Category Archives: Italy

The Church and doubt, mostly in the Middle Ages

You may, by now, have had enough of my conference reporting from a year ago, and believe you me, by the time summer 2014 ended I had had enough of conferences for a bit. But, there is one more to go, which was the 53rd Summer Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, which took place at the University of Sheffield from 22nd-24th July, and I was there. The EHS publishes most of its proceedings and I liked the theme, which was ‘Doubt’, so I pitched a paper and they accepted it and so there I was. Now, in the event my paper was not sufficiently doubt-full to be accepted for publication, but it was still a good conference and slightly off my usual beat, which is generally good for one. Still, because I have less to say about most of the papers than usual, I’m going to get the three days done in one post, and because that will likely be large, I will just give you the list of what I saw and heard, and then stick my commentary below a cut so that those of you reading the actual front page can choose to skip on by if you like. Here’s that list, then:

    Tuesday 22nd July

    Plenary Session 1

  • Frances Andrews, “Doubting John”.
  • Session 1.1

  • Aideen O’Leary, “Devotion to St Andrew in Scotland and Anglo-Saxon England”.
  • Stephen Sharman, “Bede and the Credible Witness: a response to doubt”.
  • Christine Walsh, “Faith and Authenticity: eleventh- and twelfth-century concerns about the cult of saints and their relics”.
  • Session 2.1

  • Christine Oakland, “‘A Box Full of Hay?’ Doubt and Truth in the Diocese of Sens”.
  • Jan Vandeburie, “When in Doubt, Give Him the Finger: Ugolino di Conti’s loss of faith and Jacques de Vitry’s intervention”.
  • Wednesday 23rd July

    Plenary Session 2

  • Janet Nelson, “Carolingian Doubt?”
  • Session 3.1

  • Kimberley-Joy Knight, “Lachrymose Holiness and the Problem of Doubt in Thirteenth- and Fourteenth-Century Hagiographies”.
  • Anik Laferrière, “Doubting Monica: the deletion of Monica from fourteenth-century Vitae Augustini in the Augustinian Order of Hermits”.
  • Steven Watts, “Demons and Doubt: the peculiar account of Brother Bernard’s possession in Jordan of Saxony’s Libellus“.
  • Plenary Session 3

  • Ian Forrest, “Trust and DOubt: the late medieval bishop and local knowledge”
  • Session 4.2

  • Emily Ewing Graham, “Heresy and identity: late medieval friars and the kingdom of Aragón”.
  • Patrick Zutshi, “Evidence and Doubt: the beginning of the Great Schism according to the testimony collected at Medina del Campo in 1380-1”.
  • Thursday 24th July

    Session 5.1

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “The Anger of St Peter: the effects of spiritual sanctions in early medieval charters of donation”.
  • Thomas Smith, “Investigating the Pope’s Doubts: the validity of petitions from thirteenth-century England”.
  • Enrico Veneziani, “Doubting the Authority of Peter: the trial of Pontius of Cluny”.
  • Plenary Session 4

  • Kirstie Blair, “Unforming Faith: poetry, doubt and the Church of England in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”

And this is (some of) what I thought about it all… Continue reading

Leeds 2014 Report I

Crowds of medievalists at the 2014 International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds

IMC 2014 in session


I very much hope this is the last time this happens, but I find myself again reaching a Leeds International Medieval Congress in my write-up backlog only after the next one has already happened. Looking back at the 2014 one, too, I find that I remember remarkably little of it; for many of the papers I have notes on, I would have sworn to you I had never seen the presenter. I think this must be me and how distracted I was by various things back then. It could also be that we drove up the night before straight from the closing moments of The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours conference just recounted and that I was already a bit hazy from too much learning. Whatever it is, though, it means I’m very reliant on my notes and that may also make this briefer than usual; I can but hope. But let’s charge in. On Monday 7th July, once up, I seem to have ignored the first keynote lecture, I think largely so as to get in at the second-hand bookfair, and then dived in properly as follows:

