Category Archives: Institutions

Some words for Richard Sharpe

I seem to have spent quite a lot of last year not hearing about people dying. I guess the specifics of personal mortality were getting lost in the global version, and I also wasn’t looking at news very much, but still, there are those I would have expected to hear about somehow that I didn’t, and such a one was Richard Sharpe, Professor of Diplomatic at Oxford, who died suddenly of a heart attack all the way back in March 2020. I found out last week.

The late Professor Richard Sharpe, in life

The late Professor Richard Sharpe, in life; the image is all over the web but I borrow it from the Cultures of Knowledge obituary linked through since, perhaps ironically, they mention no copyright.

I didn’t know Richard very well, but I did know him. We first met, as with about half my academic contacts really, when he was presenting at the Institute of Historical Research, in 2002, on intellectual contacts in very early medieval Northern Italy, when I was much too junior to say anything much to such an eminence. It would have been fine, I subsequently learned, not least because he was back there again in 2006 to present a paper about a putative daughter of King Harold II of England (he of Hastings fame), who of course survived her father into the reign of the man who defeated him.1 That got a bit of a conversation going, as I recall, and then a few years after that I was in the same institution as him, in so far as Oxford is one institution, and considering whether or not to get him to lecture on the Celtic parts of the early medieval British syllabus. (I didn’t get him to, though I don’t now remember why.) Before I was gone from Oxford, we’d been thrown together by someone going on leave and thus making us supposedly the two most qualified people to run the Norman Conquest Special Subject that year. That’s where I really first had dealings with him. He was tremendously helpful and energetic and made me feel very much as if I were the person who knew what was going on, which compared to him could hardly have been further from the truth; but we got on fine and it ran OK. I think I ran into him twice after that, once at a paper in Cambridge and once again at the IHR, and thus (as it has transpired) ended our acquaintance. Still, his death has shocked me somewhat, not least because he was an active man in robust health bar one deaf ear, and everyone else seems to have been just as shocked when it happened, I imagine not least himself.

Thankfully, rather a lot of people who knew him better have been busy since he died recording stories about Richard that give a better impression of him than I have managed there. I might just quote some:

“As an undergraduate he acquired a firm grounding in the medieval Celtic languages and literatures to add to his Classics. But his first love was to history. Professor Simon Keynes remembers teaching him: ‘The depth of engagement with the primary source material for any given subject was phenomenal . . . I distinctly remember the appearance of his essays: the top five or ten lines comprising main text, and the rest of the page the numbered footnotes, perfectly judged to fit the page—but of course all hand-written rather than typed let alone word processed.’”

Thomas Charles-Edwards, ‘Tribute to Professor Richard Sharpe (1954-2020)’

“His first job, in 1981, was as assistant editor of the Dictionary of Medieval Latin in Oxford; he made himself a formidable Latinist by reading nothing but Latin for a year.”

Nigel Ramsay, ‘Richard Sharpe obituary’

“Used to the testing limitations of evidence from the ‘Dark Ages’, Richard was not reluctant to express his view that the study of English political history after the publication of Magna Carta was ‘mere journalism’.”

Hugh Doherty and James Willoughby, ‘Richard Sharpe’

“Politically, he was liberal, and was a member of Oxford Town Council between 1987 and 1995, where he was a strong supporter of the rights of Headington freeholders to erect giant fibreglass sharks on their roofs. He felt such a thing could only add to the gaiety of the Oxford skyline, and enjoyed the self-answering objection of another councillor: ‘But if we give this shark permission, then everyone will want one!’”2


“The volume and versatility of his research were nothing short of mystifying. Richard confessed that he himself found it difficult at times to keep track of the state of his many projects and side projects, which could range, in a single year (2016), from an article on the earliest Norman sheriffs, through early nineteenth-century printing of Irish poetry, to the composer Tommaso Giordani (‘accidents happen, as I sometimes pick something up along the way’, he wrote on his webpage in relation to that one).”

Roy Flechner, ‘Richard Sharpe, 17 February 1954 – 22 March 2020’

“He was already working on Hebridean history: his first book, Raasay: A Study in Island History was published in 1977, the year he graduated, followed by a second the following year, Raasay: A Study in Island History. Documents and Sources, People and Places (Raasay lies between Skye and the mainland). At the same time he was working on editions of the two earliest Lives of Brigit, a saint of peculiar interest—as a female counterpart to St Patrick, as the premier patron-saint of Leinster, and as someone widely culted in Britain as well as Ireland. He never published his editions but was generous in allowing others to use them.”

Ramsay, ‘Richard Sharpe obituary’, as above

That last strikes chords with me all the way back from those years in Oxford. I remember hearing, on two different occasions, someone (Hugh Doherty once, I think; can’t remember who the other was) say that they’d been to talk to Richard up in his office about some new problem they’d just stumbled on in a project, a saint’s life or manuscript they’d never heard of before or similar and were going to have to track down, and Richard going, “Oh yes! I wrote a piece about that years ago”, striding over to a cupboard and after a short search pulling out a neat stapled and paper-covered typescript on the exact topic, existence unknown to anyone but him. I should say, it’s not that Richard was shy about publishing; as Roy Flechner’s obituary that I’ve linked above says, his total of works even at the point of death was at least 212 separate items. But apparently he still wrote more than he could manage to publish… If there is a tiny crumb of compensation for him being dead it’s that we will now presumably have found out what else was in the cupboard; but it’s not how either he, I’m guessing, or I would have wanted that learning to be made available. I don’t know how many other people the world can make like this, or what the academy looks like if ever we run out.

Next post will be a final short one about (early) medieval remains in Rome as of some time ago; and after that I promise some actual academic content for once; but having finally got this news I didn’t want to let a kind colleague go unrecorded when he was so very important in understanding records.

1. That paper eventually published as Richard Sharpe, “King Harold’s Daughter” in Haskins Society Journal Vol. 19 (Woodbridge 2008), pp. 1–27. No-one seems to have attempted a full bibliography of Richard’s work, for reasons which may be suggested by what follows, and I’m not up to the challenge; there was a lot…

2. I’m bravely assuming that most of these anecdotes can stand by themselves, but the Tale of the Headington Shark—in which I’d had no idea Richard had had any part—might need a link for the unfamiliar

Money doesn’t stink (once the blood’s dry)

There was, of course, lots in Michael Hendy’s magnum opus that I was writing about last post that might have provoked a blog post, but apparently I only stubbed one other, and this was it, a reflection on something he was willing to do that many scholars now are not, which is, cite material which he’d seen on sale as well as material in collections.* For example, when I worked at the Barber Institute, we were offered one quite large and fascinating collection; but English law on importing antiquities, which largely follows a UNESCO Convention about the same, made it such a headache to accept that instead the collector in question just sold the stuff. That was a bit of a loss to scholarship, because even if we could track every one of those coins through the market the corpus will still never be together again. But I can also point you at reasonably well-founded-looking stories about how antiquities looting funded ISIS and we’ve heard before here about one rather surreal case of how crime will feed the antiquities market if the antiquities market will buy from it, so though it’s a somewhat extreme position, that there are some scholars who won’t even cite material from sales, let alone buy things themselves, because you just can’t know who got it out of the ground when and whether you’d want them to be able to keep doing that because of your contributions to the market.1 And then I can remember a presentation at the International Numismatic Congress in which an Afghan curator whose museum had been looted had sent a message to the Congress urging us please, please, to ignore the law and buy his museum’s stuff if we saw it come up, so that at least it would not be lost or destroyed, and by now you get the idea that whatever the ethics of this question are, they’re not completely simple.2

