Category Archives: Italy

Rulers who weren’t kings, discussed at Leeds

I have as usual to apologise for a gap in posting. I mentioned the Covid-19; then I was on holiday; and then I was late with a chapter submission that I finished, on overtime, yesterday. Much of this post was written before that all started piling up, but I’ve only today had time to finish it. I was originally going to give you another source translation for the first time in ages, but it turns out that even though I translated the relevant thing fresh in 2019, two other people had already done it even then and I somehow missed that at the time. Oh well, never mind, because that progresses my backlog into April of that year, when I had the honour of giving my second ever keynote address (and, it must be said, so far my last). This was kindly arranged by my then-colleague Dr Fraser McNair, who had put together a conference called Non-Royal Rulership in the Earlier Medieval West, c. 600-1200. To be fair, though, I was only one of three keynote speakers, so well-connected is Fraser. As ever, I can’t give a full account of a two-day conference at a three-year remove, but I can give you the premise, the list of speakers and some thoughts which, I promise, will not just be about my paper. I’ll put the abstract and running order above the cut, but the rest can go below one so that if it doesn’t interest you, you few who actually read this on the website can more easily scroll to things that do. So here we are!

Between the breakdown of Roman rule and the sweeping legal and administrative changes of the later twelfth century, western Europe saw many types of rulers. The precise nature of their title and authority changed: dukes, counts, rectores, gastalds, ealdormen… These rulers were ubiquituous and diverse, but despite the variation between them, they all shared a neeed to conceptualise, to justify, and to exercise their rule without access to the ideological and governmental resources of kingship. This conference will explore the political practices of non-royal ruler across the earlier medieval period, in order to understand how the ambiguities of a position of rule that was not kingship were resolved in their varuous inflections.

And in order to do that thing, Fraser got hold of this glittering line-up (and me):

8th April 2019

Keynote 1

    Vito Loré, “How Many Lombard Kingdoms? The Duchies of Benevento and Spoleto in the Eighth Century”

The Terminology of Non-Royal Rule

  • Russell Ó Ríagáin, “A King by Any Other Name Would Rule the Same? A Relational and Diachronic Examination of the Terminology of Authority in Medieval Ireland”
  • Emily Ward, “Quasi interrex? Boy Kings and the Terminology of Non-Royal ‘Rule’, 1056-c. 1200″
  • Andrea Mariani, “Portugal Before the Kingdom: A Study of the Count of Portucale’s Titles and their Political Legitimation (9th-12th Centuries)”

Lay and Ecclesiastical Non-Royal Rulership

  • Mary Blanchard, “Equal but Separate? The Offices of Bishop and Ealdorman in Late Anglo-Saxon England”
  • James Doherty, “The Righteous Brothers: Bishop Philip of Châlons, Count Hugh of Troyes and Cultural Capital on the Stage of Crusade”
  • George Luff, “Princes of the Church: The Emergence of Ecclesiastical Rulership in the Early Medieval West”

Keynote 2

    Fiona Edmonds, “Regional Rulership: Northern Britain in its Insular Context, 600-1100”

9th April 2019

Analysing Non-Royal Power Relations

  • Sverrir Jakobsson, “Non-Royal Rulers in Twelfth-Century Iceland”
  • Mariña Bermúdez Beloso, “Non-Royal Rulership in North-Western Iberia: Who (Were They), what (Were Their Functions), Over Which (Territories did They Rule), How (to Study Them), and Other Questions for the Sources”
  • Alberto Spataro, “Rule by Law? Judicial and Political Hegemony of Milan in the Regnum Italiae (11th-12th Centuries)”

Keynote 3

    Jonathan Jarrett, “Counts Where It Counts: Spheres of Comital Action in the Tenth-Century West Frankish Periphery”

Non-Royal Rulers in the Middle

  • Daniel Schumacher, “Count Reginar: Duke, missus dominicus, and Rebel”
  • Fraser McNair, “An Anglo-Saxon Strand in Legitimizing the Counts of Flanders”
  • Jamie Smith, “‘Friends in Other Places’: The Diplomacy of Early Tostig of Northumbria, 1055-1066”

Symbolic Communication and Non-Royal Rule

  • Guilia Zornetta, “Benevento Before and After the Fall of the Lombard Kingdom: From Ducatus to Principatus
  • Rodrigo Hernández Hernández, “Justice, Peace and Virtue: The Mercy of Diego Gelmirez as a Discursive Element to Consolidate his Rulership in the Historia Compostelana
  • Anna Gehler-Rachůnek, “Strategies of Political Communication: the Papacy and the West around 600”

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Seminars CCLXVII & CCLXVIII: the Normans return to Leeds

