Category Archives: Institutions

All That Glitters, Experiment 3

A problem with finally picking up this blog a bit is that some of the old stories in it have been sitting idle for really quite some time. Does anyone remember, for example, that while I was working at the Barber Institute we got a small amount of money to zap gold coins with x-rays? If you do, you may remember that I’d already reported on the first two experiments we did in that project when everything here ground to a halt in 2016. Well, now I resume, with a brief account of the third experiment we did, and before long who knows, we may be through the rest!

Bruker S8 TIGER XRF analyser open for business

The S8TIGER WD-XRF spectrometer in the Department of Chemistry, University of Birmingham, with five sample cups waiting and one under analysis

A brief recap may be in order first of all, though. The very short version of the project’s purpose was: we had all seen an increasing amount of work using X-ray fluorescence spectrometry to analyse the fineness of precious-metal coins and sometimes even assign origins to its metal based on the trace elements therein. We had our doubts about this, but the manufacturers of some of the best machinery involved wanted to quell our doubts about this and offered us quite a lot of help with it, so we came up with a plan and, somewhat to our surprise, got both permission from the Henry Barber Trust to muck around with their coins and funding from the Royal Numismatic Society to do it, and so set about it. We began this in December 2014, with two experiments. The first was designed to test the viability of hand-held, portable, energy-dispersive machinery that could be brought to the coins; the second did comparator analyses using a fixed-location wavelength-dispersive spectrometer to which we had to bring the coins. This showed us that to detect anything at all of trace elements we would need the big machine, but also that it was picking up a whole load of stuff that seemed very likely to be extraneous material on the surface of the coins, probably from the soil in which they had long ago been found, rather than the stuff of which they were actually made. And that is about where we come in!

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini struck at Constantinople 785-797, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4599

The coin whose results (and details) are given in the first table below, set up for the test in which it did so

So, the third experiment was very simple. Using the same set of coins as we had previously run, I got hold of some conservation-quality acetone and a toothbrush, took them and the coins down to a workroom in the depths of the Barber and gave them all a careful but thorough scrubbing and let them dry, all except one that we left uncleaned as a check. Then I packed them up again and we bore them off to the Department of Chemistry on 22nd July 2015. There we ran them again, on the shorter of the big machine’s two cycles, and this gave us some results both before and after cleaning.

Unfortunately, if anything, the post-cleaning results showed more extraneous grot. That ‘if anything’ will tell you, though, that consistency was hard to observe. The variation wasn’t vast amounts, you understand, between half and one-and-a-half per cent, but cumulatively certainly enough to push our figures for the actual gold content up or down by two or three per cent, which would for some people be enough on which to found a theory about debasement… Here are the top ten elemental results from just one side of one coin by way of example:

Coin 170 (obverse)1 Percentage observed first time Percentage observed second time
Gold 86.51% 84.49%
Silicon 3.44% 4.63%
Silver 1.61% 1.43%
Aluminium 1.27% 1.19%
Potassium 0.80% 0.63%
Sodium 0.74%
Copper 0.44% 0.34%
Calcium 0.32% 1.96%
Sulphur 0.28% 0.48%
Iron 0.27% 0.50%
Total percentage of coin observed 96.38% 96.70%

Down by two per cent gold, and that mostly gone to silicon and calcium, even though some other small elements had dropped in the readings as well. Also, what this arrangement doesn’t show, the second time small but possible readings showed up for chlorine, magnesium and, way down the scale, platinum, all absent the first time through. Surely cleaning with acetone couldn’t have added calcium to the coin? But each coin we ran had its own little tale of additional mess to tell, even (and this should have told us something) the uncleaned check. Here are its top-ten figures for the obverse:

Coin 21 (obverse)2 Percentage observed first time Percentage observed second time
Gold 82.57% 87.43%
Silicon 1.82% 1.61%
Aluminium 1.01% 0.81%
Silver 0.74% 1.10%
Sodium 0.65%
Potassium 0.47%
Chlorine 0.45%
Calcium 0.44% 1.78%
Iron 0.31% 0.31%
Copper 0.24% 0.26%
Total percentage of coin observed 89.12% 93.80%

Some things are beguilingly similar, yes—iron and copper levels stay about the same—but others are not. The first test picked up sodium, potassium and chlorine but none of those turned up second time even though we’d actually got better readings with more of the sample observed (possibly because we gave it a flatter bit to look at). Were we just looking at a different bit? If so, that bit apparently had less silicon in it, but a whole whack more calcium in it. What can you do with these sorts of data?

Gold solidus of Emperor Anastasius I struck at Constantinople 491-518, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0006, in an WD-XRF sample cup

The uncleaned check likewise set up for the results above, though I have to say it’s not like it looks dirty

So this was somewhat daunting, especially as we had four solid days of testing booked in for the following week and now somewhat less certainty that it would produce anything. At the time, my best guess was that the acetone had removed only handling patina, thus exposing the actual surface of the coin and everything that had adhered to or reacted into it while it was in the ground. Actually, looking back, I think we were already seeing here the conclusion that the final experiment would necessarily lead us to. But that would be getting ahead of the story, and even though this story is so very far behind, I have hopes of telling it as I wanted to anyway. So, till next post but, er, two, if I have my plans right (and no-one else dies—did you see Mark E. Smith has left us for the bar of the great and final WMC since the last post?), I shall leave the question hanging…


1. We used randomly-allocated running numbers throughout these experiments, so that we couldn’t try and guess what the results should be according to where the coins fitted in Byzantine history (or the previous curves laid down by work like Cécile Morrisson, Jean-Nöel Barrandon and Jean Poirier, “La monnaie d’or byzantine à Constantinople : purification et modes d’altérations (491-1354)” in Morrisson, Claude Brenot, Barrandon, Poirier and Robert Halleux (edd.), L’or monnayé I : purification et altérations de Rome à Byzance, Cahiers Ernest Babelon 2 (Paris: C. N. R. S. 1985), pp. 113–187. This one was actually Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4599, a solidus of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini struck at Constantinople between 785 and 797, online here. I’m actually almost loath to identify the coins here, though, lest it be thought I’m actually publishing figures for their metal content. As is probably clear, though, that’s something I’m sure we weren’t reliably getting.

2. And this one was Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0006, a solidus of Emperor Anastasius I struck at Constantinople between 491 and 518, online here, with the same reservations as in the previous note.

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In memoriam Ted Buttrey (1929-2018)

2017-2018 has been a rough transition, like 2010-2011’s second instalment but with the deaths closer to me this time. I would have liked the last post but one to be enough for one winter but the toll has continued to ring and ring hard. I already failed to mention Professor Peter Spufford, whom I didn’t know well but should have recorded here after he died on 18 November 2017; I can’t point to a good obituary just yet but there must be one coming, probably indeed in the upcoming Numismatic Chronicle. I likewise would have wished to say something about John Casey, whom I only met a couple of times but was fun both to read and to talk to. But I cannot fail to mention Professor Theodore Vern Buttrey, Junior, because he was one of my favourite people in Cambridge and while his death, on 9 January, was not unexpected as he’d been fighting prostate cancer, more or less in secrecy (I found out last October) for some time, and also he was eighty-nine, still his praises must be sung because he was a fantastic guy. Also, he would be terribly embarrassed by my saying as much on the web, and so if I’m to commit such a sin at all, I must do it so thoroughly that he would feel obliged to step up to the role of his own personality. So Ted, this is your stage.

Professor Ted Buttrey in a seminar in Vienna

“Seriously, you’re gonna do this?” Ted, I am gonna; I owe you no less.