Map of the location of Isauria in Asia Minor

The red dot shows where Isauria, the district within which the plurifocal city of Isaura lay, was within Asia Minor; image by Keith Johnston and Polylerus (talk), derivative work, made from Asia_Minor_Map,_Classical_Atlas,_1886,_Keith_Johnston.jpg, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Michael Hendy, however, writing in the early 1980s, was able to remain unconcerned by such issues, and this became very clear when I reached his brief discussion of the Byzantine coinage of Isaura. Isaura was a mint only for a very short time, between 617 and 619, during the desperate campaigns of Emperor Heraclius against Persia. One of several such short-lived mints, and replacing one at nearby Seleucia, it seems to have been meant to provide deployed armies with small change at a time when that could not reliably be brought from Constantinople in time. Its products are rare, and Hendy alone knew of one from the final year of operation, 618/19, of which he said: “I owe knowledge of the so far unique coin (a follis) of this year, seen in the bazaar at Silifke, to Jim Russell.”3

Now, as far as I can see, that specimen—which Hendy himself had not seen, as he admits—remains unique, and we could probably more or less safely dismiss it as being either a fake or so very rare as to be historically insignificant. But the coins of Isaura are rare in any variety. Hendy’s collection of reference, the Dumbarton Oaks Collection in Washington DC, largely assembled by Philip Grierson, contained none when catalogued in 1973, although it subsequently acquired two. The British Museum currently has eight—though if you follow that search link, don’t believe the single picture they have, which is of something quite different—but its catalogue of Byzantine material, published in 1920, contains only two, though the modern digital catalogue also counts two which Wroth thought belonged to Antioch, and I think, as apparently do the current curators, that he was wrong.4 The Bibliothèque Nationale de France has two, or did in 1970.5 The American Numismatic Society has one, only. And the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, of which Hendy was notionally curator when he wrote the above, has four, for what it’s worth, but none of 618/619.6 I bet there are more in collections from closer to the site, too, but I can’t straight away find their catalogues online. (I did just try the Hermitage in St Petersburg, not exactly closer but at least not Western, but no results there; the Istanbul Archaeological Museum so far doesn’t have a catalogue online.) So from the obvious Western collections at least, that’s a corpus of seventeen coins of Isaura, which is not all that many when just the Barber’s total sample of coins of Heraclius from all mints is more than a thousand pieces. The total corpus of Heraclius across those same collections is probably in the order of four thousand, and Isaura thus probably contributes nearly half a per cent of that corpus.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperor Heraclius overstruck on one of Maurice Tiberius at Isaura in 617-618, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3496

An impressively messy example, a copper-alloy follis of Heraclius overstruck on one of Emperor Maurice Tiberius at Isaura in 617-618, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B3496

Now, forgive me if this is already an obvious point, but whence, and indeed when, did these coins arrive in those collections? In some cases, this information is not available: the ANS record, for example, doesn’t make this public, though they got it in 1984, rather after the UNESCO Convention. Dumbarton Oaks got its from Harlan J. Berk in 1977 and from none other than Simon Bendall in 1980, who apparently traded some Palaeologan coins for it. Perhaps the other party in the swap had full provenance details going back past 1970; perhaps. I can’t supply details for the Barber any more, though almost all its Byzantine stuff was given to the University of Birmingham by Philip Whitting in 1967 and he acquired almost all his stuff through London dealers, so the Barber is probably on the right side of UNESCO here, at least, if only by reason of age. One of the BNF’s coins came to them from the collection of Gustave Schlumberger in the 1860s and the other was already there when a catalogue was first made in 1853, so their trail vanishes into antiquity in a way which almost certainly involves colonial tourism and bazaars, but can’t be shown to. And the BM got its first one in 1859 from one J. B. Warren, bought another from Henri Hoffmann in 1862, these being the two which Wroth published; it subsequently ‘acquired’ four, we are not told whence, in 1920 (two of them), 1925 and 1927, and has no provenance for the remaining two that Wroth misassigned to Antioch, except that they must have arrived before he published in 1920. But if we were in a position to dig further, which for example at the Barber I was, we’d be able to find where Philip Whitting bought those coins, and at the BM possibly where Warren and Hoffmann bought theirs, and maybe even at Paris whence Schlumberger got his, and I bet you that they were all either bought from dealers in London or Paris or actually off market tables in Turkey or Syria, or from people who one way or another had got them from those tables. Perhaps one or two were actually found in archaeological digs, but archaeology in Ottoman territories was usually a matter of licensed European plundering anyway, and the Paris examples pretty much pre-date archaeology as a practice, as do the oldest London ones. Probably none of these coins would be bought, or even accepted gratis, by those collections today.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck at Isaura in 617-618, CNG Classical Auctions, Triton VIII Sale, 10th January 2005, lot 1368

Copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck at Isaura in 617-618, Classical Numismatic Group, Triton VIII Sale, 10th January 2005, lot 1365

But they’re out there, even so. This one was sold at auction by Classical Numismatic Group in 1997 and then again in 2005; there don’t seem to be any obviously available right now through the main dealerships, and looking at eBay through a proxy so as not to stain my own search history, I can’t see any there either, but every now and then one clearly comes up. Now, even by showcasing this coin here I’ve stepped over a line for some of my colleagues; for them to use anything that’s passed through trade is to validate it and the continuing market for such things. And it can’t be said that much would be lost if I hadn’t used it; I have access to other images of the type, as we’ve seen, and there’s nothing unique about this one. We can certainly say that without Hendy’s friend’s find we wouldn’t know the mint dragged on into late 618, but firstly no-one else has ever seen or recorded such a coin, secondly it’s a matter of whether it had an extra vertical stroke right out near the border of the reverse right field, a call which I find hard enough to make even on the photos above, and thirdly that detail probably makes no difference to our greater picture of Heraclius’s reign or Byzantine coinage anyway. If Jim Russell had not been in that bazaar when he was, or had not told Hendy, or Hendy not told us, probably nothing much changes for numismatic or historical scholarship.

But how far back do we want to go with that logic? What if we decided even the 617/618 coins were unusable because of their provenance, or their lack of it? Well, because of the scholarship which had used them already, we would still know that there had been a mint at Isaura and what its products looked like, but we might argue that we should not, because that scholarship was using materials that we would not ourselves use. What if, because this kind of selection had operated in the 1970s and 1980s too, and all the way back to the 1860s when Schlumberger was writing, we just didn’t know about the Isaura mint? What else would we then not know? Well, the series of short-lived mints that date from these years collectively tell us several things. Heraclius didn’t maintain these mints once they’d served their purpose, so they weren’t a new part of the system, they were emergency measures. Therefore, they tell us that the Empire was in trouble; we knew this from the narratives, but that it couldn’t ship small change around safely for several years is a bit of extra depth when otherwise we are mainly told that Heraclius couldn’t pay his troops in gold, once only, eight years later.7 On the other hand, that this could be done tells us something about the administrative ability of the empire even in crisis; mints, whose output seems negligible now but must have been in many thousands at the time, could be set up and shut down, or moved where necessary, quickly and usefully, and systems which were temporarily not useful could be circumvented.