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

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

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

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

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

Tombstone of Anna in St Michael's Palermo

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

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

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

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

Poster for the seminar, designed by Thomas Smith

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

Interior and crypt of Santissima Trinità di Venosa

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Seminars CCXLVIII & CCXLIX: dismantling expectations about statehood from Sicily and Sidon

There has been a gap here, for which I apologise; the second of those family occasions I mentioned last post was to blame, but now I am back on deck, and for this week I want ceremonially to move my backlog out of 2017 by talking briefly about two papers I went to see in December of that year, one in Leeds and one in London. The Leeds one was one of our own doctoral students, and indeed one of my advisees, Hervin Fernández-Aceves, now Dr and at Lancaster, presenting to the Medieval History Seminar we run with the title, “Reframing the Role of Nobility: misconceptions and omissions in the historiography of the kingdom of Sicily” on 6th December; and the London one was the Royal Numismatic Society Christmas Lecture, given by Lutz Ilisch with the title, “Mashghara – a Condominial Mint of the County of Sidon/Barony of Shuf and the Kingdom of Damascus” on 19th December. You wouldn’t think there was a lot of crossover there, but actually both had something to say about the ways that medieval government, especially when carried out in a disrupted environment, very often defies what seem to the modern eye to be ‘natural’ rights or behaviours of states. The modern nation-state is actually quite a strange beast, to my mind, weirdly willing to constrain itself by mutually agreed law and then be surprised when some polities won’t play. If we want to understand that better, I these days maintain, the Middle Ages is a good place to look, and so here are two examples.1

Painting of King Roger II of Sicily from the Palatine Chapel in Palermo

Painting of King Roger II of Sicily from the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, from Arabischer Maler der Palastkapelle in Palermo – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Hervin’s work in his thesis, which at this stage he had just finished, was to reassess the composition and political role of the nobility in the famously multicultural Norman kingdom of Sicily in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The trouble he had run into, however, was that what he found didn’t match the historiography, which expected pretty much all nobles to hold their lands and offices either absolutely because of having conquered them by fire and the sword, or else to hold them by feudal grants from the kings, and their offices of state, especially the counties they ruled, to be essentially jurisdictional units attached to the territories they took or were given in fief.2 If this seems like a perspective constructed from really old textbooks about Norman England, well, that may not be a coincidence, but what Hervin found instead was that there were no templates and indeed no central administration that could be mapped out as counties. Instead, there were any number of competing nobles who fought with each other for space and office, not necessarily in the same places, and sometimes enlisted the kings or their ducal predecessors as help and backing for these claims. Meanwhile, there were also pre-existent fragments of Byzantine administration under strategoi who also looked to the rulers for guarantee of their position, which they often got. The records of the relationships thus formed do not talk about homage, vassalage, subjection or anything like that; there was no feudal constitution of this state, if indeed it was a state; that someone held a thing called a county, which in any case only emerged partway through the kingdom’s history, did not necessarily mean they called themselves ‘count’ (and if they did, others might not agree) and neither was a count’s territory necessarily a county. Counts’ children might well become counts, but rarely in the same place as their fathers, and the kings were generally able to move them around and keep them from getting too grounded.

The tendency was thus for the dukes and kings to be able to use the competition to constrain the nobility, whether local, incoming or heirs of either, with these agreements until everyone was more or less part of the same overall network, but to call it a system or a constitution would be to miss how very unconstructed this was. By the reign of William I, it was possible for the king to assert enough control to put his own officers in in many counties when they fell vacant and then make the nobility compete to be chosen as those officers, but that doesn’t mean he managed it everywhere. Heaven knows how the kings kept track of exactly how they stood with respect to any given aristocrat, but then I guess that’s partly why we have the records… In discussion Hervin had mainly to defend his anarchic picture of ad hoc government against his fellow doctorands and his supervisor, Professor Graham Loud, the former of whom especially felt that there must have been more coincidence between titles and territories, but Hervin had gone and checked… But this doesn’t seem too odd to me, and the late lamented Susan Reynolds would have been quite happy with the non-existence of the feudal model too.3 The thing I would have now liked to have heard more about is how the dukes and kings justified their right to intervene or determine allocation of these positions, and how much objection those claims met, but I could quite believe that these were basically recognitions that right fell to the biggest sword; it’s just that, as you may be aware, I’ve come to believe that medieval rulers did need both power and legitimacy and that they put much too much effort into the legitimacy for us to suppose that it didn’t really matter compared to force.4 Hervin’s picture was possible for me to accept without shifting that belief, so I was happy with all of this.

