Category Archives: Islamic Crescent

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

Link

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

An(other) peculiar choice of local hero

The blog backlog seems to be moving quite rapidly through 2018 now; there is a grave danger of currency some year soon… But right now you find my memory of my life academic in late March 2018, facing the reality that, because of that grant I had got the previous year to get people together to talk about frontiers, I was now going to have to come up with a paper to give in a few weeks at a conference in front of those people. I will write (again) about that conference, in which there were much more interesting papers than mine, shortly, but by way of a run-up I want first to write about a peculiarity of local historical memory about a little-known figure of the Muslim régime in the Iberian Peninsula (or to use its snappier Arabic name, al-Andalus), a guy known to us as ‘Abd al-Rahmān ibn Marwān al-Ŷillīqī.

Modern bust of Mūsā ibn Mūsā in Tudela

Modern bust of Mūsā ibn Mūsā Ibn Qāsi in Tudela, by Arenillas (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

To do this I want to start somewhere we’ve been before, Tudela in the time of the nearly-legendary frontier warlord Mūsā ibn Mūsā. You may remember (or may quickly surmise from the old blog post I just linked there) that this man was said in a Christian chronicle of his era to have called himself ‘the third king of Hispania‘, which for me raised the questions, firstly, who’s number 2, and secondly, why does no Muslim source say this?1 But more important than my answers to those questions (which, after all, are in that post) is the fact that at Tudela Mūsā is now a feature of public memorialization, as ‘el Rey de l’Ebro’, King of the Ebro Valley, presumably because he is the only person who ever ruled as a successful independent from Tudela, so is ‘theirs’ in some way despite having repeatedly conquered or been awarded the place from his actual base at Arnedo. And it transpires that that is not the only such story, except that this one has maybe even shakier a basis.

It’s not, I should say, that there is any doubt that al-Ŷillīqī (or indeed Mūsā) actually existed; they are both reasonably attested. Neither is it that al-Ŷillīqī wasn’t an interesting and indicative character; that was indeed why I was looking at him. His story is substantially told in the Ta’rikh iftitāḥ al-Andalus (History of the Conquest of al-Andalus) of Muḥammad Ibn ʿUmar Ibn al-Qūṭiyya, which is now well-translated into English.2 It goes basically like this: he was the son of the governor of Mérida, from an originally-Christian family who had converted to Islam (which is probably why the likewise-descended Ibn al-Qūṭiyya, ‘son of the Gothic woman’, was interested in his story), and for reasons we know not (possibly not being allowed himself to become governor of Mérida?) rebelled against the Cordoban government of al-Andalus in 868.3 This coincided with a rebellion by another descendant of converts about whom we know much less, a guy called Sa’dūn ibn Fatḥ al-Surunbāqī, and the two of them teamed up and got help from the Christian north, at this time dominated by the aggressive and successful King Alfonso III of Asturias, as Ibn al-Qūṭiyya puts it, “causing huge disturbances throughout Islam, which would take too long to relate.” It was this connection to the Christian north, known in al-Andalus as Ŷillīyya from the same root that gives us modern Galicia, that got al-Ŷillīqī the by-name by which history now recalls him.

Anyway, this escalated, because the emir Muḥammad I sent his son with an army against the rebels, and the rebels won and captured the army’s commander, whom they gave to Alfonso III to ransom. This elevated al-Ŷillīqī’s standing on the frontier to the point where he was basically untouachable, and the terrible two began raiding much deeper into Cordoban territory. Muḥammad, apparently recognising that the situation could not be recovered, now entered negotiations, and Ibn al-Qūṭiyya’s report of this is so great that I’ll just quote it.

“Now, when the emir had become sorely tired of Ibn Marwān, he sent an intermediary to him, who said, ‘Listen! We are tired of you and you of us, so make known your plans.’ He replied, ‘My plan is to have al-Basharnal [San Cristobal], to build it up, extend it and populate it. I will pay allegiance, but will make no tribute nor abeyance, nor will you make any prohibitions.’ This place, al-Basharnal, is opposite Baṭalyaws [Badajoz], with the river [the Guadiana] between. It was agreed that Badajoz should be fortified as far as the river, to protect the party of Islam, according to the conditions.”

So with that matters were temporarily arranged. The province was at least notionally no longer in rebellion and the frontier of al-Andalus technically extended to its edge, even if Córdoba had no real power there; one would like to know whether al-Ŷillīqī would have fought in the emiral army if Muḥammad I had summoned him, as Mūsā ibn Mūsā did when the Vikings came a generation before, but as far as we know this never came up. Nonetheless, the situation was embarrassing, and eventually the ransomed army commander, a guy named Hāshim, persuaded Muḥammad to let him have another go (with a different one of the emir’s sons in tow this time). They must have moved quite slowly, however, because apparently news of their move north reached al-Ŷillīqī in plenty of time for him to send a letter to Córdoba, which Ibn al-Qūṭiyya summarises as follows:

“‘I have heard that Hāshim is on his way west. I have no doubt that he is intent on revenge, now that I am staying in a secure fort. Well, by God! if he comes past Niebla, I will put Badajoz to the torch! Then I will return to my previous tactics with you.'”