Obverse of copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine overstruck on one of Maurice Tiberius from Antioch at Isaura in 617-618, Dumbarton Oaks Collection BZC.1980.5

Obverse of copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine overstruck on one of Maurice Tiberius from Antioch at Isaura in 617-618, Dumbarton Oaks Collection BZC.1980.5

Reverse of a copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck onto one of Maurice Tiberius from Antioch at Isaura in 617-618, Dumbarton Oaks Collection BZC.1980.5

Reverse of the same coin

Thus, the coins of Seleucia, Isaura, Alexandretta and maybe Cyprus—though Cyprus went on working as a mint, so doesn’t quite fit the pattern—do tell us not just how much trouble the Empire was in but also what it could do about it, in detail we wouldn’t get any other way. Obviously, any one of those mints by itself would suggest that; two together probably shows a pattern; we might not need the third. But since the same objections about provenance could doubtless be raised about Heraclian coins of Seleucia and Alexandretta, and indeed without Seleucia and Isaura being known I imagine we’d be attributing the Alexandretta coins to Alexandria because to hypothesize an entire mint on their basis would seem a little foolhardy, and we’d have no indication of where else it might have been anyway, I think the question has to be asked about the whole sample.8 And of course we could carry on up the scale from there ad absurdum; I’m not sure where the absurd starts on this ladder of hypotheses, myself, but we don’t need to climb it all to get there.

Of course, it is absurd, because we don’t do this; the known coins in collections are known, are somewhat published, and have been described in scholarly publication and synthesized into the history of the period, and I’ve not (yet) heard anyone suggesting we should actually roll back on what we claim to know because of it being based on dodgy antiquities and colonial looting, even if some might suggest those collections shouldn’t still be keeping the coins. But thanks to the UNESCO Convention and its pretty widespread uptake, really no other collections can get such coins, only ‘unscrupulous’ private collectors can. (The fact that sometimes those collectors do in fact contribute to scholarship is an issue I can’t look at now, but it has been noted.9) What that ends up meaning, therefore, is that the scholarship has to work with the established material in the big Western collections, because those were all bought, ‘acquired’ or looted long enough ago that we can ignore it. In other words, the Victorians and Edwardians did so much of our dirty work that we can afford to keep our hands clean and insist that others abstain without loss to ourselves.

Now, I myself don’t have a next step from this; I’m stuck in the dilemma. The loss to regional heritages from looting, nighthawking and sale of antiquities is well-documented and huge and I’ve done my bit in documenting it. But even that misnomer of a hoard was only acquired just in advance of a change in English law that now wouldn’t permit Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise Service to do that; now, the Barber’s hands would have stayed off and it would now presumably be in a crate on a shelf in Rotherham or somewhere, in an uncollapseable legal Schrödinger state from which it could be neither sold nor given, unknown to basically everyone in the world (next to the Ark of the Covenant, perhaps). Then again, when stuff comes up on eBay that’s probably out of Palmyra or the now-dispersed collections of the Iraqi National Museum, I wince, and if we did follow that Afghan curator’s advice and buy it anyway, to safeguard it, of course more would turn up to feed that demand and whether or not the money eventually paid for someone to kill someone else, what’s pretty clear is that the stuff would not be returned to the land and people whence it came. But, equally, if the Academy as vested in the global West didn’t have these massive colonial legacy collections to resource its scholarship, acquired by means just as dodgy but a century or two older, I wonder if it would be quite so unanimous about how we shouldn’t participate. I don’t think that means that we should just declare open house on looted antiquities, obviously, but I’d be more comfortable about the debate about what people should do if it involved just a bit more privilege-checking from those who aren’t at risk of exclusion because the international moral clock only started in 1970.

* The title of this post derives from a story told of the Emperor Vespasian, who infamously imposed a charge for the use of public latrines in the city of Rome. When it was put to him that it was beneath his imperial dignity to make money from people’s bodily waste like this, he is said to have held a coin to his nose and replied, “The money doesn’t stink.” I couldn’t find a good way to work this into the actual text of the post, though…

1. Here’s a selection of such scholarship ranging over the last couple of decades: Catherine Sease, “Conservation and the Antiquities Trade” in Journal of the American Institute for Conservation Vol. 36 (Abingdon 1997), pp. 49-58; Neil Brodie and Colin Renfrew, “Looting and the World’s Archaeological Heritage: The Inadequate Response” in Annual Review of Anthropology Vol. 34 (Palo Alto 2005), pp. 343–361; Paula K. Lazrus and Alex W. Barker (edd.), All the King’s Horses: Essays on the Impact of Looting and the Illicit Antiquities Trade on our Knowledge of the Past (Washington D.C. 2012); Blythe Bowman Proulx, “Archaeological Site Looting in ‘Glocal’ Perspective: Nature, Scope, and Frequency” in American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117 (Boston MA 2013), pp. 111–123; Fiona Rose-Greenland, ‘Inside ISIS’ looted antiquities trade’ in The Conversation, 31 May 2016, online here. I started collecting things like this in order to help write Jonathan Jarrett, Reinhold Hüber-Mork, Sebastian Zambanini & Achille Felicetti, “Coinage, Digitization and the World-Wide Web: Numismatics and the COINS Project” in Brent H. Nelson & Melissa Terras (edd.), Digitizing Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture, New Technologies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies 3 (Tempe AZ 2012), pp. 459-489, but as you can see the problem has continued despite our short-lived digital contribution.

2. Reported in Michael Alram’s contribution to the closing ceremony, XVth International Numismatic Congress, Taormina, 24th September 2015.

3. Michael F. Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985), p. 416 n. On the coinages more generally, see Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 120-121, and in more details, Philip Grierson, “The Isaurian Coins of Heraclius” in Numismatic Chronicle 6th Series Vol. 11 (London 1951), pp. 56–67.

4. Warwick Wroth (ed.), Catalogue of the Imperial Byzantine Coins in the British Museum, 2 vols (London 1908), I, nos 274a & 275 (pp. 223-224), with the rest of Isaura as then thought at nos 266-268 (p. 221). Dumbarton Oaks would have had them, if they had had, in Alfred Bellinger & Philip Grierson (edd.), Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks and Whittemore Collections, 5 vols in 9 (Washington DC 1966-2006), vol. II pt 1, ed. Grierson, online here.

5. Cécile Morrisson (ed.), Catalogue des monnaies byzantines de la Bibliothèque nationale, 2 vols (Paris 1970), vol. I, nos 10/IS/Æ/01-02 (p. 290).

6. Though great efforts were continuing up until Covid-19 struck, these coins are among the part of the Barber’s Collection that has yet to go online. They can however be cited as Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B3493-B3496.

7. For more on this and Heraclius’s response, see Michael F. Hendy, “On the Administrative Basis of the Byzantine Coinage c. 400-c. 900 and the Reforms of Heraclius” in University of Birmingham Historical Journal Vol. 12 (Birmingaham 1970), pp. 129–154.

8. On the difficulty of attributing the Alexandretta coins see Grierson, Byzantine Coins, pp. 73-74; their chronology is not quite the same, but shows Heraclius using the same strategy earlier on.

9. See Jackson Hase and Rebecca Darley, “Collections to think with: Collecting, scholarship and belonging in the R. E. Hart collection (Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery)” in Journal of the History of Collections Vol. 32 (Oxford 2020), pp. 369–378.

Fomenting New Islands Ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

The citadel of Mdina, Malta

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

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

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

Old city of Dubrovnik, Croatia

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

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

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

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

3. For Luca’s work on Cyprus see Luca Zavagno, Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (ca. 600-800): an island in transition, Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies 21 (London 2017).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Defence of Osona at Lleida

So, where are, or rather were, we now? On inspection, actually, almost immediately I had survived the 2017 IMC I was away again on a jet-plane. This time it was to a place I’d never been, the city of Lleida, and what was taking me there was that I was on the panel examining one of the city’s university’s doctoral students, Elisabet Bonilla Sitja.

