Category Archives: Institutions

Stock Take VII: research I can’t do

The industrial relations situation between university employers and employees in the UK is getting increasingly surreal. On Friday, with more strikes called for next week, they were paused because progress in the negotiations had got to a point where some goodwill gesture was required. But because ACAS is involved, these negotiations are confidential. Now part of the University and Colleges Union regards this as capitulation with nothing concrete gained and is protesting against the Union leadership. Presumably at this point I am teaching on Tuesday, but it’s not clear. Meanwhile, I wrote most of this on Thursday, while quite angry, and then thought I’d better defang it after I’d slept, and the result is what you have below.

Between 2007 and 2009, when this blog was very young and had not succeeded in its then-primary purpose of helping me land an academic job, I did occasional reflexive posts on my academic progress and projects, I guess in order to help me understand where I should be focusing my efforts. I think I would now tell that version of myself that I needed to focus on my actual applications and being positive about everything, but some sort of sense that I’m due another evaluation has been settling on me over the last little while, I suppose since the pandemic, when my employers first told us to stop research and focus on what really mattered, i. e. teaching. They never did rescind that instruction, I should say, but it has come up again during the current industrial dispute. Since this runs along with the threat of 100% pay deduction until the teaching has happened as well, despite the progress towards a settlement at national level, it’s clear where we have got to, and that’s here:

Not, I should say, that it seems as if many people in charge have seen that film. So I wondered, in the light of all this, how my research goals have fared and are faring since I started this job, since as you know it hasn’t all worked out. At first, I thought that the best way to do this would be first to see what had happened with the stuff in the last Stock Take post. Now, as it happens, firstly, that post was private, so you can’t see it; and secondly, most of the stuff in there on which I was seriously working came out in 2011-2013, and then a few more fell out in 2019-2021 because I used them to bargain passing my probation. But it didn’t seem worth going through that when they were all reported here. I also looked at my research goals file, which I hadn’t opened since 2019. The sad thing there is that, while I could now add new plans to it, and change some priorities maybe, nothing can be deleted; nothing in there has moved at all since then. And then I looked at what else has come out since 2011 which was not part of any of these plans, and found it to be two book chapters in Catalan, a book review, two numismatic conference papers (one in Chinese) and a numismatic article that I haven’t even mentioned here (must fix that!), all round roughly the same topic, and a collaborative historiographical article, plus one more book chapter currently in press. And I thought, I don’t need to list all these for you again and what would the interest be anyway?

So instead, I thought I would just take the projects which are in some sense on public record, because they have appeared in my sidebar here as things I am actually working on, and just say when they started, what state they’re in and what if any hope of publication they have, because this time, I’m not taking stock of what I ought to be working on; I’m taking stock of what I can’t. This is the stuff there’s no hope of me giving the world until the silly situation the UK academy has got itself into is at least partially resolved. It’s not going to make any minister cry, but it upsets me somewhat. So this is a vent; please forgive, and something more palatable will follow.

In setting this up, of course, even I have to admit that my plans are never completely realistic, and there is stuff in this list I probably haven’t even tried to work on since first mentioning it or presenting it. So I’ve divided this into two categories, and they express how I accept or don’t that unrealism…

Not My Fault (I Would If I Could)

  • Agent of Change: Count Borrell II of Barcelona (945-993) and his Times: well, you’ve heard this story, and this is still my official first priority; but there isn’t any more of it actually written than there was in 2017, there are a lot of documents still to process, as well as the reading which might get it past the reviewers…;
  • “Aizó of Ausona: the identity of the rebel of Roda de Ter, 826”, first written as a blog post in 2009, already, but first properly researched and written up 2014, sent out 2015 and flat-rejected, my first time ever; I still think it’s basically sound, though, so it has had some peer feedback and minor revisions since then but not the final edit to make it ready for somewhere else; it basically exists, and was last revised January 2021, but now needs my new knowledge about the supposed Jewish garrison of Osona built in too;
  • “Critical diplomatic: a tool for analysing medieval societies”, ultimately derived from the first chapter of my thesis of 2005, presented 2009 and sent out in that form, came back wanting major revisions which I then wasn’t equipped to do but now might be, the how-to-use charters several people have asked me to point them to but which doesn’t exist in English;
  • De Administrandis Marcis: The 10th-Century Frontier with Islam seen from Barcelona and Byzantium”, given as a conference paper in 2015, bound for the first Rethinking the Medieval Frontier volume if that ever occurs but ready to go in and of itself, after some minor updates probably;
  • “Documents that Shouldn’t Survive: Preservation from before the Archive in Catalonia and Elsewhere”, first presented as a Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic paper way back when, in 2007 I think, but not used for the resulting volume on the basis that I was only allowed one chapter (which was, I admit, the longest); revised 2011, since then I have been reading for it now and then, mostly of course the volume of which it might also have been part, and did a skeleton redraft in late 2021, but would have to read a bit more to make it go now; probably my second most practical to resuscitate;
  • “Heartland and Frontier from the Perspective of the Banu Qasi, 825-929”, my second Rethinking the Medieval Frontier paper, presented 2016, basically complete, may actually now have a home to go to and of course I can’t do anything to send it there;
  • “Keeping it in the Family? Consanguineous Marriage and the Counts of Barcelona, Reviewed”, arisen out of work on Agent of Change above, more or less a critical review of the early medieval part of Martin Aurell, Les noces du comte : mariage et pouvoir en Catalogne (785-1213), Série histoire ancienne et médiévale 32 (Paris 1995); needs more reading to make it clearer why it needs doing for anyone other than me, and hasn’t been brought together as a piece rather than as bits of a chapter about something else, but I’d still like to;
  • Miles or militia: war-service and castle-guard in tenth-century Catalonia”, first presented 2014; sent out as a probation requirement in 2017, and accepted but subject to revisions it’s never been possible to carry out the research for; this one is very much "not my fault";
  • “Our Men on the March: middle-men and the negotiation of central power in three early medieval contexts”, 2017 Rethinking the Medieval Frontier paper, bound for the second of those volumes if that ever happens, which is at least some distance off for now;
  • “Pictlands: rethinking the composition of the Pictish polity”: based in some sense on this blog-post, exists only as outline notes, and not something I’ve worked on properly for decades, but so much exciting new stuff has been happening in the field lately that I have been reading some of it, in my spare time (really), which makes it the only one of these obviously likely to emerge just now…;1
  • “The ‘Heathrow Hoard’: an emblematic case of antiquities trafficking”, as described here, something I would like to do more with but which derives ultimately from work by someone else whose cooperation I would ideally have and can’t get; exists as their work plus a catalogue by me that really needs checking against the collection, currently impossible.

My Fault (I Haven’t Even Tried)

  • All that Glitters: the Byzantine solidus 307-1092: much blogged here, but not much advanced since then; it would ideally be both an article and a book/catalogue, but it means either coordinating six people or doing it rogue and so far I haven’t mustered strength or permission to do either;
  • “Arabic-named communities in ninth- and tenth-century Asturias and León, at court and at home”, whose story was told here long ago and which hasn’t changed;
  • “Brokedown palaces or Torres dels Moros? Finding the fisc in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, a paper given in summer 2013 and not touched since then;
  • Churchmen and the Church in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010, a sort of holding title for a possible book based on the various papers I gave in 2013 about Montpeità and its priests, filled out with my other thoughts about monastery foundation and church structures in this area as a kind of partner to my first book; I haven’t done anything with this since May 2015;
  • “Identity of Authority in pre-Catalonia around the end of the Carolingian succession”: to be honest, this is a more of a project folder than an actual work, though I would like to do something under this title at some point, perhaps as a book conclusion;
  • “Legends in their own Lifetime? The late Carolingians and Catalonia”, presentation version of “The Continuation of Carolingian Expansion” as mentioned last post, presented 2008, sent out 2010 and has sat ever since that experience bar some updates in 2014; hard to blame anyone else for this;
  • “Neo-Goths, Mozarabs and Kings: chronicles versus charters in tenth-century León”, basically the same as “Arabic-named communities” above;
  • “The Carolingian Succession to the Visigothic Fisc on the Spanish March”, although presented in 2010 also more of a project than a paper and not one I’ve been pursuing.