121. Coining and Sealing Empire in the Middle Ages

  • Guido M. Berndt, “The Face of the Emperor and the Face of the King: numismatic evidence from Vandal North Africa and Ostrogothic Italy”.
  • Susan Solway, “The ‘Currency’ of Rome: coining empire in the Middle Ages”.
  • Florence Codine, “The Emperor’s New Hair: imitation and innovation in coin portraits in the post-Roman West, 5th-9th centuries”.
  • I do remember this session, however. You can see how it should have played to my interests somewhat, but in fact I went in sceptical because one of the papers looked very much as if it was along the line of an exhibition proposal I’d just pitched at interview (so it didn’t seem a novel idea to me) and another looked like an unknowing repeat of one of the best papers I ever saw given, so, there was a high bar.1 I am also leery generally of sessions where the moderator speaks, as was the case here, and of art-historical approaches to early medieval coinage (which is very far from naturalistic in its portraiture and so speculative at best to get real visual information from).2 Given all this, my expectations were probably always going to be low.

    Bronze 21-nummi of King Hilderic of the Vandals, Carthage, 523-30, Barber Institute of Fine Arts VV066

    Obverse of a bronze 21-nummi coin of King Hilderic of the Vandals, struck at Carthage in 523-30, Barber Institute of Fine Arts VV066. You can see how important it was to the die-engraver and moneyer that it look just right…

    It would be cruel to say that the session easily met those expectations, then, because I was probably the wrong audience: I knew most of what Dr Berndt’s paper had to say about what the Vandals and Ostrogoths minted (and would indeed be exhibiting some of it early the next year, as seen above), for example. Professor Solway, who overran by ten minutes, was arguing that the post-Roman world retained the imperial portrait on its coins and used Roman coins with it on in jewellery as a symbol of authority, and this may well be true but if so we need to think a lot harder about how that symbol was understood: it was obviously not necessary for it to show a current emperor, for example, nor an identifiable one, nor even show him the right way up. Neither was it necessary to do so at all: some early Anglo-Saxon pennies do carry something like an imperial bust, but others do not while a third group stylise it into mad hair and nothing else. Yet they all seem to have been exchangeable. It’s not simple, and some change over time from direct imitation to stylised representation to redesign and individuation would have made this canter from Julius Cæsar to Frederick II a bit more sensitive. Mme Codine’s paper meanwhile was very conscious of the limitations of the evidence, which ineluctably undermined its very tentative suggestions that the famous long hair of tthe Merovingian Kings of the Franks was represented on some of their coins. We don’t really understand who issued Merovingian coins, so this was always going to be a hard sell. Versions of the other two papers here are, however, already in press in a book edited by Professor Solway, so you don’t have to take my mean words for it, you can see how unfair I’m being for yourself, at least if your institution can afford Brepols.

Things rapidly looked up, however, even if it was somewhat of a rush to get food and make it to:

198. Keynote Lecture 2014

    This year, the IMC had split its keynotes up and this meant that I spent the early part of this one trying to eat crisps unobtrusively, but it was worth it for:

  • Hugh Kennedy, “The End of Islamic Late Antiquity: change and decay in the 10th-century Middle East”.
  • Hugh’s lecture was in two parts, in the first of which he made the case that the early Islamic state could be seen as a late antique one, with a civil service, a classicising historiography, a tax system running in coin and many other features, although not including any tax on trade. The second part then noted that most of this broke down in the tenth century, with a shift to paid soldiery tying up the state’s resources at a point when, in processes unfolding over decades and perhaps imperceptible at a lived timescale, it became less and less profitable to develop and maintain agricultural land in the caliphate’s rich heartlands and more and more profitable to be in the civil service, leading to a steadily more massive drop in base agricultural production, without which of course everything else suffers. Strapped for vital cash, and massively overspent, the caliphs farmed out more and more of their tax collection, thus losing more and more direct control over their territories. Hugh pointed out that any parallels with so-called feudalisation in the West would have to deal with the fact that Islamic justice remained public, not ‘seigneurial’, because it was a religious affair; there are many ways for an empire to decentralise and fragment, I think we can agree!3