The army must have stayed in Niebla for some time, because on receipt of this letter Muḥammad I was apparently able to send orders to it to halt, and Badajoz was not burned on this occasion. It’s all a fascinating story for my purposes, and I’ll talk about the conclusions I draw from it in the next post, but as far as either Ibn al-Qūṭiyya or any other writer is concerned that’s where the story ends. We know of two sons of al-Ŷillīqī and some descendant was in rebellion against ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III (912-961 CE) in Ibn al-Qūṭiyya’s own time, so the family probably stayed in charge in the area till at least then, but this is not part of any coherent account of anything except ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III.4 But it’s not where local memory of the man ended, or at least it has been revived, because look!

Statue of Ibn Marwān al-Ŷillīqī as founder of Badajoz, by Estanislao García, Badajoz, 2003

Statue of Ibn Marwān al-Ŷillīqī as founder of Badajoz, by Estanislao García, Badajoz, 2003; image by Gianni86Trabajo propio, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This was put up in Badajoz in 2003, and is the work of one Estanislao García. You can’t see the plaque on this public-domain image, but there are several very good copyright ones on another site here and they make it clear that the Wikimedia caption is actually what is on the plaque, in both Spanish and Arabic, “Ibn Marwán, fundador de Badajoz, año 875 / 261 AH” (Ibn Marwān, founder of Badajoz, 875 CE or 261 Hijri).

Now, for reasons that are probably obvious, this historian here finds these choices a bit peculiar. Let’s never mind that there is basically no date for any of al-Ŷillīqī’s actions after 868; the date they’ve chosen is indicative and might not even be wrong. I’m more puzzled by the choice of this figure at all and the rôle they’ve given him. Firstly, I guess it’s evident from the story as reported above that Badajoz already existed when al-Ŷillīqī first became a problem there, and indeed as you’d expect the archaeology supports that. This city website admits that but still argues that the city can be considered al-Ŷillīqī’s foundation, and attributes to him walls that were built around the city in 878; but we’ve seen from Ibn al-Qūṭiyya that those walls were most likely put up against him, “to protect the party of Islam.”5 The place that al-Ŷillīqī founded, or at least built up, was San Cristobal, which is now all gone as far as I can tell, and he did that primarily so as to be able to threaten the good people of Badajoz if state power looked like coming anywhere near him.

Yet the descendants of those good people have still paid for a statue of this man, who would have cheerfully burned their city and ancestors, and decided he should be the crucial figure of their local history. Part of me would like to know what the consultation and decision process, and indeed the available education about the city’s past, were that lay behind the commissioning of that statue; and part of me fears that the answers would give me unto despair for the usefulness of the historical profession. And I suppose the reply from a patriotic citizen might be, “if you can’t give us anything better but can only take away the one documented early mention of our town, you can get out of town yourself,” and I would understand that to a point. And I suppose it’s even possible from what Ibn al-Qūṭiyya says about it that San Cristobal is now in Badajoz, which now extends over both banks of the Guadiana, and so that in that sense there would be a part of the city which he founded. But even if so, he did that by turning the other half into his hostages, and I can’t help feeling that should make a difference to his memory!6


1. Yves Bonnaz (ed./transl.), Chroniques Asturiennes (fin IXe siècle) (Paris 1987), Chronique d’Alphonse III s. a. 850. On the family and their position on the frontier see now 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).

2. Muḥammad ibn ʻUmar Ibn al-Qūṭīyah, Early Islamic Spain: the history of Ibn al-Qutiya, transl. David James (London 2011), where see pp. 118-119.

3. Not all of these details are in the text; Ibn al-Qūṭīyah, History, p. 127 n. 38 supplies them from Maria Isabel Fierro, “Familias en el Ta’rīj Iftitāḥ al-Andalus de Ibn al-Qūṭīyya” in Estudios Onomástico-Biográficos de al-Andalus vol. IV (Granada 1990), pp. 41-70, citing no. 67 & nn. 79-80, which I have not seen myself.

4. For the sons see ibid.; for the subsequent rebellion, Ibn al-Qūṭīyah, History, p. 140. The rebel lost this time, and that probably was the end of the family’s story.

5. See n. 2 above for the quote; “Historia”, Ajuntamiento de Badajoz, online here, says:

“La ciudad de Badajoz puede considerarse de fundación musulmana, a pesar de que las excavaciones realizadas en la Alcazaba, demuestran que ya en época prehistórica, en el calcolítico concretamente, existió un considerable núcleo de población. Esta población perdura en epoca protohistórica, pero no parece que existiera núcleo urbano durante el dominio romano de la península, aunque sí abundantes “villas” en sus proximidades.
“Tampoco ha quedado ninguna edificación visigoda, pero sabemos que debió tener cierta importancia este momento histórico a juzgar por la cantidad de restos encontrados como pilastras de mármol, capiteles, etc…
“Con los musulmanes, la ciudad adquiere notable importancia, siendo por dos veces capital de un reino independiente: la primera vez en tiempo del Valí Ibn Marwan (868) quien contruye las primeras murallas de adobe y tapial en el 878 y posteriormente al formarse los reinos de taifas y derrumbarse el califato cordobés en los primeros años del siglo XI.”

