Category Archives: Next paper is due…

An unobserved model of Byzantine economic development

After reimmersing myself in the literature of frontiers back in summer of 2017, I deduce from the blog stubs I left for myself that I must then have made a proper attempt to read Michael Hendy’s The Byzantine Monetary Economy.1 This is a monster tome which was supposed to be one of three and still contains a vast amount of material whose relevance to the exact topic is hard to see, but which also throws out important points and valuable insights as if they were incidental; it really needed an editor, but the legend goes that Hendy told Cambridge University Press that if they changed a word of it he’d cancel his contract with them, and somehow they wanted the book badly enough that this cowed them. So it went out as he wanted it even though it’s hard to understand, as a reader, why that was. In any case, despite being thirty-plus years old it’s still important and, I guess because I was by now writing up the work that would become my ‘Middle Byzantine Numismatics’, I set out to read it.2

Cover of Michael Hendy's Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985)

Cover of Michael Hendy’s Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985)

One of the major controversies in which Hendy repeatedly intervened during his rebarbative scholarly life was that of the importance of commerce to the Byzantine Empire, both economically and ideologically. Most people have been at least ready and in some cases downright keen to see the emperors as wanting to grow their commercial economy, even though they are sometimes hard-placed to explain why. For Hendy, however, this was anything but a given, and he saw the primary purpose of the coinage, for example, as to enable the tax system and the payment of the army, not to facilitate market exchange. Without wanting to spoil the book for you, he in fact went on to argue that the Byzantine Empire resisted commercialisation to the point that this became the reason that the Italian city-states with which they reluctantly dealt were able to out-compete them and drain the empire’s resource westwards.3 I do personally find him persuasive on this general score, I admit, but of course he was publishing under Thatcher and no-one was interested in anti-commercial scholarship as the 1980s boomed and academics were settling into how we justify the Great Divergence without having to give up our global predominance.

Nonetheless, he began, or nearly began, with a stab at economic modelling as applied to past societies that I think bears thinking with even now. It should be said that Hendy was just as prepared as his rivals to build elaborate hypotheses on shaky figures—he spent seventy pages here on reconstructing the Byzantine imperial budget, largely on the basis of eighteenth-century Ottoman figures, for example—but he obviously thought his were better, because he liked to attack others’ anyway. As witness, on p. 7 he has a set at someone who had applied Fisher’s Equation to the debasement of the Byzantine coinage in the eleventh century.4

Graphic description of Fisher's Equation of Monetary Quantity

If you’ve not met Fisher’s Equation, here is a summary representation, linked through to a pretty clear explanation; I would try myself, but this post is already pretty long and in-depth economics will not help…

Because he never wrote anything briefly when you would like him to have, I summarise how Hendy dealt with this rather than quote. Firstly he admitted that we probably do now have a decent grip on how that debasement unfolded, in which, ironically, he was probably wrong.5 He then admitted that in an economy where there was effectively no credit, and therefore no elasticity in the money supply, restricted as it was by available precious-metal, the application of Fisher ought if anything to be simpler than in a modern economy. But because the coinage was not, as he saw it, a commercial instrument and not made in quantities intended for it to be one, and was thus distributed not where trade required it but where soldiers and state operatives spent it; because transport was slow and its costs away from water very high, with consequent limits on what could be traded and how far; because, “the producer was almost invariably the distributor and/or the seller”; and because a really substantial part of the empire’s wealth was owned by the emperor, a few landed magnates and the Church, and thus immobilised…

“In the light of all these circumstances separately or in combination, and despite wide-ranging claims to the contrary, it is at least questionable whether the application of Fisher’s Equation has much, if any, relevance to the situation, and whether the pre-conditions necessary for its operation in any chronologically and geographically uniform, and in any detailed, fashion existed.”6

And you can see from that both why Hendy is little quoted, if much cited, and how his book ran to 773 pages. Even so, there are still bits one wants to quote on themes like this…

“These observations… are intended to suggest that it is on the one hand unacceptable for the numismatist, in accounting for some monetary phenomenon, to connect it with a contemporary ‘economic crisis’ (for the basic distinction between a financial and an economic crisis is one that is scarcely ever made), the existence of which is asserted through reference to another such assertion, which turns out to be based on a statement in George Ostrogorsky’s History of the Byzantine State – however distinguished that author, and however valuable that work. But they are also intended to suggest that it is on the other hand equally dangerous, that is dangerous enough to be unacceptable, for the numismatist, in accounting for some other monetary phenomenon, to insert it into a precise mathematical interrelationship evolved in the light of modern monetary theories and conditions. In general, if in no other sense, the result is thereby lent an entirely spurious air of precision and authority, and the nature and mode of operation of the ancient or mediaeval monetary economy involved is effectively never questioned.”7

You see what I mean by now, I guess. Part of me wants to yell “hurrah” and the rest is saying, “Wait, where was all this going again?” and “Could that maybe have been shorter, with fewer subclauses, or else in more than three sentences?” and unhelpfully unsympathetic things like that. I suppose that the general point here is that a model that is never tested against data or accurately set into context can never be proven or disproven.8 Of course, as I say, that didn’t stop Hendy coming up with his own, and what I want to do with the rest of this post is extend one of them for fun. You see, having got to that bit quoted above where he concluded that Fisher’s Equation wasn’t going to work here, he tries to explain the state’s resort to debasement by other means, for which the chief reason was its inability to extract very much money from its leading aristocrats. (He elsewhere argues that the wealthiest Byzantine magnates could severally possess enough to come close to equalling, in their total worth at least, the entire state budget, and while the comparison relies on the accuracy of his reconstructed budget, the figures for aristocratic wealth, at least, are contemporary ones.9) To their wealth, however, there was little alternative, given the probable insufficiency to make up the gap of what could be got from overtaxing the peasantry—which anyway tended simply to drive them into dependency upon those untouchable aristocrats instead.10 Sorry: once you start trying to think with Hendy it’s apparently difficult not to write like him. I’ll fight it.

