Category Archives: Spain


Busy-day links

Today is a day with no time in it, where the morning goes on training and the afternoon goes on meetings and in the evening I am celebrating someone’s viva, and there’a about half an hour all told to complete daily tasks such as updating the blog. Happily, I have a stash of links saved against just such an eventuality! Let me therefore distract you with things that others have put on the web, with headings!

Discoveries of stuff

Frescoes in underground church at Nevşehir, Turkey

Frescoes in underground church at Nevşehir, Turkey

You would think that Byzantine churches had little in common with London buses, but there is at least this, that as the saying goes, you wait ages for one then two come along at once, one in Turkey for which grand claims are being made (for which link a hat tip to Georgia Michael of the University of Birmingham) and one off Turkey which is just really cool to look at.
Submerged foundations of a Byzantine church in Lake Iznik, Turkey

Submerged foundations of a Byzantine church in Lake Iznik, Turkey

And then there’s an especially shiny hoard of Roman and non-Roman silver from Scotland which people are using to draw conclusions about the Picts in a period before all of us would be comfortable using the word, for which link I owe a tip of that same hat to the Crofter.1
Objects from the Gaulcross Hoard

Objects from the Gaulcross Hoard

Sad News

While writing the long-delayed post on the Bíblia de Danila, I noted briefly that to my sadness John Williams, a scholar of the art of the medieval Iberian peninsula whom I did not know but whose work has been very useful to me, had died; here’s a memorial of the sort he richly deserved.

Interesting Research

We have here a pedigree (as it were) of looking at work on genetics with a critical eye; this new study looks better than usual and I’ll have to give it its own post. The hat is here tipped to James Palmer at Merovingianworld.

Quality medievalism

If you’re going to try to relive the Middle Ages then your soundtrack needs to be right, amirite? Here’s an example of how to do it. Resuming my metaphorical hat, I now tip it to Z the Cold-Hearted Scientist for passing this my way.


A museum in Japan has some old maps. Perhaps not surprising, even if they have obligingly put them on the web? But medieval maps don’t usually work the way we expect, and it turns out that there are eighth-century maps of field systems in here which kind of do. Obviously this is Japan so links to what I do not at all except that here are people using the kind of tools we would use for the kind of jobs that our study population must too have had but for which they used… well, we don’t know. But it’s one in the eye for all those who suggest that representational cartography has to postdate some major Western intellectual development innit? Maybe you don’t care as much as I do about this but Rebecca Darley, who provided me with the link and to whom the hat is now tipped, probably does so I bet there are others too.

Map of the field at Ikarugi, Tonami district, Etchū Province

Map of the field at Ikarugi, Tonami district, Etchū Province

Then, fellow frontiers and charters enthusiast Igor Santos Salazar has let me know about this monumental task on which he has been engaged, a database of the judicial records from medieval Tuscany which is now online. Lavoro erculaneo, Igor!

And lastly in this section, they said it would never happen; several people died in the course of trying to do it; it has been complicated by two world wars, international tension and the Iron Curtain, to say nothing of funding and staffing troubles, but it is done: the charters of Emperor Louis the Pious (814-840) are published at last.2 Here not a tip of the hat but sincere congratulations to Herr Professor Theo Kölzer for making it to the end of such an inauspicious task!

This is cool

Lastly, much more in my regular line, firstly just a really cool Spanish church site, well written up and photographed, for which thanks to José Manuel Serrano Esperanza for introducing it to me, and now to you.

San Zoilo de Cáseda, Navarra

San Zoilo de Cáseda, Navarra

And then last of all, heard of only today, an exhibition opening on Monday at the Yorkshire Museum (in York), entitled Constantius: York’s Forgotten Emperor, curated by an old colleague of mine, Andy Woods, which exhibition has been brought about by the discovery of a huge hoard of Constantius I’s coins that the Museum hopes to acquire. Do have a look!

1. There’s an actual article behind this one, which a quick websearch reveals as Gordon Noble, Martin Goldberg, Alistair McPherson and Oskar Sveinbjarnarson, “(Re)Discovering the Gaulcross Hoard” in Antiquity Vol. 90 (Cambridge 2016), pp. 726-741.

2. On the troubles of the project up to 1990 see Peter Johanek, “Probleme einer zukünftigen Edition der Urkunden Ludwigs der Frommen” in Roger Collins & Peter Godman (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (Oxford 1990), pp. 409-424.

Kalamazoo 2015, Part 2

The second day of the 2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies—which is where my reporting backlog currently sits, alas—began reflectively…

226. The Nature of the Middle Ages: a Problem for Historians? (A Roundtable)

I went along to this mainly for reasons of celebrity-spotting, but it’s also often interesting to hear veterans of the field talk about what the field actually is, and to set it against one’s own perspectives. There are dynamics here about how elevated you get before your bird’s eye view becomes cloud-cuckoo land, but equally ones about being so close to the ground that you define the whole world by your local topography, and so on. All of this was given extra meat by this ICMS being the 50th, provoking reflection on the ICMS itself as much as anything. The scheduled presenters each picked their own targets for their muses, as follows:

  • Robin Fleming, “What Material Turn?”
  • Marcus Bull, “The Study of the Middle Ages and the Dread Word ‘Relevance'”
  • Ruth Mazo Karras, “Not Quite Fifty Years of Women’s History at Kalamazoo”
  • Paul Freedman, “Changing Subjects in Medieval History”
  • Nancy Partner, “Medieval ‘People’: Psyche?/Self?/Emotions?”
  • Some of these were complaints, and some reflections. Professor Fleming told everyone else that we don’t use objects enough in our history, and the conference programme certainly gave her a basis for the stance. Professor Mazo Karras charted the growth of the history of women from the archive of ICMS programmes—the first session on women at the ICMS was (only?) eight years coming but the take-off point for her was when societies started to form to do the work elsewhere. Professor Freedman, who was one of the first people to realise how great Vic is as a place to work on and whom I was glad to meet at last, had done similar analysis and noted, among other things, that at the second ever ICMS there had been seven women presenting, four of whom were nuns, but also that English literature and English history still dominate the programme, but that the rest has diversified hugely since 1965. Professor Partner spoke mainly of periodization and the problem of difference, between us and our subjects, which she argued could only be approached by deliberately seeking the ‘interiority’ of our sources, a kind of ‘depth psychology’.