The key phrase here is pretty clearly “capital de un reino independiente”, capital of an independent kingdom, but to call Ibn Marwan walī, governor, or to accuse him of establishing that thing from that basis is surely to miss the context of his actions…

6. I should admit at this point that there is some relevant scholarship I haven’t been able to access, to wit, Christophe Picard, “La fondation de Badajoz par Abd al-Rahman Ibn Yunus al-Jalliki” in Revue des études islamiques Vol. 49 (Paris 1981), pp. 215–230, which nowhere I can easily reach has. I promise to check it before I try actually publishing anything involving al-Ŷillīqī, but it’s odd that Picard doesn’t even apparently agree about the guy’s filiation. Santiago Feijoo Martínez & Miguel Alba Calzado, “La decadencia de Mérida en el siglo IX” in Juan Zozaya Stabel-Hansen & Guillermo S. Kurtz Schaefer (edd.), Estudios sobre el Reino Aftasí, Bataliús 3 (Badajoz 2014), pp. 93–110, meanwhile, argue (p. 110) that the big event for Badajoz was the translocation of a decent part of the population of Mérida there in 875, for which they give no source; but if it happened, it was presumably another part of the state defence against al-Ŷillīqī, since we don’t think he controlled Mérida…

From Ankara to al-Masāq in eighteen months or so

Right, let’s see about that post I promised. I promised some account of the conference which had taken me to Ankara in February 2018, but given that a decent part of it emerged as a journal issue about which you’ve already heard, and that I already blogged much of the conference elsewhere long ago, I thought it might be more interesting to do this post as a story of how academic ideas becomes a publication at the moment.1 This will be old news to some of my readership, I know, but I’ll load it with enough stuff that didn’t get as far as the journal issue or into the other blog post to keep you interested as well, I hope. So here goes.

Dr Luca Zavagno at the entrance of Ankara Castle

Luca Zavagno, standing outside the walls of Ankara Castle on this very occasion

As I said in the last proper post, my friend and colleague Luca Zavagno had found himself with more of a grant he held with me left than we’d expected, and thus upscaled from what had been meant to be a single workshop at Bilkent Universitesi to a small but complete international conference with a few ancillary events, because he could. The whole program stretched over three days in the end. On the first of these and second of these the relevant events were public lectures held in the afternoon, and then the conference proper happened on the third day. In between times we climbed on castles, taught master-classes to the Bilkent students like visiting celebrities (which, I suppose I have to admit, we sort of were) and tried to make sure our papers would be OK. There were also, I admit, a few meals out. I have some pictures of parts of this academic jamboree, but I think I might be discreetly murdered if I posted them, so you will have to manage without. Instead, have some food for the mind in the form of the running order.

21 February 2018

  • Public lecture: Rebecca Darley, “Speaking in Many Voices: Roman and Byzantine coins in South India as sources for maritime and inland histories”

22 February 2018

23 February 2018

    Workshop: Islands at the Frontier of Empires in the Middle Ages

  • Elif Denel introducing the American Research Institute in Turkey
  • Lutgarde Vandeput introducing the British Institute at Ankara
  • Leslie Brubaker, “Piercing the Cultural Frontier: images of the Virgin in insular churches and the Byzantine heartland”
  • Matthew Harpster, “Sicily: a frontier in the centre of the sea?”
  • Luca Zavagno, “‘I Don’t Know Why I Go to Extremes’: the Balearics and Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages”
  • Rebecca Darley, “Is an Island always a Hub? Sokotra, Sri Lanka and the Shape of Commerce in the Late Antique Western Indian Ocean”
  • Chris Wickham, “Looking Back at the Eighth Century from the Eleventh”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates:The Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet compared”
  • Francisco J. Moreno Martín, “Archaeology of Iberian ‘Ecclesiastical Frontiers’ between 6th and 10th centuries”
  • Round Table

Now, if you are as keen a reader of my work as I wish I somewhere had, you will have maybe noticed that there is a lot more there than got into the eventual publication, and indeed that one article there isn’t here. This is the story of how the moment becomes the monument that I alluded to at the beginning, really. Luca had thrown this together quite quickly; thus, some people had brought stuff that was directly related to the topic, some had fortuitously had something tangentially related presentable, and one or two papers slipped in because they were what the speaker could offer. In particular, it was only a very few days before that Luca had discovered that one of his planned speakers would not be able to make it (and this being before we all adapted to Zoom, that was considered prohibitive), so Francisco wound up stepping in with literally days notice, and the paper was definitely never expected to be more than work in progress. So it goes.

Of the ones that didn’t get published, therefore, I’ll say a little on content as well as process. Rebecca’s public lecture looked at the distribution of Roman and Byzantine coin finds in India as compared to local coinage systems and as compared to temple sites, pursuing a connection she had by this time already suggested in print.2 There seem to be some sharp differentiations; Roman silver, gold and even copper is sometimes found in most areas south of the Deccan, but Byzantine coin only much further south (and only in gold), and both Roman and Byzantine stuff often appears slashed, cut up or imitated using gold foil round base-metal cores, none of which happened to local coinages. The former Rebecca suggested might be to do with the emergence of the Vakataka Empire during the late Roman era, across whose borders Byzantine coin seems not have got (and which ran no coin of its own as far as we know); the latter is where the temples might come in, if the damage to the coins was somehow part of the ritual in which they were given to such institutions (some of whose treasuries are even now objects of mystery and speculation). This didn’t go into the journal issue mainly becaue Rebecca was still working out what these things might mean, but also because it was nowhere near that issue’s topic, however interesting, and so it was left for her to pursue further elsewhere.3

Francisco Moreno Martín and Rebecca Darley conferring before the latter's public lecture at the University of Bilkent in 2018

Francisco and Rebecca conferring before Rebecca’s lecture, Professor Paul Latimer at right about to do the introductions