Volum 1 of Calaix 6, Arxiu Capitular de Vic, open to show internal arrangement

Within volum 1 of Calaix 6 of the Arxiu Capitular de Vic

This situation had been some time in the building, in fact. I first met Elisabet when I was in Oxford, when she did a term visiting so as to work with Chris Wickham, and at that point it became clear to each of us that we were perhaps the only people in the world who cared about trying to do something new with the charters at Vic, as seen above. At that stage she was still working on her MA thesis, which went well, and when I next ran into her, in Barcelona as documented here, she asked then if I would be willing to be on her thesis panel when it came to it, as she and her supervisor thought that having one foreign scholar who could speak for her in the English-speaking world would probably be useful, and so did I, so I said yes.1 And now, finally, that obligation had come due and so there I was in Lleida, having spent the interlude between then and Leeds reading a thesis as carefully as I could in the time available…

Cover of Elisabet Bonilla Sitja's doctoral thesis

Cover of Elisabet Bonilla Sitja, ‘Percebre i relacionar-se en els comtats d’Osona i Manresa durant la primera meitat del segle X’ (Ph. D. thesis, Lleida, 2017).

Now as you may remember I was by now just about not a stranger to doctoral examination, but only in the UK, where the system is quite different from that in Catalonia. In the UK, there is one examiner from the home institution and one from outside, they independently read the thesis and reach a decision on it pending the viva voce (i. e. oral) examination, meet to compare notes and then examine the candidate in person to be sure that it is in fact their work and to establish whether they can explain or defend the weak or curious bits, and on the basis of that the final recommendation is made. In Catalonia, instead, firstly everything is much more public. This panel was three people, and I have since been on one of five, and while they do make the final decision in private between themselves, before that happens each member makes a speech about the thesis, raising all the questions they want, to a gathering of the department and whomever the candidate has invited, and then the candidate has to give a speech in return, the actual defence, and then they make the decision and announce it. This all takes a while. There is also a secret ballot over whether the thesis passes summa cum laude—unless everyone votes in favour, it doesn’t. It’s a little arcane compared to the British experience, at least if you’re working in your fourth language, and pretty gruelling for the candidate, I’d imagine, especially as at least in Catalonia the candidate is then supposed to buy the panel lunch! Elisabet managed that last obligation by having her family bring in a huge and generous cold collation and set it up in a seminar room, which was fine by me, but before we’d got that far I had had to ask what the heck was going on in any of three languages several times.

New building work around the old(er) cathedral in Lleida

This was the first picture I took in Lleida, which gives you an impression of a city under work… More on this next post, but here is some scene-setting

But I managed, and of course Elisabet passed, since we all agreed that the thesis was excellent.2 And it also gave me the chance to meet my co-markers, Jordi Bolòs i Masclans, the internal for Lleida, and Aymat Catafau of Perpignan, both of whose work I had used a lot of before this time and both of whom were extremely nice and generous.3 It also left me with most of a day spare in Lleida, indeed, and that will generate a photo post that’s coming up next. But mainly it was a development step, in which I learnt a new process, made better contacts in my area of study and got to feel like a professional and expert for a while, and also help someone who deserved it, so I recount it with happiness even now. It all went well and as it should have gone.

1. That thesis being Elisabet Bonilla Sitja, ‘Aproximación al estudio de la vida y mentalidad altomedieval: La Plana de Vic, 872-936’ (M. A. thesis, Universitat de Lleida, 2011).

2. And that thesis being Bonilla, ‘Percebre i relacionar-se en els comtats d’Osona i Manresa durant la primera meitat del segle X’ (doctoral thesis, Universitat de Lleida, 2017), online here.

3. To pick but one piece each, Jordi Bolòs, ‘Paisatge, poblament i societat a Catalunya entorn de l’any 1000’ in Imma Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el Seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la fi del 1r. mil·leni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 254–283, and Aymat Catafau and Claudie Duhamel-Amado, ‘Fidèles et aprisionnaires en réseaux dans la Gothie des IXe et Xe siècles : Le mariage et l’aprision au service de la noblesse méridionale’ in Régine Le Jan (ed.), La royauté et les élites dans l’Europe carolingienne (début IXe siècle aux environs de 920) (Villeneuve de l’Ascq, 1998), pp. 437–465, have both been common cites of mine for quite a while.


It has been more than a month since I last put text to blog, and though I’m sure this isn’t a complete surprise given what the world and its people, and universities specifically, are up against just now, it might … Continue reading

Another showcase of my department (as of 2017)

I’ll try to make up for some lost time here by following fast on the last post for once. The next thing I want to record from the memory banks of 2017, after a huge conference in which my department played a small part, is a small one in which we were all of it. The theme for the 2018 International Medieval Congress (which was a huge conference organised from my department, to coincide with the Congress’s 25th birthday, was ‘memory’, and by way of trying to get the department, or at least its partly contained cluster the Institute for Medieval Studies, geared up for that, on 23 May 2017 we held a workshop on that theme of memory. This was an all-day event featuring twenty speakers, which we managed by limiting everyone to no more than five minutes. This kept everyone to showcasing one important point about how our work intersected with the key theme and no more, and was actually quite an enjoyable challenge, but it also makes a neat little time capsule of who we then were. It would be a bit daft to try to summarise five-minute papers, but it seems worth giving at least a running order and some comments arising. So this was that running order.

    Axel Müller, “Welcome and Introduction”

  1. Catherine Batt, “Mind, Memory and Penitential Psalm in Cambridge MS CUL G.I.1”
  2. Fozia Bora, “The historical digest (mukhtasar) as an aide memoire in the medieval Islamicate”
  3. Hervin Fernández-Aceves, “Del olvido al no me acuerdo: the medieval memory of Mexico”
  4. Discussion

  5. Jonathan Jarrett, “Remembering the Deeds of Guifré the Hairy?”
  6. Alan Murray, “Memorialising Virtue: Exempla in Chronicles of Teutonic Order”
  7. Trevor Smith, “Remembering the Nation’s Past: Middle English Passages in the Long Anglo-Norman Prose Brut Manuscripts”
  8. Daniele Morossi, “How Manuel I’s Good Memory Led to the End of the Venetian-Byzantine Alliance”
  9. Discussion and Coffee

  10. Julia Barrow, “Hereford Cathedral Obit Book”
  11. Melanie Brunner, “Memory and Curial Processes in 14th-Century Avignon”
  12. Joanna Phillips, “Memorialising the Crusades: History with the Nasty Bits Left In”
  13. Thomas Smith, “Constructing German Memories of the First Crusade”
  14. Discussion

  15. Iona McCleery, “Memories of Meals”
  16. Francisco Petrizzo, “The Disappeared: Memory Loss in Family History”
  17. Pietro Delcorno, “The ‘Memorable’ Armour of John of Capistran”
  18. Alaric Hall, “Alternative Facts, History, and the Epistemologies of Wikipedia”
  19. Discussion and Lunch

  20. Emilia Jamroziak, “Response”
  21. Further Discussion

  22. Alec McAllister, “Mnemonic Software”
  23. Sunny Harrison, “Between Memory and Written Record”
  24. Coffee and Cake
    Closing Discussion

So there we have seven permanent members of the School of History, two from the School of English and one from the School of Languages, Culture and Society; one from IT Services with a responsibility for us in History; two temporary members of History staff; and five of the IMS’s postgraduates. And what were we saying? Well, it’s my blog, so let’s start with me me me… I used the different ways that the half-legendary founder count of Barcelona, Guifré the Hairy, has been put to work for various political endeavours over the centuries following his demise, to argue that we had a responsibility to ensure that the control of certain memories cannot become a political monopoly. This involved a pomo syllogism so I’m not sure if I convinced even myself, but there is material there.

