700 beyond the rough succession of caliphs and some key battles, is therefore very difficult, and even that can be tricky; consider, after all, that this is the period during which Shi’a Islam separated from the Sunni branch and each side’s historiography has a quite different view, not just about which caliphs were legitimate, but even about when they ruled and whose relations they were.2 The coins don’t settle those questions (though they open up others about faction and segmentation3) but they are at least directly contemporary sources from inside the territories newly run by Islam. That is, assuming that we can correctly date and attribute them. And that’s where the fun starts, of course!

'Derivative Arab-Byzantine coin of uncertain mint and date

Derivative Arab-Byzantine coin of uncertain mint and date (636×695 to be safe?), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

The biggest problem here is that at first, the new authorities of Islam basically imitated the coinage they found in the areas they took over, by way of maintaining tax systems and basic economic exchange. It wasn’t until the 690s that Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (of whom we have heard before here) unified the various disparate post-Byzantine and post-Persian coinages he now had in his realms. Up to that point, his territories ran a pseudo-Byzantine gold coinage, a pseudo-Persian silver one and a whole scatter of pseudo-Byzantine and some pseudo-Persian copper-alloy ones.4 Most of the copper-alloy, at least, carry little or no identifying information. It is generally assumed that there was a transition from things more or less like their originals, through things less like them with Greek rather than Latin legends to things even less like with Arabic text on them to the so-called Standing Caliph coinage and then unity, but actually, despite painstaking analyses of what was being restruck onto what, what is found with what and how weights might have changed down an utterly hypothetical declining scale, as I’ve said here before, we still can’t honestly say that all of those different sorts of coin and a whole set of ‘imitative’ issues weren’t being struck alongside each other, by issuers ranging from the state through town councils to local blacksmiths.5 The closer one gets to the latter picture, the more informative the coins seem about how the process of Islamic takeover might have looked on the ground, which is to say, more or less like a prolonged vacation by state authority, saving occasional visitations, and then some episodes of suddenly-tightening regulation, maybe only in some places.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Constans II struck perhaps in Constantinople in 643-644, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3959

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Constans II struck perhaps in Constantinople in 643-644, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3959

Some day I hope to write about this, as I’ve said, but today I just want to write about coins like the one above. You see, one of the exceptionally problematic aspects of the coin evidence for a normal tale of military conquest and take-over is that, to all appearances, imperial small change continued to arrive in the ‘conquered’ territories for some years after their ‘loss’ by the Empire. This is really obvious, because the issuing emperor changed at about the right point; the supposedly-crucial Battle of Yarmuk that effectively debarred the Byzantines from Syria took place in 636, as near as we can be certain, Emperor Heraclius died in 641 and after some confusion his grandson Constans II succeeded, and Constans’s copper-alloy coins are frequent finds in Syria, arriving, it seems, up till about 655 (though dating Constans’s coins relies on those guesses about weight that I myself don’t trust).6 So why was the Empire still shipping in or selling to its supposed enemies? Part of an answer may lie in these coins, which are found very frequently in Syria and nearly as often in Cyprus, but don’t really occur elsewhere in the Empire.7 They look very much as if they were being struck in Cyprus for use in the now-Islamic provinces; it has been argued instead that they were being made in Syria and exported, but if so they occur more than any other sort of probably Syro-Palestinian issue in the island.8 By the 670s the Byzantine Empire and the Caliphate had even agreed that neither of them could effectively take Cyprus off the other, and so there was established a condominium in which their two sets of representatives shared the island’s taxes; one wonders how many other areas might early on have had some such fuzzy arrangement in which the Empire grudgingly recognised the conquerors as new quasi-independent governors but still demanded recognition of its dominion in the form of tax, and then that situation got wiped out of potential record by changes in the 670s to 690s.9 If such areas had made a pact with the Caliphate, both sides might have quite happily claimed them as their own without either really having much control over them until they made an effort to assert it.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Heraclius struck in Cyprus 626-627, image from Numista

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Heraclius struck in Cyprus 626-627, image from Numista where credited to Classical Numismatic Group

But there is a numismatic problem with such a hypothesis! And that problem is, these coins do not bear a mint-mark indicating Cyprus like the authentically-Cypriot one above (KVP or KVPR for Kypros), but carry the unhelpfully unspecific legends of the regular issues of Constantinople. And yet they do not look like the contemporary metropolitan coins of Constans II. Furthermore, just to confuse matters, coins that did carry the Cyprus mint-mark were almost certainly being made in Syria, imitating the earlier issues of Heraclius and Constans II!10 So, a number of options open up, one being that these sort-of-regular coins are actually somehow imitative or unofficial (whatever those words really mean in a situation like this), perhaps because there was a mint on Cyprus, potentially running under Islamic control and making what those authorities thought real coin looked like, or otherwise, that Constantinople was making an export-standard copper-alloy issue that was then being shipped to Cyprus for distribution into Syria.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Constans II struck at Constantinople in 643-644, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3952

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Constans II struck at Constantinople in 643-644, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3952