The next day Francisco took us through some of the different ways in which Spanish nationalist politics had looked at and used the Visigothic period in their thought and propaganda. As the only period in which the whole Iberian peninsula has been under one autonomous rule, between 624 and 711 except during the numerous civil wars, and under a Catholic autonomous rule to boot, you can see how this would be useful to such agendas, and indeed it was seen so in the ninetheenth century by such historians as Lafuente and Amador de Rios, but initially at least it did not form a big part of the propaganda of the Franco era, the Generalissimo seeing himself (and having himself shown) more in the mould of a Crusader or hero of the Reconquista, but his state more like the Roman Empire (like most right-wing states of the period, one might observe). The alliance with Nazi Germany however brought a shift in emphasis away from the Romans towards the supposedly shared Germanic background of the Goths, and a chance to grab border territory off defeated France in 1941 was framed as revenge for several occasions on which the Franks of French had underhandedly defeated the Goths or Spanish. This powered some new archæology of ‘Germanic’ burials but, when Germany lost the war, Franco had to fall back on the Church, always his support and now the only apparent explanation for why his far-right government alone survived, and started paying more attention to the Reconquista and the Asturian kings again. This was an object lesson in how political preoccupations can drive not just propaganda but the research behind it, but it was also one that Francisco was largely reprising from the work of people he’d edited rather than being something of his to offer, as well as being nowhere near the theme of the workshop, so it too did not get included.4

When it came to the actual workshop, the first two papers were never intended to be more than advertisements for two scholarly institutes in the neighbourhood and the facilities they could offer scholars working on the area, which are indeed worth knowing about, but which were obviously not publications. Leslie Brubaker’s paper was closely related to the one she gave at that year’s Spoleto conference, which was printed as part of that, but her version of it for this workshop included some reflections on how, if you looked at the right way everything could be considered a frontier, and on how islands, our actual theme, were so rarely self-sufficient as for their coasts to constitute boundaries that were ‘meant to be breached’, and I wish we could have found some way to include those alongside what we did.5 Matthew’s, Luca’s and Rebecca’s papers did all go into the publication, so I’ll not say more about them here as I’ve already written them up once; they are all very good, however!6 Chris’s paper was about state-economy interactions across the three-century period of his title, and concluded that the eleventh-century world was economically busier but more broken up, making a tax-driven state harder to maintain and in some part, thus explaining a shift of economic basis; and from here, I can see that this was all work going towards his eventual (and amazing) article ‘How Did the Feudal Economy Work?’ As it was, it was still work in progress as far as he was concerned, and admittedly not even slightly about islands, and so we couldn’t really prevail upon him to let us have it.7 And then there was me, and I’ve already mentioned how Francisco had stepped into the breach.

So, in the weeks subsequent to all this when Luca, Rebecca and I worked this out, what this mean we had was Matthew, Luca, me and Rebecca’s workshop paper, and we also actually had the promise of a version of the paper which had been cancelled, by Nikolas Bakirtzis and a collaborator of his, Xenophon Moniaros. Five chapters is too few for a book, but it’s about right for a journal issue, so we looked around for likely venues and lit upon al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean. They turned out to be a more or less ideal venue except in one particular, which was that they could give us a choice of being published either three years down the line or in eighteen months; the former was too far away but the deadlines for the latter meant a lot of work squeezed in between teaching. In particular, as editors of the issue, it fell to us to find reviewers for each article. Since we were between us three-fifths of the authors who were being reviewed, and some of our expertises were pretty identifiable as well, this got a little surreal, though I did not know either of the people who reviewed mine and got a slightly rough ride from one of them, which did make it a better article but required work I really struggled to do in the time available (mainly reading about Balearic archaeology). I guess the article now provides quite a good state of the question on late antique settlement in the Balearics…

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

Volume 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

But, on the other hand, it ran through editing and proofs very easily, partly I’d like to say because of the excellent editing work we’d done ourselves, but also because of very good type-setting by the publishers, working with a bewildering number of Mediterranean languages and some fairly scientific archaeology to boot, and the whole thing existed within eighteen months of our first having the idea, which was extremely convenient for us all, I think. Had I had world enough and time I would have done more work on mine—I’m not sure if there’s anything I’ve ever published bar my first article on which I might not, ideally, have done more work and of course my book then had to modify that first article extensively…—but as it was, it was one of those things which seemed impossible but, because there were three of us doing it and no-one wanted to disappoint the others was in the end possible anyway, and we are all (still) quite proud of it. But I’m not sure I foresaw that in Ankara in February 2018!


1. The journal issue being, of course, Luca Zavagno, Rebecca Darley & Jonathan Jarrett (edd.), ‘Not the Final Frontier’: the World of Medieval Islands, al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31 no. 2 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 129-241.

2. Rebecca Darley, “Self, Other and the Use and Appropriation of Late Roman coins in south India and Sri Lanka (4th-7th centuries A.D.)” in H. P. Ray (ed.), Negotiating Cultural Identity: Landscapes in Early Medieval South Asian History (London 2015), pp. 60-84, DOI: 10.4324/9780429274169-4.

3. Already in Rebecca Darley, “罗马-拜占庭钱币的流入与印度次大陆的社会变迁”, transl. Wang Baixu in 古代文明 Vol. 14 no. 3 (Changchun 2020), pp. 43–50, and soon to appear in English.

4. Francisco Moreno Martín (ed.), El franquismo y la apropiación del pasado: El uso de la historia, de la arqueología y de la historia del arte para la legitimación de la dictadura (Madrid 2016).