This got me thinking, anyway, and what I thought is that it has implications which Hendy did not draw out. The tenth century was a time of recovery for the Byzantine Empire, territorially and militarily speaking, but by the end of it, nonetheless, the state was nearly bankrupt. (That is usually put down to Alexios Komnenos’s loss of Anatolia, but he inherited the financial situation, he didn’t create it.11) This would be exactly that distinction between economic and financial crisis Hendy was griping about, I guess. So, OK, let us suppose, as part of another of these untestable models, that, say, the top 5% of the Empire’s population was effectively immune from serious taxation, but that the rest was not. In that case, wealth that accrues to those possessors was effectively amortised from the state’s resources. If the economy grows in such a way that the aristocrats do well out of it, as it seems to have done in the Byzantine tenth century, the figures might work out in such a way that the population overall got richer but the state still got poorer. Now, obviously, one solution might indeed be to try and boost the commercial side of the economy and make up the difference on tolls and sales tax, but since the big aristocrats were essentially autarkic, or could be, that would not liquefy their wealth back to where the state could siphon it off again. So instead, the solution that probably works best for the state is actually to slow the economy down, to encourage deflation and to generally attack the value of wealth until the status differential between the aristocracy and the state has been restored. In that case, overtaxing would not be a desperate tactic to which a bankrupt government was forced despite the damage it must cause to the productive sector; that damage would actually be the point and overtaxing the whole strategy.

Base-silver trachy of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos struck at Thessaloniki in 1081-1092, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5532

The expedient to which the state had been reduced: a supposedly silver trachy of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos struck at Thessaloniki in 1081-1092, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B5532

In all of that case, then, it could be very much in the interests of a state constructed as we’ve just imagined to hurt its own economy, in order to be able to appropriate more of what was left. Perhaps that is in fact what Alexios I was doing when he reformed, causing what must have been great expense and considerable monetary shortage, that duff coinage!12 It’s obviously not a very capitalism-compatible model, but I think it’s where Hendy was pointing. That he didn’t get there may have as much to do with the arrangement of the book—in which, within six pages from here, he was having to say, “It may be thought that I have wandered far from the customary or even proper preserve of the numismatist, in discussing such questions as erosion, predominant forms of land-use, and twelfth- and thirteenth-century frontiers – and so, perhaps, I have…”—as any capitalist sympathies of his own.13 I’m not even sure it matters what he was ideologically, because what concerned him was how this other society had worked. The political climate of the age may be why no-one else picked up this idea, and maybe I would not have spotted it lurking before 2008 either. But what are we doing this study of the past for, if not to find alternate ways for human societies to do things? I’m not saying this one’s an obvious winner—though I often have to remind my students when they write about the inevitability of the Empire’s decline that it lasted more than a millennium, however variable its health in that time, so its ways of managing politics and change might still work out better than ours—but at least it is one of those alternatives that we are now, maybe, able to see and think with.

1. Michael F. Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985).

2. Jonathan Jarrett, “Middle Byzantine Numismatics in the Light of Franz Füeg’s Corpora of Nomismata” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 177 (2017), pp. 514–535, which uses Hendy quite a lot.

3. Hendy, Studies, pp. 221-251 on the economic bases and 554-602 for the trade situation.

4. Ibid., pp. 157-220 for the budgetary reconstruction and pp. 613-618 for a worked-out comparison to the Ottomans, on the basis of the same figures he used to construct the Byzantine budget, a circularity he doesn’t seem to have considered. The person who had misapplied Fisher’s Equation is not named by Hendy, but it’s pretty likely that he was referring to Cécile Morrisson, “La dévaluation de la monnaie byzantine au XIe siècle : essai d’interpretation” in Recherches sur le XIe siècle, Travaux et Mémoires du Centre de recherche d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance 6 (Paris 1976), pp. 3–47, reprinted in eadem, Monnaie et finances à Byzance : Analyses et techniques, Collected Studies 461 (Aldershot 1994), chapter IX, which does indeed apply Fisher to the eleventh-century valuation and which Morrisson was still defending as such an application in eadem, “Money, Coins and the Economy” in Paul Stephenson (ed.), The Byzantine World (London 2012), pp. 34–46 at p. 41 n. 33.

5. Hendy, Studies, p. 3; but Cécile Morrisson, J.-N. Barrandon and Jacques Poirier, “La monnaie d’or byzantine à Constantinople : purification et modes d’altérations (491-1354)” in Morrisson, Claude Brenot, Jean-Pierre Callu, Barrandon, Poirier and R. Halleux (edd.), L’or monnayé I : purification et altérations de Rome à Byzance, Cahiers Ernest Babelon 2 (Paris 1985), pp. 113–187, the same year demonstrated that the debasement had in fact begun at a lower level in the late tenth century and that the eleventh-century tipping point was an illusion presented by the written sources.