I’m not sure which of these hypotheses I find less likely, to be honest: the former requires effective forgers who nonetheless didn’t fully understand the system into which they were passing coin, and who made their coin larger and neater than the regular issues they were imitating, in which case what was the profit? and the latter seems like an administrative headache with no clear gain except keeping Cyprus slightly further from fiscal independence. But the latter also incurs numismatic disdain because numismatists really try to avoid hypotheses in which a single mint is issuing distinct sorts of coin of the same standard at the same time. They will even mount hypotheses on the basis that that couldn’t happen.11 Now, I’ve disproved a couple of these already in my small way, but in this instance I’m not so sure it needs doing; although we as a discipline don’t usually admit it, it’s very unclear as to why the Empire put mint-marks on its copper-alloy coinage. It’s often assumed that it was for accounting and authentication purposes, either knowing how much a mint was making or being able to track dud coins back to their issuing mint, but in the former case the only place you could do that was surely at the mint itself, before dispersal into currency, in which case why bother marking them? and in the second, it’s very peculiar that it was done on the effectively worthless metal of the small change but not on the highly-protected gold of the solidus, and no-one ever tries to explain that.12 Whatever the reason was, though, it’s not hard to imagine the mid-seventh century involving circumstances in which that just didn’t apply. Either way, the coins are telling us something about what’s going on here that a purely textual approach will never disclose; but numismatics also has to shed an assumption or two before we can do the kind of work with it that opportunities like this make possible…


1. Compare Hugh Kennedy, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: the Islamic Near East from the sixth to the eleventh century, 2nd edn (Harlow 2004), Robert G. Hoyland, Seeing Islam As Others Saw It: A Survey And Evaluation Of Christian Jewish And Zoroastrian Writings On Early Islam (Princeton 1997), online here, and now James Howard-Johnston, Witnesses to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century (Oxford 2010), DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199208593.001.0001/acprof-9780199208593.

2. It’s actually quite hard to find a good reference for the history of this division, but Chase F. Robinson, “The Rise of Islam, 600‒705” in idem (ed.), The Formation of the Islamic World, Sixth to Eleventh Centuries, The New Cambridge History of Islam 1 (Cambridge 2010), pp. 171–225 at pp. 193-208, does the job OK.

3. Adam R. Gaiser, “What Do We Learn About the Early Khārijites and Ibāḍiyya from Their Coins?” in Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 130 (Washington DC 2010), pp. 167–187.

4. The best guide here is Stefan Heidemann, “The Merger of Two Currency Zones in Early Islam: the Byzantine and Sasanian impact on the circulation in Byzantine Syria and northern Mesopotamia” in Iran Vol. 36 (London 1998), pp. 95–112, online here.

5. I’m thinking here of Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications 12 (Washington D.C. 2008) as both guide and target of critique.

6. Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins, pp. 19-21, but see now Marcus Phillips, “The Import of Byzantine Coins to Syria Revisited” in Tony Goodwin (ed.), Arab-Byzantine Coins and History (London 2012), pp. 39–72, online here.

7. Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins, p. 21, and Phillips, “Import”, p. 42. Philip Grierson attributed these to Emperor Constantine III (641), despite that ruler not living long enough to reach the ‘anno III’ they indicate, but correctly noting that there is also a Sicilian variant of the issue: Philip Grierson, Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection, Volume Two: Phocas to Theodosius III 602–717 (Washington DC 1968, repr. 1993), 2 vols, II pp. 396-397 and 399 (DOC III.2 Heraclonas 5 & 9).

8. See n. 7 above; Foss argues for Syrian manufacture.

9. On which see now Luca Zavagno, Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (ca. 600-800): an island in transition, Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies 21 (London 2017), pp. 72-86, but with specific reference to numismatics also Zavagno, “Betwixt the Greeks and the Saracens: Coins and coinage in Cyprus in the seventh and the eighth century” in Byzantion Vol. 81 (Athens 2011), pp. 448–483, online here.

10. Regular coins of Constans II: Grierson, Dumbarton Oaks Catalogue III.2, pp. 445-446 (DOC III.2 Constans II 62), and Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins, pp. 20-21; the ‘Cyprus imitation’ issues are discussed ibid. pp. 22-24, emphasising the volume of the issue, and Zavagno, “Betwixt Greeks and Saracens”, pp. 466-467.

11. For example, one more relevant than the other, see Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, “La moneda barcelonina del segle X. Altres novetats comtals” in Acta numismàtica Vol. 38 (Sabadell 2008), pp. 91–121 at pp. 91-106, to which cf. Jonathan Jarrett, “Currency Change in Pre-Millennial Catalonia: Coinage, Counts and Economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2009), pp. 217–243, or Franz Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I in Constantinople 713–976: Structure of the Issues; Corpus of Coin Finds; Contribution to the Iconographic and Monetary History (Lancaster PA 2007), p. 45, to which cf. Jonathan Jarrett, “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (London 2017), pp. 514–535 at pp. 521-522. In both cases the authors themselves invalidate the assumption in the same work, Crusafont in “Moneda barcelonina”, pp. 106-121 and Füeg in Corpus, p. 39.

12. Thus for example Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 20-24 (inc. p. 21: “it was desirable, for administrative reasons and as a precaution against counterfeiting…”), or Cécile Morrisson, “Précis de numismatique byzantine” in eadem, Georg-D. Schaaf and Jean-Michel Spieser, Byzance et sa monnaie (IVe‒XVe siècle) : Précis de numismatique par Cécile Morrisson suivi du catalogue de la collection Lampart par Georg-D. Schaaf, Réalités Byzantines 15 (Paris 2015), pp. 7–104 at pp. 61-69 (simply no explanation).

Many many Barber Institute coins now online

Following up on that previous post more quickly than usual, the mention of Dr Maria Vrij of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, my honourable successor and exceeder in post there as Curator of Coins, and also the use of the University of Birmingham’s online objects catalogue to instance a Barber coin, both lead me together to pointing something out that’s deserved notice since it began in March 2016 with some of the Barber’s Roman Republican coinage, which is: they have managed to put really quite a lot more of their coin collection online since I left you know!