5. Leslie Brubaker, “The Migrations of the Mother of God: Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome, Hagios Demetrios in Thessaloniki, and the Blachernai in Constantinople” in Le migrazioni nell’Alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 66 Pt. 2 (Spoleto 2019), pp. 1003-1020.

6. Matthew Harpster, “Sicily: A Frontier in the Centre of the Sea?” in Zavagno, Darley & Jarrett, ‘Not the Final Frontier’, pp. 158–170, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602748; 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; 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.

7. Chris Wickham, “How did the Feudal Economy Work? the Economic Logic of Medieval Societies” in Past & Present no. 251 (Oxford 2021), pp. 3–40, DOI: 10.1093/pastj/gtaa018, which was really never going to be published anywhere else given his long connection with the journal.

Gallery

Piled-up Pasts in Ankara I

This gallery contains 26 photos.

This week we leap forward in my past to February 2018 when, somewhat unexpectedly you may think, I was in Ankara. Actually the reasons for this have been piling up in our narrative: firstly the post held by my good … Continue reading

A frontier comparison no-one’s made

In the aftermath of the workshop on frontiers recently described, I seem for a while to have flung myself back into relevant reading on the field. Now, if you work on the Christian-Muslim frontier in the Iberian Peninsula – which I do – then sooner or later you will run up against someone writing about the quintessential and indeed semi-legendary Iberian frontiersman, Rodrigo Díaz or el Cid, usually as epitomising the way in which that frontier worked.1 Likewise, if you work on the Christian-Muslim frontier in Byzantine Anatolia – onto which subject I have been known to venture – you will sooner or later run across someone writing about the quintessential but actually legendary folk hero Digenes Akritas as if he also somehow typified that border zone.2 And once you’re watching either field, every few years or so you’ll see someone trying to compare the two.3 I have developed quite strong views by now about why that is a waste of effort, and I will write about them here before long, but this is not that day. Instead, this post was prompted by my reading about something that looked like a much better point of comparison, but about which no-one seems to know (except, obviously, the person from whose work I got it, Sara Nur Yıldız).

Political map of Anatolia c. 1300 CE

Political map of Anatolia  1300 CE, by Gabagoolown work, licensed under CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

The text in question is known as the History of the Karamanids, by someone we only know by a pen-name, Şikari.4 The Karamanids ruled the southern part of Cilicia when they ruled, and at the height of their power, which came very close to their end, their control stretched over a considerable area. The map above shows them under pressure from the Mongols in a world where lots of polities were their size; the one below gives the full extent, a full extent that would soon be abrogated by a somewhat shortsighted attempt to bounce the now-substantial power of the Ottomans out of the crucial city of Konya. Nonetheless, for a while they were major players.

Political map of the Eastern Mediterranean around 1450 CE

Political map of the Eastern Mediterranean around 1450 CE, by MapMasterown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

But the world picture that Dr Yıldız draws from the History comes more from the earlier patch, which she describes as follows:

“We are confronted with a frontier devoid of central control, a no-man’s land dominated by fortresses and those who held them, petty warlords operating in a world of fleeting political and military loyalties and fluid, often unstable, vassalage relations. Power is played out between fortress lords of various ethnic backgrounds, whose loyalty is demanded and bought by those ruling from the faraway centres. Although fortress lords in the frontier region theoretically ruled in the name of a greater sovereign, whether it be the Seljuk sultan or the Armenian king, in practice they operated independently. The sultan, in Şikari’s account, although the power at the centre with large forces at his disposal, is a less than powerful ruler on the frontier. At most, he can only hope to coerce the various fortress holders along the periphery into nominal loyalty. The sultan, at the same time, is obliged to keep the various local rulers from attacking one another, primarily in order to avoid the difficult situation of having to choose between defending one vassal over another….5

And this sounds awfully familiar. This is not the land or politics of el Cid, of course, where big armies led by kings or people of that weight are a regular feature and the hero’s achievement is to become one of them. This is instead the land of Digenes, where there is an emperor and there is a sultan and you might meet them but you never aim to equal them, you just want your little patch of border where no-one else dares to challenge you.6 In the tenth century, as we saw long ago, when the Byzantine emperor was back in the ascendant, you might have to deal with him in order to secure that relative autonomy against your fellows.7 But by the time of which Dr Yıldız is writing, that kind of power had receded. It would return with the rise of the Ottomans, of course, and that would end that, but still, this is the kind of source material with which I underpin my James-Scott-like sense that a lot of political communities would rather aim for autonomy than connectivity.8 The area is good turf with which to do that, and Nik Matheou, among others, has done so.9 (I mention Nik not least because he is the person I’ve seen actually applying Scott to this area and period, but Dr Yıldız also gives a good account of the vexed historiography of Armenian autonomy in this area.10) So, why is there so much ink used on comparing Digenes Akritas, which is actually set in Anatolia in a period not too far from this text, to the foreign and rather different Poema del Mio Cid when there’s this much better comparator so close by?