    Medieval manuscript illumination of King Arthur's court and the Round Table

    Of course, it now strikes me that the very word ’roundtable’ is a medievalism, not something that any of the participants mentioned, but the site I got this image from epitomises the medievalism pretty well…

    This opened up the question of the session title perhaps more than the others had, and discussion went two ways, one following this, asking what we could do to avoid the problems of the terms ‘Middle Ages’ and ‘medieval’, which have myriad difficulties because of being defined only by whatever lies outside them and not having clear ends. Professor Partner had argued half-jokingly for ‘really early modern’, but David Perry, one of the organisers, argued that it means more to people outside the Academy than it does to us, and Steven Muhlberger continued that by saying that the emptiness of the category actually serves us by allowing us to fill it with whatever suits us. True, useful, but hard to make into a clear mission statement, I think…

    Faulty slide purporting to set out differences between women's situation in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance

    Periodization and women’s history: what we’re up against, grabbed just now from the web

    This desire for a mission statement was what had occupied Professor Bull’s contribution, which I haven’t yet discussed. This is because it seemed to me a much more UK-focused perspective than the others and to sit oddly with them. His was a pitch familiar to me from my years in Oxford, in fact, roughly that that we should stop paying attention to governments and managerial bodies who want us to justify our subject, especially in terms of its relevance to the era in which we live, not least because we medievalists will always lose to the modernists in such a contest but also because modern-day relevance must by its nature shift all the time so can’t be a foundation. I accept the logic of this but it seems to me that this is only a fortification that can morally be erected by those who have no outside paymasters. Oxford had been mostly aggrieved that those of its paymasters whom it had trained didn’t seem inclined to respect that privilege, and obviously that someone pays some of your money doesn’t mean that they should get to set all of your agenda, but to argue that they can set none of it because what we do is just worthy of support, whatever it is, is, I fear, unlikely ever to convince those with nationally-accountable beans to count.

    Cover of Simon Doubleday & David Coleman (edd.), In the Light of Medieval Spain: Islam, the West and the Relevance of the Past (London 2014)

    But why should we stop now, when we’re beginning to get books out of it, I am tempted to ask? Cover of Simon Doubleday & David Coleman (edd.), In the Light of Medieval Spain: Islam, the West and the Relevance of the Past (London 2014)…

    The people who picked up on this in discussion seemed mostly to argue that our use to the wider world is not to show how the Middle Ages is like whatever is now happening, but to show when other people who are saying that are wrong. I feel the push to do that very strongly myself, as you may be aware, and have long argued that to use history is almost always to misuse it, but behind this is an idea of a ‘correct’, empirical and detached vision of the Middle Ages whose perfect fruition would be that no-one outside the Academy ever derived any benefit from the study of the past at all except in a pure æsthetic form; if they discovered anything that was ‘relevant’ it would have almost to be suppressed before it got into others’ hands. It seems to me that people are always going to have reasons why they find this stuff interesting and the best we can do is to train them to find it interesting enough to be careful with it. You can tell, anyway, that this interests me as a subject of discussion, but I still wish we could have the discussion with the economics in. As an earlier defender of this view said, “money doesn’t stink”. You’d think we couldn’t strike for more of it without considering where it comes to us from, but it seems not so. So anyway, from here to coffee and calmer waters…

248. The Venerable Bede: Issues and Controversies I

  • Thomas Rochester, “The Place of Luke and Acts in Constructing Bede’s Ecclesiastical History
  • Morn Capper, “Bede and the Making of ‘Mercian Supremacy’: Challenging the Construct”
  • Sarah McCann, “Nodes of Influence: Networks, People, and the Writing of History”
  • It is of course impossible entirely to avoid Bede or Beowulf at the ICMS, but in this instance I would of course have gone anyway because of the presence of Morn Capper, long-standing friend of both this blog and your blogger. Morn’s paper argued that the groundwork for the period of the eighth century in which the kingdom of Mercia dominated England was largely laid in the seventh century, when Bede was in some sense watching, and yet he tells us very little about how it was done: for him, Mercia under the famous King Penda only shows up when it was on the warpath, whereas our sources for his successors Wulfhere and Æthelred emphasise negotiation, alliance and sometimes infrastructure. As Morn said, all of these rulers must have done all of these things but Bede is mainly interested in how far they supported the Church and so the version of Mercia we get from him is very partial indeed. As for the other two, both were at a very preliminary stage, Mr Rochester to establish Biblical models for Bede’s structuring of the Ecclesiastical History and Miss McCann to build a network model of the History using Gephi, and it doesn’t seem kind to mount a critique of their work here.

315. Fluctuating Networks: the Constructive Role of Broken Bonds in the Medieval Mediterranean and Beyond

  • Robert Portass, “The Peasant Parvenu: Social Climbing in Tenth-Century Spain”
  • Petra Melichar, “Noble Women and Their (Broken) Allegiances in Late Byzantium”
  • Arthur Westwell, “Studios: a Network of Alternative Power in Ninth-Century Constantinople”
  • Here, likewise, I had mainly come because of the presence of a colleague of yore, Rob Portass, but his paper sat rather oddly in the session as it was principally about bonds formed, not broken, between local transactors in Galicia, which is after all kind of Rob’s stuff.1 He was arguing that confrontation with the actual documents, mainly here those of Santo Toribio de Liébana, showed you peasants making deals with each other and advancing relative to each other, rather than the narrative of the historiography of the area which shows you landlords beating down on peasant necks.2 Well, not here, says Rob. Meanwhile, the other two had picked up on the theme a bit more. Ms Melichar looked at the different ties late Byzantine noblewomen could break, with family, Orthodoxy, political networks and so on, usually to stay connected to one of the other of these sets, but as she pointed out, never as far as we can see to advance their own positions, rather than those of the networks within which they worked. Lastly, Mr Westwell set out a case for the monastery of St John the Forerunner of Stoudios as a long-lived ‘safe’ focus for opposition to imperial religious policies in eighth- and ninth-century Constantinople, although the high point of that was the Abbot Theodore, who set himself and his monks to guard what they saw as orthodoxy through a series of theological disputes and mounted that defence not least by many many letters to people at court, ex-monks who had gone on to serve elsewhere, friendly church officials and noblemen and women, not just mobilising support but giving backing to those people’s own opposition. This was a whole world of source material I’d had no idea about and for me one of the eye-openers of the conference.

That was the end of the academic programme for me on this day. If I remember rightly we now met back up with Morn and set out to walk to the legendary Bilbo’s, a required rite de pizza for the medievalist visiting Kalamazoo. We had no driver so set out to walk it, which is perfectly doable as long as you can work out which way to head, and that I eventually did after being 180° wrong to start with. That was worth it for the guy we checked directions with, however, who despite being of apparently normal build and health counselled us to get a cab: “It’s a hell of a walk. Gotta be half a mile at least.” We assured him that in Britain that is OK to walk and enjoyed our pizza and beer all the more for the adventure, and that was how we wrapped up day two of Kalamazoo 2015.

1. As witness Robert Portass, “Rethinking the «Small Worlds» of Tenth-Century Galicia” in Studia Historica: Historia Medieval Vol. 31 (Salamanca 2013), pp. 83-103.

2. Classically presented in Reyna Pastor, Resistencias y luchas campesinas en la época del crecimiento y consolidación de la formación feudal: Castilla y León, siglos X-XIII (Madrid 1980).