And so at the end of that, what do we conclude? Well, to me it looks as if, though some things I’d like to do have just been stopped for a long time, I was still generating new work till 2017 or so, still able to generate conference papers on new topics until about 2018, and in numismatics until 2019 somehow, and then everything bogged down and hasn’t got better. I’ve managed to finish a few things already in process, and I can carry on doing that if pressed, but I’m not making more.

It also, of course, looks as ever as if I think I am working on far too many things at once and feel as if I am working on none. But it is frustrating, to have this many things one would like to say, and to find one’s mouth stopped by other duties too far to say them as anything other than Internet asides. I don’t see how even the current crisis can solve this problem of the university sector; but I do wonder how anyone else is still managing.

1. The most obvious things that have changed the picture here is the work of the Northern Picts Project, whose work is mostly collected in Gordon Noble & Nicholas Evans (edd.), The King in the North: The Pictish Realms of Fortriu and Ce. Collected Essays Written as Part of the University of Aberdeen’s Northern Picts Project (Edinburgh 2019), but there’s also Alice E. Blackwell (ed.), Scotland in Early Medieval Europe (Leiden 2019) and quite a few monographs, none of which as far as I can tell from abstracts and descriptions say what I want to say, but I will have to, you know, check.

Seminar CLXXII: regions, Russia and Robertians

One of the more interesting things I saw in the tail end of 2019 (because yes, sorry, backlog still that far back) was an attempt by three colleagues of mine (two since sadly moved on) to start a new sort of seminar, at least, new for us in History at Leeds. The colleages in question were Dr Jamie Doherty, Dr Fraser McNair and Professor James Harris, and what they wanted to do was build a dialogic seminar on political cultures. They managed one go, on 21st October 2019, and then it stopped, not because it was a bad idea but because, I believe, they had decided to have a second go towards Easter 2020, and you may recollect how the world’s plans for 2020 worked out. By the time it was possible to regroup, not everyone was still in place, and so this one go was all we got, which was a pity, as I’ll try and show.1

The way it worked was pretty simple: two colleagues with expertise in quite different periods lined up with 15-minutes papers about the same theme, as they saw it from their perspective, and then everyone else got to join in too in chaired discussion. The chosen theme was ‘Regionalism’, and in the arbitrarily blue corner, perhaps from his native county, but of course flying colours for the tenth century as seen from mostly the European West, was Fraser, while in the corner that is red with the people’s blood, and tooled up with more knowledge on how Stalin’s USSR worked than some would ever want, there was James.2 In this analogy, Jamie was referee, though the analogy makes this sound much more oppositional than it really was. What it really was was fun, and a way of doing a seminar that really did get a bigger conversation going; my notes record contributions from eight people other than the speakers and about twice as much discussion as papers. I wish all seminars came out like that! So this is how it went, sort of blow-by-blow.

    McNAIR: first let’s try and define a region. Obviously there’s several possible scales, in the Carolingian world (with modern English analogies) pagus (e. g. the Black Country) and county (e. g. Worcestershire), and in the eleventh century lots of the latter become units of a higher level; but because of that confusion, is it maybe better instead to say that a region is a unit that is not the centre to which it relates?
    HARRIS: when I looked at the first Soviet Five-Year Plan, I found the numerous regions the USSR recognised through giving them representation competing for central investment, and not working together to demand a collective voice; the quicker response to the simplest instructions brought the most investment, so the regions effectively encouraged the centre’s resort to dictatorship by promising to do what they were told better than their competitors!

Then the conversation started. The chunks in my notes break up like this:

  1. Communications (Fraser, James, someone I didn’t know then and someone surnamed Morris I now can’t identify): if there were no communications obviously power couldn’t operate but how far are they two-way? Can regions talk back? In Carolingian Europe they came to assemblies to speak and be heard; but over time it was people at the centre who were sent out to the regions and eventually they stopped coming back. In the USSR communications back to the centre were so voluminous that they had to be filtered, but they were also deficient, working through preferred routes only and saying what the centre wanted to hear; that definitely didn’t mean the regions were uncontrolled though!
  2. Jamie asked if political ritual was used as a mask, or protection, for communication in Stalin’s USSR and James confirmed that it absolutely was: the ritual of choice was self-recrimination as a way of getting the right to speak, and approaches to the ‘court’ were made through formulae too. This was James showing that he listened to his medievalist colleagues in the pub, I thought, and I was very pleased by this speaking of our language. Fraser added that regional rituals also existed and that is also worth thinking with, and James stressed that informal communications were obviously hugely important but are mostly unattested, something which struck chords for several of the medievalists present, including me.
  3. Fraser then started looking for levels of unit we might all share; the Spanish Empire’s myriad island dependencies as described by Iona McCleery for us didn’t look good for this, but it seemed for a moment as if bishoprics might be something that was at least recognisable over most of our areas, even if in the USSR they obviously weren’t very important. Fraser pointed out that their arguments for their power rested on a central structure more than a regional one, but this proved to be a division: Fraser’s bishops addressed their faithful using their central significance, but James’s regional representatives used the region as base to talk to the centre, the only Soviet audience worth having. For a long time, following Matthew Innes of course, I’ve understood the Carolingian Empire as working at peak with both of these dynamics at once; but of course that doesn’t mean every part of a political system has to have them both in balance, and I could probably do with thinking more with this as well.
  4. So we then came round to scale, as we so often should; this started with Fraser asking if regions could exist without a centre, as he thought eleventh-century France was such a thing, defined instead by its edges; this, for me, was also the position of Catalonia after the Carolingians, sharing only a language and not being anyone else’s, but itself being only regions with no shared centre, not even Barcelona, and that raised the question of how small a region can be. To that James noted that some representatives on the Soviet Central Committee had a political weight well above their demographic one because of representing large empty areas, so that there the problem was more how big one could be! This, I think, is a Europe versus Eurasia issue, but still quite important.3
  5. The last conversation was one for the modernists, however, being about how industrialisation and the people flows towards cities which it created, and then globalisation and the deindustrialisation it has caused, altered these dynamics by dispersing identities. Sean Fear thought that we have examples of regional identities being rested on globalising flows – I don’t know what he meant now, but I think of the Fair Trade movement as a possible example – while someone else spoke of diasporas as non-geographical regional identities, and was met with the argument that physical proximity still enables cooperation better. Sean’s point may have been cities arising as identities more important than the regional backgrounds of their constitutent members, as he ended with that, and here there would certainly be things medievalists could have added about performing group membership in ways outsiders can learn; but we were out of time…

As you can tell, in retrospect it’s hard to draw much of a continuous thread out of this, and it would have been nice to have the future instalments of the series to see if threads kept emerging and suggested areas of work. What this did show, however, and even in this messy write-up I hope still shows, was that we could actually all talk about the same things wherever and whenever our study areas sat on maps and timelines, without even having to look for similarities enough to make our examples, you know, correlative. We were dancing round being able to have conversations here about historical phenomena in a usefully comparative fashion, and it’s rather a shame we didn’t get to do more of it. It showed the potential for collegial discussion that I described long ago existing even outside of a so-called college, if we’d only had the chance to build on it.

1. Retrospectively, now, it’s hard not to see the pandemic as the point where we in universities all ramped up to being 100% service-delivery personnel, and I don’t personally feel we’ve ever been allowed to step back down to where we were before. Consequently, I can’t now imagine a thing like this happening that wasn’t led by postgraduates or postdoctoral scholars, and indeed even this was one-third the work of one of the latter.

2. James is probably most famous either for his most recent book, James Harris, The Great Fear: Stalin’s Terror of the 1930s (Oxford 2016), or an earlier one he co-wrote, James Harris and Sarah Davies, Stalin’s World: Dictating the Soviet Order (New Haven CT 2014), but the one that was most relevant here was probably his first, James Harris, The Great Urals: Regionalism and the Evolution of the Soviet System (Ithaca NY 1999).

3. Iona McCleery had, indeed, already pointed out the weirdness of calling somewhere like West Africa a ‘region’ simply because your centre of relevance for your own perspective is elsewhere, even though it’s bigger than most countries, when a ‘regional’ saint’s cult might have a reach only of a few towns; as ever, scale is tricky but has to be reckoned with.