I’m not sure Ted was ever off a stage, if he was where people could see him; he actually did act, indeed one of the first conversations we had where I realised what an strong character he was was when he came into the Department of Coins and Medals announcing that he had been selected as one of the extras for Elizabeth: The Golden Age, which was then filming in Ely. He had thought it best to lie about his age so as not to risk crossing their insurance thresholds, and accordingly, apparently, his legs can be seen in one scene and his top half in another, amid a crowd of bearded Spanish grandees tutting in the background of Philip II’s court. I don’t know how many septuaganarians would do that; by the time I left the Department, however, I knew that Ted was one of them. He also quoted Shakespeare rather a lot, with great and stagey disappointment in the younger generation if it wasn’t recognised, but was as likely to throw out bits of Sophocles, on whom he wrote what is as far as I know his last book; with numismatists it’s always possible there’s another draft that someone is going to finish off, and while I don’t know of one he was always trying to get something else finished before it was too late, so I bet there’s at least one.1 He will also probably still have shipments of numismatic sale catalogues, of which he had amassed the world’s largest collection at the Fitzwilliam, inbound, which is going to be a touch day for the crew who remain there when they arrive, emotionally as well as physically. I remember celebrating the 35,000th catalogue’s accession and the Department’s new mobile shelving with an afternoon of tea, cake, Latin acclamations and sung rounds, accompanied by one of my colleagues on “the Giant Wurlitzer”, a very small Casio keyboard that she discreetly played behind a bookshelf so as not to dispel the illusion. Ted had, of course, written all the words himself, including apologies from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Queen and the Chancellor of the University none of whom, sadly, were able to be present, and I hope I still have the Order of Ceremonies somewhere. Again, who else would do such a thing, and do it over mobile shelving and auction catalogues?

Professor Ted Buttrey with a cartload of numismatic sale catalogues in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

None but Ted! Here pictured with a fresh shipment and a very fake smile in the Grierson Room of the Department

But as the fact that a great numismatist’s last book would be on Classical drama should tell you, Ted was more than a numismatist, and indeed he sometimes described himself as a philologist first and foremost, and this was probably fair if you just take it etymologically (as of course such a person would), in as much he really loved words. It was from Ted I learnt to play Boggle, and while I got to the point where he didn’t often beat me, the real point of the game was not who won but the lengthy arguments over whether the particular combination of letters he’d found on the grid was in fact a real word or not; we haggled for long enough over ‘sawdusts’ that another then-member of the department subsequently got me a mug made with the word on it. To his delight, because my father had been (indeed, when I started there, still was) much of an age with him and had had an American wife, I knew quite a lot of Ted’s backdated Americana references, like Pogo, another huge sink of wordplay for the player with words, and could spar back at him with them. Lunches in the Department were made the more splendid for Ted appearing dramatically in the doorway with a Boggle set and proclaiming, “The hour cometh, and now is!” There was less Boggle after I left and still less after the mug-making colleague did, so I very much hope there’s someone willing to play wherever Ted’s spirit now roams.

Jonathan Jarrett, Ted Buttrey and Vladimir Nastich in the McClean Room, Coins & Medals, Fitzwilliam Museum

Myself, Professor Ted Buttrey and Professor Vladimir Nastich in the McClean Room, Coins & Medals; my beard is more sensible now

What else should be said of Ted? There are many stories to tell, most of which maybe don’t belong here like when I made his life dramatically easier at a stroke by showing him the double-click; Ted had determinedly learnt computers as an early adopter and then carried on using that computer in retirement from 1991 to about 2003, with no-one to tell him about some of the major changes his post-2003 machine embodied. But one cannot speak of Ted as a whole without also including his role as a fraud-busting detective. Not only did he catch two coin thieves at the Department during his tenure as Keeper, one of whom he quite deliberately set up with an opportunity he couldn’t miss, but, much more famously, exposed a traffic in early Mexican and American gold bars which he held to be fakes, including pointing a finger at the traffickers; they then sued him for libel, but the suit was dismissed and since no legal verdict was reached against Ted’s accused either I’ll leave it there, but it made the papers.2 Such was the man.

Cover of Buttrey and Hubbard, Guidebook of Mexican Coins

Cover of Buttrey and Hubbard, Guidebook of Mexican Coins

Obviously I have to mention his scholarship, as well, and it would be too seductively easy to pick out stuff like his work on Domitian’s rhinoceros, on spintriae (careful with that link, probably NSFW unless your work is Roman numismatics or history) or his three excellent and finely-written articles decrying attempts to put numbers on the production of ancient coins which I have praised here before, in general the quirky, funny or destructive (though always scholarly), if only because it would be so hard to pick a small number of the more important publications like the coins from the excavations at Sardis, with the late Ian Carradice the new standard catalogue of the coins of the Flavian emperors, or what is still the go-to book on Mexican coins though his first book of all…3 I mean, there is loads. The American Numismatic Society’s library catalogue contains 116 items under his name and they must be selling him short. Though, weirdly, as he told me once, he’d never actually found a coin in context himself, there were very few coins about which he didn’t know something; though I discovered later that it was not original to him, he was not wrong once to say, “I am a numismatist, and nothing numismatic is foreign to me.”4 And he will be missed for that, and for the work he might still have completed if he’d lived on further, but I don’t often cross with his actual fields of interest, and I personally will miss the Boggle, the elevated drama of his conversation, and the endless fund of stories he could tell—he had crossed the Atlantic by sea more than once, for example—and the fact that when next I go to the Fitzwilliam there will no-one with whom to “savage the reluctant scone” as I would have if Ted were still there. Ladies and gentlemen, I invite you to applaud; the show must end for us all but few of us will deserve reviews as glowing as Ted’s should be.

(I live in hope of being able finally to deliver the new shape of the blog that I have now repeatedly promised. But seriously, people just need to stop dying…5)


1. I actually can’t find any trace of the Sophocles book now that I look, so it may be that it is still in press and it actually will be his last book. I’m fairly sure he told me it had gone off to a press…

2. Of course, it’s a mark against the guy that he would say ‘who’ where he meant ‘whom’. In the words of Doc Owl from Pogo which Ted would sometimes quote, “Whom? Moom?”

3. T. V. Buttrey, “Domitian, the Rhinoceros, and the Date of Martial’s Liber De Spectaculis” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 97 (London 2007), pp. 101-112, online here; idem, “The Spintriae as a Historical Source” in The Numismatic Chronicle 7th Series Vol. 13 (London 1973), pp. 52-63; idem, “Calculating Ancient Coin Production: facts and fantasies”, ibid. Vol. 153 (1993), pp. 335–351; idem, “Calcuating Ancient Coin Production, II: why it cannot be done”, ibid. Vol. 154 (1994), pp. 341–352; S. E. Buttrey and T. V. Buttrey, “Calculating Ancient Coin Production, Again’ in American Journal of Numismatics Vol. 9 (Washington DC 1997), pp. 113–135; T. V. Buttrey, A. Johnston, K. M. Mackenzie & M. L. Bates, Greek, Roman and Islamic Coins from Sardis (Cambridge MA 1982); T. V. Buttrey and I. A. Carradice, The Roman Imperial Coinage, vol. 2 part 1 (revised edition): From AD 69 to AD 96 – Vespasian to Domitian (London 2007); T. V. Buttrey and Clyde Hubbard, Guidebook of Mexican Coins, 1822 to Date, 6th edn. ed. by Thomas Michael (Fort Collins CO 1992).

4. An earlier instance somewhere in P. J. Casey (him again) and Richard reece (edd.), Coins and the Archaeologist, 2nd edn (London 1988), but drat it, I haven’t written down where, sorry.

5. The 2010 post I mentioned was also weighed down by the death of many important musicians, at least important to me, and sadly this is no different. Not only have I taken this long to find out about the death of Walter Becker, bassist-and-more of Steely Dan, in September, but “Fast” Eddie Clarke, once of Motörhead of course, also didn’t make it through this killing winter. The classic line-up of Motörhead is now hopefully reunited, though if so Lemmy will have some serious retractions to make… Anyway, it needs to stop now please, this has just been too many figures of renown to lose in a month.

Society for the Medieval Mediterranean 2015 (in Lincoln), parts 2 & 3

[Context: this post was half-written before I ground to a complete halt in hiatus last year. It’s clear that I can’t continue this scale of write-up, but because it was part-done, and because it involves the recently-lamented Simon Barton, I want to do this last one as it was meant to be done. I am, however, combining what would originally have been two posts, because this is an indulgence I can’t go on permitting myself. After this, we can talk about what happens next but I am hoping, hoping that this is the cough of the blogger’s virtual throat being cleared before saying something in a more regular fashion. We’ll see, but I have hopes and reasons to do it and that’s a powerful combination. This post’s still a composite hodge-podge, though, so I’ve added headings to show where its layers separate.]