Silver anonymous dirham struck in Acre in 1251, Barber Institute of Fine Arts CR014

Silver anonymous dirham struck in Acre in 1251, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts CR014

Dr Ilisch, who had just been awarded the Society’s medal on this occasion, started from a much narrower problem of numismatics and, because coins are in fact sources for bigger things, wound up in a similar kind of larger-scale place. His problem was a species of coin like the one above; I’m afraid I can’t find an example of precisely the type he was discussing. The above is itself a weirdness with which I have several times enjoyed teaching. Its background is that, when the four Latin states established in the Holy Land around 1100 by the First Crusade ran into trouble at the end of the century, for various reasons of necessity they struck quite a lot of imitations of the silver dirhams of the Ayyubid sultans with whom they either fought or temporised for survival. These coins, of course, featured the Arabic shahada, the Muslim invocation of the Prophet Muhammad. The Crusader states were still doing this as the Ayyubids lost their position first in the south to the Egyptian Mamluks and then in the north to the briefly dominant Mongols. Once explained, these coins usually surprise people by the amount of inter-dealing between supposed adversaries they imply, and it seems to have surprised some newcomers too, for as the situation grew worse, a French bishop who found himself in charge of defending Acre in 1250 decided that this Islamicization was part of their problem and had the coinage ‘purified’ with the addition of the cross and a statement of the Christian Creed in Arabic in place of the Islamic stuff. I have always wondered whom he was paying with these things that could read them, and what they thought of this, and should obviously read more about it, but I now learned that they didn’t last very long and were soon replaced with much more plentiful coins using the bismillah instead of the Creed, but with AD dates.5 Despite that last fact, from their preservation context (said Dr Ilisch) these latter coins occur largely in Mongol hoards, not in the Crusader states, and were thus, I guess, used to pay tribute to the Mongols, presumably by Muslim issuers.

Silver imitation dirham struck in the name of the late al-Zahir Ghazi of Aleppo, probably at Crusader Acre, in the 1240s

Here is one of the earlier Crusader pieces, struck in the name of al-Zahir Ghazi of Aleppo, probably at Acre in the 1240s, VCoins e3014

It was one of these issuers Dr Ilisch was trying to track down, one Wajīh al-Dīn Muahhad ibn Suwayd, whom written sources claim was given minting rights by the last Ayyubid sultan and who probably ruled the city of Damascus for them, but whose coins have never been identified. The Mongols left him in place, so he had a while to strike in Damascus, but no Damascus coins fit the bill. There is, however, one particular type of imitation of the post-Acre coins which have the AD date in cursive, and which Professor Ilisch thought might be al-Suwayd’s. There are only 8 of these coins known, and 3 of them came off the same dies, suggesting that the issue might have been quite small (although also possibly very large—this is why die statistics probably shouldn’t be used, especially on tiny samples…), but one of them seems to name a mint, which after long consideration Professor Ilisch thought might been Masghara, a tiny place now in Lebanon which was actually the subject of a treaty between Crusader Sidon and Ayyubid Damascus, by which each side took 50 % of its revenue. And the relevant ruler of Damascus would presumably have been al-Suwayd, so while it’s not conclusive it does all fit. Apparently there is at least one other 13th-century Crusader condominial issue like this, so again we see here ideas about identity, autonomy and prerogatives in general that we would now expect states to care about just not being realistic in these times.

It’s thus reasonable for us to ask, I think, whether in Sicily or Damascus as everything changed around the people concerned, whether back-projecting our expectations about government, administration, sovereignty and the coinage and then declaiming our medieval subjects of study for somehow failing to do what we expect, is really useful. A better way of proceeding is surely to start by seeing what they did, asking what frameworks they had in which those things made sense, and then seeing how their responses to their own situation might speak to anything we have going on now rather than going backwards from where we are now and only grading them on what we expect to find… At opposite ends of the academic status scale, both Hervin and Professor Ilisch were offering us material with which to do that evaluation of the medieval response to circumstances in its own terms, and I’m always up for that.


1. Of coure, another famously good place to look to understand the modern nation-state is Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, 2nd ed. (London 2006), online here, but I would like to encourage people to look a bit further back than he does…

2. I can’t by now tell which of these works Hervin invoked for what purpose, but the historiography he mentioned included things like Errico Cuozzo, “’Milites’ e ‘testes’ nella contea normanna di Pricipato” in Bullettino dell’Istituto storico italiano per il medio evo Vol. 88 (Roma 1979), pp. 121–163; Hiroshi Takayama, The Administration of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, The Medieval Mediterranean 5 (Leiden 1993); and Annalise Nef, “State, Aggregation of the Elites and Redistribution of Resources in Sicily in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries: Proposals for a New Interpretation” in John Hudson and Ana Rodríguez López (edd.), Diverging Paths? The Shapes of Power and Institutions in Medieval Christendom and Islam, The Medieval Mediterranean 101 (Leiden 2014), pp. 230–247.