Look over there! A free article!

Ladies and gentlemen, I have been a bit absent of recent days, nay, weeks, and I’m sorry. Even this is just a placeholder, to say that despite Action Short of Strike somehow I don’t seem to have more time but rather the reverse, that this semester was in theory lightly loaded but has still nearly done me in, and that the week before last I had the partial excuse of actually having been out picketing – I’m in that trail above somewhere, but I still don’t have my pension back somehow – and then this week we’ve had no home internet for a lot of the time, which now seems to be fixed – just in time for the work internet to break down, in fact! But I still haven’t actually written you a proper blog post (and I warn you, when I do, it will be gloomy, sorry; events have again taken over my program).

Offprint of Jonathan Jarrett, "Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated" in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28

But, one small slice of good news first! You may remember I wrote an article a little while back about how all the scholarship that says early medieval crop yields were dismal is unfounded, that the maths on which that assessment rests was always meaninglessly bad but we can do better, and that all this means that founding a medieval progress narrative on technical progress in agriculture just doesn’t work and we need a better reason for any progress narratives we still want for the period? But perhaps you didn’t then immediately snap it up because it was only available behind a paywall? Well, it has emerged, and you can now download it for free by the good graces of the British Agricultural History Society, here:

Click to access 67_1_Jarrett.pdf

So, you know, by all means do that! It is probably still the most important thing I’ve written…

You don’t need the citation, probably, but just in case, it is: Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1–28.

The conference before the storm: Leeds International Medieval Congress, 2019

Looking back on the last pre-Covid International Medieval Congress seems like a different world by now, even though we’ve but recently had the 2022 one, where, ironically or not, I caught my first dose of Covid. I guess that, because of that and because of the big push towards online hybrid participation that the pandemic gave us, it’s clear already that we’re never going back to quite the same experience of a campus full of medievalists meeting and interacting, but will now live with the sense, firstly, that that may be dangerous as well as desirable and that some people just aren’t going to be able to take part, and secondly that a lot of the action is in fact happening off-stage, in the ether.1 So this was the end of an era, or the last stop before a change of trains, or some other metaphor. And, to be honest, because of that, before picking up my notes on it I would have said I remembered very little of what happened at the 2019 Congress, as opposed to any other year since the IMC moved to the Central campus. I didn’t organise anything myself, is all I would have told you this morning, and on inspection that is completely untrue: Rethinking the Medieval Frontier ran for a full day, with people speaking from two continents about places from the Canaries to Kashmir. So as it transpires, I was there (obviously) and was pretty busy (nearly as obviously) and learnt a good few things (thankfully), and it was actually an impressively international and intersectional gathering that had all kinds of promise for the future threaded through it, and it still seems worth writing a report on it. It’s just that the future took a different turn… Because these reports are always huge, however, and not necessarily of interest to all (certainly not throughout), I’ll do what has become my practice and give you the running order of my conference experience, and then put actual commentary below a cut and let you decide (the few of you reading on the actual site rather than in your e-mail, anyway) how much further you care to go.

Monday 1st July 2019

119. Materialities at Birkbeck, I: between mind and matter in medieval monetary policy

  • Rebecca Darley, “Discourses on Absence, or Kalabhra and Vakataka Monetary Policy in Early Medieval Southern India”
  • Chris Budleigh, “Surplus and Scarcity: the contested relationship between monetary supply and aristocratic land management in Comnenian Byzantium”
  • Sidin Sunny, “The Lighter Dirham: power relationships in medieval Spanish society and tendencies in coin fineness and debasement.”

240. The Use and Construction of Place, Space, and Materiality in Late Antiquity

334. Seas and Floods in the Islamic West

  • Andrew Marsham, “Nile Flood Levels and Egyptian Revolts in the Early Medieval Period”
  • Xavier Ballestín, “Ships, Seafarers, Sails and Bows: a source approach to marine networks and coastal settlement in the Western Mediterranean basin on the eve of the rabaḍ uprising in Córdoba, 202 AH/818 AD”
  • Maribel Fierro, “Sea in the Life Narratives of Andalusi Scholars and Saints”

Tuesday 2nd July

530. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier 2018, I: Iberian Spaces

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Ends of Empire: Two Island Frontiers between Byzantium and Islam”
  • Stacey Murrell, “Centering the Marginal: concubines on Castilian frontiers, c. 1050-1350
  • Sandra Schieweck, “Iberian Border Regimes: the case of Castile and Navarre in the late Middle Ages”

630. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, 2018, II: Administration and Control

  • Luca Zavagno, “‘The Byzantine Liquid Frontiers’, or How to Administer Insular and Coastal Peripheral Spaces and Stop Worrying About It”
  • Davor Salihović, “The Distribution of Bordering in Late Medieval Hungary”

730. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier 2018, III: between religions

  • Roberta Denaro, “Far from the Corrupting City: building the frontier as a stage for martyrdom and asceticism, 8th-10th centuries”
  • Turaç Hakalmaz, “‘Islandness’ of a Coastal Kingdom: the case of Cilician Armenia”
  • Aniket Tathagata Chettry, “Exploring the Complexities of a Brahmanical Frontier in Bengal”

830. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier 2018, IV: dealing with power on the frontier

  • Jakub Kabala, “Claiming Authority over the Edge of the World: Frontier Strategies in Salzburg, c. 870″
  • Zeynep Aydoğan, “Conquest and Territoriality in the Late Medieval Anatolian Frontiers”
  • Andreas Obenaus, “To Whom Might/Do They Belong? Claims to Newly-Discovered Atlantic Islands in the Late Medieval Period”

Wednesday 3rd July 2019

1048. Forging Memory: false documents and historical consciousness in the Middle Ages, I

  • Graham Barrett, “Charters, Forgeries, and the Diplomatic of Salvation in Medieval Iberia”
  • Daria Safranova, “Using and Detecting Forged Charters in Northern Iberia, c. 900-1100″
  • Levi Roach, “True Lies: Leo of Vercelli, Arduin of Ivrea, and the Struggle for Piedmont”

1140. Byzantine Materialities, II: Ephemera and Iconoclasm

  • Rachel Banes, “You Can’t Write That Here! Mapping Religious and Secular Graffiti in Asia Minor, c. 300-700 CE”
  • Daniel K. Reynolds, “Images, Icons and Apologetic: Christian Iconoclasm in Early Islamic Palestine”
  • Leslie Brubaker, “Dancing in the Streets: the ephemera of Byzantine processions”

1252. Transport, Traders, and Trade Routes in Early Medieval Europe

  • Ewa Magdalena Charowska, “Dugout Builders: the trademark of the Sclaveni in the 6th and 7th Centuries”
  • Daniel Melleno, “From Strangers to Neighbors: Franks and Vikings in the late 9th century”
  • Thomas Freudenhammer, “Rafica: early medieval caravan trade between the West Frankish kingdom and al-Andalus”
  • Victor Farías Zurita, “Response”

1340. Byzantine Materialities, IV: workshops, trade and manuscripts

  • Shaun Tougher, “Macedonian Materialities: the Menologion of Basil II”
  • Chris Wickham, “Materialities of Middle Byzantine Exchange in the Aegean”
  • Flavia Vanni, “Men at work: stucco workshops on Mount Athos”

Thursday 4th July 2019

1509. Gold, Coins and Power in the Early Middle Ages

  • Marco Cristini, “The War of the Coins: Numismatic Evidence for the Gothic War”
  • Nicholas Rogers, “Angels and the King’s Evil: projections of royal authority”
  • Vera Kemper, “‘All that glitters is not gold’: heroes and material wealth”

1652. The Monetary System and Currency in Eurasia in the Pre-Modern Era, II: money and its circulation in British Isles and Scandinavia

  • Yuta Uchikawa, “Commerce and Coin Circulation around the Irish Sea in the 9th and 10th Centuries”
  • Hiroko Yanagawa, “The Irish-Sea Imitations and their Circulation during the Middle Ages”
  • Kenji Nishioka, “The Use of Money in Scotland during the 12th and 13th Centuries”
  • Takahiro Narikawa, “Church and the Money Circulation in High Medieval Norway”