214. Empire, Power, and Identity in Roman, Vandal, Byzantine, and Islamic North Africa, II

  • Uta Heil, “Fulgentius and Thrasamund”.
  • Christian Barthel, “At Empire’s Edge: ruling Libya in the late 5th and early 6th century”.
  • Because one of the presenters in this session hadn’t made it, the two papers were run separately with their own questions. Dr Heil introduced us to Bishop Fulgentius of Ruspe, a bishop who was exiled from Africa to Sardinia by the Vandal king Thrasamund. This was not a simple bouncing-out of an irrefragable Catholic by an Arian ruler, however, because there was apparently quite the written interchange between them, not the least of which is a dialogue, purportedly between king and bishop, in which the bishop explains the wrongs of a theological position the king was adumbrating, apparently not Arianism but Monophysitism. Fulgentius was apparently able to write books and books of theology while in Sardinia, teach, receive visitors and so on and the impression one gets is that the king had found a way to keep a high-powered theologian on call without his being able to intervene much in African politics, which were highly religious. I am guessing that a very large pension was presumably part of this deal… Meanwhile Herr Barthel wanted us to know about three inscriptions of Emperor Anastasius from what is now Libya. These show considerable military reorganisation, setting up wage-scales for the staff, prison administration and boundary policing, all quite detailed measures that show a government clearly still in operation, which is all the more striking because almost all we know otherwise is the names of obscure probably-Berber groups against whom these defences were now necessary, from the work of Synesius of Cyrene, which was a general harangue to let Constantinople know how bad the situation had got. That and the three copies of these inscriptions are almost the only sources we have for the whole area for most of a century, and it mainly made me think on what slender threads even this much therefore hangs.

Then caffeine and back to the fray for the final session of the day, in which my loyalties were happily combined in the form of the venerable Texts and Identities strand and speakers I knew from other contexts, as follows.

327. Texts and Identities, III: Italy between Eastern and Western Empire in the early Middle Ages

  • Caroline Goodson, “St Petronilla, Rome: cultural allegiances and family alliances”
  • Clemens Gantner, “Removing the Holy Pope Martin from the Church of the Saviour: uses of the arrest and trial of Pope Martin I in Roman sources from the 7th to 9th centuries”
  • Helmut Reimitz, “The Challenge of Rome for Carolingian Politics of Identity in the 8th Century”
  • This session had been much mutilated, but in a good way for me: both Caroline and Helmut were replacing absent speakers, whom I didn’t know, and so I now had a much better idea of what would be on offer and went in with confidence. Caroline told us about the papal use of the cult of St Petronilla, who at her earliest site of cult was held to be a fourth-century venerable lady, rather than a saint, but when moved by Pope Stephen II to her own church became, somehow, St Peter’s own daughter, martyred in the second century. The cult has usually been studied because King Pippin III of Francia linked his daughter Gisela to it by his patronage, but Caroline argued that if the aim of this was to bring the Franks into Rome in some visible way, the audience of this was nonetheless the Romans, and so the emphasis on Peter was probably what the popes were after, with the Frankish involvement a very secondary issue. Clemens looked at the history of Pope Martin I, which as I had learnt earlier that year involved appointment from outside, in 649, by a Byzantine administration which became so dissatisfied with the results that they arrested him and exiled him to Cherson. You can imagine that this is an episode that could be told very politically, as Rome generally detached from Byzantine in subsequent centuries, but the politics change a lot in each version: the issue is usually the wrongness of eastern doctrine, against which Martin boldly stood, but exactly which doctrinal controversy it was and how much the real issue was whether Constantinople could still take tax from Rome vary a lot from retelling to retelling. Lastly Helmut looked at how the relationship of the Frankish kings with the papacy is reported in various eighth-century Frankish sources, and concluded that here too things could change very fast, as the Franks’ own project did: he saw a shift from papal legitimisation of the new Frankish kingship through the Franks’ suitability for imperial power, to be conveyed by the pope, to the popes mainly being a way to bring the Franks into contact with the Lombards thus demonstrating how superior the Frankish people, and not just their kings, were. In conclusion: texts were political, very much the standard message of Texts and Identities but always worth showing afresh. Questions showed that the least understood source here in this light is the papal biographical compilation called the Liber Pontificalis, The Book of Pontiffs as the translator has it, of which there survive several versions, often differing in small additions that could as easily represent non-papal points of view.4 I know that lots of people have worked on the Liber just lately and I haven’t read it yet, but one feels that it can’t yet be enough…

And thus, anyway, closed the first day, and I seem to recall that we went to dinner in the refectory and decided not to do that again, and then I expect the bar called, but this at least gets you through the academic content. There’ve been hardly any coins this post, have there? I’ll have to fix that, stay tuned…


1. And that paper is now in print as Jonathan Arnoldd, “Theoderic’s Invincible Mustache” in Journal of Late Antiquity Vol. 6 (Baltimore 2013), pp. 152-183, DOI: 10.1353/jla.2013.0007.