Kalamazoo 2015, Part 1

People in conversation at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, West Michigan University, Kalamazoo

Other people in conversation at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, West Michigan University, Kalamazoo (official photo)

Well, we’ve had another lapse in posting, for which I apologise, but there was good reason, I promise you, not least the International Medieval Congress just gone, which was a success but really very busy. I will write about that at some point, I promise, but my ridiculous backlog is only made more so by the passing of another IMC, not least because the next thing I have to write about is an ICMS, the International Congress on Medieval Studies at West Michigan University, which I didn’t make it to this year but did last year, that being where the trip to the US lately described wound up, and that’s how far behind I am. Given that, while I don’t want to say nothing about it I do want to say less than usual, so: I am going firstly to let all the stuff about dreadful accommodation, food and coffee go as standard; secondly I will add that the actual town of Kalamazoo does however have some places worth exploring for food and drink if you are not, as I used to be, determined to scrounge all the free alcohol going on campus; and thirdly, I will try and keep my reportage on the papers I saw down to one sentence of summary or commentary each, a writing challenge I should probably set myself much more often. So, here we go with day 1, 14th May 2015!

45. The State and its Loyal Constituencies in Late Antiquity

  • Michael Kulikowski, “Saying No to Government: Disintegrating and Reinstating States”
  • One sentence for this is actually all I have, because I arrived late to the session and missed almost the whole paper. That sentence therefore is: “A ‘collective sovereignty’ model of northern barbarian kingship gets picked up by those further south over the 5th and 6th centuries”; make of it what you will, but I wish I’d seen more.

  • Stefan Esders, “Regnum, Civitas, and Pagus: Rearranging Spatial Structures in Merovingian Gaul”
  • Arguing that although in Merovingian Gaul many of the functions of the Roman state fell away or were loaded onto new counts or old bishops, the territorial structures through which they continued to be organised necessitated a continuing level of fiscal sophistication that we could safely call a state. As Julie Hofmann pointed out, the missing part of this picture was Church organisation and its imprint on bishops’ fiscal responsibilities, but that was a part of the study still to come.

  • Guy Halsall, “Political Communities? A Comparison of the Roman and Merovingian Polities”
  • Guy, who it was that I had particularly come to see, argued instead that Merovingian Gaul was not a state, in as much as there was no single identity of which people could claim membership, but several, Frankish military, Catholic Christian, Arian Christian, Gallo-Roman aristocrat or peasant, all partially replacing the now-discredited Roman civil and patrician identity that, until Justinian I’s campaigns excluded them from it, the ruling élites in this area were still emulating. Michael Kulikowski pointed out that that identity had never been available to most of the Roman population either, but Guy argued that patronage would have joined them up to its holders.

Gold tremissis of the Merovingian King Chlothar II (584-628) in the British Museum, London

Arguably a part of a state apparatus, a gold tremissis of the Merovingian King Chlothar II (584-628) in the British Museum, London. By PHGCOM – Own work by uploader, photographed at the British Museum, Public Domain,

80. Leadership Profiles in the Tenth- and Eleventh-Century Church

  • Edmund McCaffray, “Leading by Example: customaries and abbatial conservatio at Cluny in the eleventh century”
  • Argued that we should see John of Salerno’s biography of the famous Abbot Odo of Cluny less as a straight biography than as a set of descriptions of the abbey’s custom justified by Odo’s good example, something that became irrelevant as actual custumaries became common and the Life was rewritten.

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “In the Teeth of Reform: reprofiling the Catalan Episcopate around the year 1000”
  • Argued that the commonly-propagated picture Catalan Church of the millennial era as a worldly monopoly of the comital family is based on misreadings of Catalan secondary work, rather than actual evidence, but that a binary appraisal of them in terms of being reformed or not in any case misses out what most of what made them suitable for their jobs. Rereading this paper makes me think I should get on and do something more with it, it’s maybe quite good.

  • Pieter Byttebier, “Intitulatio or Æmulatio? Developing New Forms of Episcopal leadership in Eleventh-Century Lotharingian Contexts”
  • A series of examples of new, and often foreign, bishops, boosting the reputation and even cults of their predecessors in order to better anchor themselves in the local traditions of their offices, and arguably imitating what could be known of their lives—Heer Byttebier argued it, but some of those supposed imitations were post mortem so I had trouble taking his case at full strength. Someone in questions asked about the æmulatio part of his title and he admitted that he had no examples as yet, so probably more could be done here.

St Clement of Metz  leading the dragon Graouilly to the River Seille

One feat probably beyond imitation, St Clement of Metz leading the dragon Graouilly to the River Seille, a legend of the tenth century. Domaine public,

99. Women and Power to 1100 (A Roundtable)

Quite how I, with only one paper on anything like gender to my name and that unpublished, got in on this may never be entirely clear but it was fun and I don’t think I disgraced myself. I think Julie Hofmann won the day early on with her remark that we’ve been being surprised by women with power in the Middle Ages since 1908, but her deepest point may have been that when you’re dealing with power, their gender is not as important in defining what power someone has as their placement in society and their efficacy at using that. There was a general preference for the word ‘agency’ over ‘power’, which got challenged in discussion by Teresa Earenfight for I think good reason—Lois Honeycutt offered ‘autonomy’, a right to decide, as being closer to what we were getting at. Martha Rampton spoke about magic, one sphere in which women were perhaps dominant, up until around 1000 at least, and I focused on the apparent plenitude of examples from my material of women doing stuff without reference to men, usually with property but still untrammelled, and suggested that even that could more usefully be seen as a way they operated within larger family contexts than trying to separate them out into a female sphere that never existed by itself, any more than a male or indeed, as Jonathan Lyon pointed out, royal or imperial, sphere did. Lastly in the formal section, Phyllis Jestice pointed out that work on women and power has either focused on individual strong women or the whole aristocratic class and asked if there was a middle level where variation and over-generalisation might coalesce into useful conclusions. In discussion I managed to steer that through my favourite point that we need to distinguish between things that are usual but infrequent and things that are actually unusual, and Julie reminded us that the limits on female power were less institutions than straightforward misogyny, so looking at rules about what women could do only gives us the tip of the iceberg. This was all fun to be part of and I felt a lot like a real scholar afterwards, but I can’t help feeling looking back that although progress does seem to have happened these are all quite old problems. The new work that many of us were agitating for seems to be hard to do.

Countess Matilda of Canossa, enthroned with attendants, manuscript portrait from the Vita Mathildis by Donizone

Not everybody can be Matilda of Canossa…

So that was the end of the first day, and then there was a certain amount of free wine and catching up with people. I can’t, by now, remember who those were, or what we did for food, but I don’t think we can have gone far because there was a blogger’s meet-up later in the evening. I felt somewhat as if I shouldn’t show my face at that given how little blog I’d written in the previous few months, nay, years, but others were in the same case and in any case these are to some extent my people, so, if any of you are reading, Another Damned Medievalist, Notorious Ph. D., the Medieval History Geek and Vellum (and others? Sorry if I’ve forgotten you), it was good to catch up and I learnt a lot in that conversation too. It overran well into the evening sessions: does anyone ever go to those? I’m not sure I ever have. Anyway, with that all concluded, it was off to my awful bed and ready for the next day, on which I will try and report shortly!