C19th statue of Guifré the Hairy outside the Palacio Real, Madrid

C19th statue of Guifré the Hairy outside the Palacio Real, Madrid

Catalan stamp depicting Count Guifré the Hairy

Catalan stamp depicting Count Guifré the Hairy

As for the others, you can see from the titles that we ranged from these islands and the Western Mediterranean to the Baltic, Arabia and México, as well as purely virtual space and, although it’s not obvious from her title, Iona’s case study was from Ghana, so I think our range shows up pretty well. Stand-out points for me that are still worth repeating might be these:

  • There were several examples here of things that were actually Roman being used to plug gaps in both medieval and modern memories, like nineteenth-century depictions of the pre-conquest kings of México, the medieval historical legends of Britain and of course actual ongoing Roman history in the form of the Byzantine Empire of the Komneni. I thought harder than I ever had before about this when putting together my 2015 exhibition Inheriting Rome, and I still think we could do with theorizing this reach for Rome better: my impression remains that we reach for it exactly when there is a gap that has arisen in our own memories, whether through ignorance or inconvenience of the truth, and it’s so natural that people don’t usually notice they’ve done it. But it has an effect…
  • A smaller and more obvious point but again not always remembered: we are at the end of a long chain of choices about what to remember from the period we choose to study, all of which left some stuff out. Here that was obvious from the letter Tom Smith had studied, which recorded a call to Germans to come and assist the newly-established Latin states in the Holy Land in 1100; this was probably forged, but survives largely in places from which Germans went on the Second Crusade in 1144. There’s a question there about which is chicken and which egg, that is, whether the Crusade demanded the creation of propaganda or the letter already existed and provoked that response. Our dating of the manuscripts isn’t tight enough to resolve that problem. But the other thing, which Alan Murray noted, is that the letter was apparently of no interest to keep in areas without much crusade response. Well, OK, obvious you may say, but if we start judging popular response by the survival of such texts, or just leaving out areas where they don’t occur from studies of supposedly global phenomena, problems may arise… And they’re bigger ones than just this source, too.
  • Lastly, apparently with a bit of quick work you can make Azhagi+, a software tool mainly designed for typing Tamil and other Indic languages from an English keyboard—which may already be something you’d want to know about—type pretty much combination of diacritics and letters you like… I had forgotten this till going back over my notes and now need to do some experimenting!

And that was my local academic community of 2017, many of whom are still there, and although I’m not sure exactly how well it set us up for the upcoming IMC, it was fun and collegiate to be part of and as you can see, did provoke thought as well. And the cake was excellent, which cannot always be guaranteed! So a day well spent in 2017, I think, and not the only one either.

Chronicle VIII: April to June 2017

With the last component of the previously-described three month slice of my life academic now blogged, it’s time to set up the next slice, which was April, May and June of 2017. I tried writing this up the way I have done the others and then realised that, because it largely covers a vacation, it could in fact be done shorter, so here is the absolute minimalist version of my academic life in those three months, by way of signalling roughly what was going on and what the next few posts may cover!

  1. Because Leeds splits its second semester either side of Easter, I’ve already told you about the modules I was teaching at this point, and there were only two weeks of them to wrap up after the Easter vacation. Furthermore, by this stage my first-year survey had someone else doing the tutorials and my second-year option had a reading week in one of the two weeks remaining, so it was down to five or six contact hours a week on average, nothing like where it had been. There was a taster lecture for an admissions open day the Saturday after teaching had stopped for everyone else, and I had to be in at 9 o’clock on a subsequent Saturday morning after the vacation to see one of my exams started, but I have to admit that that situation was worse for the students…
  2. In other on-campus activity, I finally stopped doing coin cataloguing in this period. I don’t think I meant to but I just didn’t arrange going back in and then kept not doing that. Instead, my diary suggests, I was mainly in meetings or training: it has at least three times the time blocked out for such things over the period of this post as it does for teaching, though of course the teaching was packed into two weeks and the rest was not. In one of these meetings we determined that my probation would have to be extended, largely because of the disappearance of my book contract and, if only for a while as we now know, one of my articles. That at least solved something; some of the other meetings were less useful, mainly because they did not enable communication with the people that had called them. This seemed so especially when I was representing my department against library budget cuts during this period. This was in a university already embroiled in industrial dispute and building up to full-on strike action, so I guess it was symptomatic that official channels of communication were somewhat blocked. The attempt at least taught me to look for ways around them, and wider circumstances eventually saved most of the library budget, at least for a while. And of course I was working towards my teaching qualification and some of the meetings were to support that and it’s not that I think all meetings are useless. I just remember the useless ones more clearly than I do the ones that had results, apparently…
  3. However, some of the meetings did have good outcomes, because they were to do with projects I was running! In the first place there was the Undergraduate Research Leadership Scheme on which I had a student working on the coin collection, and in the second place were Leeds visits that were part of the Medieval Islands project I had running with Luca Zavagno of Bilkent Universitesi. Both of these I wrote more about at the time (as just linked), so I’ll just refer you there, but they were going on in this period, it was a pleasure having Luca around for a week and that stimulated a lot of further plans, whose fruition will also be told in due season.1
  4. One thing I wasn’t doing was going to seminars, however: other than two internal work-in-progress ones, the only paper I saw given by itself was Rebecca Darley of whom we were only just speaking, who addressed the Medieval Group at Leeds on 24th April under the title ‘Seen from Across the Sea: India in the Byzantine World View’. I would never usually pass up the chance to plug a friend’s work here, but in this instance we have just been talking about it, and it was so close after the Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies where we were doing that that there was inevitable overlap, so I won’t tell it twice.2
  5. However, I did make up for that by going to conferences. In fact, I went to two, one in the USA and one in China! The USA trip, squeezed into the first week of our exam season, was to the 51st International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, as part of a Leeds posse, so that will have to be reported; there are good stories to be told. Meanwhile, the China conference is a story in itself and likewise very much worth the telling. Between the two there was also an internal workshop which I also want to talk about, because I was in it but also because it was another of those showcases of my department that seem worth sharing. And of course, though I’d have told you at the time I was unable to do any, for each of these papers I had to find time to do at least some research, so that was also beginning to happen again. One could see this brief period as the long-awaited spring after a really hard winter, perhaps. I don’t think I felt that at the time, but that’s perspective for you, isn’t it?

But still; even with the various bits of medieval tourist photography I’m going to squeeze between them, that isn’t that many posts promised. Maybe I’m getting the hang of this structure at last; maybe not. We will see! But tune in again next post for some Yorkshire medievalism and we’ll see how it goes from there.

1. Of course, the most immediate result was our issue of al-Masāq (Vol. 31 no. 2, The World of Medieval Islands (July 2019)) but results will also be some day soon be visible in Luca’s resultant book, Beyond the Periphery: The Byzantine Insular World between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (ca. 600-850) (Amsterdam forthcoming).

2. Again, it seems worth mentioning that parts of this research at least are now (openly) available to the world as Rebecca Darley, “The Tale of the Theban Scholastikos, or Journeys in a Disconnected Sea” in Journal of Late Antiquity Vol. 12 (Baltimore ML 2019), pp. 488–518, online here, with more coming.

Globalizing Byzantium from Birmingham

The last thing I promised I’d write about from the quarter-slice of 2017 through which this blog’s backlog is presently proceeding was the 50th Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, from 25th to 27th March of that year. There are plenty of stories that could be told about this conference, starting with the whole story of the Spring Symposium, which has, as that title suggests, been happening for 50 years, rotating away from and back to Birmingham like a short-duration comet; or one could tell the story of its founder, Anthony Bryer, who had died the previous year and so was being extensively commemorated here; or how it had fallen in this year upon Professor Leslie Brubaker and my two erstwhile Barber Institute collaborators, Rebecca Darley and Daniel Reynolds, to organise it (which earns one the title of ‘Symposiarch’); but for me the chief story is probably always going to be how I arrived as a guest and was converted to presenter at twenty minutes’ notice and still more or less got away with it. So if that intrigues you, or if an international conference on Byzantine Studies does indeed, read on, and for the rest of you, since this post is long, I shall simply set out the running order of what I saw, then stick a cut in and expound at greater length beyond it. So! Here we go.