1738. Materialities and Religion in Medieval Armenia and Byzantium

  • Katherine New, “The Representations of Material Objects in Medieval Culture: statue or doll in Byzantine mythography”
  • Carmen Morais Puche, “Medieval Byzantine Coinage in Patrimonio Nacional: image, materiality and religions”

Continue reading

Women’s history in my alma mater

I sometimes seem to have derived an unjustified reputation from the fact that my very first publication was about a woman.1 That was intentional, once I realised that what was mainly coming out of my second virtual archive trawl was mainly the actions of Abbess Emma of Sant Joan de Ripoll; I figured it would do no harm to be seen as a male historian who realised that women were sometimes important in the Middle Ages. But I didn’t expect it to necessarily become the thing people knew me for, and for some people it is. Thus, the thing I have up on that I got the most requests to upload, before I had done so, is a talk I gave in a Kalamazoo round table long ago, because a friend of mine with an actual track record in gender history thought I might have interesting things to say about women and power.2 Whether I did or not, I’m not sure, but several people wanted to see what they were, which put me in a quandary as literally all I had by way of a ‘talk’ was a sheet and a half of scribbled thoughts with marginal notes from the session crabbed in round the edges. I did, eventually, upload that and got a message back from one of the requesters saying they’d been “hoping for more”, but what was I to do? Admittedly, I have subsequently written more about women, though it’s always the women of Sant Joan de Ripoll, and the story of running my essentially first-wave feminism into the modern discourse which that provoked has already been told; but it’s for reasons like that that I’m always slightly surprised when, occasionally, I get asked to participate in events or projects relating to women’s history.

Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 39

Archivo de la Corona d’Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 39, bearing the hands of most of the women I have ever directly studied

This post is about one of those occasions, then, on 17th June 2019, when the visit to London of Professor Rekha Pande of the University of Hyderabad occasioned a kind of scratch conference at Birkbeck, University of London, entitled ‘Medieval Women: Comparative Perspectives’. It was rather strange, having been back inside my old doctoral institution for the first proper time only a month before to hear Chris Wickham speak, now to be back there to speak myself for the first time. This was, however, being organised by my long-term collaborator and ally, Dr Rebecca Darley, then of that parish, which is why I was asked to join in, and it put me on my toes, because as I say, I really only have one well to draw on for this kind of work. That said, I think everyone involved was drawing from wells quite a long way apart from each other, and this actually made for a really interesting discussion. These were the papers:

  1. Rekha Pande, “Writing a History of Gender in Medieval India”
  2. Sergi Sancho Fibla, “Beyond Literati: instruction, cultural practices and literacy in Southern France nunneries (13-14th c.)”
  3. Jonathan Jarrett, “Nuns, Signatures and Literacy in 10th-Century Catalonia”
  4. Lauren Wainwright, “Piety, Patronage and Personal Agency: Theodora Douka Palaiologina”
  5. Daniel Reynolds, “The Real House-Lives of the Dead Sea Rift: gender and society in Byzantine Palestina, 400-650”
  6. Rebecca Darley, “Male Mediation of Female Holiness in Byzantine Hagiography”
  7. Discussion

You will immediately see from that that what I drew from my well was in fact a version of the paper I ran into trouble publishing, so I’ve already talked about it here and won’t again. But the others were all really interesting, considering issues in which I am interested from source-bases I didn’t or hardly knew. Professor Pande talked about the difficulties of trying to get women’s history considered when both the source base you have and the scholarship with which you’re dealing are made in two mutually reinforcing patriarchal traditions, the Arabo-Islamic and Indo-Persian ones, and her way through them was to focus on the Bhakti movement, a kind of vernacular mysticism drawing on Buddhist and Jain traditions that is detectable in Indian source material from the 7th century onwards, and in which women were often/occasionally highly regarded.3 As with any movement developing over centuries in an area the size of the Indian subcontinent, there were innumerable variations on Bhakti but some of them involved a refusal to set up buildings or temples, meaning that there were no premises from which women could be excluded. In the extremely scanty record of notable Bhakti practitioners, therefore, there are women as well as men, and their lives show some common patterns, and most especially a refusal to be constrained by the domestic requirements of marriage. There were lots of points of comparison with Western material visible here, from lone ascetic travellers like Indian Margery Kempes (but less tearful and more respected), to the acceptable pattern of life for a hagiography and how that might be shaping the record; but that there even was a trope of the suitably-edifying Indian religious woman is telling us something about a space they created for themselves in these societies.

Rajasthani portrait of Meerabai

This is a Rajasthani portrait, date unknown to me, on display at Delhi Haat of Meerabai, a fifteenth-to-sixteenth-century Bhakti practitioner who, starting from a princely family position, has left us more record than most including a temple which she had built. Image by Onef9dayown work, licensed under CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons, whence you can find out more.4

The other papers, being closer to my areas of expertise, I can probably talk about quicker. Dr Sancho was interested in the education and learning of Carthusian nuns over the turn of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and had a range of examples of women patrons of artwork or even inscriptions for churches or nunneries which required a considerable depth of theological education to get, liturgical manuscripts owned and annotated by such women, and so on, which allowed him to conclude that while they might not have access to formal schooling or the universities, at least some such women were getting that level of religious and knowledge and literacy anyway. He has his slides online still, so you can find out more there, but the discussion focused on what modes of transmission of that knowledge we aren’t being shown by the texts which we have. Lauren was studying the wife of Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos, and therefore the empress who returned Greek imperial empressdom to Constantinople; she had got interested in her because the Barber Institute of Fine Arts has a superb example of one of her seals, but it transpired that she was quite politically active—definitely not always the case with Byzantine empresses—including issuing judgements on religious matters and getting Persian geographical works translated into Greek. However, Lauren also had examples of other rulers in the Byzantine sphere putting their queens or empresses to work like this, including Serbia and the Despotate of Epirus, and so raised the possibility that this was actually Nicæa keeping up with its neighbours, rather than Theodora being a single exception.

Lead seal of Empress Theodora Doukaina Palaiologina, struck 1259-1303, Barber Institute of Fine Arts SL0165

Lead seal of Empress Theodora Doukaina Palaiologina, struck 1259-1303, Barber Institute of Fine Arts SL0165

Dan, meanwhile, was up against my sort of problem: a landscape, both social and geographical, about which we can talk mainly through archæology and land transactions, both of which will show you that women were there but rarely very much about what they did. He had some examples of patronesses for buildings and female land ownership (as well as male ownership of female slaves…), and mainly wondered if there was any way through these difficulties. One factor against him that I didn’t have is that Palestine in his kind of period still largely had professional scribes and notaries, so we don’t even have access to women’s signatures as I do. Then Rebecca talked about the one class of women Byzantine writers were usually happy to write about, that is, saints, and the problem, which Professor Pande was also facing, that this inevitably gives us a male view of female holiness and one written for a male audience, not least because only male monasteries have survived in the Orthodox world from the Byzantine period so any female writings have likely been lost. (It’s probably not safe to say anything Byzantine and monastic is lost for sure until we get to the bottom of the archives at Saint Catherine’s Sinai, but the odds aren’t good.) In that writing, then, the two trends we see is that female saints were firstly usually subject to male violence, which was seen as part of the trials they had to endure to attain sanctity, and secondly that they had to get free of both parents and children to live the holy life; only by breaking their social bonds could they be God’s agents.

Mary of Egypt being given a cloak by the monk Zosimos in the desert, as pictured in British Library Yates Thompson MS 3 fo. 287

Mary of Egypt being given a cloak by the monk Zosimos in the desert, as pictured in British Library Yates Thompson MS 3 fo. 287, image from, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Not that Mary of Egypt was really a typical Byzantine woman saint, but she was one of the ones famous enough even to be culted in the West, as this shows.