Medieval treasures of New York

This gallery contains 20 photos.

Oh well: let us look back on happier times. We now progress in my personal journey through my blogging backlog all of a fortnight, into early May 2015, at which point to find me you had to be in the … Continue reading

What do I think of the Bíblia de Danila?

There has been a very long hiatus here, for which I’m sorry. The factors in this have basically been:

  • first-marking a bunch of exams;
  • reading enough to kickstart a course I have inherited that starts two hundred years before I usually teach, which is itself five hundred years before what I actually work on
  • second-marking a bunch of exams;
  • the death in traffic of one of my cats, a truly excellent little critter whom I will not now see grow out of his kittenhood;
  • second-marking a bunch more exams and first-marking a bunch of assignments, and
  • the fact that this post needed me to read a sixty-page article in my fifth language which I could only access via a library in London.

But mainly it’s been marking. I did tell myself at one point that I would only blog when there wasn’t marking due but it’s now clear that there will be marking due until at least April, and I can be silent no longer etc., and so we swing now back into substantive blogging with a post that I should have written even longer ago than this delay suggests! It was in October 2012, you see, that our esteemed commentator Mouguias asked me if I had ever heard of a manuscript known as the Bíblia de Danila and if so what I thought of it. I hadn’t, and made an ill-judged promise to find out more and then write about it, and then didn’t do so. Mouguias popped up again in January 2015 and teased me about this in passing, and at that point I stubbed this post to remind me to do something about it. And at last I have.

Cava de' Tirreni, Biblioteca statale del Monumento Nazionale Badia di Cava, Ms. memb. I, fo. 69r

A particularly decorated page from the Bília de Danila, Codex Cavensis or Cava Bible, call it what you will as long as you cite it as Cava de’ Tirreni, Biblioteca statale del Monumento Nazionale Badia di Cava, Ms. memb. I, this here being fo. 69r, and “LaCavaBibleFolio69r“. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

So, firstly, why is this bible a thing to investigate? The manuscript in question now resides in the Southern Italian monastery of la Cava de’ Terreni and this is the source of the manuscript’s other name, the Codex Cavensis. It seems to have come there in the twelfth century, however, from Spain, and probably actually dates to the early ninth century. Until recently it was held to have been nothing less than be a present of Charlemagne to King Alfonso II of Asturias, already, which would make it very early ninth-century indeed, but of late this has come under scrutiny and quite the reverse proposed, that it is fact a native Asturian product possibly even meant for display to the Carolingian Empire of Asturias’s newly-confident cultural self-expression. And for some reason in 2012 the web suddenly picked this up and ran with it. As Mouguias put it in his first comment: “Apparently this might be the ‘book’ that Alfonso II of Asturias mentions in his ‘Testament’, and some believe the bible was produced in order to preside over the Council that the king started in 812.” Well, it “might” be, of course, wherever Alfonso would then have got it from, and people can believe what they like about it but there’s no proving things like that from the manuscript itself and the manuscript is all we have here.

Cava de' Tirreni, Biblioteca statale del Monumento Nazionale Badia di Cava, Ms. memb. I, fo. 220v

Fo. 220v. is, as you can see, written in white and red on indigo-stained parchment. Someone did put a lot of work and wealth into this manuscript! “LaCavaBibleFolio220v“. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Now, you can immediately see how this is what one might expect from an area with a proud and important history within the Iberian peninsula that has since been sidelined by national politics, but for Mouguias this was coming from web reports of work by a researcher by the name of Paolo Cherubini, who is no less than the Vice-Prefect of the Vatican Secret Archive and thus more like a neutral in the contest.1 His work is not easy to get at, however, and it perhaps shouldn’t have surprised me that the web was not reporting it totally accurately.2 Actually, to judge from the unusually scholarly Wikipedia article on the Bible, the germ of the idea of reattributing the Cava Bible to Asturias came from the late great John W. Williams.3 I’m not sure that he would have stood by all of this, however:

“The location of the scriptorium in which Danila worked is not known. However the hand, textual variations, and orthography indicate that the manuscript was produced in Spain, during the early 9th century. It is unlikely that such a luxury manuscript could have been produced in the Muslim-controlled areas of the Iberian Peninsula. This makes Asturias, which was the largest Christian kingdom of the time, the most probable source for codex. Additional evidence of an Asturian origin is provided by the decoration of the manuscript. The Cross which appears in four locations in the La Cava Bible, is the only explicitly Christian decoration in the manuscript. Although the form of the Crosses in the La Cava Bible do not appear in other surviving Asturian art, the Cross was emphasized in Asturian devotional art.”

Well, taking this piece by piece, I am pretty much happy that spelling and textual variants can be used to place this manuscript’s production, or at least its scribe’s training, in Spain, as can the script. After that, however, I back off rapidly, especially from this bit:

“It is unlikely that such a luxury manuscript could have been produced in the Muslim-controlled areas of the Iberian Peninsula. This makes Asturias, which was the largest Christian kingdom of the time, the most probable source for codex [sic].”

What, really, do we know about the size of Asturias under Alfonso II? Mostly, we know what people working for Alfonso III subsequently claimed it had been, in order to justify what were probably really new claims on that territory. Alfonso II’s kingdom was clearly a cultural centre, his rebuild of the royal palace and his attempts to link out to the Carolingians show that, but very big it may not have been, not least because those very links to the Carolingians may indicate a difficulty obtaining local support in some areas.4

Remains of the palace of Alfonso II in Oviedo adjacent to the cathedral of San Salvador

What there remains above ground of the palace of Alfonso II in Oviedo, which is to say, a few bits now sticking out of the cathedral of San Salvador

And in any case, why on earth is it “unlikely” that such a manuscript could have been produced in al-Andalus, the which polity contained Seville, Toledo and the as-yet-apparently-untaxed Christian community of Córdoba as well as many other cathedral communities? The Asturian cultural efflorescence used to be supposed, after all, to have been powered by super-cultured fugitive immigrants from the south who brought their skills and ideas for decoration with them, and indeed often their manuscripts.5 You can’t have that along with the assumption that all Christians living in Muslim-controlled areas had become culturally bankrupt. So we need some better basis for this identification.

The supposedly 'Mozarabic' church of San Miguel d'Escalada, Asturias

The supposedly ‘Mozarabic’ church of San Miguel d’Escalada, Asturias, which could of course have been built by anyone who’d ever seen such arches and had sufficient skill, wherever they’d been born, but hey. «SMdE exterior portico» por Desarrollo Local GradefesSan Miguel de Escalada 05. Disponible bajo la licencia CC BY-SA 2.0 vía Wikimedia Commons.

It does have to be admitted that the Bíblia’s decoration is not very Andalusi as we understand it, but then, decorated manuscripts from al-Andalus are rare, full stop. Furthermore, this decoration contains no human figures, although as you see it has some splendid fish, which might cause some to say that an Andalusi context is more, not less, plausible. Even our Wikipedian commentator, you’ll note, has to admit that in terms of manuscript art this decoration is unusual for Asturias, and hangs on the number of ornamented crosses that survive in metalwork from the area as a proxy. But while the Asturian ones are lovely, pretty much everywhere in the Latin West had ornamental processional crosses, you know? In whose Christian devotional art has the cross not been a focus? It’s really not enough by itself.