The Voice of October 2016

This is, as grimly predicted, the busiest term ever in my life so far, and at some point in it I’m moving house! Yay! Before that point, I can at least crunch out a few more posts, though, I hope [Edit: ha!], and the next in the queue is a report on the second day of the conference of the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean, which as you will recall was in Lincoln in mid-July 2015. This post deals with the papers and so on from the 14th July, and then we’ll talk about something completely different before returning for the third and final day. [Edit: no we won’t, it’s all happening here.]

Brayford Campus of the University of Lincoln

The Brayford Campus of Lincoln University, just for context

There were up to five parallel sessions running at all times except during the keynotes in this conference and so there was always plenty to choose from, including plenty of early medieval. As it happens, I underestimated the time it would take me to get from my (rather good) bed and breakfast to the university and so missed the first paper I’d chosen to see, which was a shame but at least, as its presenter told me, it was substantially the paper I’d seen him give in Leeds. Nonetheless, the questions seemed to reach to different things and I was sorry I hadn’t seen this version. The session as it happened, even where I didn’t see, was like this.

Law in the Post-Roman West

  • Graham Barrett, “Legislation and Codification after Rome”
  • Michael Kelly, “Transhistoricality in Early Medieval Hispania: Law as Narrative and Cultural Episteme”
  • Thomas Gobbitt, “Framing the Laws: prologues, epilogues and peritext. The Liber Leges Langobardorum in the Eleventh and Twelfth Century”
  • So as said, I missed Graham pronouncing his wisdom, but it got a better hearing here than it had at the slightly odd session in which it had been aired at Leeds, and his paper dominated discussion, so it’s worth reprising its central point, that law after the end of Empire in the West was probably mostly used in small bits, which were occasionally recombined into codes but used quite differently in the field (or in court). Questions focused on issues of formality of, well, issue, and the audiences for the different sorts of law people were detecting bundled into codes like the Salic Law, and this discussion also included Graham asking what the difference is between a ‘capitulary’ and a ‘novel’, a question that could only matter to a legal historian you’d think but has everything to do with our confused relationship with the Roman Empire, both imitative and successive.

    I didn’t really understand Michael Kelly’s paper, I will confess. It may, from my notes, have been intended to argue that all our sources were constructed by their authors to convey a particular version of the past, not reality, and that our sources therefore are really only sources for their context, the Visigothic Law being no exception and very full of contemporary bias that belies its deliberate impression of antiquity, in which case OK, but phrases like, “transhistoricality must be a purely discursive phenomenon,” meant that I’m not sure.

    Lastly Dr Gobbitt gave us a spirited run-through of the survival of Lombard laws in the eleventh century in the form of a text known as the Liber leges langobardorum [sic], which gathered up the Edict of Rothari and various other bits of genuinely Lombardic legislation along with some laws of Charlemagne and a reasonable salting of historical material (much of it already travelling with Rothari), apparently all for study at or around Pavia in a kind of pre-Bologna legal college. He too emphasised variation: no two of the seven eleventh-century manuscripts gather quite the same materials or lay them out in the same way. This stuff was of interest to a range of people but their purposes were not all the same. Quite what those purposes were was work still to be done but the evidence base seemed well established.

Justice and Judicial Practices in Early Medieval North-Western Iberia (II): punishment and justice in Castile and León

  • Julio Escalona, “Follow the Money? Justice and Authority in the Sanction Clauses of Tenth-Century Castilian Charters”
  • Álvaro Carvajal Castro, “Authority and Liability in Ninth- and Tenth-Century North-Western Iberia: the evidence from the sanction clauses”
  • Igor Santos Salazar, “Rule Through Courts: the settlement of disputes in Castile and Tuscany during the tenth-century”
  • It would probably be hard to pick three Iberian-peninsula scholars who have worked harder to link up with other areas and fields, and especially the English-speaking world, than these three, but because of the occasion they had a substantially Iberian-peninsula audience too and this was probably as close as I shall get to attending a seminar in Spain until I can take a year out to improve my spoken languages or something, which is to say, valuable. Not least, of course, because this was effectively a charters session! Julio’s was illuminating: doing more or less the exercise I had done the previous year with Vic’s charters by going through the clauses in which they lay down what will happen to those who infringe the charter’s provisions, he noted that alongside the threats of excommunication, less common in sales than in donations as I too had found, there are many fines, levied largely in the name of the king. This being tenth-century Castile, however, the king was far away, and the count doesn’t turn up as much as you’d expect and was not clearly a royal delegate for these purposes. Instead, the money seems to have gone to local lords whom we otherwise struggle to identify, those much-vaunted ‘local élites’, domini, whom Julio argued should be the focus of our questions about community formation in these areas rather than the traditional village grouping of the alfoz. This paper had some seriously subversive connotations bubbling up out of those sanction clauses.

    Álvaro had meanwhile done something similar with charters from further west, in Asturias-León, and found a judicial system anchored in the same ideas but based very much on guarantee and surety, whether explicit or implicit; instructions on who was to pay if something went wrong show no particular regularity over whether actor or recipient, or either of their families, was expected to be liable. Instead, we have to assume that these situations were being judged, negotiated and arranged according to how people felt the various options which the traditional legal library gave them were best deployed in each case. Igor, meanwhile, lacking a precisely comparable charter base in Tuscany, looked instead at the actual trials there and in Castile, which was valuable because unlike in Julio’s documents, the counts of Castile rarely appear in actual court cases; instead, again, their roles were delegated down to locals, this presumably being one way in which the counts attached themselves to such communities via the local headmen whose station they thus enhanced.

I am absolutely fine with this, but what was interesting was the comparison with Italy, where Igor saw the same trick being played with a different deck of cards, a working system of public courts becoming less effective in the face of decentralising power and being met with a recentralisation via an overhaul of that system that linked local ‘judges’ to the kingship. There is here a bigger dynamic about what failing states do to regain traction in their localities, I think, and it’s one we could probably do with taking out and showing people. The role of the king was quite different in the two cases, being distant in Asturias and active in Tuscany, but then, the kings in Italy were already a local response to detachment from the bigger system of the Carolingian Empire to which, in its Ottonian form, attachment would soon resume… I think it works! And I’m also not sure I realised this at the time… That may of course have been because I had other things on my mind right then, not just lunch though that did indeed come next, but my own paper, because I was in fact up next, in this august company.

Medieval Iberia

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Ceremonies of Property Transfer in Carolingian Catalonia: a model of documented transaction”
  • James d’Emilio, “The Formulaic Clauses of Charters: tradition, variation and originality”
  • Laura Cayrol Bernando, “« Hermana del emperador »: (re)constructing the memory of the Infanta Sancha Raimundez (d. 1159)”

The voice of January 2018 now takes up the story…

    Predictably, my own paper in this session is the hardest for me to remember because I wasn’t making notes, but I’ve just re-read it and gosh-darn if it isn’t actually one of my better ones and I should probably send it out. What I was doing was something I’ve stabbed at here already, gathering up all the various testimonies I know from Catalan documents to the phenomenon specialists call reparatio scripturae, the replacement of documents that had been lost, and arguing that there is here evidence that not just churches but lay people went to some effort to get their friends and neighbours to remember not just the existence of charters but their actual textual content, and wondering what those efforts might have looked like. Josep María Salrach has already thrown a sentence or two away on this, but in the words of the late Captain Beefheart, “there’s more.” As I say, I should do something with this. Any suggestions?