First page of the manuscript of the History of the Karamanids

The first page of the manuscript does admittedly make the prospect of working with it a little offputting… Image from “Karamanname of Şikari /History of the Karamanids (Mid-16th century)” in Janissary Archives for 15th October 2015, linked through

Well, there are lots of good reasons this text is not more widely used. The primary one of these is that it’s in Seljuk Turkish and is preserved only in one mid-16th-century manuscript, in Konya (ironically), which was only edited in 2004.11 As a result, I myself obviously know nothing that’s in it except through Dr Yıldız’s report. Secondly, it’s a history of a single Turkmen dynasty who were removed from power by the time of the manuscript; so even its original readership was probably pretty small, wherefore, I suspect, only the single copy surviving. Thirdly, as Dr Yıldız puts it in a footnote:12

“Şikari’s History of the Karamanids, significant for being the only internal work dealing with Karamanid history, has been dismissed as unreliable by historians of Anatolian Turkish and Ottoman history. The work is characterized by an idiosyncratic mix of history and legend, and contains much tendentious, chronologically absurd, and anachronistic material. The circumstances as well as the date of this work’s composition remain unknown, although internal textual evidence suggests that it was produced some time in the mid-sixteenth century, with much of its contents possibly based upon an earlier source dating from the late fourteenth century.”

This is, of course, the luxury of having other sources; if this were all that survived from the zone and area I expect more would have been made of it, as witness Digenes Akritas. Still, you can see why people haven’t prioritised getting it into the discourse. Even Dr Yıldız only adds it as a kind of epilogue to a chapter which is mainly about Armenian Cilicia. I can also see why, given the opposed historiographies and nationalisms, it might still be a while before we get scholars of Greek literature reaching for Turkish pseudo-history as comparative material or scholars of Turkish political history looking to Greek literature either. Still, I very much wish there were an English version of this text, as I personally would go a-plundering in it…

Since I can’t, however, all I can do from here is speculate and wonder. In particular, I wonder what political control actually was in such an area. Did the Karamanid lords take tax? They presumably didn’t farm or raise livestock themselves, so they must have had some means of appropriating surplus, and they raised armies, but did they raise them through obligations laid upon their population or by paying the troops from tax? Did they hold courts of justice? Did people bring quarrels to them? Outside their towns, did anyone know who they were? Or were they actually surviving on the kind of local solidarity that means that everyone knew who they were locally even if the Sultan or King of the Armenians might struggle to pick them out from their fellows? What kind of power did those greater lords have here? Was it only as much as they could persuade the Karamanids to wield for them or were they alternative power sources that the wily subjects could use to limit the Karamanid grasp in the way that the lords of Taron had used the Byzantine emperor against their family rivals? Were the Karamanids’ towns centres and the countryside periphery, or were they nomad lords of whom the towns were somewhat terrified? Why did they want Konya, for state-building or simply because it was a source of tolls and jurisdictional revenue? Were they aiming to place themselves as indispensable local partners for the bigger players here or did they aim to push themselves up to the point where the bigger players couldn’t displace them? (Are those questions even different?) There is a lot I could do here even with a “semi-historical Turkish work”, “ultimately based on oral traditions.”13 Short of acquiring a suitably-interested Turkish-reading Ph. D. student, I can’t see how I do in fact do it… But the world’s full of interesting things all the same, isn’t it?


1. For the basic story of el Cid, see even now Richard Fletcher, The Quest for El Cid (London 1990); for a recent and useful treatment of him as frontiersman see Pascal Buresi, “Frontière politique et appartenance religieuse dans la Péninsule Ibérique : les communes frontalières et le phénomène des « Cid » (XIe-XIIe siècles)” in Henri Bresc, Georges Dagher and Christine Veauvy (edd.), Politique et religion en Méditerranée : Moyen Âge et époque contemporaine (Paris 2008), pp. 137–163.

2. For the actual text, see best John Mavrogordato (ed.), Digenes Akrites, edited, with an introduction, translation and commentary (Oxford 1956), though there are other translations (and even a graphic novel). For a reasonable example of someone using him as an archetype, see 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.

3. I’m sure I’ve seen it done more than this, but two cases that I have stored are 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.

4. Covered in Sara Nur Yıldız, “Reconceptualizing the Seljuk-Cilician Frontier: Armenians, Latins, and Turks in Conflict and Alliance during the Early Thirteenth Century” in Curta, Borders, Barriers, and Ethnogenesis, pp. 91–120 at pp. 114-119, details on the text at p. 115 & n. 107.

5. Ibid., p. 117.

6. This is very much my own reading of the text; cf. Lilie, “Byzantine-Arab Borderland”, pp. 18-19.

7. Recounted in Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De administrando imperio, ed. Gyula Moravcsik, trans. R. J. H. Jenkins, Corpus fontium historiae Byzantinae 1, 2nd edn (Washington D.C. 1967), c. 43 (pp. 188-199).

8. Referring to James C. Scott, The art of not being governed: an anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia (New Haven CT 2009), online here.

9. Admittedly Nik hasn’t actually published his work on the Armenian Zomia yet, but I think it will be in the volume of papers arising from the 50th Sping Symposium of Byzantine Studies on which I reported a while back.

10. Yıldız, “Reconceptualizing the Seljuk-Cilician Frontier”, pp. 93-113 with pp. 93-94 explicitly covering historiographical approaches.

11. Şikârî, Karamannâme: Zamanın kahramanı Karamanîler’in tarihi, ed. Metin Sôzen & Necdet Sakaoğlu (Istanbul: Karaman Belediyesi, 2005), online here.