2. That said, Anna Gannon, The Iconography of Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage: Sixth to Eighth Centuries (Oxford 2003) is a good go at such work because it is interested primarily in symbolism and doesn’t look for literal representation.

3. For example, long long ago, at my Ph. D. upgrade meeting no less, Professor Mark Mazower pointed out to me that the Ottoman Empire could be compared, which was (he did not say this bit, which may be stupid) already more or less feudalised and which fragmented when it tried to modernise instead!

4. Printed in Louis Duchesne (ed.), Liber Pontificalis : Texte, introduction et commentaire (Paris 1886–1892), 2 vols, online here and here, and translated in Raymond Davis (transl.), The Book of Pontiffs (Liber Pontificalis to AD 715), Translated Texts for Historians 6 (Liverpool 1989), idem (transl.), The Lives of the Eighth-Century Popes (Liber Pontificalis), Translated Texts for Historians 13 (Liverpool 1992) and idem (transl.), The Lives of the Ninth-Century Popes (Liber Pontificalis), Translated Texts for Historians 20 (Liverpool 1995).

Announcing Inheriting Rome

Publicity image for Inheriting Rome: the imperial legacy in coinage and culture, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 27 February 2015 – 24 January 2016

Inheriting Rome: the imperial legacy in coinage and culture
Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 27 February 2015 – 24 January 2016
Coin Gallery

One of the very many things that have been keeping me from updating this blog as I would wish over recent months is now done, and can and should be announced. It is nothing less than the new exhibition in the Coin Gallery at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, curated by none other than yours truly. It’s entitled Inheriting Rome: the imperial legacy in coinage and culture and I’m really very pleased with it. The designer has taken my ideas and content and made it into a feast for the eyes as well as the brain but people have also been telling me that it is clear and interesting and makes them think and all those things that one wants to hear when one has done this much work to put objects, text and images together for the delectation of the general public. The Barber’s current What’s On leaflet has this to encourage you to come and see:

Look at one of the coins you’re carrying today: you’ll see the Queen’s portrait facing right and Latin script around the royal head. It seems our coins have looked this way forever, and that’s nearly true. But why? This exhibition uses money to explore and question our deep-seated familiarity with the Roman Empire’s imagery. Britain is not the only nation, empire or state to channel ancient Rome in this way: the Barber’s excellent collection of coins from the Byzantine Empire – as well examples from Hungary, Georgia and Armenia – illustrate both the problems and possibilities of being genuine heirs of Rome. Attempting to uncover the political uses of Rome’s legacy, this exhibition encourages the visitor to ponder why we are so often told of the empire’s importance – and whose interests such imagery serves.

A little UK-centric in retrospect, but then I don’t think we send the leaflet out any further than that… You can see that I was and am out to make a point, anyway, but really, come for how great it all looks and stay for the interpretation. It’s open until the 24th January 2016, and there are gallery tours on the third Sunday of most months as well as a number of gallery talks by myself, of which you can find details on the Barber’s website at those links. Do come and see!

Entrance to the Coin Gallery, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, showing the banners for Inheritance of Rome

Entrance to the gallery

Meanwhile, I have to thank Robert Wenley, Chezzy Brownen and John van Boolen for making it clearer and better in various ways or in John’s case actually helping install it, as well as crawling in roof-spaces to try and fix broken lights, and most of all Selina Goodfellow of Blind Mice Design for making it into something everyone wants to look at. I’ll have as much credit as is going, you know, but these people deserve theirs too. Thanks to all and you, readers, come and see what we did!

Backdrops at the end of the coin gallery of Inheriting Rome

Backdrops at the end of the gallery

(Right. So that just leaves a website rewrite, children’s activities, auditing the collection, checking the library and uploading the entire set of catalogues onto the University of Birmingham’s website, ON WHICH MORE SHORTLY, as well as zapping things with X-rays for purposes of Science! What’ll I do tomorrow?)