    Monastery of San Julián de Samos

    It’s hard to think of images for a lot of these papers, given how much they were about concepts, but Professor D’Emilio’s one was at least partly located here at the monastery of San Julián de Samos, so here’s a picture! By José Antonio Gil Martínez from Vigo, GaliciaFlickr, CC BY 2.0, Link

    As to the other two speakers, James D’Emilio was on similar turf, but much later and in Castile; I was concerned about the apparent use of written formulae in my texts, but he can place some of his, from the Bible and Isidore of Seville. As that implies, his texts usually had grander aspirations and participants than mine, kings and bishops, but it’s still something to watch out for: who says charter formulae have to start in charters? Then Laura Cayrol Bernando looked at a different kind of creation of memory, using the vexed question of just what the infantado that royal heiresses in high medieval Castile held was, to expose quite late medieval processes of sanctification of female royal donors by their commemorating churches that have, basically, created the problems with that question. In the process, however, it showed how some family ties were remembered much longer than others because things like this hung upon them and so had active memorialisers. Because I was facing them, I don’t have much of a record of the questions from this session, and so without further ado I move on, as did we, to the second keynote address of the conference.

Keynote 2

Andrew Marsham, “Rituals of Accession in Early Islam: a comparative perspective”
With us all gathered in the same room again, Simon, may he rest well, introduced Andrew Marsham, who somewhat cautiously introduced his own attempt to imitate Jinty Nelson‘s early work on rituals of royal inauguration.1 Resting explicitly on that, he set out to try and compare her early medieval West to both Byzantium and Islam, using the moments at which a king, emperor or caliph assumed power to expose what people thought was most important about that office. He argued that all three political zones shared the Judæo-Christian inheritance of a conviction that power ultimately came from God, making the ruler in some way the representative of God on earth. In the West, this became a link that was mediated through the Church, by coronation and unction, even to the point where without the cooperation of churchmen kings could not in fact assume power sometimes; the same struggles do occur in Byzantium but the Church was never so clearly separate from the ruler’s control, and in Islam of course there is no Church, no liturgy as such, making other rituals like handclasping and popular acceptance much more significant, though they did operate in other areas too. Dr Marsham argued that what the caliphs lost, or saved themselves from, by not having that apparatus of religion to serve or obstruct them they however compensated for somewhat by also being the heirs of the Sasanian Persian monarchy, from which they could draw the representations of higher and divine power without which their office might have struggled to be free of direct interference from the ‘umma. I make this sound less tentative than I remember it being, but I didn’t think there was much wrong with it; Dr Marsham had been careful in stepping outside his own area and it was a thought-provoking lecture.

The Old Palace Hotel, Lincoln

The Old Palace Hotel, Lincoln

With that complete, we then wandered at varying length to the Old Palace, where a rather splendid dinner was set before us. I can remember thinking at point of registration that the cost of the dinner was fairly high, but the setting alone quickly explained why, and the food didn’t fall short either; looking back, I think that was probably money well spent. There were two sessions the next morning before we all dispersed, with hard choices to make about what to go to, but you’ll quickly see why I chose as I did. First up!

Justice and Judicial Practices in Early Medieval North-Western Iberia

  • Iñaki Martín Viso, “Authority and Justice in the Shaping of Asturleonese Monarchy”
  • Robert Portass, “Levels of Justice in Tenth-Century Northern Spain”
  • Fernando Luis-Corral & María Pérez Rodríguez, “Local Communities and the Uses of Justice in the Kingdom of León”
  • These are, as you can tell, my kind of questions and being asked of my period in a neighbouring area by some of the hot names in the field, so my choice was clear. Iñaki was looking at Asturias in its ninth-century expansion, and observing that while the kings are a big part of that so are counts and other nobles; he saw a difference between them in that the kings were always the highest court of judicial appeal, and managed often to claim overall hegemony in areas of new settlement even if they didn’t orchestrate it, but that even out there there were still areas where the kings held and could grant no lands because a count or a bishop had got there first; he pointed at Astorga and Coimbra for this. The following, and interesting, process, would thus be the one by which the various non-royal officers of justice in these areas were brought to recognise the king as their superior… Rob then brought out the judicial hearings from his pet area of Liébana, and argued that although office-holders like counts were visible in them they were often not the ones holding the court, which could be done by various individuals who had no ‘official’ right we can recognise except that they owned a lot of the local land; the local monastery was only one of these. Categories like ‘public’ and ‘private’ are really no use here, therefore. The paper involved a guy called Bagauda about whom I’ve written here before; I then thought that the obvious explanation of his position was that he owned the land the victims lived on, but Rob says that ain’t necessarily so. I need to read his book!2 And the last paper was a study of the enigmatic figures known as ‘worthy men’, boni homines, in the Iberian Peninsula’s charters, asking whether they were the tools of local communities or the means by which aristocrats asserted power over those communities. They concluded the latter, but without much attention to who the people in question actually were and how their position was manifested, and I felt quietly that if the speaker and his co-author had read, well, me, they’d have a more useful way of approaching this question.3

But the real worth of this session was the discussion, which was lengthy and erudite. I started by raising the point that power in Rob’s area need not have been solely economic, which Rob answered with a reflection about what actually made power here, and whether the ability to coordinate process or the ability to defy it was more ‘powerful’. I don’t think question an answer linked but both were good points if I do say so myself. Igor Santos asked if the fact that the winners write history means that we can’t see the weak in these trials, only the strong, but Iñaki asked if the Church, which is our source of record, must always be the strong party, and here again (as you may know) I agree. There then followed a lengthy tangle over what constituted the ‘public sphere’ in this area in this period, and specifically how the written law fitted into this, which was certainly not everywhere, and whether there was one ‘public sphere’ or many local senses of public practice, both questions raised by Julio Escalona. I suggested, as had Graham Barrett earlier, that law and custom were not necessarily separate either; the written law could be invoked as custom. But especially, because at this point I was still tangling with the questions about how someone powerful on the outside manoeuvered themselves into a local position of power in the frontier zones here at which I wrote at such length here a few years ago, I was interested in who set the limits of public office, and here Iñaki made a useful differentiation between sorts of royal property and rights that got me thinking, which Julio followed with the idea that kings and counts together tended to limit the number of people who could claim comital status. In both cases, it seemed to me (and seems) the crucial operation is to get other people recognising the rights you claim in your office. Afterwards, over coffee, Julio, Rob and I all agreed that this can be seen as convincing people that the public sphere you claim is the same one that they recognise. This is what the Asturian kings, and also the counts of Barcelona, achieved in the ninth and tenth centuries and I still want to know how. Then, onwards to the last session!

‘Del tuerto al dretto’: bridging the gap between lawcodes and society in the medieval Mediterranean world

  • Jeffrey Bowman, “Women Administering Justice in the High Middle Ages: a divergence of rule and practice”
  • Rodrigo García-Velasco, “Municipal Law at the Iberian frontier: the evidence of the fueros and cartas de población during the Iberian Reconquista, c. 1050-c.&nbsp:1150″
  • Belen Vicens, “Infançones, franchos, and Wannabees: rethinking status and identity in late medieval Aragón”
  • Here, of course, I had to be because I have learnt a lot from one of the participants, taught another and knew nothing of the third, all good reasons and the more so once combined. Professor Bowman was pointing out an obvious but neglected thing, that though as far as most of the rules on the subject we have from the Middle Ages say that women could not sit in judgement over men, they did nevertheless sometimes do so in the persons of countesses and viscountesses and probably more. Sometimes people argued about this: a legal specialist dealing with Matilda of Canossa wisely decided that her office carried the jurisdiction but in a case involving Ermengarde of Narbonne it went all the way to the king of France, who used it as a way to claim Narbonne as part of the French crown! There was, basically, usually a way to make it work whatever the rules said and fighting it as illegitimate doesn’t usually seem to have worked, which is worth keeping around to think with.

    Cathedral of SS Just & Pastor, Narbonne

    I like this picture of Narbonne Cathedral so much that even this weak excuse will do to use it again. By Benh LIEU SONG (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

    Rodrigo was looking at the various concessions of rights and local jurisdiction by kings that we group as fueros, a term that has come simply to mean ‘laws’ so commonly were these issued, and asking where the balance of power lay between the locals whose rights were here asserted and the kings who apparently granted them. He argued, however, that the texts we have represent a step after the balance had been found and agreed, and that the real processes of power lay in the circumstances that had led to the text’s issue. Again, the question of how to convince a potential subject you and they shared a sphere of power arises, which is of course why I cite Rodrigo’s work sometimes, but there was argument in questions about whether the fueros were somehow a bridge between the two public spheres or just an incentive dangled before the ungoverned by those who would govern them.4 Then the last paper looked at an episode of 1248 in which a number of people claiming free status were reduced to serfdom by royal judgement; the speaker argued that this was an exercise of consolidation of definitions of freedom which had previously been vague, imposing rules which left some people on the wrong side, and that trying to read the rules back from such cases was a mistake. That was why there needed to be a hearing! Well, maybe, but it was a good place to end.