An anonymous bronze quadrans of the Roman Republic, struck at Rome in 215-212 BC, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0073

For a while Maria was keeping me posted as uploads went up, so that I could post about them here, but since I wasn’t really posting and she soon had a new exhibition to cope with, that stopped and I’ve only just got as far as the first stub I made to mention this to you all. What this means is that the phenomenon has meanwhile achieved very serious proportions! When I took on that collection, 188 items were online, out of a collection of nearly 16,000; by the time I left, not least due to the efforts of Maria, that was 462. But since I left, in four fairly short years (three only 365 days each, I believe!), that total has risen to more than the 3,000 items the search will find at once, even in just Byzantine coins. I can determine that it includes 2,109 Roman coins, including 400-odd Republican pieces, but not including 22 Late Roman pieces of about 250, so that at least is still ongoing work, and the Byzantine collection doesn’t yet include the coins of Constantine XI so can’t be finished yet either, but it’s amazing what has been achieved. That achievement includes the digitisation and getting online of 908 Sasanian Persian coins, a larger collection than most other places in the world and surely pretty much the only one online; it includes the fascinating Mardin hoard, which is very worn Roman and Byzantine coins that were some of them countermarked for use in the medieval Islamic world and therefore presumably were all used thus, since they were buried together; and a selection of Trebizond and Vandal stuff, to name but a few things I can find in searches.1

An anonymous copper-alloy follis struck in the Byzantine Empire between 976 and 1035 and then later countermarked 'Saif' and lost as part of Mardin Hoard, Barber Institute MH0099

An anonymous copper-alloy follis struck in the Byzantine Empire between 976 and 1035 and then later countermarked ‘Saif’ and lost as part of Mardin Hoard, Barber Institute MH0099

So great things have been afoot, and so many feet have they been a’ that I can’t actually determine how great they are; but we are talking records in the thousands, all with good images and metadata that tell you at least something about the rulers who issued them and sometimes the collectors who found them and made it possible for the Barber to make them available all these years later. More is doubtless still to come, but meanwhile I invite you to have a browse, follow some cross-references and revel in the numismatic riches of it all!

A gold hyperperon of Emperor John III Vatatzes of Nicaea struck at Nicaea in 1227-1254, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6081

A gold hyperperon of Emperor John III Vatatzes of Nicaea struck at Nicaea in 1227-1254, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6081. Note the way that the method of striking with two dies has left the image of Christ doubled up on the obverse!


1. The Mardin Hoard has actually been exciting people for long enough to be published in print, at least in summary, as N. M. Lowick, S. Bendall & P. D. Whitting, The Mardin Hoard: Islamic countermarks on Byzantine folles (London 1977).

Name in Print XXI: Islands are the New Frontiers

After the drought, apparently, cometh the monsoon. The short delay in posting this caused by the International Medieval Congress just gone has seen me with another publication and I hadn’t even told you about this one yet!

Vol. 31 issue 2 of al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, entitled Not the Final Frontier: The World of Early Medieval Islands

Vol. 31 issue 2 of al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, entitled Not the Final Frontier: The World of Early Medieval Islands, editors Jonathan Jarrett, Luca Zavagno and Rebecca Darley

What is this, you may ask, and to that I say, it is a special issue of the well-known journal of the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean, al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, to wit volume 31 issue 2, which has been edited by Luca Zavagno of Bilkent University, Rebecca Darley of Birkbeck, University of London and also myself. If you cast your reader’s mind back you may remembr me saying Luca and I had got some money to run a program of workshops on Mediterranean islands in the early Middle Ages, on which Luca is preparing a book, a program that somehow turned into a small international conference about which I will eventually report but is already documented here; this issue is the proceedings of that conference.

Cover page of Jonathan Jarrett, "Nests of Pirates: the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet compared" in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31.2, ‘Not the Final Frontier’: The World of Medieval Islands (Abingdon 2019), 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101

Cover page of Jonathan Jarrett, "Nests of Pirates: the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet compared" in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31.2, ‘Not the Final Frontier’: The World of Medieval Islands (Abingdon 2019), 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101

Now, I spoke at that conference, setting up a deliberately odd comparison between the Balearic Islands and a coastal, landward space, the century-long Muslim colony at la Garde-Freinet in Provence, so I am in this issue, meaning I have a new article out.1 The basic point is that though you’d think there are some pretty basic defining characteristics of islands, they don’t affect how island spaces work as much as other factors, and as a result a landward space can be just as or more ‘insular’ as a geographic island, depending on other things. When I gave that paper I did so with very little knowledge of the areas concerned; by the time I submitted it I knew rather more; and by the time I’d finished dealing with the reviewers’ comments, I knew quite a lot, including about Malta (which is in there too, now), though not enough to prevent me running into someone on Tuesday who had published on la Garde-Freinet whose work I’d missed.2 Finding that stuff out, as it so often seems to do when I go looking for something, exposed a number of assumptions and flaws in the historiography, so there is definitely scholarship going on here, but the overall point that scholarship is serving is a little quirky. I still think it’s interesting and a good piece, however!

Start page of Luca Zavagno, Jonathan Jarrett and Rebecca Darley, "Editorial" in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31.2, ‘Not the Final Frontier’: The World of Medieval Islands (Abingdon 2019), 129–39, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1596645

Start page of Luca Zavagno, Jonathan Jarrett and Rebecca Darley, "Editorial" in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31.2, ‘Not the Final Frontier’: The World of Medieval Islands (Abingdon 2019), 129–39, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1596645

Now, in fact, because of being an editor, I’m actually in this issue twice, because Luca, Rebecca and I co-wrote the ‘Editorial’.3 Actually, truth be told, Luca wrote it, then we severally interveneed, but it’s basically Luca’s text and ideas, and Luca has read a lot about islands and can synthesize it very thoroughly. Otherwise you can find in this issue a study of Mediterranean sea traffic measured from shipwrecks by diving archaeologist Matthew Harpster of Koç University in Istanbul; Luca’s own thorough comparison of most of the islands of the Mediterranean in their transition from Byzantine to Islamic rule; a painstaking study of Chios, an island in the Ægean made unusual by its cash crop, mastic gum, which can be produced almost nowhere else; and Rebecca’s comparison of two extra-Mediterranean islands, Sokotra and Sri Lanka, to bring out some complications of how concepts of island and frontier interact that you couldn’t get without such exterior comparisons, then reflected back in on what the rest of us were doing.4 It’s all quite clever, if I do say so myself, and you might like to read it!