3. See Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (Oxford 1996), where Italy is a close comparator.

4. See Jonathan Jarrett, “Engaging Élites: counts, capital and frontier communities in the ninth and tenth centuries, in Catalonia and elsewhere” in Networks and Neighbours Vol. 2 (2018 for 2014), pp. 202–230, online here.

5. I did, of course read something when I catalogued the coin which I’ve used as the image here, and that thing was mainly Alex G. Malloy, Irene F. Preston, Arthur J. Seltman, Michael L. Bates, A. A. Gordus, D. M. Metcalf & Roberto Pesant, Coins of the Crusaders States including the Kingdom of Jerusalem and its Vassal States of Syria and Palestine, the Lusignan Kingdom of Cyprus (1192-1489), and the Latin Empire of Constantinople and Its Vassal States of Greece and the Archipelago, 2nd edn. ed. by Allen G. Berman (Fairfield VA 2004). I’d actually welcome recommendations for more here.

Changing Ways to Read a Graph of Landlordship

A day early and about four years late still, here is this week’s post. While in the very last days of my previous bout of research leave, in late 2017 and early 2018, I was reading my way through the various Italian polyptychs and inventories in a 1979 volume edited by Castagnetti; two of them actually contain crop yields data, only one of which I’d known about, and I wanted to make sure that I found any more.1 Now, there weren’t any more but there were a lot of references to a couple of early articles by David Herlihy. Herlihy was a bit of a legend, mainly for his work on town and women’s life in later medieval Italy but he also did a rook of short articles in the late 1950s to early 1970s on the basis of a huge database of published charter material he’d assembled somehow, and some of those articles are still really big in the literature. If you’ve ever seen a claim that in the Middle Ages the Church owned up to a third of all land, for example, that was Herlihy, and he also stands out as one of the first people to point out that actually female landownership is not uncommon in medieval documents, which gathered him a small raft of students who have become important gender historians, mainly because he was willing to see what was there.2 So I’ve always thought that Herlihy was not a bad model for the kind of historian I’d like to be, and when I catch references like these to work of his I’ve not read, I try and follow them up. And in one of these, there is this graph.3

Graph of types of rents in northern and central Italian charters 751-1200

David Herlihy, “The History of the Rural Seigneury in Italy, 751-1200” in Agricultural History Vol. 33 (Washington DC 1959), pp. 58-71 at p. 60

Now, if there is a weakness in these early articles of Herlihy’s it’s a tendency to proffer a single explanation and then cover no alternatives, which is why he could do in twenty-five pages what would take most people a book, I guess, and this is no different. Here Herlihy argued that money rents were the weak landlord’s option compared to service, since commutation to money deprived him of guaranteed labour and foodstuffs and subject him to the market (Herlihy liked the market, so he didn’t say that last bit, but it’s implicit). They also broke the closeness of a landlord’s connection to his tenants. For all these reasons, for Herlihy what this graph shows was a tightening of landlords’ control under the Carolingians and then its loss as the Italian kingdom disintegrated in the late ninth and early tenth centries, accompanied by an increase in tenurial fragmentation which he thought he’d showed in a previous article, till the economy was in genuine crisis, with which various ‘vigorous’ landholders dealt by consolidating holdings in aggressive campaigns of acquisition and subjection. But we should see those as a good thing! because they revitalised the agrarian economy and allowed the development of towns and government and developed economies and the Renaissance and so on.4 That last bit makes me wish to be Herlihy a bit less, I admit, but it’s an impressive bit of theorisation of massive changes from one graph. But there are times when a graph is not enough…

Ph.D. Comics for 13th February 1998

Ph.D. Comics for 13th February 1998. Admit it, you have seen this done in presentations

… and it’s necessary to ask what else might be going on here. As a self-denying numismatist, for example, one thing struck me straight away which is that you could, if you wanted to be equally careless, read this instead as a graph of monetisation of the Italian economy, by assuming that everyone would have used money if they could have, and so if they weren’t it wasn’t available.5 Certainly, Herlihy never really thought about money supply; he apparently just assumed it could be got if needed, but I’m not sure that was true in this era and in notes occasionally it becomes clear that neither was Herlihy, really.6 But it needs factoring in for his deductions to stand up. That is so not least because he stated an assumption that a shift to money rents automatically meant that the landlords were giving up on farming their manorial lands directly and breaking them up into tenancies because of no longer having labour available, but obviously that need not have been so if they were hiring labour instead, in which case of course they might have wanted money rents, because then they’d have been able to get work done when they needed it and not just when their peasants’ obligations came up.7 I don’t think that’s necessarily what’s happening in Herlihy’s graph but he certainly didn’t show any signs of having considered it.