And since thereafter we all said our goodbyes and dispersed, me towards the rather splendid cathedral—possibly the most impressive in the UK, but I sadly without my camera—and then the railway station, it’s where I have to end too, closing an era of far-too-intensive reporting in the hope that you can see why I found it all worthwhile to do. Next post: the new régime!

West front of Lincoln Cathedral

Likewise this one! Lincoln Cathedral’s west front, by Anthony Shreeve public domain via Wikimedia Commons


1. Collected in Janet L. Nelson, Politics and Ritual in Early Medieval Europe (London 1986).

2. It being Robert Portass, The Village World of Early Medieval Northern Spain: local community and the land market, Royal Historical Society Studies in History: New Series (Woodbridge 2017). In fact, two different journals have asked me if I wanted to review this, and I said no, partly because I know Rob too well, partly because I didn’t have time and mainly because I had already got myself a copy when I finally got round to paying my first subscription to the Royal Historical Society, which published it. Of course that still doesn’t mean I’ve read it, but I do intend to!

3. Specifically, if they’d read Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Royal Historical Society Studies in History: New Series (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 35-36 & n. 55.

4. The work of Rodrigo’s that I cite is his “Legislation and Resistance: limitations of royal power on the Catalan and Aragonese frontiers, 986–1134”, M.St. dissertation (University of Oxford 2013), which I had the fun of supervising, but I think he would say that his thinking has moved on a bit now and I await the completion of his doctoral thesis keenly! No pressure, Rodrigo…

Society for the Medieval Mediterranean 2015 (in Lincoln), part 1

Medieval depiction of the city of Genoa

Masthead image from the conference website, a medieval depiction of Genoa whose source I can’t track down

We’re back into term and there’s even less time available for blogging than usual, but there is a huge backlog still, and so I suppose it behoves me to slog onwards. I went to a lot of conferences the summer before last, and it’s the, er, fourth of them that’s up next, which was the 2015 meeting of the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean, held at the University of Lincoln over the 13th to 15th of July. The title of the conference was Law, Custom and Ritual in the Medieval Mediterranean. Despite this, I hadn’t straight away wanted to go, mainly because it fell straight after the International Medieval Congress and I rightly expected to be exhausted, but Lincoln is nice and the conference programme was also full of people from Spain I wanted to meet or be met by. Also, in retrospect, since of the fifty-four papers five, at a stretch, mentioned Catalonia, and one of those only Catalunya Nova, I almost had to speak just to show the flag… So I was there, and this was a good decision.

West front of Lincoln Cathedral

The cathedral is at least five good reasons to go to Lincoln, but I seem not to have taken a camera with me, so you’ll have to make do with this one by Anthony Shreeve, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

We began at a civilised hour on the 13th, which is to say after lunch, and then I made what will immediately seem an obvious decision for those who know me, which was to go and hear Wendy Davies. The session broke down like this.

Judicial Practices in Early Medieval Northwestern Iberia (1)

  • Wendy Davies, “Partial (? and Impartial) Records of Judicial Practice in Northern Iberia pre-1000”
  • Isabel Alfonso, José M. Andrade and André Evangelista Marques, “Recording Judicial Information: a comparative approach”
  • Wendy set up a distinction between full records of court proceedings, which in her tenth-century north-western area as in my tenth-century north-eastern one tend to be full-size formal records redacted by the winners with an often extensive narrative explaining how the winner was right (sometimes not so extensive, but…) and, on the other hand, informal notes of process which we find, when we look, quoted in other texts or jotted in the margins or on the dorses of our more formal charters, less constructed but sometimes more formulaic, sometimes being verbatim copies of oaths, agreements to come to a further hearing and so on. I seem to have asserted, as per usual, that we could find this in Catalonia too, but looking back now (at a point when I am running unusually dull of brain, I should admit) I struggle to think of some and it sounds as if Wendy has more. All good reasons to read her new book, anyway!1

    A marriage pact of 951 witnessed by the newly-succeded King Ordoño II in 951, Madrid, Archivo Historical Nacional, Carp. 1430 N.16

    This is not a charter of the right sort, but it is at least a charter from the right monastery, Celanova, and the right period, being a marriage pact of 951 witnessed by the newly-succeded King Ordoño II in 951, Madrid, Archivo Historical Nacional, Carp. 1430 N.16. and what a charter it is!

    The second paper I was keen on seeing just because I have used José Andrade’s work, had occasional second-hand encouragement from him and wanted to meet the man, and he and his colleagues turned out to be presenting a new database, which should now be live though I can’t find it I’m afraid, and this had meant them having to think very hard about categories (which is, of course, one of the problems with that otherwise noble endeavour). They wound up with nine categories of which one was ‘mixed records’, which is how that usually works; it turns out that what people did doesn’t fit what we want to see… The database, anyway, includes the documents from the monastery of Sahagún as was and the much smaller but in some ways more interesting one of Otero de las Dueñas; Otero’s sample is much smaller (including physically) but far more of their records are judicial, and show a generally lower social level of action, local courts with decisions made by local worthies whereas Sahagún increasingly went to the king for its resolutions. Other components of the sample are the monasteries of Samos and Celanova, where the situation is partly inverse in as much as royally-founded Samos has much less information for us. Again, however, the smaller house preserved a greater proportion of lawsuits, including ones where they lost. The final components are the gathered samples from what is now Portugal, handled by André Evangelista, who compared the monasteries of Moreira and Guimaraes to a very similar effect: Guimaraes has less stuff but 40% of it is judicial records, all admittedly after the event, formal records as Wendy would have it. A short conclusion might be: if as a monastery you didn’t have wealth, you held power more aggressively.2

Interior view of the cloister at the Pousada Mosteiro de Guimaraes

The current state of the monastery of Guimaraes, which is to say, a rather expensive hotel

In discussion, however, the speakers were all keen to stress that the situation they had depicted changed a great deal in the eleventh century, not least because of King Alfonso VI. Here again, I feel sympathy; there is a divide between the societies I study and those of 1100 onwards that is, I think, why I find some kind of feudal transformation narrative compelling even as I disbelieve it in detail. People did things differently thereafter… Anyway, then after coffee from the mundane to the eternal, in subject matter at least.

Orthodoxy and Deviance

  • Elena Nonveiller, “‘Paganism’ in the 7th Century in Byzantium: the dynamics of exclusion and inclusion that defined Orthodoxy”
  • Laura Carlson, “Written & Oral Forms of Public Penitence during the Adoptionist Controversy”
  • Ms Nonveiller gave us a close analysis of the Council of Trullo of 692, in which Emperor Justinian II (of whom we have heard) tried to do a general regulation of belief that included, among other things, measures against Judaism and pagan practices. The word used for pagan in the council acts (which never got actually cited, so I can’t tell you where to find them) is apparently ‘hellenikos’, i. e. Classical Greek, but many of the usages they sought to ban were not Classical as far as we can tell, things like leaping over a fire at your door for the new year. Ms Nonveiler sought to reimpose the separation of origins that syncretism had, for her, by this time erased, and suggested that this custom was probably Jewish or Slavic; I saw no reason why it shouldn’t be local to wherever the relevant churchmen had found it, myself, and in general thought that tracking this stuff through texts was unlikely to relate much to what the people doing it actually thought. Ironically perhaps, Ms Nonveiller closed by noting that many of these provisions had to be repeated in the next council, and so were perhaps too theoretical to affect practice! But, warned by Carolingian precedent, I asked whether much of the council’s condemnations were themselves repeated from earlier texts, and of course it turned out that many of them were. A Western perspective would probably see this much less as active legislation and much more as an imperial performance of orthodoxy, speaking out against well-recognised bad things whether they were still happening since their first condemnation three centuries before or not, and I’m not sure that Westerner would be wrong.3