The Cruz de la Victoria, in San Salvador d'Oviedo

The superb Cruz de la Victoria, in San Salvador d’Oviedo, and yes, it is lovely and inescapably Asturian, but it is also from a century later than our Bible and also nothing like as geometric as the cross patterns therein. «Oviedo – Catedral, Camara Santa 02» por ZaratemanTrabajo propio. Disponible bajo la licencia CC0 vía Wikimedia Commons.

So, I went and got hold of Cherubini’s article, and slowly I read it. It may not surprise you that it is more careful than the Wikipedia article for the most part. In particular, he does nothing with the argument about the crosses at all; he mentions that others have made it, but then never comes back to it.6 Instead he is focused on the palæography, and this turns out to be not as simple a question as you might expect. The main text is by two scribes, and they have differing but high levels of Iberian Latin habits that, for Cherubini and I’m happy to go along with this, place this manuscript in a zone where Visigothic script and Iberian Latin were the common ways of writing texts, and he argues reasonably for a date in the ninth century and probably in the early part of it (no tighter than that, from palæography alone). The headings, rubrics and other sorts of display script, however, all look a lot older, in half-uncials or uncials which would fit equally well in the late fifth or sixth centuries, so that there was clearly an exemplar before the scribes of a much older date, which they were partly mimicking and partly updating; they wanted what they were making to look old but also usable. It then has annotations, cross-references and glosses which suggest that among several other purposes, it was being mined by people concerned especially with the nature of the Trinity and with issues of predestination, the latter of which probably suggests use in the later ninth century when Gottschalk of Orbais had freshly brought such issues to the fore.7

Page of the Facundus Beatus, Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS. Vit. 14.2, made 1047, fo. 43v

Human figures and God made flesh, yet, already, from the Facundus Beatus, Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS. Vit. 14.2, made 1047, fo. 43v, image from WIkimedia Commons

Cherubini also notes that there are no human figures depicted in the manuscript, but for him this suggests use rather than origin, an involvement in the controversy over images of God and the saints that convulsed Mediterranean theology in the late eighth century and early ninth.8 But this is where Cherubini starts to go further than I think he should, and it was evident from his title that despite his palæographical caution he would have to: the article, after all, proclaims this Bible to be “a triumphal monument to Alfonso II”.9 First of all, the image controversy is (as we have seen here before) often associated with Spanish theologians because they would have been in contact with Islam, which prohibits (or rather, again as we’ve seen, has at times prohibited) images of the human form. But actually the scholars we see worrying about such issues in the eighth and ninth centuries were based at the Carolingian court, in Italy, in the Byzantine Empire, but not the Iberian peninsula, where presumably Adoptionism was still giving them quite enough to debate. Beatus of Liébana’s famous Commentary on the Apocalypse is full of pictures of people, as you see above, and so are many other Asturian manuscripts of this and following centuries.10 So this doesn’t pin it to the Iberian Peninsula for me, still less to Asturias, though I’m happy to accept the Peninsular attribution on the basis of the palæography still.

The Cruz de las Angeles, Oviedo Cathedral

The Cruz de las Angeles, Oviedo Cathedral, another supposed parallel for the cross art in the Cava Bible but again, as you see here, not geometrical or shaped in the same way really. By Zarateman (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 es], via Wikimedia Commons.

So Cherubini has a palæographical dating, which is roughly the early end of the ninth century but with scribes using a much older and probably Visigothic exemplar. He also has from that good reason to suppose an Iberian-peninsula production, but how do we get to Asturias? And sadly it turns out that the answer is twofold: by using an outdated historiographical context and by using a charter for proof it can’t provide. Signor Cherubini knows quite a lot about the glories of the court of Alfonso II, but this is because he has read quite a lot of 1940s and 1950s articles written by Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz and others who agreed with him about the heroic Christian recovery of Asturias against the Muslims and took quite literally the claims about Alfonso II’s conquests of ninth-century sources which aimed to use them as precedents for those of Alfonso III.11 But as said above, we are now somewhat more critical about how marvellous Alfonso II’s court and achievements were.12

Top of the Testament of King Alfonso II of Oviedo

Top of the Testament of King Alfonso II of Oviedo; note the apparent depiction of the above Cruz de las Angeles… Image by Denis Soria Fernández, whose blog linked through

But we do have his will, which is the charter that Cherubini abuses. The text of this has been much disputed, not least because the oldest version of it (and there are several) appears to be the one that is in verse, which already makes it quite odd, but importantly for us, and as Mouguias said, it mentions the gift of a Bible to the newly-established cathedral of Oviedo in 812.13 And if it’s ninth-century, there’s only 800-812 for it to fit before it has to be in the cathedral, right? Pretty tight dating!14 Unhappily, as Cherubini himself points out, in a tenth-century inventory of its good the cathedral had by then got two Bibles, and it describes them: “unam spalitanam, quam beatus Isidorus manu sua ferunt scripsisse manu quadra, et alia cordobense, quam nobis nefandus Alboaldi direxit”, “one from Seville, which the blessed Isidore wrote with his own hand in square script [i. e. capitals], and the other from Córdoba, which the infamous Alboald sent to us”, a story I’d personally love to know more about but, alas, we don’t.15 Now, for Cherubini at least, neither of these Bibles could easily be the gift of the king in 812, so that one must have already gone somewhere else by 908. I actually don’t see why the king couldn’t have given the cathedral the supposed Isidore Bible but obviously that isn’t the Codex Cavensis, though it might be the late antique exemplar from which Danila and companion copied the headings of that book. Or, of course, it might not be. But the simplest answer here is not to fit the one Bible we do have (though Cherubini thinks a fragment of the Córdoba one may have survived in the time of “Alfonso de Morales”, unspecified…16) into the words of a text that is plainly about something else. I’m afraid it is still to admit that we have no better reason to place this marvellous manuscript in Asturias than really anywhere else in ninth-century Spain with some proper old books in the library, and Oviedo is actually not really the most likely of those places.

1. P. Cherubini, “La Bibbia di Danila: un monumento ‘trionfale’ per Alfonso II di Asturie” in Scrittura e Civiltà Vol. 23 (Torino 1999), pp. 75-131; Luciano Pedicini (ed.), La Bíblia de Danila (Codex Biblicus Cavensis, MS 1 de la abadí de la Santísima Trinidad de Cava dei Tirreni): Edicón facsímil ([Oviedo] 2010) and Paolo Cherubini, José Antonio Valdés Gallego & Alfonso García Leal, La Biblia de Danila (Codex Biblicus Cavensis, MS. 1 de la Abadía de la Santísima Trinidad de Cava dei Tirreni) ([Oviedo] 2010).