By now-ancient tradition, the organisation of the Spring Symposium wherever it is held is two-level, with keynote lectures and plenary sessions to which the whole gathering can go at one level, and at the other ‘communications’, these being shorter papers which run in parallel strands. On this occasion there was also a third part, in the form of a postgraduate workshop following the main proceedings. All this together means that my academic itinerary through the conference went like this:

    25th March

  • Michael Whitby, “Welcome”
  • Leslie Brubaker, “What is Global Byzantium?”
  • Catherine Holmes, “Global Byzantium: a Whirlwind Romance or Fundamental Paradigm Shift?”
  • Coffee break

  • Rebecca Darley, “India in the Byzantine Worldview”
  • Antony Eastmond, “Constantinople: Local Centre and Global Peripheries”
  • Francesca dell’Acqua, “What about Greek(s) in Eighth- and Ninth-Century Italy?”
  • Lunch

  • Matthew Kinloch, “Historiographies of Reconquest: Constantinople, Iberia and the Danelaw”
  • Maroula Perisanidi, “Clerical Marriage in Comparative Perspective”
  • Kristian Hansen-Schmidt, “Constantine’s Μονοχυλα: Canoe or Viking Ship?”
  • Lauren Wainwright, “Import, Export: the Global Impact of Byzantine Marriage Alliances during the 10th Century”
  • Jeffrey Brubaker, “What is Byzantine about ‘Byzantine Diplomacy’?”
  • Adrián Elías Negro Cortes, “Tributes Linked to Military Actions in Both Ends of the Mediterranean: from Byzantium to Spain”
  • Tea

  • Corisande Fenwick, “Forgotten Africa and the Global Middle Ages”
  • Tim Greenwood, “Composing History at the Margins of Empire: Armenian Chronicles in Comparative Perspective”
  • John Haldon, “A ‘Global’ Empire: the Structures of East Roman Longevity”
  • Robin Milner-Gulland, “Ultimate Russia – Ultimate Byzantium”
  • Champagne Bus and Conference Dinner1

    26th March

  • Liz James, “Byzantine Art – A Global Art? Looking beyond Byzantium”
  • Hugh Kennedy, “The State as an Econmic Actor in Byzantium and the Caliphate c. 650-c. 950: A Cross-Cultural Comparison”
  • Angeliki Lymberopoulou, “‘Maniera Greca’ and Renaissance Europe: More Than Meets the Eye”
  • Henry Maguire, “Magical Signs in Byzantium and Islam: A Global Language”
  • Coffee

  • Julia Galliker, “Silk in the Byzantine World: Transmission and Technology”
  • Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “Attracting Poles: Byzantium, al-Andalus and the Shaping of the Mediterranean in the 10th Century”
  • Lunch and Auction

  • Claudia Rapp, “Secluded Place or Global Magnet? The Monastery of Saint Catherine on the Sinai and its Manuscript Collection”
  • Robert Ousterhout, “The ‘Helladic Paradigm’ in a Global Perspective”
  • Arietta Papaconstantinou, “Spice Odysseys: Exotic ‘Stuff’ and its Imaginary”
  • Tea

  • Hajnalka Herold, “How Byzantine was 9th-Century Moravia? An Archaeological Perspective”
  • Nik Matheou, “New Rome & Caucasia, c. 900-1100: Empire, Elitedom and Identity in a Global Perspective”
  • Alexandra Vukovich, “A Facet of Byzantium’s Ideological Reach: the Case of Byzantine Imitation Coins”
  • Andrew Small, “‘From the Halls of Tadmakka to the Shores of Sicily’: Byzantine Italy and Sub-Saharan Africa in the 11th century”, read by Nik Matheou
  • Flavia Vanni, “Transferring Skills and Techniques across the Mediterranean: Some Preliminary Remarks on Stucco in Italy and Byzantium”
  • Wine Reception

    27th March

  • Peter Sarris, “Centre or Periphery? Constantinople and the Eurasian Trading System at the End of Antiquity”
  • Linda Safran, “Teaching Byzantine Art in China: Some Thoughts on Global Reception”
  • Daniel Reynolds, “Jerusalem and the Fabrication of a Global City”
  • Coffee, then a closing round table session as follows:

  • Fotini Kondyli, “Material Culture”
  • Margaret Mullett, “Global Literature”
  • Joanna Story, “The View from… the West”
  • Scott Redford, “Byzantium and the Islamic World: Global Perspectives?”
  • Naomi Standen, “East Asia”
  • Chris Wickham, “Final Remarks”

That’s exhausting even to have typed out, and I certainly can’t come up with something to say about every paper at three years’ remove without basically repeating my already-somewhat illegible notes, so instead I’ll try to pull some general trends out of that list and then focus particularly on the theme and people’s approaches to it. What with me not really being a Byzantinist, that may mean a slightly odd selection, but you’re used to that, I know. Everybody involved deserves a better press than this will give them, but there just isn’t sensible space.2 In any case, now you can see what the rest of the post may look like, this is a good place for the cut and then the deeply interested can continue at their leisure. Continue reading

Seminar CCXLVII: remains of unrestrained lordship

We now come to the other paper from the first quarter of 2017 I said I still wanted to talk about, which was one of the open lectures which the Institute for Medieval Studies at Leeds runs. These can cover quite a range of topics, and in this instance it was high medieval English archaeology. It’s been a while since Leeds had any medieval archaeologists but we like to stay in touch, and accordingly on 7th March Professor Oliver Creighton of the University of Exeter came to talk to us and the willing public with the title, “The Archaeology of Anarchy? Landscapes of War and Status in Twelfth-Century England”.

Marginal illustration of King Stephen directing one of his commanders, drawn c. 1230, British Library, MS Arundel 48, fo. 168v

Marginal illustration of King Stephen directing one of his commanders at the Battle of Lincoln, 1141, drawn c. 1230, British Library, MS Arundel 48, fo. 168v, from the British Library’s website under their normal terms of use but also available through Wikimedia Commons

The ‘Anarchy’ in question is what historians have for a long time tended to call the wider civil situation engendered by the struggle for the English throne between the Empress Matilda, widow of Emperor Henry V of Germany hence her title, by this time husband of Count Geoffrey of Anjou and most relevantly heir designate of King Henry I of England, and King Stephen, who despite having sworn support for Matilda to the dying Henry still swept in and grabbed the English throne for himself in 1135 when Henry died. During the ensuing struggle, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “Christ and His saints slept,” and every lord who could got away with whatever injustices and self-aggrandisements he could.1 Taking its rhetoric more or less literally, scholars of the older generation observed that a wash of castles got built without the theoretically-required royal permission, that some lords even started minting their own coin and in general everything went badly until it became possible to arrange terms between Stephen, whose eldest son died at a critical point, and Matilda’s son the future Henry II, so that England could finally concede without enduring a woman on the throne.2 The scholarship has moved on since then, recognising that obviously quite a lot of people were willing to see a woman on the throne rather than Stephen, that for others the problem might have been more with this particular woman than gender as such, given that Stephen’s queen (also Matilda, just to help) gets a much more positive write-up in the same sources, and that the castles and mints were probably in many cases begun with one or other royal permission, because the lords were able to play the contendors off against each other in this situation.3 What hasn’t really been done is to see what this looked like on the ground on any scale, and that is what, with the help of the Leverhulme Trust, Professor Creighton had been doing. He had picked 12 sites in or around the key zones of contention, Wessex and the Thames Valley, and gone over them with resistivity sensors and a fine-toothed field survey, and thus had some sense of what kind of remains the supposed anarchy had left behind, which I didn’t at the time realise had already produced a book whose summary we must have been hearing.4