    Bibliothèque Carnegie de Reims, MS 385, fo. 134r

    The beginning of the profession of faith of Bishop Felix of Urgell, in Reims, Bibliothèque Carnegie de Reims, MS 385, fo. 134r

    Laura, meanwhile, had found in a single Reims manuscript apparently (of course, constructed for Archbishop Hincmar) a copy of Bishop Felix of Urgell’s final profession of faith.4 For those who don’t know him, Felix had been both the Carolingians’ main bishop in Catalonia when they took it over and, as they saw it, a dangerous heretic, being part of the Adoptionist movement that had grown up in the peninsular Church. He was repeatedly made to disavow this belief but somehow remained in office with it until 799, which is the date of this letter. And it is a letter, to his canons (who are listed, very exciting for me), assuming the state of a penitent and thus demitting his office. Laura proposed that this was effectively a public penance by letter, making it known through to all that he was defeated and that he admitted Adoptionism was wrong, effectively pouring poison into his network but also, as I argued in discussion, opening the way for a Carolingian-approved election at Urgell. By contrast, his previous two confessions could have been considered ‘private’, a compromise intended to allow him to stay in office as the Carolingians’ agent. In 799 that was apparently decided insufficient and he was made to take this step of self-removal, but as Laura also pointed out, since the Carolingians were then reforming the practice of penance, by 800 it would have been impossible.5 Nonetheless, the situation and the fact that Felix quotes the profession of faith of none other than Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople, as condemned before Emperor Theodosius II at Ephesus in 431, made this council of 799 a kind of mirror of that one in which Charlemagne got to play Theodosius ending the divisive heresy in his lands. Again, I wonder how much Felix’s real practices mattered here against the possibility of the soon-to-be-imperial performance of orthodoxy…

    Alfonso X of Castile and his court, as shown in the 12th-century Libro de los Juegos

    Alfonso X of Castile and his court, as shown in the 12th-century Libro de los Juegos; from Wikimedia Commons

    Finally that day, we were treated to a keynote address by Professor Simon Doubleday, entitled “Illegitimate Concerns”. This was a lecture about bastardy, with specific reference to King Alfonso X of Castile, the Wise. Although his father Fernando I reportedly advised him to remain chaste, this seems to be something Alfonso had trouble with; as well as being betrothed to Yolanda, daughter of King Jaume of Aragón in 1246, marrying her in 1248 and starting to have children soon after, he was by then already father of one Beatriz by a long-term partner. At the point of Alfonso and Yolanda’s marriage, therefore, poor Beatriz, aged 8, was shipped off to Portugal to marry King Afonso III, despite him already being married. It’s complicated, as they say. But the point of the lecture lay in the relationship that King Alfonso and Beatriz maintained, especially after the coup that temporarily deposed him, during which time she came to live with him (although one may suspect that the 300 troops she apparently brought with her gladdened the king’s heart nearly as much). It doesn’t seem to have been a problem for the king to recognise that tie, nurture it with gifts of lands along the Portuguese border or exploit it in time of trouble, even though the law, to which of course Alfonso added, was pretty clear that children born out of wedlock had no real rights in the face of those legitimately born. Professor Doubleday wondered, therefore, where we’d lost this relative generosity to the illegitimate, and with those musings we wound up the day and headed for the wine reception, with brains pleasantly full.


    1. You didn’t know Wendy had a new book out? She does, and it is W. Davies, Windows on Justice in Northern Iberia, 800-1000 (London 2016). I need to read it before the end of term somehow, too…

    2. This must also be cyclical, and relate to Jinty Nelson’s long-ago point about how it takes time for monasteries to grow roots in the community, so they start by buying lands and only then go on to receiving donations and fighting people for their rights; see Janet L. Nelson, “Women and the Word in the Earlier Middle Ages” in W. J. Sheils & Diana Wood (edd.), Women in the Church: papers read at the 1989 summer meeting and the 1990 winter meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, Studies in Church History Vol. 27 (Oxford 1990), pp. 53-78, and indeed for early medieval Iberia 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 2005 for 2003), pp. 229-258.

    3. That Westerner would only have had to read Patrick Wormald, “Lex scripta and Verbum regis: legislation and Germanic kingship, from Euric to Cnut” in Peter Sawyer & Ian N. Wood (edd.), Early Medieval Kingship (Leeds 1977), pp. 105-138, but let’s remember how long it took me to do so I suppose…

    4. As in the caption above, this is Reims, Bibliothèque Carnegie de Reims, MS 385, fos 134r-138r and followed by a letter of his fos 138r-140r. If you care about such things, Archbishop Hincmar of Reims signed the bottom of fo. 136r…

    5. See Rob Meens, “The Frequency and Nature of Early Medieval Penance” in Peter Biller & A. J. Minnis (edd.), Handling Sin: Confession in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge 1998), pp. 35-61, and on the controversy over Felix and his beliefs, John C. Cavadini, The Last Christology of the West: Adoptionism in Spain and Gaul, 785-820 (Philadelphia 1993), a book I wish Pennsylvania University Press would reprint as there is so little else in English on this and it’s really expensive to get now.

Available for supervision

It’s the start of term and I have been away and everything is frantic, there is scarcely time even for a short post. But I have been meaning to post this for quite a while, and this doesn’t seem like a bad time. I have, of course, supervised student research, a number of undergraduate dissertations and a slightly larger number of Master’s theses, two of which, I’m glad to say, produced potentially publishable material. I have also had part-care of a few other people’s doctoral students, but up till now, with the years in this post hopefully stretching out ahead of me, I have never been able to offer full supervision of a doctoral thesis. But now I can!

Declaration of supervision interests: "I can offer supervision in most areas of research covering early and central medieval Europe in the West and the Byzantine Empire, and am slowly trying to close the gap. I am particularly interested in research questions involving frontiers, the Iberian Peninsula, the Carolingian Empire, coinage or charters or any combination of the above!"

Screenshotted just now from my Leeds profile page, linked through

A long time ago there used to be postgraduate students who read this blog, there may be yet. If you’re interested in what I’m interested in and want to take that interest further, consider the University of Leeds and its Institute of Medieval Studies, and get in touch if you want to know more…

When is a hoard not a hoard?

In the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in the University of Birmingham there is a black box, about as big as the ones A4 printer paper come in, which contains 275 coins. Almost all of them are copper-alloy of some description and they are collectively known as either the Balkans Hoard or the Heathrow Hoard. I was faced with this even before I began work there as Interim Curator of Coins, because they used it as an interview test, and they will never know how I only had the faintest idea what any of it was because of frantic reading of Philip Grierson the week before.1 (Never.) One of my assigned responsibilities while in that job was to produce a report on this box, which I duly did in February 2016, by which stage I also had a master’s student working on it for her dissertation and plans actually to publish it with her. Somehow, by the end of my tenure in post those plans had not much advanced, and so in October 2015 as I gathered my various responsibilities up in the new job I decided that this project was still among them, and stubbed this post to tell you about it. As it happens, a few days ago I signed off the first part of the project, a skeleton formal catalogue, and so it’s all very timely how these things (slowly) come around.

A copper-alloy follis of Emperor Anastasius I, struck at Antioch in 498-518, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0151

A copper-alloy follis of Emperor Anastasius I, struck at Antioch in 498-518, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0151. This isn’t one of the coins in the box; I don’t seem to have a picture of any of the folles therein, but it’s not unlike them except by being from Antioch; there’re only a couple of Antioch coins in there, and they’re both of Justinian I.