Silver denaro of Emperor Otto I struck at Pavia in 956-73

The kind of money the peasants in question either could or could not get, a silver denaro of Emperor Otto I struck at Pavia in 956-973, image by FabioRomanoniown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In the end, therefore, I like this article to think with and I’m always impressed how well Herlihy’s charter stuff holds its worth, largely because of being so directly data-driven, but what is maybe most interesting to me is the difference your starting assumptions make to how you read that graph. Herlihy had already detected what he thought was a break-up of landholding and an economic crisis that fitted this graph’s chronology; but the sadly late Peter Spufford would probably have seen signs of European silver famine here, a number of economic historians might prefer to see a growth of wage labour hindered by big bad feudalism and eventually triumphed over by the dialectical triumph of the capitalist market economy, and I’m not sure where I myself stand but it definitely comes from Pierre Bonnassie‘s and Chris Wickham‘s similar but differently-timed cases for a period of light obligations on the peasantry in the early or central Middle Ages.8 I suppose it’s a reminder that data may be neutral but its interpretation is another matter…


1. Andrea Castagnetti, Michele Luzzati, Gianfranco Pasquali and Augusto Vasina (edd.), Inventari altomedievali di terre, coloni e redditi, Fonti per la Storia d’Italia 104 (Roma 1979); see now Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 77 (Reading 2019), pp. 1–28 at pp. 16-19 & 25-26.

2. His greatest hits would probably be D. Herlihy, Pisa In The Early Renaissance: A Study Of Urban Growth (New Haven CT 1958); idem, Medieval Households (Cambridge MA 1985); and idem, Opera Muliebria: Women And Work in Medieval Europe (Philadelphia PA 1990); but one also has to list the two ground-breaking articles, idem, “Church Property on the European Continent, 701-1200” in Speculum Vol. 36 (Cambridge MA 1961), pp. 81–105 and idem, “Land, Family and Women in Continental Europe, 701-1200” in Traditio Vol. 18 (Fordham NY 1962), pp. 89–120, repr. in Susan Mosher Stuard (ed.), Women in Medieval Society (Philadelphia PA 1976), pp. 13–45. He also had at least one Variorum volume which must have collected these and others like them.

3. David Herlihy, “The History of the Rural Seigneury in Italy, 751-1200” in Agricultural History Vol. 33 (Washington DC 1959), pp. 58-71 at p. 60.

4. Ibid., pp. 68-69, almost as explicitly as I render it; the previous article was Herlihy, “The Agrarian Revolution in Southern France and Italy, 801–1150” in Speculum Vol. 33 (Cambridge MA 1958), pp. 23–41, again not a small-scale study.

5. For a really sane critique of these kinds of views, see Dagfinn Skre, “Commodity Money, Silver and Coinage in Viking-Age Scandinavia” in James Graham-Campbell and Gareth Williams (edd.), Silver Economy in the Viking Age (Walnut Creek CA 2007), pp. 67–92, effectively printed again as Skre, “Commodity Money, Silver and Coinage in Viking-Age Scandinavia” in James Graham-Campbell, Søren M. Sindbæk and Gareth Williams (edd.), Silver Economies, Monetisation and Society in Scandinavia, AD 800 – 1100: Studies Dedicated to Mark Blackburn (Aarhus 2011), pp. 67–91, whence online here.

6. Herlihy, “Rural Seigneury”, p. 68 n. 53 is a dismissal of an argument by another historian that depreciation of the coinage might explain the drop in rent value, which of course it might; Herlihy argued that the coinage was down by half but the rents went up tenfold, but here and ibid. p. 61 where he suggested that peasants would have struggled to convert all their crop to cash, he showed some awareness that money supply might be a problem, a problem which he otherwise blithely ignored, presumably because that observation was all he needed to support the idea that money rents were necessarily a poor option. We might now think differently about the monetisation levels of the Italian countryside, but admittedly we might also not; see Alessia Rovelli, “Nuove zecche e circolazioni monetaria tra X e XIII secolo: l’esempio del Lazio e della Toscana”, ed. Alessandra Molinari, in Archeologia Medievale Vol. 37 (Firenze 2010), pp. 163–171.