The English and Hungarian coins in the exhibition Inheriting Rome

The English and Hungarian coins in the exhibition, in full splendour

Seminar CLIII: working on and out the North Italian landscape

It’s seminar report time again, and this time it was back down to London for the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research where, on 7th May 2014, Professor Ross Balzaretti was presenting with the title, “Early Medieval Charters and Landscapes: Genoa and Milan compared“. This is of course meat and drink to me as if there’s anywhere that has nearly as many charters left from the early Middle Ages as does Catalonia it’s Italy and the Mediterranean climate and mountainous landscapes the areas share made a lot of what Ross was saying seem comfortingly familiar.1 Insofar as Ross was out to make converts, therefore, he was not preaching to me, but I can at least join in with the hymns.

Terraces at at Corniglia

A Ligurian landscape of the sort that Ross has written about, this one being terraces at at Corniglia, man-made and nature overlaid and intercutting

The basic contention of the paper was that we can use charters as sources for landscape use and economic activity in a north Italian context, which is just as well as we don’t have a lot else left with which to do it given how intensely those landscapes have mostly been worked since the Middle Ages.2 The argument against such use of charter evidence has usually been that the documents are so formulaic that their detail can’t be trusted, to which the counter is that they vary a very great deal, and Ross was able by his comparison to show that the formulae, if that’s what they are, vary so much between Milan and Genoa that even if they’re formulae they must reflect considerable local differences in what formulae apply, so that in fact the level of choice would have to be such that it’s simpler to assume that what is making the variation is the actual landscapes concerned.3

Olive-groves at Castello Rosso, near Genoa

Olive-groves at Castello Rosso, near Genoa

As to that variation, it is quite marked. Genoese charters make much more of trees and Milanese ones more of fields for cereals. Both were producing in a specialised fashion, implying a market presumably dominated by the big towns whose hinterlands we were hearing about, but in Genoa the specialist product was olive oil and Milan it was much less focused (though that may be not least that at this point Milan was rather bigger). But the specialisation was also partly geographic: there are more mentions of terracing around Genoa not just because the charter scribess round there liked that formula but because the land requires it, being much more sloped than around Milan. Around Genoa the work to make the land yield food is very evident in terms of work contracted or expected and boundaries revealing it already done. Milan looks more domestic, as if less co-dependence was necessary to make a living here. And so on.

Parco Agricolo di Milano

There is now an agricultural park outside Milan, apparently, which lets me show you the other kind of landscape in play here as well

All of this rang very familiar with me because of the similar, if lesser, variations I’d been seeing between the lands owned by San Salvatore di Brescia in the Santa Giulia polyptych, so much discussed a little while ago. Here as there, of course, another way to see the variation is as between people, making different decisions about how to make their living, and charters do have that advantage that the polyptych does not, that you can usually put names to these individuals. But that doesn’t mean at all that I thought Ross’s focus on the landscape was misplaced; the countryside these people worked was the silent partner in all their actions, and the charters let you get at something of that too.

TRAME: blowing nobody any good

I have been hoarding interesting links during this period of backlog (at least since the last lot) and at some point I will deluge them upon your terminals, but for now there is one in particular I want to talk about. Long-term readers will know that I have a long-orbit bee in my bonnet about funding grants for developing digital resources that already exist. There seems to be no offender here more prolific than the idea that it would be great to establish a unified catalogue of medieval manuscripts on the Internet, despite the fact that there are so many of those that one of the most established of these portals has officially quit keeping up. This was the frame of mind in which I encountered – I no longer remember how – an Italian initiative called TRAME, Text and Manuscript Transmission of the Middle Ages in Europe, and stubbed this post.

Screen capture of the front page of the TRAME site

Screen capture of the front page of their site, click to enlarge (for reasons given below, I’m not linking through)

Inspection reveals that this is not quite the usual deal, in several ways. Firstly, it seems a much more cooperative and consensual a metacatalogue than one of the previous ones, which intended to scrape online content by aggressive querying (not how they put it, but still true) and present it through their own portal; on this one you as manuscript-holding institution have to opt in, and they encourage you so to do. Secondly, it is collecting not actual digitised manuscripts but digitised catalogues of manuscripts. The first of these might be expected to limit their scope, though Italy seems to be good at these digital alliances. The second, however, greatly increases it: lots more such catalogues exist than do new manuscript digitisation efforts, so they are able, having mapped the incoming database to their own (a project in which I suspect I recognise the hands of the Università di Firenze), to present really quite a lot of data. On the other hand, because of the first that data is of quite varied quality and because of the second, ultimately all it is is a manuscript finding aid, not an actual repository.