I noticed even at the interview that this supposed hoard was not one, at least as the word is usually understood. The most obviously identifiable components were big early folles of Emperors Anastasius I (491-518), Justin I (518-527), Justinian I (527-565) and Justin II (565-574), but on the other hand a goodly part of what was in the box was concave billon, and so late-eleventh-century or later. The implied 500-year span pretty much precludes this being a single assemblage; while certainly folles circulated for a very long time, it’s not half a millennium by anyone’s reckoning and the concave coins and the old flat ones probably couldn’t have been part of the same system. (Probably. Assuming there was actually a system. Anyway…)

Billon aspron trachy of Emperor John III Ducas, otherwise known as John Vatatzes, struck at Thessalonica in 1249-1254, Barber Institute of Fine Arts BH0173

This is a lot more like what the state of the ‘hoard’ is generally like, and is, we think, a billon aspron trachy of Emperor John III Ducas, otherwise known as John Vatatzes, struck at Thessalonica in 1249-1254. You can imagine how much fun the identification was… The Barber has not formally accessioned the ‘hoard’, but this coin’s provisional access number is Barber Institute of Fine Arts BH0173. Not to scale with previous coin.

Further investigation only deepened this paradox. Firstly this was because we were able to identify more of the components. The later end included not just this twelfth-century concave stuff, mainly of Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) but some later still, but bits and pieces of the Latin Empire of Constantinople and its Thessalonican rival and really quite a lot of medieval Bulgarian material, most of all of Tsar Ivan Alexander (1331-1371) though again, a bit later. The absolute outlier was a grano of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1519-1558)! Meanwhile, we had checked into the provenance, because the ‘hoard’ had originally come to us from the British Museum, and we had only received the Byzantine portion. It turned out that what they had kept was another 400-odd coins, mostly from the period of the Roman Empire but going back as far as Alexander the Great (336 BC-323 BC). So that date range was now up to nearly 1900 years and the issues of some very different states. It’s not a hoard!

Copper-alloy asarion of Tsar Ivan Alexander and his son Michael, struck at an unknown location in 1331-55, provisionally numbered Barber Institute of Fine Arts BH0088.

Copper-alloy asarion of Tsar Ivan Alexander and his son Michael, struck at an unknown location in 1331-55, provisionally numbered Barber Institute of Fine Arts BH0088. Not to scale with previous coin, though it is actually smaller.

Except, it kind of is. A hoard is by definition an assemblage of valuable items (whether personally or monetarily valuable) deposited with the intent of recovery, right?2 Well, the other documentation we got from the British Museum clarified a lot of things. This particular assemblage was deposited in a set of carrier bags, behind a loose panel in a bathroom on board an aeroplane staging through London Heathrow airport on its way between Sofia and Washington DC. If that’s a ritual deposit, I’m pretty sure it’s only because shipping stuff out of Bulgaria to sell on the US market has now become almost a regular practice.3 Someone was meant to pick this up. As it happened instead, it was discovered by a cleaner and taken over by Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise, who decided in due course that there was no prospect of returning it to its owner and that therefore it fell under a legal doctrine called ‘last resort’, which meant that rather than lose it to world heritage by dumping it on the open market it could be deposited with a UK museum. So the British Museum got it and gave some of it to the Barber. (This was in 2004; I believe the law about this changed in 2008.) It’s a fascinating group, has some actual numismatic novelties in it we think, and the combination of what’s in there allows one to make some educated guesses about where it was coming from (which my student bravely did, on the back of considerable research4), but it’s most fascinating as a collection, I think, because of the story by which it has become a hoard. It’s one of the things I’m working on, anyway, and, while it is temporarily out of my court, you can expect some day to hear more about it here.


1. Reading, of course, P. Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982) which, if it doesn’t have all the answers, at least has most of the questions and some good guesses with illustrations to help. If you ever have to gen up on Byzantine coinage in a week, I recommend it!

2. For example, P. Grierson, Numismatics (Oxford 1975), p. 125: “A hoard is by definition a group of coins or other valuables which was concealed as a unit….”

3. This is the bit that needs the most substantiation, really, isn’t it? But you could start with Tihomir Bezlov & Emil Tzenkov, Organized Crime in Bulgaria: markets and trends (Sofia 2007), pp. 177-198, or Nathan T. Elkins, “A Survey of the Material and Intellectual Consequences of Trading in Undocumented Ancient Coins: A Case Study on the North American Trade” in Frankfurter elektronische Rundschau zur Altertumskunde Vol. 7 (2008), pp. 1–13, online at http://s145739614.online.de/fera/ausgabe7/Elkins.pdf, last modified October 2, 2008, as of October 12, 2009. I found these cites while researching what became Jonathan Jarrett, Reinhold Hüber-Mork, Sebastian Zambanini & Achille Felicetti, “Coinage, Digitization and the World-Wide Web: Numismatics and the COINS Project” in Brent H. Nelson & Melissa Terras (edd.), Digitizing Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture, New Technologies in Medieval and Renaissance Studies 3 (Tempe: University of Arizona Press 2012), pp. 459-489, but look, they have become useful again because the problem did not end with what these people knew about…

4. I can’t replicate her bibliography here, not least as I don’t have a copy, but the place to start for the Anglophone is D. Michael Metcalf, Coinage in South-Eastern Europe 820-1396, Royal Numismatic Society Special Publication 11 (London 1979), even now.

Leeds IMC report for 2015, part 1

It’s a bit ridiculous, isn’t it, this backlog, but yet it does reduce, and as a result I am now into the veritable height of the European medievalist’s conference season, the International Medieval Congress at what is now my home base at the University of Leeds. Now, in fact on this first day of the Congress there was a lot of sorting out of that ‘home’ aspect, so I missed the keynote lectures and the first session of papers, but finally arriving during the Monday lunchbreak, I was able to begin the academic day like this:

233. The Early Islamic World, II: Provinces and Frontiers – Syria and the West

  • Corisande Fenwick, “Berbers and Borderlands: frontier society in North Africa”
  • Anna Leone, Marco Nebbia, Ralf Bockmann, Hafed Abdouli, Moftah Haddad and Ahmed Masud, “Changing Landscape in the 8th Century to the 10th Century: the case of the Jebel Nefiya and Tripolitania”
  • Denis Genequand, “Elites in the Countryside: recent research on the Umayyad ‘desert castles’
  • I went to this session partly because of knowing Corisande, partly because of a vague fascination with the Umayyad desert palaces that has occasionally shown itself here and mainly because Corisande had waved the words ‘frontier’ and ‘borderlands’ at us, usually guaranteed to catch my interest. Certainly the area she was looking at challenges our usual ideas of borders, since the vast area of Africa taken over in the Umayyad conquests of the seventh century was so huge as for the presence of the notional occupiers to have to be very sporadic and consequently very concentrated, which leaves a distinct archæological profile marked off by garrison architecture, mosques, a greater range of foodstuffs and, most of all, coins from military pay, and beyond it, really very little presence. For me this paper was problematised by an assumption that Corisande verbalised in questions, that new buildings mean new people; if there were in fact assimilation of local populations into these fortress settlements going on, you could not detect it that way. Still, the extremity of the social division was a point well put.

    Remains of the Christian church at Henchir al-Faouar in Tunisia

    Ironically, the best images I can find from the sites named in this paper are of the Christian church at Henchir al-Faouar in Tunisia


    Of the other two papers, the former was the more peculiar, as only one of the authors had in fact been advertised on the program and she had been unable to come, so the paper was read by Andrew Marsham and had a title that was also different from that advertised. Nonetheless, it was interesting: the team in question have been carrying out a survey of mosques over much of the old province of Tripolitania in what is now Libya and were now proceeding to join this up to a survey of settlements. Oddly, the mosques are not all at the settlements, which tend to cluster on hilltops in defensively-clustered fashion at distances of 5-7 kilometres from each other, whereas the mosques could often be in the wilds between them. Dating all this is the next problem, since some of the settlements began in the fourth or fifth centuries and some are Ottoman, with pretty much everything in between too, so the changing landscape had yet to become visible but the possibilities were considerable.
    The fortified granary of Qasr Kabaw in the Jebel Nafusa

    Also, the architecture is amazing. This is thirteenth-century, apparently, but I don’t care; it is the fortified granary of Qasr Kabaw in the Jebel Nafusa, about which you can read slightly more here


    Lastly Dr Genequand took an overall survey of the various buildings in Syria that have been classed as Umayyad ‘desert palaces’, although he tried to avoid both of the words ‘palace’ and ‘castle’ because the variety between the 38 such sites is such as to make generalisations like that difficult; they are more normally estate centres, with areas around them irrigated for intensive farming and produce collection facilities in the complex, and while some are luxurious, with their own baths and mosque complex and so on, and some are fortified and a few are both, and they seem to have grown and changed over time, they are still probably more like really big desert villas than either palace or castle, if you have to find a single word at all.
    One of the erstwhile dams at Wadi al-Qanatir, the area around the Umayyad 'palace' of Umm al-Walid, in Jordan

    One of the erstwhile dams at Wadi al-Qanatir, the area around the Umayyad ‘palace’ of Umm al-Walid, in Jordan, image from Museum With no Frontiers

Then tea and a chance to see an old colleague kick up some fuss, as follows.