7. Cf. Herlihy, “Rural Seigneury”, p. 61.

8. Pierre Bonnassie, “D’une servitude à l’autre : les paysans du royaume” in Robert Delort (ed.), La France de l’An Mil, Points-Histoires H130 (Paris 1990), pp. 125-141, transl. as Bonnassie, “From one Servitude to Another: the peasantry of the Frankish kingdom at the time of Hugh Capet and Robert the Pious (987-1031)”, in idem, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. Jean Birrell (Cambridge 1991), pp. 288–313; Chris Wickham, “La chute de Rome n’aura pas lieu”, transl. André Joris, in Le Moyen Âge Vol. 99 (Bruxelles 1993), pp. 107–126, published in English as Chris Wickham, “The Fall of Rome Will Not Take Place” in Lester K. Little and Barbara H. Rosenwein (edd.), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 45–57, or Wickham, “Sul mutamento sociale ed economico di lungo periodo in Occidente (400-800)” in Storica: rivista quadrimestrale Vol. 8 (Firenze 2002), pp. 7–28, transl. Igor Santos Salazar and ed. Iñaki Martín Viso as “Sobre la mutación socioeconómica de larga duración en Occidente durante los siglos V-VIII” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol. 22 (Salamanca 2004), pp. 17–32; but cf. now Wickham, “How did the Feudal Economy Work? the Economic Logic of Medieval Societies” in Past & Present No. 251 (Oxford 2021), pp. 3–40, which I haven’t yet had time to internalise but threatens to change really quite a lot…

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Finding the Medieval in Rome V: Fixing a Hole in a City Wall

This gallery contains 9 photos.

This is the last of the Rome 2017 photo posts, and then as promised last week, some more properly academic content will at last materialise. But right now, I hope you can forgive some more photographic antiquarianism. On the last … Continue reading

Gallery

Finding the Medieval in Rome IV: Teaching with the Crypta Balbi

This gallery contains 23 photos.

I mentioned a little while back that when I started in post at the University of Leeds I inherited a late antique survey module for first-year undergraduates which, indeed, I still run. That module has always ended with a class … Continue reading

Gallery

Finding the Medieval in Rome III: Emperor Hadrian, Defender of the Popes

This gallery contains 18 photos.

Obviously, the subtitle of this post is not true. Not strictly. How could it be, after all, when Hadrian, ruler of the Roman Empire from 117 to 138 CE, and respected chief priest of it too, probably didn’t even know … Continue reading

Missing Michael Matzke

While still not wanting to let this blog become an obituaries column, this is obviously not a good time in human history to ask people to stop dying. However, this is late news that only came to me when my partner opened up the current issue of the Numismatic Chronicle and found a review of Medieval European Coinage 12: Northern Italy, over whose text I myself toiled for a while in 2008-2009, and noted the fatal † by one of the author’s names.1 And that’s how I found out that I had missed Michael Matzke, Kurator of the Münzkabinett at the Historisches Museum Basel and erstwhile Assistant Keeper at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, dying at the age of 54 last year.

Dr Michael Matzke, late Kurator of the Münzkabinett of the Historisches Museum Basel

Dr Michael Matzke, late Kurator of the Münzkabinett of the Historisches Museum Basel; the (German) article linked beneath provides links to many other notices of his passing

I could not say that I knew Michael well; he was out of the department at the Fitzwilliam before I got there, and our scholarships hardly crossed paths. There is, all the same, a certain closeness to someone you only get by editing them, trying to think far enough into their thoughts to make them sit more accurately on the page in your language that they’re currently obliged to use. Without my knowing that much about his life, he thus became very familiar to me as an intellect. Michael was, in any case, very much not a problem to edit, and always polite and helpful in the event of queries, and although due to reasons beyond either of our controls the volume didn’t come out until years after I’d left the Fitzwilliam, I’m glad to say that the last time I saw him was actually at a party celebrating its then-actually-imminent publication, at the XV International Numismatic Congress in Taormina, which of course I reported here.

Courtyard of the Palazzo dei Duchi di Santo Stefano, Taormina, during a party

Michael’s not in the picture, sadly, but here is the party, in the Courtyard of the Palazzo dei Duchi di Santo Stefano

The evening before that, I’d been able to introduce that same partner of mine to Michael, among other people, on an extremely crowded balcony four floors up, where one of the Congress receptions was being held. The considerable press of people would be unthinkable now, of course, even without the low parapets, but was getting close to it even then; as Michael observed in stagey discomfort, “this would never be allowed in Germany”. I shall never know now whether he was laughing at his own nation or not, but given what I knew of his humour, utterly deadpan and razor sharp, I shall always suspect it. I’m glad I got to laugh with him and I’m sorry I won’t any more.


1. Andrea Saccocci, Michael Matzke and William Day Jr, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 12: Northern Italy (Cambridge 2016), reviewed by Monica Baldassarri in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 180 (London 2020), pp. 507-509. I should give more reference to Michael’s work but I wouldn’t really know where to start, other than the Bibliography of MEC 12! The links in the text will take you to more if you need to know, however.

Finding the Medieval in Rome II: trying to be noticed in the Forum Romanum, c. 600

When I was facing my crise de confiance of the other week, one of the sillier causes was that I had processed a bunch of photos of the Foro Romano from when I was there in late 2017, and I couldn’t think of a point to posting any of them that I hadn’t made with the previous post, i. e. that we perceive ancient Rome via what the medieval (and subsequent) past chose to preserve and add to it. This has been very clear to me ever since I first saw a picture of the Foro di Nerva (I think in a paper by Chris Wickham?) with a ninth-century house’s foundations showing in it, and of course when I was actually there to see myself, it was still evident, in so far as anything is immediately evident in the thoroughly bewildering palimpsest that is the Roman fora.