I did a very quick test case that illustrates the issues. Firstly, my Italian not being so great and me not having really read the instructions, I tried just the word «aprisio» in the search box, but it returned nothing, so I bethought myself of metadata not data and started plugging possible author names in. I was searching, you may guess, for things Catalan and the surprising thing is that I found some. Slightly more surprising to me was that some turned out to be at the Escorial library in Madrid, which I didn’t think had any manuscripts digitised, and this is about the point where I discovered that we are dealing only with catalogue entries. But I persevered because there is really only one manuscript about the Escorial I know anything about, Z.II.2, which is the judge Bonhom’s copy of the adapted Visigothic Law.1 It is there, but all you get is the shelf-mark, so, well, what use is this?

It’s not as if asking the Escorial’s website gets you anything better, of course: its search engine breaks under the simplest query and if you poke far enough into their site you find what purports to be a download of their 1910 catalogue of Latin manuscripts that actually comrpises only the Prologue of its first volume.2 So there is probably less use TRAME could be, but it gets worse. Another example. Having with my first search established that there were manuscripts in this database from the Biblioteca de l’Universitat de Barcelona, I made it show me everything they had there, and this is revealing. Firstly it’s replicated between constituent databases a lot, some manuscripts appearing in several, but it’s the nature of those databases that makes me cross. For this search, lots comes from a resource called BISLAM, Bibliotheca Scriptorum Latinorum Medii Recentiorisque Aevi, which is available through the portal with which the whole effort apparently started, a subscription service called MIRAbile.3 And what that means is that all you can get from a given search in it is an entry like the below and an invitation to subscribe for more information.

Screen capture of a MIRAbile database entry without subscription

There are those of us who would call this spam, and I’m really quite surprised that they got public funding thus to funnel people to their own pay-site. This seems to be the model of all the databases they connect, in fact. And since one of those databases, MSS-b, appears to be a citation index for manuscripts that, unless you have a subscription to that, gives you only single citations of manuscripts in scholarly literature but neither a verified shelfmark for the manuscript nor any part of the relevant scholarly publication. Again, what use is this? I would submit, not a whole lot.

Screen capture of a subscription-less MSS-b database entry

In fact, unless you really need to know a selection of odd mentions of the manuscript you work on and have a research library of international calibre to find them in, the only real use I can see for TRAME is to funnel your money towards their electronic subscription services. Presumably it’s this proud use of public money that means that the ‘costs’ page just links out to a parent body’s homepage and that there has been no news on this project’s website for nearly two years. I’m surprised and disappointed to find that one of their partners is the Institut de Recherche et d’Histoire des Textes, and rather sorry to find any universities involved with it at all. May it have made no-one rich!


1. Text printed as Jesús Alturo i Perucho, Joan Bellès, Josep M. Font Rius, Yolanda García & Anscari Mundó (edd.), Liber iudicum popularis. Ordenat pel jutge Bonsom de Barcelona (Barcelona 2003), and online for free here, but I’d still like to be able to virtually see the manuscript.

2. P. Guillermo Antolín (ed.), Catálogo de los códices latinos de la Real Biblioteca de l’Escorial (Madrid 1910), 5 vols.

3. Roberto Gamberini (ed.), BISLAM. Bibliotheca Scriptorum Latinorum Medii Recentiorisque Aevi. Repertory of Mediaeval and Renaissance Latin Authors (Firenze 2003-2010), 3 vols & CD-ROM, which I’m sure is a very useful thing in its way but not free.

Seminar CXLIX: the importance of being eloquent in the Italian Church

I seem to have emerged from a hole somewhat in March 2014, suddenly going to lots of seminars after some time on rations. I put this partly down to the welcome presence of Another Damned Medievalist in London, which gave me a good extra reason to be in town, but also the new course I had been running that term was mostly unrolled and the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research had several things on the programme that interested me, of which one was when Giorgia Vocino gave a paper on the 19th March called “Bishops in the Mirror: literary portraits and episcopal self-fashioning in early medieval Italy”.