Statistics, as ever: the ‘Editorial’ went through four drafts but I only dealt with two of them, and was eleven months from submission of final version to print, which is really pretty good though demanded a lot to get it done; and my article went in nine days behind that so is basically the same stats, but went through five drafts as I picked up more information. The publication time lowers my average a bit, and the copy-editors were among the best I’ve ever dealt with, especially given that between us all we probably cite or quote in ten languages. So overall, despite tight timescales and some obscure procedures, this has been a good publication experience and I’m extremely pleased that one of my projects has delivered in such a tangible way.


1. Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates: the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet compared” in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31.2, ‘Not the Final Frontier’: The World of Medieval Islands (Abingdon 2019), pp. 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101.

2. That being Andreas Obenaus, “… Diese haben nämlich die maurischen Piraten verwüstet” in idem, Eugen Pfister & Birgit Tremml (edd.), Schrecken der Händler und Herrscher: Piratengemeinschaften in der Geschichte (Wien 2012), pp. 33-54 at pp. 44-49.

3. Luca Zavagno, Jonathan Jarrett & Rebecca Darley, “Editorial” in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31.2, ‘Not the Final Frontier’: The World of Medieval Islands (Abingdon 2019), pp. 129–39, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1596645.

4. Luca Zavagno, “‘Going to the Extremes’: The Balearics and Cyprus in the Early Medieval Byzantine Insular System’, ibid. pp. 140-157, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602375; Matthew Harpster, “Sicily: A Frontier in the Centre of the Sea”, ibid. pp. 158-170, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602748; Nikolas Bakirtzis and Xenophon Moniaros, “Mastic Production in Medieval Chios: Economic Flows and Transitions in an Insular Setting”, ibid. pp. 171-195, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1596647; and Rebecca Darley, “The Island Frontier: Socotra, Sri Lanka and the Shape of Commerce in the Late Antique Western Indian Ocean”, ibid. pp. 223-241, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1604930.

Enlisting medieval history against the Islamic State

Every now and then most medieval historians must get told that their discipline is ‘useless’. Usually this is being done by politicians out to shrink budgets, and they think we’re an easy target, though as Charles Clark found out, sometimes we are better armed for that combat than they expect. (Much better therefore just to cut funding in secret, as Australia’s former education minister Simon Birmingham chose to! Although as far as I know medieval historians were not among the victims that time.) Nonetheless, history can get into trouble when it preaches its utility; perhaps that’s why the best such preach was by America’s finest news source, The Onion, rather than by an academic historian. Usually, though, the problems that history is called upon to address are much more current affairs than the medievalists can easily get purchase on. But an obvious exception was the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which it’s easy to find people calling ‘medieval’ without looking terribly hard. If this was a return of the Middle Ages to the world, what did medievalists have to say about it? In early 2016, as I mentioned, I got to hear two attempts, and they’re worth comparing, especially in the hindsight we now just about enjoy.1

Cover of Hugh Kennedy, The Caliphate (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2016)

Cover of Hugh Kennedy, The Caliphate (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2016)

First of these was by Professor Hugh Kennedy, at that stage just finishing up writing the above.2 He was keen to stress that there certainly were ways in which ISIS was medieval, not just because Islamic thought doesn’t necessarily impose the division of medieval from modern that Western thought does (on which more below), but because of conscious medievalism on the parts of the terrorists’ public image manufactory and even its deeper theology. The Qu’ran, after all, was written down in the (early) Middle Ages; most of the thought about it that ISIS used was also medieval hadith (in the western periodization in all cases), and its political claim to a caliphate, which regarded pretty much all other branches of Islam, as murtadis (apostates) or Rafidis (ISIS’s term for Shi’ites), required it to strike its root as early as possible in the succession to the Prophet, before those divisions had arisen; that first unity was what they professed to renew. Very few later heroic figures or thinkers therefore got into their theology, as those figures themselves were suspect. Now, that would place ISIS’s historical reference point somewhere around AD 650, but their visual imagery was very often taken from a century or two later, being pretty consciously ‘Abbasid.

ISIS jihadis posed for propaganda video on horseback with black banners

ISIS jihadis posed for propaganda video on horseback with black banners

Perhaps this doesn’t look that medieval to the outsider, but let me quote to you a story supposedly told by the first Umayyad Emir of Spain, of the time when he was feeling to Africa from the Middle East after his family had largely been exterminated by the ‘Abbasid rebellion of AD 750:

“As I was on a certain day sitting under cover of my tent, to shelter myself from the rain, which fell heavily, and watching my eldest son Sulaiman, then about four years old, who was playing in front of it, I saw him suddenly enter the door, crying violently; and, soon after, he ran towards me and clung to my bosom for protection. Not knowing what he meant, I pushed him away; but the child clung still more to me, as one seized with violent fear, and began uttering such exclamations as children are wont to utter when they are frightened. I then left the tent, that I might see what caused his fear; when lo ! I saw the whole village in confusion, and the inhabitants running to and fro in great consternation. I went a little further on, and saw the black banners fluttering in the wind. At sight of these a younger brother of mine, who had also rushed out of the tent, and was with me at the time, began to fly at the top of his speed, saying, ‘Away, away with thee, O brother! for yonder black banners are the banners of the sons of ‘Abbas.’ Hearing this, I hastily grasped some dinars which I had just at hand, and fled precipitately out of the village with my child and my younger brother.”3