6. Hendy, Studies, p. 5.

7. Ibid. p. 7.

8. For me, the archetypal case of this is Keith Hopkins, “Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire (200 B.C.–A.D. 400)” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 70 (London 1980), pp. 101–125, which is so obviously and openly founded on no evidence except the author’s own expressed preconceptions that I don’t understand how it got published, let alone became a standard reference.

9. Hendy, Studies, pp. 201-220.

10. See Peter Frankopan, “Land and Power in the Middle and Late Period” in John F. Haldon (ed.), The Social History of Byzantium (Chichester 2009), pp. 112-142.

11. The politics are best retold in Peter Frankopan, The First Crusade: the call from the East (London 2012), pp. 42-70, but on the finances specifically, see, with care, Cécile Morrisson, “La Logarikè : réforme monétaire et réforme fiscale sous Alexis Ier Comnène” in Travaux et Mémoires du Centre de recherche d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance Vol. 7 (Paris 1979), pp. 419-464, repr. in eadem, Monnaie et finances, chapter VI.

12. The more normal position on this is summarised, with references, by Alex Nobes, “The economic and monetary policy of the Byzantine Empire under Alexios I Komnenos” in Rosetta Vol. 11 (Birmingham 2011), pp. 56–71, online here, good work for an undergraduate journal. However, I disagree with him (and indeed Morrisson, “La Logarikè”, on which he rests here) that Alexios’s coin and tax reforms increased state revenue fourfold; I’ve run those numbers as best I can and I’m pretty sure that they come out meaning that he managed to return the levels of taxation to roughly pre-debasement levels by shifting them onto originally supplementary levies that were now paid in the new coin, rather than the debased valuations of the old core taxes; but the roughly thousand-fold increase in notional tax liability that resulted probably amounted to a slight decrease in overall revenue, that’s how bad things had got. So the reform’s purpose can’t have been just that, or you wouldn’t bother, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t have been deflationary as well as stabilising.

13. Hendy, Studies, p. 13.

First Trip to China, II: Numismatists Gather in Changchun

Despite the tourism so cheerfully recounted last post, I was in fact in China in 2017 for academic purposes. The formal cause was a conference at North-East Normal University in Changchun, by name the International Symposium on Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity. If I can be Aristotelian about this, then I suppose the material cause of this was that, one way or another, there are a reasonable number of Byzantine solidi and, maybe more interestingly, imitations of them, that have come to light in China, and this is one of the major research areas of Professor Lín Yīng of Sun-Yat Sen University, whom I had had the pleasure of moderating at a Leeds International Medieval Congress two years before.1 But she is not the only Byzantinist in China by quite some way; I suppose an ancient empire likes to know about its contemporaries… And a number of people with such interests hang out at North-East Normal, because it runs an Institute for Ancient Civilizations, which was the hosting organisation for this conference, under the particular auspices of its Vice-Director, Dr Sven Günther. In fact, North-East Normal also boasts a Medieval History Research Centre, and you’d think that they would be my obvious point of contact, but because, you see, the efficient cause was that Professor Lín knows me as a Byzantine numismatist, because when she met that’s what I was, professionally, and of course I have not completely left that identity behind.2 I guess if you come in through the door marked ‘Byzantinist’, you’re a Byzantinist, but if what that means is that (assuming we get to a stage where this is possible again) I get invited halfway across the world and shown round the local wonders, then I guess I can come up with a paper about Byzantine coins for you…

Gathering of delegates to the International Symposium on Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity

Gathering of delegates, with yours truly awkwardly central

Now, ever since I hit the time buffers on this blog in 2017, I have been reporting conferences by listing the papers I went to and then sticking my other remarks below a cut for the interested reader to follow up if they wish. On this occasion, however, I want to write at least something about the actual experience of the conference first, because it had some important and impressive differences from the Western format to which I’m used. Firstly, I suppose, everything was paid for; I remember when that used to be possible in the UK, just, but it was a while back, certainly before this blog. One can get into arguments about where taxpayers’ money should be going, I guess, but it is salutary to realise that the answers aren’t necessarily fixed.3 However, the differences that really struck me could be grouped under two headings, those being tea and languages. And the greater of these, for me at least, might even be tea. For look: if you examine this photo…

Session at the International Symposium on Byzantine Gold Coins in the World of Late Antiquity

Session in progress

… you will observe that everyone, even the beardy foreigner in the pale jacket with his pen in his mouth close to the back of the middle of the picture, has a nice porcelain mug with a lid in front of them. When we entered the conference room those mugs had small piles of auspicious green leaves in them; before we started attendants went round and poured lately-boiled water onto those leaves and put the lids back on; and then, every hour or so thereafter, they came round again and topped them up, because of course for decent green tea you don’t need, or even want, boiling water, and it will sustain several infusions. Indeed, I understand that with some teas you just throw the first one out because what you’re really after is the subtleties that come out in the second one, but dear reader, I digress. During lunch new mugs were set out and we were set up again for the afternoon. When I compare this to the desperate scrabble between sessions for the inadequate coffee at most Western conferences, it is hard not to feel that we were guests of a more anciently civilised culture than our own, I tell you. The coffee breaks were still there, but the caffeine was now a vestigial part of them because what they were really for was to enable the conversations between papers that are actually the important part of the academic conference. So this all worked rather well.