Pickering Castle depicted with the twelfth-century counter-castle visible, from Wikimedia Commons

Pickering Castle as it still stands, with the Anarchy counter-castle visible as a mound at the top left of the picture; photo by Pauline E, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

The findings broke down roughly into two headings, I suppose, one of which was definitely war. Several of the castles involved in Professor Creighton’s study area had been built as part of military campaigns (including one incomplete siege castle and the town of Wallingford where the siege castle itself wound up being besieged), and the resistivity surveys had often shown up subsidiary earthworks and fortifications that had probably formed part of trying to reduce or outflank these places.5 Given the work that Henry II later had to do to raze castles of which he didn’t approve and the fact that at least one of these ‘temporary’ fortresses, the Rings at Corfe, was besieged again in the English Civil War (as opposed to the civil war in England that we’re now discussing…), I do wonder if we can always be sure that these extra works were early-twelfth-century in date.6 The other thing that comes up a lot round them is arrowheads, apparently, however, where the dating is a bit more certain, and I certainly have no interest in suggesting there wasn’t fighting at these locations.

The Rings earthwork at Corfe Castle

The Rings at Corfe Castle, supposedly a siege earthwork set up by King Stephen and then used again in 1646, photo from Castles and Fortifications of England and Wales

There was, apparently, a great variety of castles in this era. It wasn’t as simple as every lord flinging up a motte and bailey and daring all comers to challenge his right to exploit the local peasantry. While I expect a lot of that was happening, what is more obvious is bigger ventures like whole fortified villages (Boteler’s Castle), whole towns (Cricklade or Wallingford) or whole fortified islands even, or just very large castles, and even reactivated hillfort settlements whose roots are probably very old indeed. Some churches and monasteries were fortified too, and all of these places tended to reorganise their local landscape in ways that must have outlasted the military purposes they were possibly only meant to fulfil briefly.

Motte of the erstwhile Beaudesert Castle in Henley-in-Arden

Motte of the erstwhile Beaudesert Castle in Henley-in-Arden, on what was probably also an Iron Age fortified site, photo from Castles and Fortifications of England and Wales

The other thread that is visible in the material culture, therefore, is in fact the lordly self-aggrandisement that the old scholarship was so keen on condemning. We already had the coins from which the quasi-independent minting is known, of course, but we also see a sharp increase in the preservation of seal matrices, of heraldic decorations (including harness pendants and strap-ends with devices on), fancy architecture and new Church and monastic foundations, all the works, it seems, of lords whose position now either allowed or required them to make more effort in saying something about themselves and their status, which of course makes one wonder who the audience was for all this material and architectural display.7

Five silver pennies of the Anarchy in England, on display at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow

Five silver pennies of the Anarchy in England, on display at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, image used as masthead for the exhibition’s extremely informative website, linked through

One could choose to see it all as a vulgar display of power meant to cow the local peasantry and gentry into falling into line behind these newly assertive lordships, one could see it as competition between the lords, perhaps for the loyalty of exactly those same gentry and peasantry, one could see it as an attempt to gain sufficient ground by half-forced concessions from more-or-less-royal authority that when things eventually settled down the lords would be established as much grander than circumstances had previously allowed, or one could just see it as defiance of the crown and a genuine attempt at independent lordship, and this just being what that looked like. Obviously, the archaeology does not itself tell us which if any of these things it represents, and Professor Creighton didn’t try, but just like the similar kinds of activities that people studying the south of France and Catalonia a century or so before have spotted, it is tempting for historians to try and make patterns out of it anyway.8

It has to be said that the lecture didn’t do much, or even try, to shake me out of the impression that if you were not in charge of one of these castles, it must have been a bad time to be trying to make a living in England; the scale at which people, settlements and stuff seem to have been being moved around, presumably without much choice in the matter, and the lack of recourse they can have had about it, all helped me understand in more depth where the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle‘s picture was coming from. In that respect, although Professor Creighton had not done what one commentator, local postgraduate Victoria Yuskaitis, wondered about, mapping textual and archaeological data together, he was already making them work together in a new way, yet one that seemed to reinforce the older scholarship as much or more than the newer stuff. That may be something for people in the field to consider…

1. Michael Swanton (transl.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1996), s. a. 1137, at the end of a full page-and-a-half complaining of seigneurial abuse, extortion and torture.

2. For an old-fashioned view like that you’d have to go to R. H. C. Davis, King Stephen, 1135-1154, 3rd edn. (London 1990) or the less durable H. A. Cronne, The Reign of Stephen, 1135-1154: Anarchy in England (London 1970), though even then cf. John le Patourel, “What Did Not Happen in Stephen’s Reign” in History Vol. 58 (London 1973), pp. 1-18, on JSTOR here, or Edward J. Kealey, “King Stephen: Government and Anarchy” in Albion Vol. 6 (Boone NC 1974), pp. 201–217, on JSTOR here.

3. Now you could get your updates in any or all of Marjorie Chibnall, The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother, and Lady of the English (Oxford 1992); Edmund King (ed.), The Anarchy of King Stephen’s Reign (Oxford 1994); Jim Bradbury, Stephen and Matilda: the Civil War of 1139-53 (Stroud 1998); David Crouch, The Reign of King Stephen, 1135-1154 (Harlow 2000); Donald Matthew, King Stephen (London 2002); Edmund King, King Stephen (New Haven CT 2012) or Paul Dalton and Graeme J. White (edd.), King Stephen’s Reign (1135-1154) (Cambridge 2012); it’s not what you’d call an under-researched area. On Matilda and gender-expectations specifically, though, add Jean A. Truax, “Winning over the Londoners: King Stephen, the Empress Matilda and the Politics of Personality” in Haskins Society Journal Vol. 13 (Woodbridge 1996), pp. 42–62; Heather J. Tanner, “Queenship: Office, Custom, or Ad Hoc?: the Case of Queen Matilda III of England (1135-1152)” in Bonnie Wheeler and John Carmi Parsons (edd.), Eleanor of Aquitaine: Lord and Lady (New York City NY 2003), pp. 133–158; and Patricia A. Dark, “‘A woman of Sublety and a Man’s Resolution’: Matilda of Boulogne in the Power Struggles of the Anarchy” in Brenda M. Bolton and Christine E. Meek (edd.), Aspects of Power and Authority in the Middle Ages, International Medieval Research 14 (Turnhout 2007), pp. 147–164.

4. Oliver H. Creighton and Duncan W. Wright, with Michael Fradley and Stephen Trick, The Anarchy: War and Status in 12th-Century Landscapes of Conflict (Liverpool 2016), to which we can now add Duncan W. Wright and O. H. Creighton (edd.), Castles, siegeworks and settlements: surveying the archaeology of the twelfth century (Oxford 2016), which seems to be the fieldwork reports from this project.

5. On the incomplete siege-work at Burwell, see as well as the coverage in Wright and Creighton, Castles, siegeworks and settlements, Duncan W. Wright, Oliver Creighton, Steven Trick and Michael Fradley, “Power, conflict and ritual on the fen-edge: the Anarchy-period castle at Burwell, Cambridgeshire, and its pre-Conquest landscape” in Landscape History Vol. 37 (Abingdon 2016), pp. 25–50.