But as I say, it was the discussion that was probably the most fun. Rebecca noted a big difference between women in the West and women in India at the stage of widowhood; in the West that could be women’s most independent stage of life whereas in India it ended their access to resource and prevented them from carrying on with the spiritual life unless they could find other support. There were also sharp differences over virginity and sex, with which the West was obsessed and India not so much, and celebrating the latter rather than the former if it did anything. We also had a profitable discussion over the rôle of individuality: Professor Pande was keen to stress that her Bhakti women were not proto-feminists, in so far as they did not agitate for the emancipation of women but only for themselves and their religious practice, and this led us all to reflect on the historian’s desire to create movements out of the very few individuals, usually very individual, whom we can see. Then we had a long exchange over the social value of literacy in our various spheres, and thus the price of and restrictions on access to it; this turned out to be one of the most variable things of all, depending on what other structures of writing and education existed. One can say that women were rarely taught to write throughout the Middle Ages, for example, but that had different value in a world where basically no-one was so taught outside a small Church group from one where there was a university in almost every major city, from which women were excluded, but which generated an overflow of literate tutors that might still result in broader general, and therefore also female, literacy overall. We could obviously have talked for much longer about this than we had, and though some sketchy plans to create a teaching book out of all of this were probably best let drop, given how many of us didn’t usually do this stuff, I still wonder what it might have looked like. A good day, anyway, to which I’m glad my dubious gender history credentials were able to get me entry!

1. Jonathan Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2003), pp. 229–258, DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-9462.2004.00128.x.

2. There were two things in that presentation I’d still quite like to write up, even though it was short, because I’ve kept on thinking with them since having thought of them. One was that we need a word, when we speak of powerful women in the Middle Ages, for something that was unusual and always non-default, but still happened quite a lot, and which society could accept as a reasonable thing to happen that still normally wouldn’t. As it is we’re always forced to discuss each powerful woman as an outlier, and that’s not wrong but it’s also missing the fact that her position was a fairly normal abnormality. The other is that those who minimise women’s political influence in the period tend to point to the men they had to operate with and delegate to, as if to suggest that without men they had no power. Well, fine, but I wouldn’t mind people recognising that this also applied to men in power. Granted, it was much rarer for women to settle anything by armed violence – though there are cases and even times and places where it was more normal – but even kings who were tournament champions and so on had armies and champions of their own, you know? There is something different about the kinds of power men and women could wield, for sure, but the necessity of delegation ain’t it.

3. If this all sounds interesting, and you can find it, the obvious thing to read would seem to be Rekha Pande, Religious Movements in Medieval India: Bhakti Creation of Alternative Spaces (New Delhi 2005).

4. See also S. M. Pandey and Norman Zide, “Mīrābāī and Her Contributions to the Bhakti Movement” in History of Religions Vol. 5 (Chicago IL 1965), pp. 54–73, I assume with suitable period caution.

Rulers who weren’t kings, discussed at Leeds

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

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

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

8th April 2019

Keynote 1

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

The Terminology of Non-Royal Rule

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

Lay and Ecclesiastical Non-Royal Rulership

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

Keynote 2

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

9th April 2019

Analysing Non-Royal Power Relations

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

Keynote 3

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

Non-Royal Rulers in the Middle

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

Symbolic Communication and Non-Royal Rule

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

Continue reading

Seminars CCLXIX & CCLXX: From opposite ends of the Mediterranean

I’ve just had a look through my seminar notes from March 2019 and decided that two still bear the telling. As ever, it is good of those who still read here to bear with my efforts to reduce the backlog in the face of the fact that things continue to occur meanwhile… But back then when my backlog is, at the beginning of the month I was present on the 4th when Professor John Moreland addressed Leeds’s Institute for Medieval Studies Medieval Group with the title, “Sheffield Castle: archives, excavations, and augmented reality, 1927-2018”, and then I was around again on the 27th when Dr Helen Birkett addressed the IMS Medieval History Seminar with the title, “News, Current Events, History: The Preservation of News Texts from 1187/8”. I’ve got no way to tie these together except that they were in the same month in the same university and I saw them both, but why should we need more, eh?

Poster for seminar by John Moreland at the University of Leeds

Seminar poster by Thomas Smith

So to begin with Professor Moreland’s paper, I have to admit that I did not previously know that Sheffield had had a castle. But there was one, and a recent bequest had enabled the University’s then-untroubled archaeology department to start a partnership up with the contract organisation Wessex Archaeology (who for reasons unexplained have an office in Sheffield) and the university’s department of Computer Science, to go over the work that had been done on it and try to synthesize the results of old and new digs. The castle has been dug quite a lot, apparently, being located, under what was between the 1960s and very recently the city market, by an amateur archaeologist in the 1920s and then dug for a decade, with some more work on its perimeter in the 1950s and new work just beginning at the date of this paper. The paper was as much about why what had been done had been done as what it actually was, but the basic story was that some kind of castle was probably put here in the 12th century by one William de Loyelote, built up rather with a gatehouse after license was given to crenellate in 1258, and then possibly burnt in a sack of the city of 1266 by a man really genuinely called John De Eville. There was some rebuilding thereafter and it was still a going concern in the 16th century, and indeed in the English Civil War though perhaps not going enough as it fell to siege in 1644 and 1646 and was slighted in 1649-1650.

Archaeological digging at the site of Sheffield Castle in the 1920s, 1930s or 1950s

Archaeological digging at the site of Sheffield Castle in the 1920s, 1930s or 1950s – sadly, Sheffield’s website doesn’t say which

The question that now arises is what bits of this actually survive. The 1920s-30s digs found lots, and some of that was photographed in situ, very luckily for such old archaeology, but that archaeologist, Leslie Armstrong, tended to date what he found from known history, such as the 1266 burning, so that various wooden structures showing destruction by fire he considered to be pre-1266 and everything above them to have been the 13th-17th-century building, which Professor Moreland though would likely prove wrong given the relative depths of stratification. In that case, this fire must have happened earlier and the 1266 sack of the city may not have hurt the castle at all. Another point of difference was over the material that Armstrong considered to have been ‘Saxon’, an alleged cruck-built building in the central courtyard and some of the material culture. Professor Moreland, however, thought that there was no pre-Conquest material at all, and that Armstrong was just after pushing his native city’s origins back to when it could be ‘Germanic’ rather than ‘French’, this mattering rather more in the atmosphere of the 1930s, though not always that way round… The oldest remains Professor Moreland had been able to date were late 11th-century, at which point there seems to have been a Norman motte with maybe a wooden gatehouse. But by this stage he had five minutes left to talk, so we didn’t get all the details of that I might have wanted, and the promised ‘augmented reality’ ironically never materialised, then or now. However, you can find out more! Wessex Archaeology have a good web-page on the digs, including their 602-page site report which, I admit, I didn’t read for this post (or at all), and a video by Professor Moreland explaining what the augmented reality stuff would have been like.1 Also, not very long after this paper, there emerged a book, so it is certainly possible for you to learn more.2

Dr Birkett’s paper was a very different sort of thing, not just because it completed within the time allowed but also because it was a proper old-fashioned text-mining medievalist study, which as I only now find out, had already been published at the point when she gave it to us.3 The object of the search was to find out how people in the West found out about the recapture of Jerusalem by the forces of Islam, under the famous Saladin, in 1187. We know that it created enough of a furore that eventually King Richard I of England, King Philip II Augustus of France and Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa all went out to try and get it back – but how did the news actually get to their royal ears?

Poster for seminar by Helen Birkett at the University of Leeds

Poster again by Thomas Smith

Obviously, the answer was probably letters, but what I hadn’t expected was firstly that we would have any such letters surviving, and secondly where they turn up. These were surprises because actually, there are 13, but none are actual autographs by people of 1187; instead, such texts were later copied into chronicles and histories, or just copied; we have some loose copies which got used as bindings, and one rather mystifying copy of a letter from Patriarch Heraclius of Jerusalem (the Latin patriarch, despite his name) that now survives in the Arxiu Parroquial of Cardona, of which town we heard only a couple of posts ago so you know it’s in Catalonia. In fact two such letters made it to Catalonia, but it doesn’t seem to have raised the same response as other places… But from the image I was pretty sure it was a local copy – I know the scripts! – so there was a kind of response even so.