325. Byzantium in Context, II: Environment, Economy and Power – Crisis and Renewal in the Byzantine World

  • Mark Whittow, “Byzantium and Global History: towards a new determinism?”
  • Adam Izdebski, “The Middle Byzantine Revival from an Environmental Perspective: a return to antique models”
  • Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, “Topography, Ecology and (Byzantine) Power un Early Medieval Eastern Anatolia and Armenia, 750-1000”
  • Myrto Veikou, “A Concerted ‘Discourse’: interplay between environment and human agency in the area of Smyrna (modern Izmir) in the 13th century CE”
  • This session had gathered a much bigger crowd than would fit into the tiny room it had been allocated to, which is a lesson about the revival of interest in Byzantium more generally in medieval studies, I think. Mark, coming very visibly from his involvement with the Global Middle Ages project, accordingly set out a manifesto for a new medieval European history in which the continuing Byzantine Empire was the default comparator, not the weird remnant, a sign of what ‘should’ have happened everywhere. This would, he then further defined, need to include the perspective that in the Middle Bzyantine period prosperity became rural rather than urban, a phenomenon that we also see in other places and which Mark bravely suggested might have something to with climate. The obvious point of reference here was Ronnie Ellenblum’s work, which Mark hoped one might be less deterministic than, but mainly I wonder how once you have scaled up to the level of climate one can make any single place central to a hypothesis, however big it was.1 The other papers tried to make such connections more explicit, nonetheless, Dr Izdebski comparing coin circulation and pollen patterns across central Greece (the only place where adequate survey evidence exists, he said) and determining two very similar-looking phases of expansion in the fourth to sixth centuries and the first half of the second millennium, but the coins and the pollen don’t agree about when the latter was and neither make a great deal of sense next to the supposed climate profile. Dr Preiser-Kapeller, meanwhile, ran us very summarily through the history of Armenia from the seventh to tenth centuries and concluded that while the fragile local ecology would impact the two surviving noble houses’ grip on power in the area after the year 1000, up till that point military conquest by Persians and Arabs was a far better explanation of how the area wound up with only two such houses from fourteen than was anything environmental. The point of Ms Veikou’s paper, lastly, was mainly to put the URL of her project before us, a project that as far that URL now shows had by then already wound up and has produced no further publications since it did. So no points from me for that, I’m afraid.

    The tenth-century church of Akdamar Island, in the salt Lake Van in Armenia

    The tenth-century church of Akdamar Island, in the salt Lake Van in Armenia, from which lake Johannes’s climate evidence was largely coming, and fair enough


    I found the three actual papers in this session a paradoxical combination, and this came out in discussion. All three speakers were attracted by the idea that large-scale survey that factored in changes in the ecological sphere alongside more material evidence of human usage could tell us something, but when approached on what had to admit either that the data was not yet collected (as in Cappadocia, where much is visible but very little dated or interpreted, or that when it had been it had made sense only on a regional basis and not compared well with anywhere else or the global pattern (as at Lake Van or Miletus in Greece). The effect was to leave the audience, and indeed one at least of the speakers, much more sceptical that this was a useful approach than they had been when we all entered the room, as if Ellenblum’s book, like the first Velvet Underground album, has made every one of its readers determined to have a go too and then discover that trying to be less erratic and offhand than Lou Reed somehow doesn’t produce better rock and roll. I suppose the real point for us to work on here is the junction between macro-scale and micro-scale pictures; if at a local level one can entirely escape what is apparently the global trend one has to ask what difference the global trend really made to people, a problem that we have of course been seeing with generating concern about the current global ecological situation since, well, as long as I can remember really.

Presumably there was then food, as my conference program is pretty much marked up with receptions for the evening so there wouldn’t have been time later. Between the food and the wine, however, came one final academic event for the day.

401. Early Medieval Europe Lecture

    Abbey church of Corbie, from Wikimedia Commons

    The modern state of the abbey church of Corbie, from Wikimedia Commons


    The annual Early Medieval Europe lecture was this year given by none other than Professor Mayke de Jong, speaking with the title “Carolingian Cultures of Dialogue and Debate”, so as you might expect I went. Mayke was speaking about a difficult text on which she has been working for a long time, the Epitaphium Arsenii of Paschasius Radbertus. This is an anonymised critique of the policies of the Carolingian Emperor Louis the Pious written in the form of a dialoguic account of the life of one of his relatives, Abbot Wala of Corbie (as he ended his earthly career).2 Just explaining what it is isn’t simple, therefore, but Mayke is one of three people who have recently written about it, all coming into the field (as she explained) with different historiographical demons to slay.3 The particular one she tackled here was the idea that the early Middle Ages was an era in which there was no public sphere and the ancient tradition of ‘speaking truth to power’ died off, in which rulers were influenced not by the voices of the crowd but a closed circle of advisors. Texts like the Epitaphium show that this is not true, at least if Mayke’s right that its much more polemical second book was intended for an audience beyond the monastery at Corbie where it was written. The whole text rests on the idea that it was not just all right but morally necessary to try to correct the emperor about his mistakes, after all, and that this could be done by this kind of literary device. Mayke had other examples of people rewriting events in literary fashion to put their view across, but it now strikes me after teaching it for a term again that another obvious one of these texts is Einhard’s Vita Karoli, because whatever its date and purpose was it’s certainly using praise of Charlemagne in the reign of his successor to do something. The whole lecture was full of wry wit and sharp observations about the way that people’s intellectual traditions have constructed their opinions, and she was quite right that if we as scholars of the early Middle Ages want to get our field away from the old idea of the Dark Ages we need better to understand why people find it useful to put it there.4 But her final point, that the Carolingian religious sphere was a public one that included laymen, shows how far our categories are crumbling as we better understand what authors like Paschasius were doing with their texts.

And so that wound up the first day of the IMC of 2015, and I will alternate the reports on the remaining three with shorter and more discursive content but I will, by my blogger’s pledge, get it done, and then continue onwards!


1. Ellenblum’s work referred to here is R. Ellenblum, The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean: climate change and the decline of the East, 950-1072 (Cambridge 2012), to which at some point I am also going to have to pay attention I suppose. On issues of scale, it always seems worth my citing Julio Escalona, “The Early Middle Ages: a scale-based approach” in idem & Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Scale and Scale Change in the Early Middle Ages: exploring landscape, local society, and the world beyond, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 9-29.

2. It is available in a deprecated but still unique translation for the English-speaker as Allen Cabaniss (trans.), Charlemagne’s Cousins: contemporary lives of Adalard and Wala (Syracuse NY 1967).

3. Referring to M. de Jong, The Penitential State: authority and atonement in the age of Louis the Pious, 814-840 (Cambridge 2010), but also to Courtney M. Booker, Past Convictions: the penance of Louis the Pious and the decline of the Carolingians (Philadelphia PA 2009) and some unnamed work by Steffen Patzold that I don’t know, but which might be (or be referred to in) his “Consensus – Concordia – Unitas: Überlegungen zu einem politisch-religiösen Ideal der Karolingerzeit” in Nikolaus Staubach (ed.), Exemplaris imago: Ideale in Mittelalter und früher Neuzeit, Tradition, Reform, Innovation 15 (Frankfurt 2012), pp. 31-56 (non vidi).

4. Mayke cited, among other things, Ian Wood, The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages (Oxford 2013), and I might add, with my original cautions as linked, Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia PA 2006).