Mosiac portrait of Saint Ambrose of Milan

Mosaic portrait of bishop no. 1 for this paper, Saint Ambrose of Milan. “AmbroseOfMilan“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I knew Dottora Vocino as a face from Leeds but had never met her or her work, so this was valuable context. Her paper was about the standing of bishops in the early medieval world, and she took a complex and interesting approach to the question, taking several well-documented bishops and asking, respectively, how they presented themselves in their writings, how contemporaries report them and what their posthumous reputation was like. Her examples came from quite a chronological range: the earliest was Saint Ambrose of Milan (ruled 374-397) and the others were Pope Gregory the Great (ruled 590-604), Patriarch Paulinus of Aquileia (ruled 787-802×804) and Bishop Atto of Vercelli († 960), so perhaps it was not surprising that their own self-presentations, as Dottora Vocino characterised them, differed widely: Ambrose, despite his chiding emperors and leading mobs (this is my editorialising) presented himself primarily as a teacher of Scripture; Gregory saw the bishop as more active in the world, a shepherd more than a teacher (though a teacher too); Paulinus was most concerned with soldiering for Christ against the enemies of God, as befits one of the key scholars of the Carolingian Renaissance perhaps, by means of prayer, teaching and preaching but still more confrontational than the previous two; and Atto’s most revealing writing, a thing called the Perpendiculum is an anonymous prophetic condemnation of those who would depose kings, though it too got reused as a teaching text. Nonetheless, though they all taught only Ambrose seems really to have thought this definitional of his office, which evokes comparisons to the modern Academy that might be unkind but occur all the same.

Ivory carving of Pope Gregory the Great being inspired by the Holy Spirit, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Ivory carving of Pope Gregory the Great being inspired by the Holy Spirit, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

It may then be that while those who have a quality in abundance don’t need to shout about it, those who do the same job without it still envy them, because what all of these bishops seem to have been remembered and praised (or even sometimes dispraised) for is none of the above, but instead their eloquence as speakers. Saint Augustine actually saw Ambrose speak and thought him amazing. Gregory was supposedly given his eloquence by the Holy Spirit (his senatorial education presumably assisting that gift somewhat), and although Gregory of Tours thought of his namesake as a scholar and the Liber Pontificalis remembers him mainly for building, as let’s face it it does every pope who didn’t get deposed violently, Isidore of Seville, whose brother knew Gregory, praised him mainly for public speaking. Paulinus is written up as having been preternaturally eloquent from infancy, and although we have no outside witness texts for Atto his own writings take trouble to refute charges of over-eloquence that had apparently been raised against him. This ars loquendi, art of speaking, is apparently the thing that Italian bishops got remembered for, whether they wanted that or not. Miracles, public works, and their own shared emphasis, instruction, all take a back seat to how they came over when they stood up in front of people.

Carolingian-period sculptural panel on a baptismal font ion the church of Cividale

I can’t find an illustration of Paulinus of Aquileia from earlier than 1790 but here at least is something he is believed to have had made, a panel from the baptismal font in the church of Cividale. Sailko [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

There was some debate about why this should be. Dottora Vocino emphasised the politics that whirled around the writing of these bishops’ lives, and suggested that while miracles were a good way of indicating divine favour for the past bishops they might have been a tall order for the living ones who needed comparison to their predecessors; eloquence, on the other hand, could be presented as a divine inspiration but could also be performed by the current incumbents. Susan Reynolds wisely asked if any bishops were ever condemned for being bad speakers, but apparently there are some so it’s not just generic, however common. Alice Rio and Caroline Goodson both asked questions about regionality, seeing little of this emphasis in bishops’ lives from Francia and Southern Italy. Dottora Vocino thought that some comparisons in Francia could be found, but I think this is in some ways to be expected; she pointed out that the transmission of these famae, reputations or fames, probably needed schools, and I would add also audiences outside the schoolroom among whom such portrayals could be deployed, and both of these imply cathedral cities with urban populations, for which Northern Italy is about the most likely zone, though the South’s non-participation is still odd. It would be interesting to take the comparison across to the Byzantine world and see if the cities of Greece or Asia Minor thought of their bishops similarly. But the takeaway point for me was an old one, that people write history or similar for a reason; what someone did may not be as important for their memory as what someone later needed to do with it. Whether or not all these bishops were really talented orators we probably can’t tell, though Ambrose at least seems likely; what we can say is that while there was more to them than that, it was what served the interests of their successors to remember (perhaps because all other comparisons would have been unfavourable). As ever, it behoves us to think about what our sources did not need or want to mention before we decide what they knew.