But that is a whole book’s worth of study and for someone else. Better questions to ask might be, as did Alan Murray, of course present, whether multiple copies of such letters were being sent, or whether one was sent and then copied for dissemination, and Dr Birkett thought the latter. There is a particular one by a Templar called Terricas (apparently) which exists in more copies than any other, and Dr Birkett thought that the actual man’s journey westwards to seek help could be tracked. I don’t, myself, see why that precludes him fetching up in, say, Genoa, and then writing his letter and having copies sent hither and thither; but of course, I haven’t seen it, and either solution does explain why what we have is not the original letters, and reminds us that in this era (and to be honest, our one too) a letter only arrives because someone or a chain of someones physically brings it; that process also attracted questions, but answers are hard to provide. Dr Birkett herself was more interested in why these texts were still being copied up long after they were ‘news’, because outside the chronicle texts the preservation rarely seems to have been part of a plan; their homes were often blank folios in manuscripts made for other purposes. It is possible that, since Jerusalem was never recaptured (unless we count Emperor Frederick II’s attempt, which because the Church judged him to be a bad guy we seem never to do), this was ‘news’ that never got old. But the samples are very small, and I was myself wary of any generalisation of plotting trends of 2-4 manuscripts. But the questions are still interesting to ask, and maybe there are more answers to be found.

That will have to do you for this week. Next post will be some more current news and then I have an old musing that never before got written up about the role of the blog in/as scholarship, so please stay tuned for those, and if that’s not enough I hope to have more critique of a certain historian of early medieval military matters ready to go after that, surely therefore something for all tastes. Stay well and safe till then!

1. It is Sheffield Castle, Sheffield, South Yorkshire: Final Archaeological Evaluation Report, by Ashley Tuck, 201540.05 (Sheffield 2020), online here.

2. John Moreland, Dawn Hadley and Ashley Tuck, Sheffield Castle: Archaeology, Archives, Regeneration, 1927–2018 (York 2020), online here.

3. Helen Birkett, “News in the Middle Ages: News, Communications, and the Launch of the Third Crusade in 1187–1188” in Viator Vol. 49 (Turnhout 2018), pp. 23–61, DOI: 10.1484/J.VIATOR.5.119573.

Name in Print XXX: the other parcel from China

A short bonus post for the celebratory weekend, celebrating, well, me again I’m afraid, plus ça change… You remember a few posts ago I wrote about receiving a fairly unexpected Chinese translation of one of my conference papers in the post? If you do remember, one of the reasons it was unexpected was that while I heard nothing about its progress into print, I had heard lots about the progress of another conference paper I’d given in China some time before, in a story I have already told. Well, a few weeks ago that one also arrived with me.

Cover of Sven Günther, Li Qiang, Lin Ying and Claudia Sode (edd.), From Constantinople to Chang’an: Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity. Papers Read at the International Conference in Changchun, China, 23‒26 June 2017, Supplements to the Journal of Ancient Civilizations 8 (Changchun 2021)

Cover of Sven Günther, Li Qiang, Lin Ying and Claudia Sode (edd.), From Constantinople to Chang’an: Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity. Papers Read at the International Conference in Changchun, China, 23‒26 June 2017, Supplements to the Journal of Ancient Civilizations 8 (Changchun 2021)

Although it’s not as much of a shock as the previous one was, this too has wound up looking rather different from what I’d expected. The original plan was for the papers we’d all presented in Changchun to emerge as a special issue of the Journal of Ancient Civilizations which is edited in the Institute for the History of Ancient Civilizations that had hosted us.

Covers of Cover of Sven Günther, Li Qiang, Lin Ying and Claudia Sode (edd.), From Constantinople to Chang’an: Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity. Papers Read at the International Conference in Changchun, China, 23‒26 June 2017, Supplements to the Journal of Ancient Civilizations 8 (Changchun 2021) and Journal of Ancient Civilizations 32/1 (Changchun 2017)

The same volume next to vol. 32/1 of the Journal of Ancient Civilizations, like large child with small parent

The actual year of appearance, however, was originally to be 2020, which unhappily coincided with that pandemic of which you may have heard tell, and of course that fell on China first. So everything there became difficult, and not just for that reason. In any case, the perpetual shuffling of this special issue was messing up the journal timetable, it was also a lot more material than they usually publish in an issue, and there is also a series of supplements to the journal. So, at some point very late on in the process, it became clear to me that that is what would be happening with ours, that the covers would be red and cloth not blue and paper, and this is what I now have.

Opening page of Jonathan Jarrett, "Coinage in the Western World at the End of the Roman Empire and After: Tradition, Imitation and Innovation" in Sven Günther, Li Qiang, Lin Ying and Claudia Sode (edd.), From Constantinople to Chang’an: Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity, Supplements to the Journal of Ancient Civilizations 8 (Changchun 2021), pp. 31–74

Opening page of Jonathan Jarrett, "Coinage in the Western World at the End of the Roman Empire and After: Tradition, Imitation and Innovation" in Günther, Qiang, Lin and Sode, Constantinople to Chang’an, pp. 31–74

Now, this doesn’t necessarily make the paper more accessible; the book is more expensive than the journal would be and even if your library has a subscription to the JAC – which some do, don’t be like that nowthey probably don’t get the supplements. And yet I do want people to be getting hold of this, because the paper I wrote I wrote fully intending it to be nothing less than an up-to-date, thought-provoking, student-accessible and copiously-illustrated guide to what happened to coinage in the various zones of the Roman Empire over the period about 400 to 700 CE which I could set to my own students (and you could set to yours!). It checks in on the coinage at the turn of the years 400, 500, 600 and 700, observes changes descriptively, and then addresses major issues like continuity and imitation, and there are seventy-odd illustrations, for which I laid out an entire year’s research expenses, in order to create the for-now-definitive one-stop article-length introduction to coinage in the late and post-Roman worlds. Mad, they called me, mad, I who have created numismatics! And so on. But dammit, it is rather good.1

Figures 49–60 of Jonathan Jarrett, "Coinage in the Western World at the End of the Roman Empire and After: Tradition, Imitation and Innovation" in Sven Günther, Li Qiang, Lin Ying & Claudia Sode (edd.), From Constantinople to Chang’an: Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity, Supplements to the Journal of Ancient Civilizations 8 (Changchun 2021), pp. 31–74 at pp. 70–71

Figures 49–60 of Jarrett, "Coinage in the Western World", pp. 70–71

So, if this sounds like a thing you would want to read, or to make others read that you might educate them, and you have an institutional budget to support you, please try and get hold of the book; I am far from the only interesting thing in there, especially if you care about Byzantine (or Sasanian) coinage out of place, and IHAC does good work, including supporting foreign scholars and encouraging East-West dialogue, in an area of China far from Beijing or Shanghai.2 If you just have spare cash and like well-made books of interesting content, consider buying it too maybe, because the country which invented paper does make pretty nice books (and this is one). But if you don’t have the money and feel you might still benefit from my dubious expertise here, you can also find the article in a reduced-quality version on my page, with IHAC’s permission, so do feel free to enjoy that instead (or as well!). I’m pretty pleased with it and hope you will be too.

1. Full citation, as per, is Jonathan Jarrett, “Coinage in the Western World at the End of the Roman Empire and After: Tradition, Imitation and Innovation” in Sven Günther, Li Qiang, Lin Ying and Claudia Sode (edd.), From Constantinople to Chang’an: Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity, Supplements to the Journal of Ancient Civilizations 8 (Changchun 2021), pp. 31–74. Of that, a slightly frightening pp. 52-61 is bibliography and pp. 62-74 are figures, so it’s not as frightening a read as that makes it sound. I owe tremendous thanks to many people for making images available, but especially Maria Vrij at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, whence came most of them, and to the British Museum, CGB Monnaies, the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Harvard College and Ruth Pliego for not charging for their images.

2. Admittedly, right now I admit I can’t find any way that you can buy it, but hopefully that situation will ease and if people want it I can try and find out how that can be done in present circumstances; leave a comment or send me mail and I’ll do what I can. Meanwhile, other tempting highlights might be Pagona Papadopoulou, “The Gold of the Emperor: Imitations of Byzantine Gold Coins in the Mediterranean (5th-7th Centuries), pp. 1–30, Rebecca Darley, “Byzantine Gold Coins and Peninsular India’s Late Antiquity”, pp. 135–169, Li Qiang, “Trends and Dynamics in the Study of Byzantine Coins and their Imitations Unearthed in China: 2007‒2017”, pp. 193‒206, Guo Yunyan, “Classification of Byzantine Gold Coins and Imitations Found in China”, pp. 207‒240, Lkhagvasuren Erdenebold, “East-West Relations and Nomads: a Short Introduction to the Tomb of Shoroon Bumbagar, Bayannuur Soum, Mongolia”, pp. 241–257 for those Sasanian finds, or Brigitte Borell, “Coins from Western Lands Found in Southeast Asia”, pp. 277–314.