You can read the rest of it yourself if you like, but suffice it to say, the brother doesn’t make it to the next scene. So this has resonance, and the people who set it up knew that. But more subtle than that, argued Hugh, was the vision put forward by ISIS’s erstwhile magazine, Dabiq. The name itself was a clue: it is a town on the Syrian-Turkish border, as I guess we now know because of the efforts ISIS made to take it, but it’s important to them because it was, according to one prophecy, where the final confrontation between Islam and ‘Rome’ (i. e. Byzantium, in its original context, but for ISIS basically the West) was to take place. Not many people knew that when the magazine started, I think, and this is apparently far from the only such reference, to apocalyptic lore or particular theological slurs or just plain Islamic knowledge.4 Hugh said that he had struggled to place some of them, and you’d think he would be well qualified. Now of course this raises the question: if an expert in Islamic history isn’t catching their full drift, who is the audience for this kind of highly erudite theology? Well, doubtless there were (and are) people who were drawn in by the theology itself, but what may also have been happening here was a performance of superior Islamic knowledge; the normal reader didn’t always know what they meant but he or she could see that the writers know their Islam a lot better than the reader, average or indeed expert… So this is medievalism put to work, whether we like it or not.

Seminar poster for Julia McClure, «A New Politics of the Middle Ages: A Global Middle Ages for a Global Modernity", presented at the Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 3 February 2016

A western view was more in evidence at Leeds on 3rd February 2016, however, when Julia McClure of the University of Warwick (then, anyway) came to address the Medieval History Seminar with the title, “A New Politics of Middle Ages: a global Middle Ages for a global modernity”.5 ISIS were only one of her examples of the ways in which modern political agendas appropriate the Middle Ages as a seat of all that was barbaric, cruel, irrational and so on. Despite my anciently mixed feelings about it I still think Kathleen Davis’s Periodization and Sovereignty has the best explanation of this I’ve read, suggesting that progress narratives work best if you’re pejorative about the state before and emphasise how far you’ve come and that winds up putting a barrier of transition between you and the past which it would be barbaric, irrational and undeveloped to breach. Then you can start applying the category to other places and taking them over because they’re not really politically grown up like what we are; sound familiar?6 Anyway, this was not where Dr McClure went with it, or with ISIS; instead she invoked the idea of ‘multiple modernities’, weakening the idea that our way of being modern is definitive and attempts by different competitors to claim the pinnacle from others; and we should admit that some modernities (for her, Marxism) have failed.7 Having done that, however—and for me this was where I felt a skip in the logic—we should choose to emphasise not the violence and conflict with which agencies like ISIS want to populate the medieval past and thus modernity, but the contact, inter-cultural transmission and general getting along between cultures that the Middle Ages can also exemplify, and let that be our message for those who would make the Middle Ages in their chosen anti-image.8

Mihrab in the Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba

Mihrab in the Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba, by Ingo Mehlingown work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Much of this was therefore familiar to me, but some of her examples were truly ill-chosen. Above, for example, we have some of the inside of the once-Mosque of Córdoba, which Dr McClure invoked as an example of cultural fusion. And in as much as there is Islamic-style architecture justly lauded in what is now a cathedral, yes, there is fusion there; but given that it was first converted into a mosque by coercion then recaptured by violence for Christianity some centuries later, soon after which all Muslims in the relevant country were given a choice between conversion or expulsion, I do think the context should change how we read this monument! And indeed, Dr McClure said it showed how even in periods of conflict cultures still interpenetrate, showing the power of contact to survive conflict, but, as Michael Berube once said Auerbach said, “Ew ew ew ew ew!” Is it then OK to conquer people and nick their stuff as long as it’s a cultural growth experience? This was a building repeatedly established by the assertion of domination over one group by another and it is exactly the sort of thing that ISIS used and use to make their audiences angry at the ‘Crusaders’.9 Other examples included the adoption of Byzantine modes of decoration in the Church of il Redentore in Venice borrowed from the Hagia Sophia in what’s now Istanbul; that’s true but the fact that the Venetians also sacked and took over the city from which they got the idea again spoils it as a multicultural example for me, you know?10

The Chiesa del Redentore, Venice

The Chiesa del Redentore, monument to successful colonialism! By Il_Redentore.jpg: Wknight94derivative work: Alberto Fernandez Fernandez (talk) – Il_Redentore.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The problem here for me is not that Dr McClure’s paper was inaccurate, therefore. It’s that to follow her lead would be simply to choose another dominant modernity, or medievalism indeed, which would trump what anyone else sees as important. It’s not ‘multiple’ at all and neither does it seem to me decolonised; it’s still the western liberal philosophy being rolled out as a model to elsewhere. Of course, I am myself an exponent and a beneficiary of that western liberal philosophy but my problem with the strategy, if we were supposed to be applying this to an entity like ISIS, is that they simply wouldn’t have cared. Even if they did, they had a good enough grasp of the history to assert their own dominant medievalism, and their version of history arguably involved less special pleading…

As I see it, the basic problem actually just comes down to a clash of two maxims. I am a big believer in the basic philosophy “do what thou wilt, an it harm none”, and not just because of the subjunctive in it, but it sometimes runs up hard against one I’ve seen attributed to Isaac Newton or Thomas Jefferson but have never been able to trace properly, which runs, “No man can have peace longer than his neighbour wishes”.11 What do you do when the other party doesn’t care about harming none? We could, I suppose, have tried to have video-conference debates with ISIS-inclined imams where we posed the western alternative and the virtues of inter-cultural tolerance and contact, and it would just have made it clearer how effective blowing up Palmyra would be in getting ‘Rome’ to commit forces for the final conflict. ISIS never wanted peace. Given that starting position, why would the ‘Crusader’ gospel of tolerance ever have been interesting to their potential supporters?