And then languages. At this point I had no functional Chinese (and even now I can manage very little more than greetings and very basic questions about menus), and a good few of the speakers had no functional English. This is not to say that people here didn’t know languages: one professor gave a very rough greeting speech in English but was able to introduce one of the Western speakers in fluent Greek, I guess because that was what he had needed to learn for what he wanted to do in his career. In general, though, English was not the default second language, which was salutary and a bit challenging, and if that wasn’t enough, a couple of the papers were delivered in Mongolian, which is another thing again. So any two people did not have great odds of understanding each other. But, this didn’t matter too much, because the other thing that there were people doing was immediate, translated summarisation of each paper after it was given, Chinese into English, English into Chinese, Mongolian into both. Questions were also translated this way during discussion. This responsibility was distributed around so that no-one had to do more than two, it was timetabled into the sessions, and it meant that the language barrier, while still very present, could pretty easily be hurdled, or at least messages flung across it in mutually satisfactory fashion. I could go off into speculation about how this worked in previous eras when other people crossed into China – the importance of the intermediary became really obvious in this meeting – but I could probably again be accused of digression. After all, we were here to talk about coins. So what were people talking about? I will list them!

24th June 2017

  • Zhāng Qiáng, “Introduction”
  • Xú Jiālíng, “Welcome”
  • Claudia Sode, “Welcome”
  • Wàn Xiáng and Lín Yīng, “Trade Pattern of 1-4 c. CE Silk Road – A Preliminary Study Based on Kushan Coins”
  • Stefan Heidemann, “The Islamic Late Antiquity in Western Eurasia: Concepts, Transformation and Monetary Organisation”
  • Stefanos Kordosis, “Some Remarks on the Term ‘Fromo’ of a Late 7th-Early 8th c. Bactrian Coin Inscription ‘Fromo Kesaro’ (Caesar of Rome)”
  • Coffee

  • Sven Günther, “The Migration of Motifs as a Qualitative Approach to the Question of Connectivity in Late Antiquity”
  • Pagona Papadopoulou, “The Gold of the Emperor: Imitations of Byzantine Coins in Gold in the Mediterranean (5th-8th Centuries)”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Separated by the Past: Western Coinages from Pseudo-Imperial to Quasi-Independent, 5th to 7th c. AD”
  • Lunch

  • Aleksandr Naymark, “Roman and Byzantine Coins and their Reproduction in Western Central Asia”
  • Stefan Heidemann, “The Transition of the Monetary Situation of Khurasan and Transoxiana between the Islamic and T’ang Empire between 600 and 800 A.D.”
  • Coffee

  • Lĭ Qiáng, “The Dynamics of the Studies on the Byzantine Coins and their Imitations discovered in China, 2007-2017”
  • Guō Yúnyan, “On the Byzantine Coins Unearthed in China”
  • Dinner

25th June 2017

  • Ankhbayar Batsuui, “Regarding a Coin”
  • Erdenebold Lkhagvasuren, “West-East Relations and Nomads: A Study on Coins Discovered in Shordon Bumbagar, Bayannur, Sum Mongolia”
  • Odbaatar Tserendorj, “Sassanid Period Silver Coins Collection at National Museum of Mongolia”
  • Yngve Karlsson, “Main Features of Sasanian Silver Coins, with Examples from Mongolian National Museum”
  • Coffee

  • Rebecca Darley, “Byzantine Gold Coins in India in Late Antiquity”
  • Brigitte Borell, “Coins from Western Lands found in Southeast Asia”
  • Li Jinxiu, “Silver Coin and Silver Trading Circles: the Differing Destinies of Persian Silver Coins in Tang Times”4
  • Lunch

  • Shi Yang-Xin, “Collection of Ancient Coins from the Silk Road in Xi’an Tang West Market Museum”5
  • Wang Yongsheng, “Silk Road Coinage: its Definition and Research Value”
  • Coffee

  • Aleksandr Naymark, “Byzantine Influence on Sogdian Monetary Type”
  • Responses by Zhang Xushan, Stefan Heidemann, Aleksandr Naymark, Claudia Sode and Lín Yīng
  • Closing Ceremony and Farewell Drink

It’s harder than usual to write up this conference, because it was so frequently telling me things I had just not previously known. Lín’s article is a neat introduction to the problem that brought us together, but is focused quite reasonably on some particuar Silk Road tombs, and there was so much bigger a picture being put together here, by experts from zones and on zones thousands of miles apart and linked more by sharing an era than by anything else. So it seems best, rather than to comment on individual papers, to try to write some kind of synthesis of what, by the end, I thought I knew about what was going on with coinage eastwards of Byzantium and, for the most part, northwards of India, over the mostly-fifth to more-or-less-ninth centuries. Predictably, given the size of the zone and the number of actors in it, this turned out to be very confusing, but, to me at least, also really interesting, and it got added into my teaching very quickly once I came back. Continue reading

Chronicle VIII: April to June 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Name in Print XXIV: women writing in tenth-century Catalonia

I have been waiting to be able to post this for some months, and now thanks to the good offices of Cambridge University Press and the continuing operation of the Royal Mail even in lockdown—about which I am genuinely thankful and also slightly remorseful, not that anyone should be catching anything from me at this time—I can. In September of last year I got an article out that I have been hoping to see in print for a very long time, and about a week ago I finally got my own copy, so now it’s time to announce it here!