Seminars CCLXVII & CCLXVIII: the Normans return to Leeds

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

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

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

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

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

Tombstone of Anna in St Michael's Palermo

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

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

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

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

Poster for the seminar, designed by Thomas Smith

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

Interior and crypt of Santissima Trinità di Venosa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Why) Universities Are Not… Giving Way to their Staff

I initially wrote this in the middle of ten more days of industrial action over pensions, pay and terms of work in the English university sector, those following ten days last month and three days at the end of last year, and plenty more in previous years. Then I thought it’d better wait till people weren’t actually on the picket lines (though there are still some places where, for different reasons, they are.) But there have never before been such serious strikes in UK higher education. It’s been quite a long time since I got to deliver one of my own modules without losing classes. Obviously my pay and savings have taken a dent, and I’m one of the fortunate ones in still being basically OK. But it has got us nothing; not only have there been no concessions but the employers’ bodies have simply refused to negotiate, as if a 17% gender pay gap wasn’t just a basic ethical concern as well as a financial problem. What response we have seen is moves to run around the unions by promising to address the problems by new schemes and initiatives in which the unions are not consulted. Of course, where a union is recognised that’s illegal, but P & O Ferries have just shown us how the accounting maths works out on that score.

All the same, just because the university managements probably can ignore the unions doesn’t straight away explain why they want to – why staff goodwill is worth so little, why staff welfare is of so little concern and why this much disruption is worth just weathering out. In my previous posts on these issues I accordingly set out some plausible reasons why at least some of the problems we’re fighting about, specifically pay rises and causalisation, are actually hard for the employers to address, and how their resolution would tend to result in fewer jobs in the sector overall. The short version of those reasons would be because university income in the UK is actually zero-sum, so if you reallocate any of it there have to be losses somewhere else. Nonetheless, the Universities and Colleges Union is not wrong that many universities are stacking away considerable profit and surpluses at the moment, even if they ignore that some others are running in persistent deficit and may soon go to the wall. So one might argue that at least some employers could reallocate the sums needed out of their own bank accounts. But it seems that they won’t, despite the best we can do by way of argument.

Now, emotionally I will happily accept the idea that the whole sector’s management just don’t care, and that their only strategies are to pretend to act via working groups and consultations while actually progressively removing any mechanisms of contact or feedback between them and the people to whom they give orders so as to make not caring easier. It certainly feels like that from here! But you might hope that there was at least some reason why everyone above a certain level of authority is willing to look that way to the public and their staff, despite what it means for the effective functioning of their institutions. In this post, therefore, I want to do two things: firstly I want to acknowledge and include some points my original thinking missed, which I found during the work on my posts on the disputes and which help explain a few more things. Then secondly I want to explain why I think we’re losing and what would have to happen to change that.

Points I missed

In the first place comes a change of direction that I partly managed to make in the original posts, because my starting hypothesis didn’t seem to be justified by the figures. It still doesn’t; to my surprise, it doesn’t seem as if the global pandemic has actually made terribly much difference to international student recruitment in the UK. The detail of the ebb and flow from place to place differs quite widely, and there was definitely a thin patch in early 2020 with lots of people understandably deferring their places, but between online teaching and then eased restrictions it seems that a lot of that revenue has been rescued. That meant that there was a period of panic and the great digital pivot and so on, and everywhere reset their budgets on the basis of panic. Then the disaster didn’t come and the part of the university sector that wasn’t already in trouble has found that it can more or less carry on like this now, for a while at least. And, for reasons we’ll come to under the final heading, ‘for a while at least’ is all anyone is thinking about right now. So the revenue crisis is now not so imminent as to make change necessary, but still remains potential enough to make change look very dangerous. It’s not the biggest brake on change – as I say, I’ll come to that – but it’s probably a significant one and I had it facing the wrong way round in the metaphorical circuitry of my analysis.

But seriously, pensions

Secondly, however, and more revelatory, the thing I have found hardest to understand in these disputes is why the employers won’t take easy wins when they appear. The one of these that was confusing me most was the pensions situation. I don’t want to run through the whole thing in detail here, but you have to understand what the problem initially was to understand what I mean. The problem initially was that, largely because of new rules set up by England’s Pensions Regulator, a valuation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme in 2017 or 2018, I now forget, came out showing a worrying deficit against future liabilities. It wasn’t losing money or anything: it was just unable right then and there to make all the payments that would be due if every single member university in the country suddenly went bust. Counter-arguments from the Universities and College Union included the one that this was utterly unlikely, but it was the eventuality against which the Pensions Regulator now required the scheme to be secure. There were also questions about whether this deficit would exist were the scheme not also trying to ‘derisk’ by moving its investments progressively into low-yield, but predictable, bonds, rather than the more profitable but less reliable funds that generated most of its current revenue. UCU also had arguments with the methodology used to do the valuation, however, arguments about necessary ‘levels of prudence’, and on that basis the only thing, really, that the first serious round of national strike action in 2019 won was an agreement to wait until USS had done a new valuation to decide on next steps, which everyone was going to agree on first.

Unfortunately, the new valuation occurred during the high point of panic over Covid-19. The figures came out much worse, of course, and the fund went unilaterally into carefully-managed emergency measures, triggered automatically by its charter and raising contributions across the board from both employees and employers. Unsurprisingly, therefore, new proposals rapidly emerged from the employers’ side about how to cut pay-outs and contributions to a level that they and the scheme found sustainable, and it’s these proposals that have now been pushed through in the teeth of our strikes. But the thing is, at the same time not only has every university in the country not simultaneously closed; the fund’s investments have also been doing far, far better than their gloomy maximum-prudence predictions during 2020 forecast. By all the calculations anyone outside can do with the available figures, two years of big investment return have probably actually wiped out the scheme’s deficit. There’s no longer any immediate financial need to make these cuts, and there’s another valuation due in 2023 anyway. So why not, to end these strikes, just give UCU what it wants, revert the cuts, let things simmer down and then start again in 2023? Why not now just let the staff have their hope of a reasonable retirement by changing nothing? In most other respects changing nothing appears to be what the managements want, so it seems like an easy concession to buy space to do whatever other worsenings they have planned. But no.

I couldn’t understand this until, in the course of writing the previous posts and looking for cites on managerialism in the university, I found an excellent blog post from 2019 by Lee Jones of Queen Mary University of London, for which institution I once worked and who have now earned themselves the ignominious honour of being the first university to try to dock pay from staff for not rescheduling classes lost due to strikes, i. e. fining them twice for not doing work once.1 Whether this is legal remains to be seen – the rest of the sector, having threatened it, is now waiting with bated breath to see if QMUL get away with it – but in any case, I digress. Dr Jones ends his post with a call for a full-on end to free-market economics as the only solution, which I can’t see coming, but his analysis of the actual economics of the situation seems to me very sharp indeed, and includes something I didn’t think of, universities’ increasing reliance on borrowing to finance their competition with each other. There, he says this (with all his links gratefully copied):

“The turn to capital markets happened very quickly after 2011. During 2015 alone, universities issued $1.39bn in private bonds, typically at around 3% interest over a long time period: 50 or even 100 years. From 2013–18, university bond issues totalled £4.4bn. Oxford has borrowed £750m over 100 years at 2.5%; Cardiff, £300m at 3.1% over 50 years; Cambridge, £300m at an inflation-linked rate and £300m at 2.35% over 60 years; even Portsmouth has raised £100m through issuing bonds.

“Raising private finance depends on assuring investors that the institution is financially sound and their money will be returned with the stated rate of return. To keep the ratings agencies sweet (yes, Standard and Poor, Moodys, et al. now rate universities, just as they rate governments), universities must show financial probity. That involves two things: first, they must demonstrate that revenue (i.e. students) will continue to flow to the institution, which requires a solid competitive positioning in the market place. Portsmouth’s investment prospectus, for example, makes direct reference to its league table position to reassure bond-purchasers. This reinforces the managerialist turn to gaming the league tables and degrading higher education, as described above. Secondly, universities must show a determination to suppress costs, to show that they can generate the required surplus to repay the bond when it matures. That entails bearing down on staff pay and especially ‘pensions liabilities’, which are always a concern for private investors. The desire to shrink these liabilities was a key factor behind employers’ attempt last year to cut USS pensions a third time [since] 2011, which drove staff out on strike en masse.”