6. I had special reservations about the use of beakheads in architecture, such as we have seen here from Iffley Church in Oxford, as hard dating indicators for building in the 1120s-1160s, on the basis that they weren’t used outside that time. That sounds like a self-fulfilling diagnostic to me, and even Iffley threatens to stretch it.

7. The ways seals fit into this also seems to me a possible area of question, mainly because their use was spreading all over Europe at this time, which probably wasn’t a result of the conditions in England; see Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, When Ego was Imago: signs of identity in the Middle Ages, Visualising the Middle Ages 3 (Leiden 2011). On the coins, meanwhile, see M. A. S. Blackburn, “Coinage and Currency” in King, Anarchy, pp. 101–124, updated by Martin Allen, “The York Local Coinage of the Reign of Stephen (1135–54)” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 176 (London 2016), pp. 283–318 and Allen, “Pembroke: a New Mint of the Empress Matilda in the Reign of Stephen?”, ibid. Vol. 179 (London 2019), pp. 295–297.

8. As the previous note suggests, there were ways in which looking outside the British Isles might have added to this study. I’m thinking here straight away of Pierre Bonnassie, “Descriptions of Fortresses in the Book of Miracles of Sainte-Foy of Conques”, transl. Jean Birrell, in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe (Cambridge 1991), pp. 132–148, but as well as Bedos-Rezak, When Ego was Imago, one could suggest Thomas N. Bisson, The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government (Princeton NJ 2015) or even Karl Leyser, “The Crisis of Medieval Germany” in Leyser, Communications and Power in Medieval Europe: the Gregorian revolution and beyond, ed. Timothy Reuter (London 1994), pp. 21–49, for a sense that some of these developments were being experienced more widely.

Rites de passage: judging a doctorate for the first time

As said last post, as 2017, when the world was quite different, rolled around, I began the year by examining my first doctorate. Pretty much as soon as the public transport started working again, in fact, I was on my way to Cambridge. Now, in fact, the thesis was fine; I’ve not yet been placed in the position of examining a thesis that wasn’t more or less OK, thankfully, and if and when I am I doubt I’ll write about it here.1 When I say it was fine, I mean our biggest objection as examiners was that there was more in it about elephants than was strictly speaking required by the topic, but I want to reflect on the actual process a bit, just because it is a set of rituals not shared everywhere and merits reflection.

Sam Ottewill-Soulsby speaking to the Medieval History Seminar, University of Cambridge

Sam Ottewill-Soulsby, discoursing on ‘”Useless Peace”: Carolingian-Umayyad Diplomacy, 810-820’, for the University of Cambridge in 2014; click through to find it as a podcast…

In the first place, my involvement in this was very much being stepped back into old networks. The person being examined was Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, seen above, whom I had met at seminars at the Institute of Historical Research and who had also helped put on a conference three years before at which I presented. I was co-examining with someone I’d known for much longer, Dr Marios Costambeys, of the University of Liverpool but who, because of holding his doctorate from Cambridge, allowed to function as internal examiner there. Meanwhile I was the external, who has the easier job (as I now know): all the external has to do is read the thesis, write a report, sit in a room with the candidate for a couple of hours talking about their thesis, decide the judgement with the internal examiner, inform the candidate and then write up actions for the candidate if necessary, and then hand the rest over to the internal examiner for dealing with, take one’s honorarium and go home. Given the timing, I was reading Sam’s thesis over the Christmas holiday and New Year, but I have had worse tasks to take away to relatives to pore over while everyone else is celebrating the change of the calendar, and this task got much easier once it became clear that the thesis was going to be perfectly possible to pass.

Hall Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, from Wikimedia Commons

Hall Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, photograph by Ardfernown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, naturally enough we had arguments and quibbles here and there. Sam’s topic was ‘Carolingian Diplomacy with the Islamic World’, which necessitated at least some examination of early medieval elephants in order to understand what would, at the time, have been understood by it when Caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd, of Arabian Nights fame, sent Charlemagne a lone bull elephant whose name was Abul ‘Abbas, this being a historical thing that actually happened between the real historical persons of those names in the late ninth century.2 It just, maybe, didn’t need quite as much about elephants as Sam had put in. We advised him to cut that back and pour out his elephantine concerns in a separate article.3 I was interested in deconstructing a distinction Sam was making between diplomacy of necessity (intended to produce an outcome between the two parties) and diplomacy of prestige (intended to impress and make you look splendid but not necessarily to change anything), on the grounds that some embassies could do both; as Sam pointed out, the other option is deliberate disengagement, which can also be pursued for different reasons. Marios was interested in what Sam thought he was adding to our overall picture of the Carolingian world, to which Sam’s answer was that Charlemagne and his court were much more capable of handling contradictions in their attitudes and philosophy than our own tradition of analysis by logic and categories makes easy for us to understand; that seemed to me and still seems to me a big point, which if we could grasp properly would help us understand these worlds better. In general, to whatever we asked, Sam had good answers, which is roughly what is supposed to happen in this exercise, and we were able to pass his thesis with only a few recommended corrections, which he completed in pretty short order and thereafter, once the University bureaucracy had processed Marios’s acknowledgement of that fact, he was and is entitled to call himself Dr Ottewill-Soulsby, and richly and rightly deserved too.

The School of History, University College London

The School of History, University College London

Still, it is strange to reflect upon. In 2006, in a room in University College London, I went through this same process as examinee, with quite a similar outcome (and I then got on a train to Brighton to see Clutch play with Stinking Lizaveta in support, got more than a little drunk and finally collapsed happily in what I then thought was the best company in the world, and it was really a very good day in my life).4 Then I went back to working in a museum for nearly five years, at last got an academic job, briefly went back into museums and then got my job at Leeds, and that last, along with having got through the process myself, now qualified me to judge whether someone else should be allowed to set out on this somewhat shaky bridge into academia, if they want to. My having some knowledge of Sam’s field was obviously also important, but it’s not the only qualification required. Consider also that, if they’ve done it right, the person being examined knows a lot more about the topic than the persons examining do; part of the job of the viva is almost to make sure of that. At the same time, it is ‘only’ an examination of a piece of written work done for a degree qualification, not a golden key to academic employment or anything. The fact that this process is the only summative assessment of a multi-year project means that the sunk costs and aspirations in it are huge but don’t change what it actually is. But nonetheless, it can mean somebody’s world. I’m very glad that the first one I was asked to do was possible to pass so uncontentiously. Thanks, Sam; you were not the only one performing a rite de passage in that room, and you made it a lot easier for both of us than it might have been…

1. I’m now up to four, because that’s what this blog’s backlog looks like. Each will be told a little of in its due season, though, because all their respective victors deserve their time on the podium.

2. On which, apart of course from Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, “Carolingian Diplomacy with the Islamic World” (Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge University, 2017), pp. 83-92, you could profitably see Leslie Brubaker, “The Elephant and the Ark: Cultural and Material Interchange across the Mediterranean in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries” in Dumbarton Oaks Papers Vol. 58 (Washington DC 2004), pp. 175–195, or more broadly Paul Edward Dutton, Charlemagne’s Mustache and Other Cultural Clusters of a Dark Age (New York City 2004), pp. 43-68.

3. It must be said that no elephantine article has yet come forth, but what has is Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, “The Camels of Charles the Bald” in Medieval Encounters Vol. 25 (Leiden 2019), pp. 263–292, if that’s any use to you instead…

4. The matter of that day then being Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia” (Ph.D. thesis, University of London, 2005), online here, as well of course as Clutch, Robot Hive / Exodus (DRT Entertainment 2005) and Stinking Lizaveta, Caught Between Worlds (At A Loss 2004), among others of their works.