2. It is also possible that he has changed his mind; the review of the newer facsimile volumes, which I can’t get hold of, in n. 2 above by Carlos Benjamín Pereira Mira in Territorio y Sociedad Vol. 7 (Oviedo 2012), pp. 259-264, online here, takes a noticeably more precise line than the 1999 article I’m using here.

3. The Wikipedia article’s only reference is J. W. Williams, Early Spanish Manuscript Illumination (New York City 1977).

4. This perspective is based on Roger Collins, “Spain: The Northern Kingdoms and the Basques, 711-910” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History Vol. II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 272-289 and Julio Escalona, “Family Memories: inventing Alfonso I of Asturias” in Isabel Alfonso, Hugh Kennedy & Julio Escalona, (edd.), Building Legitimacy: political discourses and forms of legitimacy in medieval societies, The Medieval Mediterranean: peoples, economies and cultures 400-1500, 53 (Leiden 2004), pp. 223-262.

5. Classically in Manuel Gómez Moreno, Iglesias mozárabes: arte español de los siglos IX a XI (Madrid 1919), online here.

6. Cherubini, “Bibbia de Danila”, p. 107.

7. Ibid., pp. 80-86 on the main text, 86-95 on the apparatus and 95-106 on the glosses. On the ninth-century predestination debate see David Ganz, “The debate on predestination” in Margaret T. Gibson and Janet L. Nelson (edd.), Charles the Bald: Court and Kingdom, 2nd edn. (Aldershot 1990), pp. 283-302.

8. On which see Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia 2009) and Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconcoclast Era, c. 650-850: a history (Cambridge 2011); sadly, you still need both.

9. See his title in n. 1 above.

10. Of course, we don’t actually have Beatus’s manuscript, but the general similarity between the century-or-more-later copies we do have is such that it has been generally accepted that they probably reflect an original sequence of images: see Kenneth B. Steinhauser, “Narrative and Illumination in the Beatus Apocalypse” in Catholic Historical Review Vol. 85 (Washington DC 1995), pp. 185-210.

11. Particularly influential seem to have been C. Sánchez-Albornoz, “¿Una crónica asturiana perdida?” in Revista de filología hispanica Vol. 7 (Madrid 1945), pp. 105-146, rev. in idem, Investigaciones sobre historiografía hispana medieval (siglos VIII al XII) (Buenos Aires 1979), pp. 111-160, idem, “Asturias resiste: Alfonso el Casto salva a la España cristiana” in Logos (La Serena 1946), pp. 5-29 and Gonzalo Menéndez Pidal, “Mozarabes y asturianos en la cultura de la Alta Edad Media” in Boletín de la Real Academia de Historia Vol. 134 (Madrid 1954), pp. 137-178, none of them what you would call modern references and all written from deep within the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Cherubini’s reprise of these works’ heroic picture is given in “Bibbia de Danila”, pp. 124-131.

12. See n. 4 above.

13. The verse version of the will is edited in Antonio C. Floriano, Diploma;tica Española del Periodo Astur. Estudio de las Fuentes Documentales del Reino de Asturias (718-910). I: Cartulario Crítico (Oviedo 1949-1951), 2 vols, I no. 24, as cit. by Cherubini, “Bibbia de Danila”, p. 128 n. 228; cf. the prose version, printed as Santiago García Larragueta (ed.), Colección de Documentos de la Catedral de Oviedo (Oviedo 1962), no. 3. On its authenticity compare Claudio Sánchez-Albórnoz, “Alfonso III y el particularismo castellano” in Cuadernos de Historia de España Vol. 13 (Buenos Aires 1950), pp. 19-100 at pp. 90-100, that section being repr. with addenda as “Otra vez sobre la crónica de Alfonso III” in idem, Investigaciones sobre historiografía, pp. 97-108, at pp. 98-99 of the reprint & n. 8 and “Addenda”, ibid. p. 108, and A. Floriano Cumbreño, “El testamento de Alfonso II (Estudio paleográfico y diplomático)” in Boletín del Instituto de Estudios Asturianos Vol. 86 (Oviedo 1975), pp. 593-617, and Escalona, “Family Memories”, pp. 251-254.

14. This dating seems to have been adopted in Cherubini, Valdes & García, Bíblia de Danila, to judge from Pereira, review, p. 260: “Materializado, grafiado y decorado con visos de verosimilitud en Oviedo -concretamente en el scriptorium aúlico alfonsino- en el primer decenio del siglo IX….”

15. Presumably in García, Documentos de Oviedo, but known to Cherubini through Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz (ed.), “Serie de documentos ineditos del reino de Asturias” in Cuadernos de Historia de España Vol. 2 (Buenos Aires 1944), pp. 298-351 at pp. 329-344, cit. Cherubini, “Bibbia de Danila”, p. 130 and n. 233, whence quoted; the English is my translation of the Latin.

16. Ibid., p. 130.

Seminar CCXXXIV: ground-level archaeology in early medieval northern Spain

Despite my usual policy of alternating them with what I think of as local-content posts, I’m going to crack straight on with another seminar report. This is mainly because if I had been doing this contemporaneously this is where the post announcing the upload of Justinian II’s coins would have fallen, and on my own blog I can be compulsive about chronology if I like darn it, and partly because the next local-content post requires me to read sixty pages of Italian to do it properly so will take time, but it also gets us back to the Iberian Peninsula, because on 17th March 2015 there had come direct from there no less a figure than Professor Juan Antonio Quirós Castillo, to speak at the Institute of Archaeology and British Museum Joint Seminar with the title, “Agrarian Archaeology in Northern Iberia: a general overview of medieval landscapes”, and I felt I should be there and take part.

Archaeologists at work at Lantarón in Castile

One of Professor Quirós’s teams at work at Lantarón in Castile, not the right area but a good picture!

Although in some ways I catch the worst of it in Catalonia, where scientific archæology and money to do it both seem rare, actually Northern Spain has been doing really well in the field of ‘new archæology’ in recent years, especially as cheaper techniques than radio-carbon dating have begun to proliferate, and up until the market crashes of 2008 there was also quite a lot of work being funded. Professor Quirós has been at the forefront of a lot of that work, and so is remarkably well-placed to give a synthesis.1 Here he was focused especially on the Basque country (which is after all where he works) and started his comparisons from there, but I know very little about that area so that was fine with me.

The castle and aldea of Treviño, Basque Country

The castle of Treviño, Basque Country, dug by Professor Quirós and crew some time ago

The paper basically consisted of a series of short ‘state of knowledge’ round-ups of various sorts of evidence and then an overall summary and speculation on the remaining unknowns. The geographical focus also meant that a lot of that knowledge was about farming and peasant settlement, because there simply isn’t much else that’s so far been located until quite late on, except one outlier site of which we will say more in a moment. So we had material from field survey, the archæology of structures, zooarchæology, artefactual evidence, field systems, manufacturing and palæobotany, all taken thematically and joining up at particular questions. All this has been going on with quite some energy in the last decade or so, and the points it’s bringing up are probably best discussed in the overall chronology that Professor Quirós was now able to put forward. This went something like this.