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

Remeber this charter? Surely you must. It is, of course, Archivo de la Corona d’Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 39

Our subject is a piece of work with a very long history indeed, pretty much all of which has been recorded on this blog. In 2007 I first recorded some frustration with a scholarly view that nuns in Catalonia couldn’t write, because I knew full well two charters that they signed autograph, showing that they could at least write their own names.1 One of these was the above, where actually you have at least four and maybe more nuns doing so, along with signatures for some of them by the scribe as if he didn’t expect them to do so.2 The palaeography of this document, which at that stage I knew only from a bad colour scan I made from the Catalunya Romànica, is actually really tricky, but at some point before late 2009 I had realised that the fact that they all signed in different hands meant that they had not been taught to write at Sant Joan, and so presumably already knew how to write, more or less, when they arrived.3 In other words, this document proves lay female literacy in certain circles of tenth-century Catalonia. By early September 2009 I was trying to work out what those circles were, using prosopography, and then I got to stand up in front of one of my old supervisors and explain my first results. So far so good, and this is where the complications started…

Initially, it was proposed to publish the proceedings of that conference as a celebratory volume for that aforesaid supervisor, but the person who bravely took on the editing was not then in a safe position of employment, and they spent longer in the precariate than is good for one and had to concentrate on other things. It took a little while for that to become clear, but around 2013 it did, and then I was looking for a new home for what I thought was quite a good piece. In mid-2015, already, Magistra et Mater alerted me to a relevant-looking call for papers for an edited volume on women in the Iberian Peninsula, and so I brought the paper up to date, having by then caught up with Michel Zimmermann’s work on the subject and thought a bit harder about the gender angle due to the excellent company I had been keeping, and sent off an abstract in November of that year.4

Initially this seemed to go well. I was invited to send in a full version, which I duly did in May 2017—in the middle of this the prospective publisher had been swallowed up by a bigger fish, so the delay wasn’t the editors’ fault, it’s just the kind of thing that happens to my publications… That was accepted, as I understood it anyway, but I then got into a tangle with the editorial panel over female agency, which they wanted emphasised. I felt that Sant Joan, which was shut down by papal decree in 1017 after an all-male embassy of relatives of the then-abbess went to Rome and told his Holiness that the nuns were ‘parricides and whores of Venus’, and then chucked them out onto pension estates and established a bishopric for a male relative on the patrimony instead, was a really bad place to look for that and preferred my old first-wave interpretation, that it was tough to be up against the Man in circa 1000 Catalonia.5 I sent in a revised version in May 2017, got feedback, and then sent another in January 2018 which I hoped was an acceptable compromise, pointing out that the nuns had most agency when they acted alone but that was also when they had the least power. To that, I quickly got back a decision that shifts in the theme of the volume meant that my chapter was no longer going to fit. So it was orphaned again.

Cover of Traditio volume 74 for 2019

Cover of Traditio, volume 74 for 2019

Now, at this stage, for reasons I won’t go into, it was very important for me to get some more quality publications into play. So, I cast around for possible alternative homes and lit upon the venerable periodical Traditio, where long ago I had been encouraged to send something else that, as it turned out, wasn’t ready. I like to try to cross these misses off when I can, and I had not given up on Traditio. So I took a careful look at their editorial board, added suitable references to relevant work, revised again with the previous rejection comments at least partly accommodated, and sent it off again the very next month. This meant working during strike, but not on anything I was supposed to be doing, so I thought I could justify it. And when Traditio‘s review timetable rolled around to it in April 2019—about which they were explicit from the start, and 100% accurate—they accepted it, almost as was, which was the kind of good news I badly needed at that time.

First page of Jonathan Jarrett, "Nuns, Signatures, and Literacy in late-Carolingian Catalonia" in Traditio Vol. 74 (Cambridge 2019), pp. 125–152

First page of Jonathan Jarrett, “Nuns, Signatures, and Literacy in late-Carolingian Catalonia” in Traditio Vol. 74 (Cambridge 2019), pp. 125–152, DOI: 10.1017/tdo.2019.7

And so, after a series of copy-editing back-and-forths with a keen and competent Fordham graduate student over June to August 2019, and then finally proofs in late September 2019, in very late September 2019 it went online, and I was assured that print copies were winging their way to me.6 Now at last I have them and so the world can know, if you hadn’t seen it already, that it exists. I’m rather pleased with it, too; I always thought it was a clever piece of work, though I say it as shouldn’t, and I think it has found a suitable home. (It has also been an exemplary editorial experience, for which I am very thankful.) If you want to see it, I have an access link I can share with a small number of people (which means signing up to Cambridge Core), or there may be other means of sharing we can work out; just let me know! But, basically, ta-da! Article. I thank you…

1. I was then kicking against M. Zimmermann, “Langue et lexicographie : l’apport des actes catalans” in O. Guyotjeannin, L. Morelle & M. Parisse (edd.), “Pratiques de l’écrit documentaire au XIe siècle” in Bibliothèque de l’École des Chartes Vol. 155 (Paris 1997), pp. 185-205, the start of a grand tradition of disagreeing with that learned man’s work.

2. Your editions of reference for this charter would be Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: Estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18 (Barcelona 1951), doc. no. 128, or Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia Volum IV: Els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica 53 (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 645.

3. The scan came from Antoni Pladevall i Font, Núria Peíris i Pujolar, Joan-Albert Adell i Gisbert, Xavier Barral i Altet, R. Bastardes i Parera and Rosa M. Martín i Ros, “Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Antoni Pladevall (ed.), Catalunya Rom&aagrave;nica X: el Ripollès (Barcelona 1987), pp. 354–410 at p. 364, where Udina’s text is also reprinted. After a while, however, I was able to get a much better facsimile out of the Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, whose shelfmark for it is Barcelona, Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Sunifred 39, and which they kindly let me publish, for which many thanks.