That is a piece of the puzzle I did not have and which now fits all too well. Of course, the cutting of pensions is a long-term plan, or at least, has been happening over the long-term, and this helps explain why. Rather than the employers choosing change of plan over stability, what the concession I suggested above would mean in this light is the abandonment of a much longer-running plan to which the pandemic gave unexpected opportunity, under that old and disgraceful banner, used by more than one vice-chancellor in 2020, “never let a crisis go to waste“.2 And so I now hope for rather less success for the university workers in this area than the figures suggest should be possible.

A Private-Sector Problem

But the other reason my hopes have shrunk badly since this round of industrial action began is that there has been almost no action from the government. You might well say that this is an industrial relations problem, not a national problem, and why should the government be expected to act? But my earlier posts made the argument that when the government controls more than half the university sector’s income, between tuition fees and the mysterious QR funding, and imposes upon the sector a massive regulatory burden in order to be allowed to receive it, and then also imposes hard limits on what that income can be, it is actually the government that creates the framework within which these problems cannot be resolved.

Neither is it just that because of this level of state control, university finances are statically constrained. We exist as a sector under an ongoing and semi-permanent threat of defunding. Until just last month, the shape of this Sword of Damocles was the Augar Review, which began in early 2018, reported in the very last days of Teresa May’s premiership in 2019, and has only now received a proper government response. I’ll come to that response in a minute – because I literally only found out about it while writing the post – but since Augar initially recommended cuts to tuition fees, in order to reduce the growing liability on state finance created by their 40%+ non-repayment, it created a panic in the sector which in some places saw people literally being fired that month to save money. Then nothing happened, and a global pandemic set other priorities for all parties, plus which Augar himself no longer thinks cutting fees would be a good idea.3 Still, it was only a few weeks ago that any assurance came to the university sector that they were not, in fact, facing a crippling cut to their majority source of income which might come at any time, when the government announced that the current cap on tuition fees would be frozen for a further two years. And even that, of course, only gives two years’ security, and that in the form of a source of revenue which has been shrinking against inflation ever since 2012 when the current cap was set. Since other revenue in the sector is also very hard to increase, and with the upheaval caused by the pandemic to cope with as well, it is understandable that anyone who sees their principal job in a university as, not even to maximise profit, but just to keep the whole thing financially afloat, has been stockpiling income, trying to cut spending as much as possible and getting ready to borrow huge amounts if necessary.

As it is, from what I can see on the basis of a report on the response to the review – not having had time and probably not having the will to read the actual thing – the response does not remove this problem. Instead, it mainly does two things, one being to make repayment thresholds for the students who have loans lower, so as to decrease that massive non-repayment figure, and the other being to open up lifelong access to loans so as to encourage reskilling and retraining. This is kind of patching one hole while opening up another: it may get more loan money back into the Student Loans Company’s bank accounts, but will be pouring more money out at the same time, and to people who will not have as long to pay it back or salaries as high from which to do so. Those loans will have to be unpleasant to have if they’re to escape becoming a new version of the exact same problem the current ones face. The response also freezes current tuition fees for two years, but makes no promises about them after that. Meanwhile, it demands that universities make their ‘graduate premium’ more public by advertising employment rates for graduates from their courses, another reporting requirement which universities will learn how to game; and it threatens the future defunding of courses which don’t reach a certain, unspecified, level on that score, as well as potentially courses that don’t serve the national interest as much as others. To me this mainly looks like a win for the Further Education sector, and goodness knows it needs one, but this can also fit with my earlier forecast that universities will use their greater size and capacity to start taking over the vocational and FE sector and pushing smaller dedicated providers out of it – expect lots of mergers of local colleges with their local big universities and an end to non-degree-level teaching at them. What this does not do is give universities any basis on which they can securely plan their finances for more than two years ahead. That is made worse because, even this long after Augar actually reported, a great many things in the response seem to be kicked down the road for later consideration or, typically for the Cameron-and-post-Cameronian administration, left as threats that may or may not be carried out, depending on unspecified things. This kind of failure to make policy is exactly why for the last ten years or so no-one in the sector has dared plan anything but capital projects intended to secure more certain revenue.

For this reason, while I didn’t then know that it was being said on the basis of this response being about to appear, it was when I saw the above that I knew these strikes weren’t going to get us anywhere. Bim Afolami may be right, and UCU may be right, that the universities do, currently, in most cases, have the spare money to address some of their staff’s grievances and, as I say above, the pensions situation has eased to the point where it needn’t even cost them very much to address. But there is no reassurance that things will stay that way, and while as a result they are still the prisoners of the wavering international student market for any kind of ongoing financial security, they’re not going to start spending out reserves they could well need very badly just a couple of years down the line.

So what needs to happen if this is ever to get better? Well, I think it’s nothing less than a team from Universities UK, a team from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association and one from the Universities and Colleges Union sitting down with the three, no less, ministers of government who currently have responsibilities in the sector (the Secretary of State for Education, the Minister for Universities and the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills) for a couple of days and arguing out what it is they collectively think universities should do, for whom. Then, and only then, they should concoct a way to tap the money made by those things that would establish a steady ongoing foundation for them which can continue without need of further interference. Then we might be able to look to a future. We’ve seen that there probably are ways that funding could be arranged, and possibly even with less of a burden on the state than there is now – on which basis at least one former Universities Minister might want to be in the room too, since he already thinks he knows how to do this – so it’s not impossible that this would produce a mutually satisfactory outcome.4 Since UCU tends to get outvoted in such meetings, however, it’s also possible that this would just produce an acceleration of the current direction of travel towards vocational, marketised, industry-facing training and research-only-with-development. But since I dare not hope that that meeting will ever happen, maybe, in the words of Gil Scott Heron, “Unfortunately, the world is just going to drag on and on.”5 Two questions then seem to remain: one is whether we, the actual workers of knowledge, are going to be able to drag it in any particular direction, even back towards the past, or will in the end be dragged by it. And the other, I suppose, is whether it’s worth remaining knowledge workers so as to see.

1. Lee Jones, “The Seven Deadly Sins of Marketisation in British Higher Education” in Medium, 28th November 2019, online here. I should also mention Luke Martell, “The marketisation of our universities: Economic criteria get precedence over what’s good in human terms”, in British Politics and Policy at LSE, 23 November 2013, online here, as making some of the same points more briefly and presciently six years previously, although not the one I’m running with here.

2. I can’t name the ones I actually heard of saying it, as I suspect that would get me and others into trouble, but Peter D. Burdon, ‘Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste’: The Impact of COVID-19 on Legal Education, SSRN Scholarly Paper, Social Science Research Network ID 3938681 (Rochester NY 2021), online here, is kind of a metastudy. It should be noted that the phrase is seen positively by many ed-tech evangelists, who are presumably not interested in the reasons why the resistance to change which the use of the phrase bespeaks exists: witness Wayne Camara, “Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste: Large-Scale Assessment and the Response to COVID-19” in Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice Vol. 39 (Chichester 2020), pp. 10–18, DOI: 10.1111/emip.12358, and Jeffrey Lancaster, “Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste” in EduCause Review, January 11 2021, online here.

3. A lot of my details in this paragraph, including that last one, come from Nick Hillman, “In the years of waiting for a full response, it’s become clear the Augar review is a smörgåsbord not a prix fixe. But while policymakers have been deliberating, universities have been delivering” in HEPI, 1 February 2022, online here, though I can’t but think Dr Hillman must have been quite annoyed when the response followed on his heels by only a month. On that response I have mainly relied on James Higgins, “Augar review: government reveals student finance shake up” in University Business, 24th February 2022, online here.

4. See David Willetts, Boosting higher education while cutting public spending, HEPI Report 142 (London 2021), and indeed David Willetts, A university education (Oxford 2017).

5. Gil Scott Heron, “Brother”, on A New Black Poet: Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (RCA 1970).