I would have to do a lot of digging to pull together references to these various bishops works and the texts that Dottora Vocino was using, and it seems easier simply to refer you to her subsequent related publication, G. Vocino, “Under the aegis of the saints: hagiography and power in early Carolingian northern Italy” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 22 (Oxford 2014), pp. 26-52, DOI: 10.1111/emed.12037, and hope that that will do. Sorry!

Working for San Salvatore III: what they got out of it

I have now gone on at great length about the polyptych of Santa Giulia di Brescia without really talking about my actual purpose in reading it, so it’s time to do that.1 You may remember a long time back that I had a go at the idea, repeated in textbook after textbook, that agriculture in the Carolingian period ran at yields hardly more than the grain that was sown.2 This is self-evidently ridiculous if you are familiar either with actual growing of crops (which I am only second-hand) or can do basic maths, but it persists, and the reason it persists, like many another medieval cliché, is Georges Duby.3

Georges Duby

The late Georges Duby

This is not entirely Duby’s fault. He wrote a couple of textbooks in the 1960s and 1970s that somehow remain the world standard for any history of the early medieval economy that actually contains agriculture, and he used the best thinking available and sources known at the time.4 He did a pretty good job of synthesis on that, and though one might wish he’d thought about it a bit harder, it’s really not just him who’s failed to do so, and those that have thought about it haven’t really looked hard enough at his evidence.5 That was, in large part, the Carolingian estate survey of the fiscal centre at Annapes preserved in the text known as the Brevium Exempla, and some time ago already now I gave a paper at Kalamazoo in which I showed that Duby had in fact read the text wrong, or rather failed to read all of its data, as had all those he used, even, I’m sorry to say, Philip Grierson, and I considered that dispatched and proceeded to writing it up.6 But Annapes was not Duby’s only source that seemed to support these awfully low yields, and so I needed to see if the same tricks could be performed with the others too, and you will by now have guessed or maybe already know that one of them was the polyptych of Santa Giulia di Brescia.

Santia Giulia di Brescia from the air

Santa Giulia di Brescia as it now stands, from the air

Duby dealt with the figures from Santa Giulia only in summary fashion. In Rural Economy and Country Life he works Annapes over extensively, coming up with output figures of between 1·5:1 and 2·2:1, and then goes on:

“We must not, of course, generalize from one set of figures obtained from a single source. But it is possible to find elsewhere some other traces of output, somewhat higher than that which can be derived from the Annapes inventory, but even so representing a low yield and a derisory rate of profit when compared with the value of the capital in land and seed corn. One significant fact is that compilers who visited the farms (cours [apparently left in French from Latin ‘curtes’]) of the abbey of San Giulia of Brescia in 905-906 to compile a polyptych found there reserves of grain in the barns which were barely higher and sometimes lower than the quantity needed for sowing. Thus at Prozano where the fields could take 300 muids of seed corn, the stocks in the estate barn amounted to only 360 muids of which 140 were of millet (mil). At Canella 90 muids were needed for sowing and 51 were in the barns; at Temulina 32 and 37.”

And with that he moved onto Saint-Germain-des-Prés near Paris and pulled a similar trick there.7 And in the slightly later and much shorter Early Growth of the European Economy he didn’t even give that much detail (or a reference to the primary source), limiting himself to dealing again with Annapes and then adding:

“The Lombard monastery of St Giulia of Bréscia [sic], which consumed some 6,600 measures of grain annually, would have 9,000 sown to cover its needs, which means that the return normally available to the lord was being estimated at 1·7 to 1.”8

The best way to see what is wrong with this is to look closely at how the compilers of Santa Giulia’s polyptych were using their figures, figures that I’ve already argued here they were receiving in a standard format. And doing so shows firstly that Duby, and Luzzatto before him, were again wrong in assuming that these figures mean what they wanted to mean, and in fact that using them to calculate yield is impossible except in one single case where the formula was bent, and in that case it comes out at at least 4·25:1 and probably rather higher. Don’t believe me? Watch this! Continue reading