4. Zimmermann’s work here referred to being M. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIe siècle), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols.

5. By this stage, because I thought it had been accepted, I had cited it in a few places as forthcoming in this volume, so if you really want to do some cyber-stalking you can probably find out the volume’s notional details, but I shan’t name it here, because it’s not yet out, could still change, isn’t mine to cite any more and, frankly, as things have turned out they probably did me a favour by rejecting it, as well as making it a better article, so ingratitude seems misplaced.

6. Citation therefore: Jonathan Jarrett, “Nuns, Signatures, and Literacy in late-Carolingian Catalonia” in Traditio Vol. 74 (Cambridge 2019), pp. 125–152, DOI: 10.1017/tdo.2019.7.

Chronicle IV: April to June 2016

I am, slowly, increasing the speed at which I move through my backlog on this blog, but I’m still not quite at real-time speed… Still, the perspective of retrospection is often valuable and I make sure you hear about up-to-the-minute stuff one way or another, right? So I now reach the fourth quarter of my reports of what was going on my life academic as I acclimatised to that elusive permanent employment I now have. This picks up in the Easter vacation of 2016, and I’ll break it down into the now-usual headings.


The academic calendar is semestral at the University of Leeds where I work, so you might think that teaching was done by Easter vacation, but it’s more complicated than that. Leeds has examinations after each semester, you see, and because there’s no space for exams after an eleven-week semester before Christmas on a UK timetable, the exams are held in the first two weeks of the following semester. We then have a week to get them marked, and then teaching starts again, but we can’t be through all eleven weeks before Easter falls, so the semester breaks over that, with two or three teaching weeks that come once term is resumed after the vacation. Then we examine again, this time for six weeks, then mark for two, then finally it’s the end. Complicated enough? I won’t tell you when I discovered this, but it was well after I’d started work at Leeds and I had to amend a lot of materials…

Cover of my module handbook from HIST1045 Empire and Aftermath for 2015-16

It’s hard to know what to illustrate this section of the post with, so here’s some documentation, the cover of my module handbook for the module I now go onto talk about, HIST1045 Empire and Aftermath

So anyway, that means that term restarted with a jolt for me in the middle of April, though as you may recall this could have been worse, since I was at that point only running one module, the late antique survey I’d inherited on arrival. I was still new to more of it than I would have liked, but it went OK. I had had to envisage a final-year two-semester special subject enough to pitch for it at a module fair we run to compete for students with our colleagues, but that was obviously a lot less work than actually having to teach it (though I did in fact get four pupils so had to run it next year). Apart from that and joint care of a visiting Chinese doctoral student, though, my load was really pretty light this term, for the last time too really.

Other Efforts

On the other hand I was keeping busy in other ways! For a start I was, now that I look back over my calendar, doing quite a lot with coins, including going to meet the University’s principal donor of them, who was (and is) a very interesting fellow. He gave us some more, so I guess it went well? I also took up inventorying the University’s collection again over the summer, which has stood me in good stead ever since, and as you’ll shortly see I also did a short introduction session to the collection for my colleagues, although I’m not sure I persuaded any of the unconverted of their teaching utility…

Obverse of copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Justin II struck at Nicomedia in 574-575, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, Thackray Collection, CC-TH-BYZ-227

Here’s one of them, here the obverse of a copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Justin II struck at Nicomedia in 574-575, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, Thackray Collection, CC-TH-BYZ-227…

Reverse of copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Justin II struck at Nicomedia in 574-575, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, Thackray Collection, CC-TH-BYZ-227

… and here its reverse

I was also mentoring four doctoral students I didn’t supervise; I went to Birmingham for an exhibition opening I told you about at the time, was back there again to give a guest lecture I’ll tell you about in its turn as well, and in between those things, believe it or not, was in Princeton to speak at a conference that the XRF numismatics work had got me invited to, about which I’ll also write separately. Then there was the Staffordshire hoard exhibiton here in Leeds, and of course exam marking, a departmental research away day, and a doctoral transfer for someone I’d later, for reasons of staff change, wind up supervising, so that also stood me in good stead for later. I don’t mean to pretend that this is a lot, but I think I was being a good colleague wherever the chance arose, and getting engaged in the local academic community as well as holding my ties to my old ones where possible, which is generally how I like to play it.

Other People’s Research

On that subject, I was also still going to seminars, though this was kind of a quiet period for them anywhere outside Leeds, and even there a lot of it was internal stuff like work-in-progress meetings I don’t plan to talk about here. Running through my notes files, I find these:

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Medieval Coins for Beginners: a Workshop”, Medieval Group Seminar, University of Leeds, which I’ve already mentioned and will describe briefly in due course;
  • Joanna Phillips, “The Sick Crusader and the Crusader Sick: A ‘Sufferers’ History of the Crusades’, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, one of our own then-postgraduates here showing that she could compete with her graduated colleagues on a perfectly equal footing, in a careful and entertaining talk that crossed the history of medicine and philological text critique in a really good showcase of how our department’s strengths could combine;
  • Coins, Minting, and the Economy in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, Framing the Late Antique and Early Medieval Economy Conference, Princeton University, already mentioned and definitely deserving its own post;
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “The Marriage of History and Science: Testing the Purity of Byzantine Gold Coinage”, Guest Lecture at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, likewise already mentioned and worth at least a quick note, I feel, given that this is my blog;
  • Caroline Wilkinson, “Depicting the Dead”, Digital Humanities Workshop, University of Leeds, probably worth its own post too as the issue interests me;
  • Mark Humphries, “‘Partes imperii’: East and West in the fifth century”, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, a detailed study of recognition of emperors in the western half of the empire by the eastern ones and indeed vice versa, neither of which were as simple or common as one might expect in the tangly history of the fifth century and the sources for which each have problems not always appreciated;
  • Philip Kitcher, “Progress in the Sciences and in the Arts”, Leeds Humanities Research Institute Seminar, which I was going to blog about separately as it definitely provoked me to argument in my notes, but I now discover that the speaker was giving this all over the place at this point, so you can see it for yourself, I have a lot to write up already and my views aren’t necessarily the same in 2019 as they were in 2016, so I shan’t, leaving it to you to decide what you think if you like:
  • Andrew Prescott, “New Materialities”, Cultures of the Book Seminar, University of Leeds, a visit to the Brotherton Library by a man I knew well to be an Anglo-Saxon manuscripts specialist, who was as the title suggests talking mainly about digitisation but emphasising the sometimes unappreciated physicality of the digital medium—you work it by touch—and the changing rôle of the library—perhaps only some libraries—from being literacy stores to being special archives, as well as the persistent worth of many old technologies (such as, you know, the book).

And that, I think, gets us to the end of the list for that quarter, and my main impression looking back is that there really was a lot going on in Leeds! It definitely helped me feel that I’d wound up in a good place, even if, as mentioned at the time, outside events were threatening to crumble some of my plans for it.

My Own Research

I was almost dreading writing up this part of this post until I went briefly through my files. I’ve no clear recollection of what I was working on this long ago and I was very afraid I would turn out still to have been in the kind of vague fugue I mentioned in one of the earlier ones of these posts. But not so! With the weight of teaching mostly off me, apparently despite all the other things I was up to I was also getting some work done. Not only were there those three papers I mentioned, but on inspection I find that I also turned round a new draft of that article on Carolingian crop yields that has now come out; that in this period I also reworked and sent out again my ill-fated article from Networks and Neighbours, though you’ve heard how that turned out; I must also have been reading Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez’s excellent then-new book on those Andalusi frontier warlords par excellence, the Banū Qāsī, because I was slated to speak about them at the fast-approaching International Medieval Congress, and was because of this able to do so; and I was also writing pretty decent chunks of what was then supposed to be my second book, on Borrell II.1 All of this, of course, took some time thereafter to come to fruition, where it has at all, but at least I was doing it then!

So yes: I think I was having a good time in these three months, looking back. There were certain other griefs that must have damped that impression at the time—my partner and I had decided we needed to move out of the area we were in, which did not like us, and so were doing a lot of house-hunting in this period, for one thing—but writing it up, from the academic side, at least, I wish it was always like that! And I shall move on now to telling you more about some of the interesting bits…

Kirklees Hall

This, sadly, was not where we wound up, although it is extremely suitable for medievalists and was on sale while we were looking… but for rather more than we could afford! But it has a crypt bathroom and a neo-medieval hall and went for less than a million…

1. The book I mention here is Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, La dawla de los Banū Qasī: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus, Estudios Árabes e Islámicos: Monografías 17 (Madrid 2010).


Marking is over for the season, and suddenly a whole fleet of tiny toy boats that had been submerged by its extent bob back to the surface of my academic bathtub, or something. (I’m sorry, I’m not actually completely well … Continue reading

Rethinking the Medieval Frontier: Call for Papers for Leeds IMC 2019

This is not the post I planned to have up next but the need to post it has suddenly caught up with me. I apologise for the very short notice, but, do you work on frontiers? Would you like to be at the next International Medieval Congress at Leeds in July 2019? Then please read on and respond!

Call for Papers

The research network Rethinking the Medieval Frontier has been coordinating research exploring medieval frontier spaces, both geopolitical and immaterial, since 2015. It exists to encourage the generation of complex, transportable models about frontiers, boundaries and borders, based in medieval evidence, which have the potential to inform and transform approaches to frontiers and boundaries in other periods and fields. We now invite proposals for 20-minute papers on such subjects, based on any area or areas of the medieval world, construed as broadly as possible, for the International Medieval Congress at Leeds in July 2019, our third appearance at the IMC. Please consider becoming part of our endeavour! Possible topics could include:

  • definitions of the frontier, physical or conceptual;
  • the establishment of boundaries, by authorities or by others;
  • lived experience, material culture or local self-expression in frontier spaces;
  • debates over identity on or in the frontier; or
    modern and scholarly conceptions of the medieval frontier.

Please send proposals, including title and an abstract of up to 250 words, to: Jonathan Jarrett <> by 24th September 2018. Please note the short deadline. We are especially interested to hear from scholars from outside the English-speaking world. Although the normal language of the Congress is English, we may be able to offer help with translation or preparation of talks; please mention this in your submission and we will discuss it with you.