A view down the Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill

A view down the Foro Romano from the Palatine Hill, by your author

But as I was absorbing all the kind comments last week, for which many thanks, like something stirring from the mud at the bottom of a pond once the sunlight has reached it, a hook for the post occurred to me, and so here we are. This post is about the Column of Phocas, which was installed in the name of that Byzantine emperor (or, as he clearly saw himself, Roman emperor) in the Foro Romano in 608 CE.1)

The Column of Phocas in the Foro Romano

Yup, here it is, now minus the gilded statue of the eponymous emperor which apparently originally sat upon it and also the pyramid of steps by which it could still be approached in 1903

Phocas’s little offering here, which to his credit is still fairly visible, was the last piece of Roman imperial building in the Forum. We are now well past the time where the Roman emperors really had any role in Rome, you see. That time may really have ended in 476, when the last Western one who could access the city, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed (this is complex because there was also another candidate who could not, Julius Nepos; he died in 480); or it may have been earlier, really; it is, of course, as Phocas shows, a matter as much of someone wanting to do so as the emperors actually being able.2 But in any case, the role of patronage had kind of fallen to more local power-brokers since that point, such as the Ostrogothic king Theodoric (King of Italy for the Emperor 493-526 CE), much of whose monumental effort was nicked by Charlemagne in the early ninth century but some of whose modifications to the immense Palace of Domitian, which looms ruinously over the Forum to this day, are still identifiable.

The courtyard of the Domus Flavia, in the imperial palace complex on the Palatine Hill, Rome

The courtyard of the Domus Flavia, in the imperial palace complex on the Palatine Hill; according to the local signage its current state of remains is the one laid down by Theodoric

So the Column of Phocas is a real outlier. Its inscription makes it slightly less mysterious: it was not put up by order of the emperor, but in his honour, by the Exarch of Ravenna, Smaragdus, a man who owed his recall from exile and appointment to Phocas, or at least so says Wikipedia just now, though none of its indicated sources provide this information. This all makes a bit more sense if one understands that Ravenna, not Rome, had been the seat of imperial government in Italy since the early fifth century, and had been the base of this official, the exarch, for quite a lot of that time; he was supposed to be the ruler of Roman Italy on behalf of the emperor, a combined civil and military office which was supposed to make it easier to combat the encroachments of the Lombard kings and their warriors who had been pushing into Italy since 568.3 But this was, in general, working out better for Ravenna, secluded in marshland and on the near coast of Italy to the Byzantine Adriatic, than for inland and exposed Rome, and the people who were increasingly facing that reality were not really the exarchs, but the bishops of Rome, including especially famously this man, of whom we have heard on this blog before, Pope Gregory I (ruled 590-604).4

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, image by Vassilown work, licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

Gregory I, also known as Gregory the Great, is renowned as one of the founding figures of the papacy and one of the very few early medieval popes about whom there is anything substantial written. As with all famous early medieval popes, that has a lot to do with the fact that only a very few’s letters survive, and perhaps unsurprisingly, they all have reputations for being vigorous reforming administrators, whereas the ones for whom we only have a short biography and maybe some building inscriptions are mostly forgotten or assumed to have been useless, which might not be entirely fair…5 In Gregory’s case, however, it’s a bit more than just letters that give this impression, as he also wrote some of the fundamental metatexts of Western Christianity, but it really is his letters that show him at full force (as I learnt in a different paper by Chris Wickham, which I don’t think I’ve yet blogged).6 Now, Gregory had complex relationships with the emperors. He was himself a native of the the city of Rome, and descended from senators, but had also spent some time in the imperial court at Constantinople as the papacy’s representative, under Phocas’s predecessor the emperor Maurice (ruled 578-602). During that time, Gregory was more or less unable to obtain Maurice’s help against the Lombards for Rome, and also got into a dispute over the appointment of Patriarch Eutychius of Constantinople, so it would be fair to say that he and Maurice did not see eye-to-eye. This only got worse when Gregory actually became pope. In the meantime, he had more or less taken over the civil administration of the city of Rome, as he saw it out of necessity and as the exarch saw it out of rebellious presumption, and was using the papal estates in Sicily to feed the city’s poor, thus more or less guaranteeing that in any contest between him and the exarch for their loyalty the citizens would line up behind the pope.7

A view down the Roman Forum towards the Curia from the Palatine Hill

It would be fair to say that now the Column doesn’t stand out much – you may be able to pick it out at the end here, next to the Arch of Septimius Severus – but it must have been even less visible among the buildings which still stood in 608.