12. Yıldız, “Reconceptualizing the Seljuk-Cilician Frontier”, p. 115 n. 107.

13. Ibid., p. 115.

Fomenting New Islands Ideas

Staying where it was relatively safe in mid-2017, the workshop I’ve just described was only the first of three days’ funded activity, which Dr Luca Zavagno and I had scheduled to allow him to do everything we’d been given money for him to do in the UK in a single trip. Whereas the previous day’s work had been on my Frontiers project, we now turned to Luca’s one, The World of Byzantine Islands. Here we’d planned two things in Leeds, the first being a kind of consultation workshop with the most obviously interested medievalists on Leeds’s staff, and the second being a graduate seminar the day after. Actually, in retrospect, I think we might better have planned to do these the other way round, as the way the latter worked was that Luca effectively presented his project in a twenty-minute paper and then invited discussion, whereas in the former the presentation was much quicker, as for peers; I think that in theory he’d have got better discussion for the staff having had the extra day to think about his project having seen the fuller presentation. However, I say only in theory, because actually we got very little take-up for the graduate seminar – my own fault for late publicity as much as anything – and so it became an extension of the already-active discussion from the previous day. So maybe it all went as well as it could have done. Anyway, to write about it now probably means reprising Luca’s project brief, and then picking up on the same kind of points of interest as I did in the previous Frontiers post. There is inevitably some overlap, because several of the same people were involved and thinking with what they’d done the previous day, but I don’t think that was a bad thing either…

So, Luca has of course written about his own project and you can see the brief for it here. Plus which, we have subsequently published on it, together even, and you could also read that.1 Because of all that I’ll be ultra-short here. Basically, Luca is contending with an established historiography that sees the islands of the Mediterranean as a frontier zone of the Byzantine Empire, and that largely in the sense of a defensive bulwark, peripheral, cut off and generally hostile, both to outsiders to the empire and, sometimes, to outsiders from within the empire.2 Luca, whose research in this area started on Cyprus and has now spread, is however aware of an increasingly busy amount of archaeology which suggests that most of the Mediterranean islands remained quite vibrant, both in terms of their connection with the wider empire and of their own ecologies, economies and political self-determination within the imperial sphere.3 Where this leaves Luca is arguing that the islands, and particularly Cyprus, Sicily, Sardinia and the Balearics, maybe also Crete and Malta, all of which were Byzantine long after the land-ward coastlines that would be lost to Islam had been, were not an edge or somehow a central part of a landward territory but a kind of third space, whose characteristics he is now trying to define.4

View of the Mediterranean from the Castell de Santueri, Felanitx, Mallorca

View of the Mediterranean from the part-Byzantine Castell de Santueri (not this part, I suspect), in Felanitx, Mallorca, once a seat of Byzantine island government; image from Mallorca Tourist Guide, no copyright stated

So in the first of these workshops, as I say, Luca gave us less of this than he would in the graduate seminar the next day, I think because he didn’t want to exclude any approaches. As a result, he found himself in the midst of a kind of all-comers ideas tennis, in which the other players, apart from myself, were my colleagues Dr Alan Murray, who had been in on the previous day’s session too and who knew Luca independently, and Professor Emilia Jamroziak, then-Director of the Institute for Medieval Studies at Leeds, as well as Dr Rebecca Darley of Birkbeck, University of London, who is an affiliate of the IMS but was also the third partner in Luca’s project. (Alan and Rebecca also came along to the graduate seminar the next day, but I’m going to concentrate here on the workshop, because it’s there that, going back over my notes, I can see the roots of a lot of things the project ended up generating, and it thus helps to explain a bit what it is that we academics actually get out of the travelling to talk to each other that we’ve largely had to give up this year. I’m not sure if we could have got the same results though video-conferencing, I will admit…)

So. Because Luca had left relatively little defined, we spent the first part of the discussion trying to establish what made good parameters for the project. The high medievalists wanted to know what it was about Luca’s 7th- to 9th-century timeframe that made sense, which is of course the Byzantine-Islamic transition in the islands; but that meant working out what that transition was for the islands and when it happened to them. Even the conquest dates of some of them are not very clear, but there were arguably bigger, slower changes afoot anyway. Rebecca, for example, argued (following Chris Wickham) that the critical change in the government of the Mediterranean in late Antiquity was not that of Islam but of the Vandal capture of North Africa in the early 5th century and the Persian one of Egypt in the very early 7th, both of which broke tax spines that maintained Roman capitals (Rome and Constantinople respectively) and ended the Roman mare nostrum.5 Luca pointed out that the islands didn’t necessarily fall out of imperial orbits when the coastlines did, not least because of their role as naval bases, which tended to maintain other features of control too.6 Nonetheless, we coalesced around the idea that cultural change might have been happening at different times and in different directions from place to place, or even the same things happening for different reasons, such as settlement moving off the coasts, which could be either because fewer people were coming to these places across the sea, making trade less viable a living and port cities less useful (as may have happened in Malta) or contrarily because more people were coming by sea and they were dangerous (as is supposed to have happened in the Balearics—but see my subsequent article on that…).7

The citadel of Mdina, Malta

The citadel of Mdina, Malta, another erstwhile site of Byzantine island government, image by 5-five-5, copyright not stated, linked through

With the idea of variation sort of established, I tried to apply that favourite intellectual jemmy of mine, scale, to try and group the variations and thus be able still to say something general about the change.8 It seemed to me that not all the Mediterranean islands could have had the same range of options in the period: some were too small to defend themselves, and some too big to be closed off from seaward access. I still think this is important, but in fact in the subsequent publication, it was Rebecca who really took this point and made it useful, whereas I kind of dropped it, so I’m not sure how much credit I can take.9 Still, it is interesting to review the notes and see the sharing of ideas that generated those papers which became articles; as I say, it maybe justifies the whole endeavour…