I said ‘yes’ to too many things… Expect something substantive to appear here inside two weeks and then things to be on a more even keel for a while, I hope! Meanwhile, I hope that you’re also getting some of … Continue reading

Name in Print XVI

[This was originally posted on 22nd November 2014, when its news was hot off the press, but I’ve now reached that point in my legendary backlog, so I unstick this post to allow it to join the flow in the place it should originally have occupied. Besides, I bet you haven’t all bought the book yet…]

The teaching reading is still swamping me, I’m afraid, what with having so little spare time in which to find the hours for it, but, raising my head briefly, what do I find but that the third of my 2014 outputs has now emerged, taking the form of a paper in this rather handsome-looking volume.

Cover of Rory Naismith, Martin Allen & Elina Screen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: studies in memory of Mark Blackburn

Cover of Rory Naismith, Martin Allen & Elina Screen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: studies in memory of Mark Blackburn

When Mark Blackburn told us at the Fitzwilliam in 2009 that his long-running battle with lymphoma was now in its final stages, many plans emerged from the initial shock and sadness. One of them was this, a volume of essays which we knew, even then, short of a miracle he would not live to see but with which the editors, Rory Naismith, Martin Allen and Elina Screen, along with many others all wanted, nonetheless, to express somehow our personal debts and the great debt of the field of early medieval monetary and economic history to Mark’s vast energy, encouragement and scholarship. Now it exists, and while one obviously wishes he could have seen it, it more than fulfils its task: there are essays here by people in the UK, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and France and by people at all stages of their academic careers inside and outside the Academy (because that last is allowed in numismatics), twenty-five essays in all, covering Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, Viking, Scandinavian, Carolingian, Byzantine and Spanish coinages, and there’s also me.


No, for once I am not just being self-deprecating in my announcement of a publication, I’ve just totted the contents up and I really am the only person in this volume not writing about coins, except in their absence, which is of course my numismatic speciality: instead my paper is about the supposed use of livestock as a currency equivalent in Northern Iberia in the early Middle Ages. I will admit that coins do get mentioned, but only to emphasise their absence. Still, this was a subject I came across during working on Medieval European Coinage 6 for Mark, I ranted about it in his office to his amusement and I think it would have amused him further to see it in print. I’m really pleased to be in this volume. I’ve only got two things forthcoming now, I need to pile more stuff into the queue! Happily there is an article in final revision on my active pile right now

Statistics, for the record: one draft only with two rounds of revisions, that draft submitted November 2012 for a final emergence in print October 2014, just short of two years. This is about average and it was a complex book to assemble considering how various the contributors’ employments and backgrounds are: I’ve changed jobs twice during its preparation and I’m not the only one either!

Full cite: Jonathan Jarrett, “Bovo Soldare: a sacred cow of Spanish economic history re-evaluated” in Rory Naismith, Martin Allen & Elina Screen (edd.), Early Medieval Monetary History: studies in memory of Mark Blackburn (Farnham 2014), pp. 187-204.

Name in Print XV

[This post originally went up in September 2014, when it was stuck to the front page, and now that I have reached that point in my backlog it’s time to unstick it and let it go free into the flow. You may also like to be reminded that I wrote something that might interest you… or you may not, in which case stay tuned for new content about global history some time fairly soon.]

Cover of Antonella Ambrosio, Sébastien Barret & Georg Vogeler (edd.), Digital Diplomatics 2011: the computer as a tool for the diplomatist?

Cover of Antonella Ambrosio, Sébastien Barret & Georg Vogeler (edd.), Digital Diplomatics 2011: the computer as a tool for the diplomatist?

Second of the 2014 outputs now! In 2011, as you may remember, I went to a conference in Naples about digital study of charter material. It’s been a long time coming but the proceedings of that conference are now published, in the Beihefte of the Archiv für Diplomatik, and my paper is in there, the last in the volume indeed. It’s called “Poor Tools to Think With: the human space in digital diplomatics” and it’s about database techniques that try not to over-determine structure. Let me put that another way by exemplifying with a paragraph. Taking a data search from the Casserres material as an example, I write:

“I think that, where I have been prepared to deduce here, the deductions are all reasonable, but of course they are not certain. This is not a failing of the database, however; it is an accurate result. There is not enough information to make those judgements, and the data returned from the query accurately reflects that. This design is set up to require the human user to make the final decision, or not. This subset is small enough that I can, even without a computer, establish accurately that we cannot tell which of these [homonymous people] are the same on a logical basis, and I ought not, therefore, to entertain data schemas that would make me do so. We do not, in fact, have to make technical solutions for these problems, because the historian can do as much with the information presented this way as he or she can with it anchored to look-up tables and so on.”

This is coming out of the problem of building a structured database whose purpose is to allow one to identify people without having to identify them to build the database. If this sounds like a problem you too have faced, or expect to, I may have something to say to you! It’s probably as close to a publication of ‘my’ database method as there will be, and on a first read-through possibly actually free of typos, which I have never before managed. I humbly put it before you all.

Grim statistics: this was written in September 2011, revised and submitted in November 2011 and revised after editor’s comments in March 2012 and then again in April 2013. Proofs arrived in December 2013 and it’s taken 9 months to come to press, not what I expect from the Archiv which, last time I dealt with it, went through the whole submission process in that time. From first submission to press would thus be 2 years 11 months, rather below even my long average. But, fortunately indeed for a technical paper, my methods are so low-tech that they remain useful I think…

Full citation: J. Jarrett, “Poor tools to think with. The human space in digital diplomatics” in Antonella Ambrosio, Sébastien Barret & Georg Vogeler (edd.), Digital Diplomatics 2011: the computer as a tool for the diplomatist?, Archiv für Diplomatik Beihefte 14 (Köln 2014), pp. 291-302.