So the medievalists of 2016 didn’t really have the answers, it seems. I’ve explained why I think Dr McClure’s suggestions ineffective already, but even Hugh, famous for his knowledge in the field, had few suggestions to offer about how to contain ISIS beyond that we needed to understand what they were doing and that it was smart. That may, I suppose, have helped us avoid mistakes (like having white professionals preaching capitalist multi-culturalism to alienated near-jihadis) if taken up, but I don’t think even Hugh had a better proposal than ‘know your enemy’. I don’t think that’s quite what an attentive Onion reader would have hoped we might deliver. The question could of course be asked whether we should be expected to solve the world’s problems with our research, and I am of course on record with other reasons we might want historians, but the trouble is that the reply of our funding bodies, our lobbying groups and, indeed, our employers, would be a resounding yes; it’s all over their publicity and their themes of interest that solving the world’s problems is what academics are for. This was an obvious problem when the USA started recruiting anthropologist advisors to serve with the military, the weaselly-named Human Terrain System, but that pressure to help with what’s visibly wrong now is the same sort of thing, in as much as it channels our work towards contemporary political problems by throttling funding for anything else. But however you feel about the morality of it, I’m not always sure about the possibility of it, and I think these two papers showed that the closer one gets to trying to do it, the weaker one’s position becomes.


1. Of course some people have disagreed: see David M. Perry, “This is not the Crusades: There’s nothing medieval about ISIS”, News in CNN, 16 October 2016, online here, or Jason T. Roche, “Islamic State and the appropriation of the Crusades – a medieval historian’s take” in The Conversation, 12 July 2017, online here.

2. Hugh Kennedy, The Caliphate (Harmondsworth 2016), repr. as Caliphate: history of an idea (London 2016); there now exists a rival text in the form of David Wasserstein, Black Banners of ISIS: the roots of the new caliphate (New Haven 2017).

3. Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Maqqarī, The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain, extracted from the Nafhu-t-tíb min ghosni-l-Andalusi-r-rattíb wa táríkh lisánu-d-dín Ibni-l-Khattíb, trans. by Pascual de Gayangos, 2 vols (London 1840), II, online here, p. 59. Al-Maqqari is thankfully not the earliest historian to quote this story, given his eight-hundred-year distance from the events, but it’s almost certainly not contemporary; I think it does have to date to the Umayyad period in Spain, however, because why would you invent the story once the dynastic hero was no longer relevant?

4. By the time it fell, however, the legend was sufficiently well-known that it was left to Islamic troops—no ‘Crusaders’ or ‘Rumi’—to take the place.

5. This was, acknowledgedly, a presentation of an article that was by then in print, so you can see for yourself in Julia McClure, “A New Politics of the Middle Ages: A Global Middle Ages for a Global Modernity” in History Compass Vol. 13 (Oxford 2015), pp. 610–619, DOI: 10.1111/hic3.12280.

6. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia 2008), where pp. 62-74 show exactly this rhetoric being deployed by the English crown and the East India Company as they started their conquest of India, including invocations of ‘feudalism’.

7. McClure’s cite for the ‘multiple modernities’ idea is Arif Dirlik, “Global Modernity?: Modernity in an Age of Global Capitalism” in European Journal of Social Theory Vol. 6 (New York City 2003), pp. 275–292, DOI: 10.1177/13684310030063001), but in his defence, Dirlik warns against exactly the position I think Dr McClure reached.

8. Here, obviously, I would cite Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty or specifically for ISIS, Kennedy, Caliphate; Dr McClure’s cite was Michael Cook, Ancient religions, modern politics: the Islamic case in comparative perspective (Princeton 2014), which I admit I’ve not read.

9. A good essay on the symbolisms, and indeed chronology, of the building’s various existences is Nuha N. N. Khoury, “The Meaning of the Great Mosque of Cordoba in the Tenth Century” in Muqarnas Vol. 13 (Leiden 1996), pp. 80–98. If you prefer a more contemporary take, though, well, there’s me

10. And for a quick guide to this cultural aggressors’ church, there’s Deborah Howard, “Venice between East and West: Marc’Antonio Barbaro and Palladio’s Church of the Redentore” in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians Vol. 62 (Berkeley 2003), pp. 306–325.

11. I think, maybe, that I read it as a quote at the head of a chapter in a book by Gerald Durrell, in which case it is not impossible that he himself was the source. But I can’t find it, either way.

Chronicle III: January to March 2016

I’m sorry there was no blog last weekend. Frustratingly, the thing I spent that time on now isn’t going to work out, so I’m determined to make sure there is a post this weekend, and the post that is due is the next round-up of my academic life, which has now reached 2016. It has been five months since I posted the last of these three-month slices, and the only real consolation there is that it took me less time to get through those three months of blog content than it did the previous one, but we will hopefully still see further gains made as marking ebbs and the summer shapes up. Can but hope, eh? But meanwhile, here’s how it looked at the beginning of 2016 for your humble blogger.