Given all this, the fact that we have a monumental column being put up by the exarch in the name of the emperor in the absolute central imperial space in Rome soon after Gregory’s death may now seem a little more pointed. And I do suspect that this was what was going on. Wikipedia is almost certainly right to say (as it currently does):

Rather than a demonstration to mark papal gratitude as it is sometimes casually declared to be, the gilded statue on its column was more likely an emblem of the imperial sovereignty over Rome…

Of course, it wasn’t the same emperor by that time as had so offended Pope Gregory, and Gregory had indeed written very warm letters of congratulations to Phocas on his accession (the nature of which the pope was apparently able to ignore), but notice, all the same, that no column went up for Phocas under Gregory.8 In fact, though it was only four years after Gregory’s death when Smaragdus recycled various other monuments to make this one, that was already three popes, Sabinian (ruled 604-606), Boniface III (ruled 607) and Boniface IV (ruled 607-615), and Boniface IV had had to be bought off with the gift of the old and glorious temple of the Pantheon, which Boniface immediately converted into the church of Holy Mary and the Martyrs as it remains today.

Exterior of Santa Maria ad Martyres, Rome

The Pantheon from outside, as it now is (or was in autumn of 2017)

Part of the interior of Santa Maria ad Martyres, Rome

The interior of Holy Mary and the Martyrs needs some impossible wide-angle lens which I didn’t have to do it even partway justice. This is the only photo I took that gives any impression of the vertical space, and it’s still not right (albeit partly because of my cropping off tourist head level at the bottom)

So there are actually quite a few ways to read the Column of Phocas, and in the very little research I’ve done for this post I’ve been through several. It was, obviously, a statement of imperial involvement in the city of Rome once again, after really quite some attenuation. (It did ought to be said that Rome was still an imperial mint, as well, so the other such statement was the coinage, throughout this time, and that has to be put on the other side of the balance.) The Column may also have been an attempt by a slightly desperate imperial official to convince the people, after a decade of papal urban government and provision, that he had some power there, in the face of the recent evidence. And there are probably other ways to read it still. Either way, somehow it is still there, for the most part, and now really not very many people know who either Phocas or Smaragdus were and that this single monument represents about the last time the Roman emperors did something in Rome other than tax it or kidnap the pope to solve a theological dispute.9 But you are now among those people, so I hope it’s been a better way for you of displaying holiday photos than I otherwise had!


1. Ordinarily I would try to do better than this, sorry, but today because it’s late my main source for the actual Column is “Column of Phocas” in Wikipedia, online here.

2. We have discussed here before how the history of early medieval Rome is inadequately written, but some guide to the recent state of developments is to be found in Kate Cooper, Julia Hillner and Conrad Leyser, “Dark Age Rome: towards an interactive topography” in William Bowden, Adam Gutteridge and Carlos Machado (edd.), Social and Political Life in Late Antiquity, Late Antique Archaeology 3 (Leiden 2006), pp. 311–337.

3. For this the classic work is T. S. Brown, Gentlemen and Officers: Imperial Administration and Aristocratic Power in Byzantine Italy, A.D. 554-800 (London 1984).

4. Two good biographies are Jeffrey Richards, Consul of God: the life and times of Gregory the Great (London 1980) and R. A. Markus, Gregory the Great and his World (Cambridge 1997).

5. One sign of what can be done with even that kind of limited material is Caroline Goodson, The Rome of Pope Paschal I: papal power, urban renovation, church rebuilding and relic translation, 817-824, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 77 (Cambridge 2010), but if there is another such for an earlier pope I don’t know about it.

6. The letters are available in translation, in full as The Letters of Gregory the Great, trans. John R. C. Martyn, Mediaeval Sources in Translation 40 (Toronto 2004), 3 vols, and in part online here.

7. Failing that paper of Chris Wickham’s, there’s Georg Jenal, “Gregor der Große und die Stadt Rom (590-604)” in Friedrich Prinz (ed.), Herrschaft und Kirche: Beiträge zur Entstehung und Wirkungsweise episkopaler und monastischen Organisationsformen, Monographien zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 33 (Stuttgart 1988), pp. 109–145, or relevant bits of Richards or Markus as in n. 4 above.

8. John R. C. Martyn, “Four Notes on the Registrum of Gregory the Great” in Parergon Vol. 19 (Perth 2002), pp. 5–38.

9. This happened more than once; see Judith Herrin, “Constantinople, Rome and the Franks in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries” in Jonathan Shepard and Simon Franklin (eds), Byzantine Diplomacy: papers from the Twenty-fourth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Cambridge, March 1990 (Aldershot 1992), pp. 91–107.