Perhaps the most interesting idea, though, at least for me, came from none of the project partners but from Professor Jamroziak, who rightly said that none of the categories by which we seemed to want to define ‘islands’ managed to include all Luca’s test cases terribly well and that we seemed to need a new definition or category. If not, he might have to deal with the possibility that things which were not, geographically, islands, still shared all the important characteristics of them. This really sparked thoughts for me, as I started coming with Byzantine landward fringe settlements that might fit. I should have thought of the various city-states down the Adriatic coast, like Ragusa or Dubrovnik, which was still basically an independent town in the tenth century as Emperor Constantine VII records, but what I actually thought of was Byzantium’s Crimean outpost at Cherson and the Islamic military colony at la Garde-Freinet, near modern Saint-Tropez.10 And you can see that this sank deep from what I ended up writing for the project.11 I don’t think I really gave Emilia the credit she was due for that thought in that piece, though; so, belatedly, I do so now. She started that hare, and my thanks to her!

Old city of Dubrovnik, Croatia

Old city of Dubrovnik, Croatia, site of Byzantine coastal government but for a long time linked to Byzantium only by sea; ‘island’? Image by Diego Delso, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

By the end of this workshop, then, we’d all more or less prevailed upon Luca to develop a more variegated model of change in his study area, to reconsider his chronological scope and to rethink his optimistic view of connectivity as always being sufficient to have much effect on society or, if it did, always being positive. This last argument was still going on in the publication, indeed, but the use of the workshop was pretty clear and when Luca’s book on all this emerges you’ll be able to see where we were any help!12 This was not by any means what we spent most of that grant money on—in fact, we weren’t even able to spend all we’d got and had to give some back—but if I’ve shown you how it might have been usefully spent even so, then my purpose here is achieved, for today anyway…


1. Luca Zavagno, Rebecca Darley and Jonathan Jarrett, “Editorial” in Al-Masāq Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 129–139, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1596645.

2. Perhaps centred upon Elizabeth Malamut, Les îles de l’Empire byzantin, VIIIe‒XIIe siècles, Byzantina Sorbonensia 8 & 9 (Paris 1988), 2 vols.

3. For Luca’s work on Cyprus see 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).

4. See for an early take on these issues Luca Zavagno, “‘Islands in the stream’: toward a new history of the large islands of the Byzantine Mediterranean in the early Middle Ages ca. 600 – ca. 800” in Mediterranean Historical Review Vol. 33 (Abingdon 2018), pp. 149–177, DOI: 10.1080/09518967.2018.1535393; now see Zavagno, “‘No Island is an Island’: The Byzantine Mediterranean in the Early Middle Ages (600s-850s)”, The Legends Journal of European History Studies, Supplement 1 (Tokat 2020), pp. 57-80, DOI: 10.29228/legends.44375, and between the two one can set Zavagno, “‘Going to the Extremes’: The Balearics and Cyprus in the Early Medieval Byzantine Insular System” in al-Masāq Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 140–157, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602375.

5. Based on Chris Wickham, ‘The Other Transition: from the Ancient World to Feudalism’ in Past & Present no. 103 (Oxford 1984), pp. 3–36, DOI: 10.1093/past/103.1.3, revised in Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400–1200 (London 1994), pp. 7–42.

6. On the navy in the period see most obviously Salvatore Cosentino, “Constans II and the Byzantine navy” in Byzantinische Zeitschrift Vol. 100 (Berlin 2008), pp. 577-603, DOI: 10.1515/BYZS.2008.577.

7. Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates? ‘Islandness’ in the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet” in Al-Masāq Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101 at pp. 199-204 for the Balearics and pp. 218-220 for Malta, largely based on Nathaniel Cutajar, Core & Periphery: Mdina and Ħal Safi in the 9th and 10th Centuries, ed. Godwin Vella, Medieval Malta 1 (Valletta 2018), for my copy of which I must thank the author.

8. My tools here come from Julio Escalona, “The Early Middle Ages: A Scale-Based Approach” in Julio Escalona and Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Scale and Scale Change in the Early Middle Ages, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 9–30, DOI: 10.1484/M.TMC-EB.3.4766.

9. See Rebecca Darley, “The Island Frontier: Socotra, Sri Lanka and the Shape of Commerce in the Late Antique Western Indian Ocean” in Al-Masāq Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 223–241, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1604930 at pp. 239-241.

10. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii, ed. Gyula Moravcsik & transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, rev. edn., Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 (Washington DC 1967; reprinted 1993 and 2008), cap. 29 (pp. 122-139) covers the various cities of the Dalmatian coast, including Ragusa, and for what it’s worth cap. 53 (pp. 259-287) gives an extensive and mostly legendary account of Cherson.

11. Jarrett, “‘Nests of Pirates’?”, pp. 212-218.

12. It should be coming out pretty soon as Luca Zavagno, The Byzantine Insular World: beyond the periphery (Amsterdam forthcoming).

A mistaken impression of an embassy to Córdoba

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

Illustration of Notker the Stammerer

St Gall illustration of Notker the Stammerer, from Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

Safavid miniature illustration of Ibn al-Arabī with students

16th-century Persian miniature illustration of the philosopher Ibn al-Arabī with some students, author unknown – http://www.ibnarabisociety.org/articles/treasureofcompassion.html, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

Medieval manuscript illustration of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

2. Ibid., II.6.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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