    1. In the fifth and sixth centuries we start to see new villages forming, in the first real change since the collapse of the Roman Empire, which never had much business up here anyway, but the landscape is decentralised and disarticulated, with very low levels of material culture not being transported for any distances. Silos, previously built big, are now built small, suggesting accumulation has dropped to a household level from a community one. Land use seems, from pollen and so forth, to be going up over the period but there’s little sign of increase at the settlements.
    2. In the seventh century, however, field systems begin to show up and so does long-range transhumance (visible in the huts of the travelling herdsmen), and the one estate centre they’ve managed to locate, at Aistra, starts up in this period as well, with enough command of labour to get terraces built, not a small job. This all suggests the beginnings of some hierarchy.
    3. In the eighth century, in what seems to be a much wider phenomenon, settlements here begin to nucleate and cluster but the vestigial links between them visible in the previous century drop off again, even as the social strata in them begin to pile up higher, especially at Aistra where there are now granaries and selective consumption of animals. This is also the period when we start to get rural churches, which also suggests an available surplus being cornered by one particular interest group, and we know from elsewhere in northern Iberia that these groups are probably the same ones as showing up at the top of the secular hierarchies, they’re not separate.2 It is probably not unconnected with these as wider phenomena that there were peasant revolts in Asturias at this sort of time…3
The church of San Martín Getaria, Gipuzkoa

The church of San Martín Getaria, Gipuzkoa, which though itself not early medieval apparently sits over an early medieval cemetery and thus the closest I can quickly find to this phenomenon in standing fabric

  1. In the ninth century there starts to be documentation, mostly from the monastery of Valpuesta at the very western edge of the zone, but the archæology also speaks of more field system organisation and a return to transhumance, while the ways that animals are being slaughtered suggest a system of renders; there are communities which seem never to dispose of particular cuts of pork, for example, even though they have the rest.4 Cattle also start to turn up in the west, suggesting people doing things differently, but on the other hand, animals seem to have begun to shrink in this period, and their diets (which can be got at via isotopic remains in their bones) became more restricted. Those two things are obviously probably linked but they may suggest a shift to home husbandry and therefore enclosure of what had previously been commonly-available pasturing.
  2. Finally for this paper, in the tenth century these trends continue but organisation by the powerful also becomes more obvious: bishoprics are set up for the area, fortification becomes common-place, agriculture intensifies (as we can tell from silos at some fortresses) and the area is in general participating in the economic take-off run and (I think) consequent seigneurialisation that Georges Duby or Pierre Bonnassie would have been happy to see.5

There’re also a couple of general phenomena that struck me as interesting, because they seemed unusual to me. In the first place, the area never seems to have been very short of metal tools; we don’t find very many of them (though some) but right through the period we do, apparently, find shaft furnaces for ironworking, even at fairly humble sites. In the second place, cerealiculture was really diverse: although when we have renders specified in documentation they are almost always in wheat or barley, peasants were also growing millet, particularly, and several others too as well as fruit, legumes and flax for linen and rope. Meat was probably rarely on the menu but when you compare it to high medieval Catalonia (my only comparator) it looks as if the Basque peasants had a rather better ‘third harvest’ than their south-eastern neighbours later on.6

Excavation under way at Aistra, Basque Country

Excavation under way at Aistra, on one of what seem to have been a good many dismal days in 2009

All in all this was a fairly impressive sweep through what archæology can actually tell us about societies in a period where documentation is scant or lacking, and one wants of course to go and chase up half the data and see for oneself. One would also wish—and Professor Quirós would be with that one—for another estate centre, because although Aistra sounds like a marvellous and rewarding place to investigate (as long as you like rain), the fact that it got going so much earlier than its investigators were expecting and than a documentary picture would have made likely means that a comparator is dearly necessary to make sure that this place wasn’t just weird in some way.7 It would still need explaining even if it was, of course, but as we know some places just did get special attention. Nonetheless, to have a decent basis for being able to assert anything about change on this kind of scale is amazing, and as Andrew Reynolds, chairing, said at the beginning of discussion, whereas Professor Quirós had been kind enough to say that English archæology of this period was the necessary comparator because of its quality, what has been done recently in Spain might well be thought to reverse the situation, and as you will see from the footnotes, he should know. And since I generally aim to bring the Iberian Peninsula back into people’s pictures from the margins where it too often sits, I am fine with that, as long as I can get the site reports…

1. As well as the various project blogs linked in the post above, see (just to pick the most comprehensive things on this post’s themes from his last few years of publications) J. A. Quirós Castillo, “1911-2011: un siglo de excavaciones arqueológicas en los castillos medievales del País Vasco” in idem & José María Tejado Sebastián (edd.), Los castillos altomedievales en el noroeste de la Península Ibérica, Documentos de arqueología medieval 4 (Bilbao 2012), pp. 123-143; Quirós, “Los comportamientos alimentarios del campesinado medieval en el País Vasco y su entorno (siglos VIII-XIV)” in Historia agraria Vol. 59 (València 2013), pp. 13-41; Quirós & Giovanni Bianchi, “From archaeology of storage systems to agricultural archaeology” in Alfonso Vigil-Escalera Guirado, Quirós & Bianchi (edd.), Horrea, barns and silos: storage and incomes in Early Medieval Europe, Documentos de Arqueología 5 (Bilbao 2013), pp. 17-22; Quirós, “Archaeology of power and hierarchies in early medieval villages in Northern of Spain” in Ján Klápšte (ed.), Hierarchies in rural settlements, Ruralia 9 (Turnhout 2013), pp. 199-212; and Quirós (ed.), Agrarian archaeology in early medieval Europe, Quaternary International 346 (Amsterdam 2014).

2. I’m thinking here of work like Margarita Fernández Mier, “Changing Scales of Local Power in the Early Medieval Iberian North-West” in Julio Escalona & Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Scale and Scale Change in the early Middle ages: exploring landscape, local society, and the world beyond, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 87-117, and especially Robert Portass, “Rethinking the ‘small worlds’ of tenth-century Galicia” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol. 31 (Salamanca 2013), pp. 83-103.

3. That is, if it really was a peasants’ revolt; on the misinterpretations of this episode, which has served many historiographical agendas, see this old post.

4. The Valpuesta documents are edited in Desamparados Pérez Soler (ed.), Cartulario de Valpuesta (Valéncia 1970). On peasant diet in the area see Quirós, “Comportamientos alimentarios”.

5. I’m sure you know the works I mean, but for completeness let’s get them in: Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: warriors and peasants from the seventh to the twelfth century, transl. Howard B. Clarke (London 1974) and Pierre Bonnassie, La Catalogne du milieu du Xe à la fin du XIe siècle : croissance et mutations d’une société, Publications de l’Université Toulouse-le-Mirail 23 & 29 (Toulouse 1975-1976), 2 vols, but see also La croissance agricole du haut moyen âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran 10 (Auch 1990), a conference in which both took part.