Teaching

It’s not just tradition but also a reflection of the real state of life that the first item on the bill is always teaching. Actually, in the first half of 2016 I had a lower teaching load than I have had since or likely ever will at Leeds, given what they need me to cover; I was running one module, albeit a big one, and contributing bits to a couple of others. That said, the beginning of the semester was still a fairly steep learning curve, as the module I was running was an inherited first-year course called Empire and Aftermath: The Mediterranean World from the Second to the Eighth Centuries, and even my undergraduate study experience only previously went back to AD 284; I’d never done the second or third centuries before in any context, let alone one where I needed to show expertise. Thankfully I had the help of two postgraduates who’d taught the module before and that made everything easier, although I did also have to second-mark and observe those postgraduates so they were not solely a labour relief. It was all a fair bit of work, and it coincided with the early part of the excellent but intensive Palaeography: Reading Medieval Manuscripts that we put our MA students through, which has continuous assessment. Furthermore, Leeds has examinations on the first semester’s modules as soon as the students get back in January, so I was reading up for the new stuff and choosing manuscript images for palæography at the same time as marking these exam scripts, and by the time I was done with those the first palæography assignments were in, and they were only just back to the students by the time the first-years’ formative essays came in, alongside the second palæography assignments… and in general it seemed a long time before the marking stopped.

Wolfenbüttel MS Codex Guelfybertiani 13, fo. 6v

One that was set; can you read this? Come to Leeds and we’ll teach you! But if you want to know more independently, it is Wolfenbüttel MS Codex Guelfybertiani 13, folio 6 verso, and you can find out more via the link through the image

In between these I fitted a couple of workshops for an Institute for Medieval Studies module, Medieval Narratives on the Modern World, on European national origin myths and on the so-called Reconquista, but those were fun and much less work. And there were also personal tutorials to be fitted in, to which only half the students turn up but of course you must book the time anyway, and feedback meetings, and also joint care of a visiting Chinese Ph. D. student. I felt fairly busy. Still, looking back, I was not carrying very much and the next year would have been much harder if I hadn’t had this run-up.

Extra Labours

That must also be how I had time for the other things I was doing. In particular, having found out that there was this coin collection in the bottom of the Library, I had resolved to make it part of my teaching, and so one of the few changes I did make to Empire and Aftermath was to turn one of the seminars into a coin-handling session to try and get people excited about the reality of the period in their hands. I’m not sure how well that worked, though commendably both my postgrad assistants leapt at the chance to be able to say they’d taught with coins and did some crash-course Roman numismatics with me, which made me feel useful. More prosaically, in the state of the collection there wasn’t really a way to find out what there was to teach with except to inventory it, so I put aside my Friday afternoons for most of this period to inventory the medieval, Byzantine and late Roman coins and got through a fair few. Some day soon I will get round to sorting out the photographs I took of the cool ones…

Copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Constans II overstruck at Constantinople in 641-642 on a coin of Emperor Heraclius, DOC II Constans II 59c, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued

Here is one that perhaps only I could think is cool, a horribly-made copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Constans II overstruck at Constantinople in 641-642 on a coin of Emperor Heraclius, DOC II Constans II 59c, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued

There was also other stuff involving coins. Back at the Barber Institute the process of replacing me had unfortunately crossed with their normal exhibition schedule, so my humble effort, Inheriting Rome, was extended for a few months to give the new curator a chance. I got to see my thus-prolonged exhibition again because there were still two more sessions of the now-legendary All That Glitters project to do, about which I will tell you shortly, and of course back at Leeds this was also the time in which I started the wheels turning on the project that would become Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet. My head of department was actually concerned that I was going to spend all my time doing late antique numismatics and not the research on whose basis I’d been hired, which I didn’t see as a serious worry because, at this point, there was still time and I used it on stuff that was interesting and useful for others as well as for me.

Other people’s work

I was also at this point still managing to travel for seminars a bit, and I have a lot of notes from this period that I’m not really going to say much more about. The itinerary looked like this, though:

  • Katherine Cross, Dominic Dalglish and Robert Bracey, “Images, Relics and Altars: comparing material religion on the first millennium”, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 20th January 2016, to which I went mainly because Robert is an All That Glitters collaborator, but at this stage he was also busy with a project called Empires of Faith, which was doing the kind of cross-cultural comparison implied by their title here, with Katy Cross bringing early English Christian monuments like the Gosforth Cross to the table, Dominic Dalglish coming from the ancient Mediterranean world and Robert from Kushan India, but here talking as much about what made for valid comparison in this set-up as the actual objects. This was interesting but the results of the project can now be investigated on the web, so I’ll leave this one aside and move on to…
  • Hugh Kennedy, “ISIS and the Early Caliphate”, Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages Annual Public Lecture, University of Birmingham, 27th January 2016, to which I travelled down and which I thoroughly enjoyed, but which needs treatment together with…
  • Julia McClure, “A New Politics of the Middle Ages: a global Middle Ages for a global modernity”, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 3rd February 2016, also substantially about the way people were reading the Middle Ages into the situation in the Middle East at that time, but approaching it from a very different direction. So I’ll do a post about those two together.
  • I also made it down to London for Alex Rodríguez Suárez, “The Komnenian Emperors: a Latinophone dynasty”, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 11th February 2016, about the extent of the changes brought about in Byzantine court ceremonial under, especially, Manuel I Komnenos that would be attributed to Latin influence, which Dr Rodríguez wanted, I think rightly, to read as appropriation of ways to assert dominance over the new Latin lords in the Middle East, not an aping of their flashy chivalric habits as they have often carelessly been read. That seemed convincing to me but I don’t have much more to say about it, so on to a clutch of things back at Leeds, as follows:
  • Pat Cullum, “‘Looking the Part’: presentation and representation of clerical masculinity in late medieval England”, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 24th February 2016;
  • Esther Eidinow, “Seeing into the Future? Oracles and the Ancient Greeks”, Classics Seminar, University of Leeds, 25th February 2016, about ancient Greek stories in which oracles were tested before being consulted for real, pushing at the edges of our categories of rational and irrational, interesting and my first step in a plan to make friends with my counterparts in Classics and Ancient History;
  • Natalie Anderson, “Tournament Trappings: Textiles and Armour Working Together in the Late Medieval Joust”, Medieval Group Seminar, University of Leeds, 7th March 2016, the culminating presentation by one of our Ph.D. students then about to finish and very much a mature piece of work about the ways in which combatants in late medieval tournaments displayed and distinguished themselves, which was as much or more a matter of fabric as the armour that more often now remains to us.
  • Then, back to London again to see a big name, Philippe Buc, “Eschatology, War and Peace: of Christ’s Armies, Antichrist and the End of Times between ca. 1095 and ca. 1170″, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 10th March 2016, arguing for a change in the way that medieval people thought about the oncoming end of the world that occurred with Crusading, in which it becoming OK to kill for God was itself a sign of the end times, but one that could last for quite a long while, setting up the fight that would now go on until everyone was Christian and the End finally came. I remember this being fun and extremely erudite, but looking back over my notes I’m not sure what I have to add to that summary, so it’s back to Leeds for two more to close the season, the relevant items being:
  • Travelling the World: from Apuleius to the Icelandic Sagas, from the picaresque novel to travel literature, a more substantial seminar in Classics whose separate components were:
    • Regine May, “Travelling to the Land of Witches: Apuleius’s Golden Ass“, about Thessaly’s Classical reputation as a hotbed of magic and sorcery and how travel might thus lead you out of the known world in several dimensions, and
    • Ros Brown-Grant, “Encounters between the East and West in Fifteenth-Century Manuscript Cultures”, on pictures of Westerners meeting Easterners either in West of East as imagined by Western manuscript artists, usually for tales of betrayal where Greeks were concerned or conversion where Muslims were, sort of inevitably.
  • and finally, Ross Balzaretti, “Early Medieval Charters as Evidence for Land Management Practices”, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 16th March 2016, to which I would have gone even had it been further afield since Ross has been a supporter of mine for a long time and I am very interested in his work, but precisely because it’s quite similar to my own, I’m not going to do a detailed write-up here because it would look a lot like, “Ross’s charters say things like mine do!” It was good, but you can already read the same sort of thing here.

My Own Research?

So that brings us to the end of the timespan, and I have only promised three extra posts out of it this time, though actually there are also one news and two tourism posts that should also be fitted in there. But what is as ever missing is my own research. What was I working on in this period, looking back? Well, for one thing I was finishing revisions on the conference paper that nearly wasn’t, “A Problem of Concavity”; the final version of that was fired off into what became a suspicious silence in the middle of February 2016. After that I seem to have turned to the reading to support the revision of my venerable paper on early medieval crop yields, of which I’d done the bulk while still at Birmingham, and I had a new draft of that done in March, although, it would seem, not one I thought submissible; that was still a way off, and I now don’t recall why. But beyond that it’s hard to see what I was doing, and the conclusion has to be, I think, that despite the apparently light load I was struggling. I would build up academic muscle from here, and reluctantly trim back a lot of the activity above to make other things possible, but at this stage I was still enjoying being an established academic as I’d imagined it and seen it done by others, as well as reading a lot for teaching, and perhaps not getting that balance entirely right, in retrospect. I think, also, I still hadn’t actually worked out how to schedule research in a job that finally actually included that as a duty, but had structured time only for other activities. Actually accepting that it was a legitimate use of my employers’ time to read a book, after years governed by the next deadline, was still proving weirdly hard for me… Of course, I still was governed by the next deadline, functionally, but I was only letting others set them, wherein a mistake with future complications. Anyway, this story will be continued! But for now there’s enough queued up to write about, and this has already been a long post, so I’ll wrap it here and thank you for reading.

An awful lot of numismatists in Sicily, II

So, after that bit of numismatic self-congratulation, let me take you back for the last time to September 2015 and the town of Taormina in Sicily, where I was then one of many gathered for the 15th International Numismatic Congress. You’ve seen some of the local antiquities, heard about the first two-and-a-half days of papers and visited a local castle, now it’s time to return to the thick of the academic fray. But first, a party!

Party in the coutryard of the Palazzo dei Duchi di Santo Stefano, Taormina, Sicily

Party in the coutryard of the Palazzo dei Duchi di Santo Stefano

Indeed, the first thing on our calendar after descending from Castelmola and eating was not an academic session but a party put on by the Medieval European Coinage project, to celebrate its resurgence into activity since the previous INC in the form of the publication of the series’ volume on the Iberian Peninsula and the near-completion of that on Northern Italy (which, much though I often doubted it, has in fact now also emerged, something I should probably announce separately too).1 By now you may well not remember that I am a part of that project still, but I am, so I was there to share in the glory. There were speeches, there was a strictly limited quantity of free wine, but mainly there was a superb setting.

Medieval European Coinage authors by the Cambridge University Press stand at a party in the Palazzo dei Duchi di Santo Stefano, Taormina, Sicily

MEC authors Bill Day Jr and Martin Allen looking very relaxed by the Cambridge University Press stand inside the Palazzo

It was a good way to wrap up the day. The next day was the last day of papers, however, and with certain obligations among them, and so for once I was up and ready right at the beginning. Here’s how it all unrolled. Continue reading

Gallery

Site of a Byzantine Last Stand

This gallery contains 13 photos.

Having thus celebrated some achievement, it’s time to go back into the past again this post and pick up the story of the 2015 trip to Sicily. As you may remember, I had got through my report of the International … Continue reading