6. I’m thinking of the studies that have come out of the experimental archæology done at l’Esquerda in Catalonia, particularly Peter Reynolds, “Mediaeval cereal yields in Catalonia & England: an empirical challenge” in Acta Historica et archaeological mediaevalia Vol. 18 (Barcelona 1997), pp. 495-507, online here, repr. in Immaculada Ollich, Montserrat Rocafiguera & Maria Ocaña (edd.), Experimentació Arqueològica sobre Conreus Medievals a l’Esquerda, 1991-1994, Monografies d’Arqueològia Medieval i Postmedieval 3 (Barcelona 1998), pp. 121-128, and Carmen Cubero i Corpas, Ollich, Rocafiguera & Ocaña, “From the granary to the field: archaeobotany and experimental archaeology at l’Esquerda (Catalonia, Spain)” in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany Vol. 17 (New York 2008), pp. 85-92, DOI: 10.1007/s00334-007-0111-0, but here also especially Reynolds & Christine E. Shaw, “The third harvest of the first millennium A. D. in the Plana de Vic” in Ollich (ed.), Actes del Congrès Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 339-351.

7. There seem to be only interim reports and some specialist publications on Aistra so far, the reports being: A. Reynolds & Quirós, “Aistra (Zalduondo): I Campaña” in Arkeoikuska 2006 (Vitoria 2006), pp. 94-100; eidem, “Despoblado de Aistra”, ibid. 2007 (2007), pp. 159-167; Quirós, “Poblado de Aistra”, ibid. 2008 (2008), pp. 209-211; & Quirós & Reynolds, “Despoblado de Aistra: IV Campaña”, ibid. 2009 (2009), pp. 176-180.

Seminar CCXXX: digitising a text, one-to-many style

Interrupting my perorations on the state of the Academy with another backlogged seminar report turns out still not to get us very far from computers and the open access agenda. This is because there is at Birmingham a man by the name of Aengus Ward, whom I had clocked as a quantity quite early on in my time there on the grounds that he apparently worked on Spain. He was somehow accidentally elusive, however, and it wasn’t until 24th February 2015 that I finally tracked him down at the Research Seminar of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages, speaking under the title “Digital Editing and the Estoria de Espanna: of XML and crowd-sourcing.”

King Alfonso X of Castile-León, from a manuscript of the Estoria de Espanna

The project’s masthead image is hard to beat, so I’ll just, er, borrow it…. Here is King Alfonso X of Castile-León in all his lion-checkered glory, from a manuscript of the Estoria de Espanna

I will freely admit that I had almost no idea what the Estoria de Espanna was before this seminar: a historical text, obviously, and after my period but still medieval. With the precision of great familiarity, Dr Ward filled in the rest: it is a chronicle that was begun as part of a big courtly learning project by King Alfonso X of Castile (1252-1284), frustrated would-have-been Holy Roman Emperor and canonically known as ‘the Wise’, though not wise enough to avoid being deposed by his son as also happened to fellow scholar-king Alfonso III of Asturias (886-910), a lesson I never get tired of pointing out. It covers the Iberian Peninsula from the supposed time of Hercules to that of Fernando III, Alfonso’s father, and there are forty or more manuscripts of it now surviving, including some translated into the Latin, the original being in Romance. Anyway, the crucial word in all of those may be ‘begun’, because ‘finished’ never really occurred: there was a ‘primitiva’ recension, compiled in 1270, but amended in 1274, then a ‘critica’, revised by Alfonso in prison in 1282, and then his son Sancho IV oversaw an ‘amplificada’ in 1289, with quite a lot of revisions to recent history at each stage. Also, we don’t actually have a full text of the ‘primitiva’. So what in fact do you edit if you are editing the Estoria?

Madrid, Biblioteca de l'Escorial, Y 1 2

One of the manuscripts of the Estoria that the team is using, Madrid, Biblioteca de l’Escorial, Y 1 2. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

For its first editor hitherto, Ramón Menéndez Pidal, the answer was to produce a synthetic version, emended to whatever he thought was most likely to have been Alfonso’s considered intent – at least so we assume, since his edition apparently makes very little of the actual editing process.1 And, as long as you’re editing on paper, there’s not a lot better you can do, though you could be more explicit about it. But with computers, XML mark-up and a four-year grant from the AHRC, you can hope for rather better. The project is doing (by now, indeed, has done) full transcriptions of five manuscripts, of various versions including one of the translations, and are marking up what’s different, added, removed, spelled differently and so on in an XML system called Textual Communities (hmm… seems familiar…2). In the end (late in what is now this year) it will eventually be possible to enable many-way comparisons between different versions and different versions of versions, setting text next to image with the words linked at an underlying level, comparing images or texts of the different manuscripts, a ‘recension’ view of each manuscript’s text and a synoptic edition, plus a tentative reconstruction of the full ‘primitiva’, all fully searchable and open to the web. Such is the plan.

But what of the crowd-sourcing? Well, that was one of the surprises of the project, in fact. If I have this right, the students who were working on the mark-up had people who wanted also to try their hand at it, out of sheer geeky enthusiasm for old stuff I think (which is what we all trade on, after all), and so worked out at least the logistics of actually allowing version-controlled mark-up editing over the web. Then the project put in for extra money to develop this, got it and suddenly found that they had what turned out to be a dozen or so extra staff to train and manage, all without actually seeing them, which changed some of their jobs quite a lot. I make it sound as if there was no benefit, mainly because as a coin curator I always felt that a volunteer who was available for less than a term was as much of my time lost training as gained not cataloguing, but obviously once the Estoria team were through that hoop this was a valuable extra source of labour and one of the mmajor reasons they’re looking to finish on time, as well as being a valuable demonstration of that elusive quality ‘impact’, not least as one of their transcribers subsequently went back to university to do a Masters in palaeography and diplomatic!3 And as Dr Ward said in questions, they do proof-read each others’ transcriptions already, so there isn’t actually that much extra work once the volunteers know what they’re doing.

Transcription mark-up of a page of one of the manuscripts of Alfonso X's Estoria de Espanna

Oh, and maybe you’re wondering about the spelling ‘Espanna’? Confused by that double ‘n’ where now we would expect an ‘ñ’? Don’t worry, so were the scribes…

In general, while I have no particular stake in this project, it seems like one of the better ones of these jobs I’ve encountered. It seems set to produce its planned result on time, they’ve actually built several extra components into it without prejudicing that, and the ways that they want to present the manuscript and the ways they’ve incorporated outside and amateur interest and built that up into full-blown participation and passing expertise all look like things that you could call best practice. They even have a regularly-updated and interesting project blog! Of course, the real test will be the website, because without that there is nothing except promises, but I came away from this feeling that those promises really did have promise. I look forward to finding out if I was right!

1. Alfonso X el sabio, La crónica general de España que mandó componer el rey Alfonso el Sabio, ed. Ramón Menéndez Pidal (Madrid 1916).

2. Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy: written language and models of interpretation in the eleventh and twelfth centuries (Princeton 1983).

3. Obviously not in the UK, where as long ago discussed such study has become far too marginal to have an actual degree course for it.