Category Archives: Now working on…

Aside

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

All That Glitters, Experiment 6 and final

So, as just described, almost my first academic action of 2016 – for that is how far in the past we are for this post – was to head back to Birmingham, freshly remobilised, to pursue what was supposed to be the last run of experiments in the All That Glitters project of which I have now told you so much. Since the last one of those posts was only a short while ago, I’ll not reprise the project plan beyond saying it was to try and find out what was in Byzantine gold coins besides gold using X-ray fluorescence spectrometry and we were finding it difficult to get beyond what was on Byzantine gold coins. Now, read on!

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4599

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine VI and Empress Eirini, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4599, in XRF analysis sample cup

Since we now more or less had a working method established, if it could be called that (since it didn’t really work), we had decided that our original research goal, of spotting changes in the trace elements in the centrally-minted gold coinage of the Byzantine Empire, was beyond the technology, and we needed to work out what else we could do with the remaining machine time. At first we’d thought we wouldn’t have enough, now we had more than we knew what to do with… But the most obvious thing seemed to be to broaden our sample as much as possible. So, we selected more of the Barber Institute’s coins, taken from imperial reigns we hadn’t covered, extra denominations from ones we had and sets from other mints than Constantinople that we could compare to coins of the same emperors there, and we took them all over to University of Birmingham’s School of Chemistry over a period of four days, where we were as usual excellently looked after as far as they could manage, and we subjected them to analysis. In all of this we were hampered by the fact that results were basically hard to reproduce; in fact, this became so frustrating that when it became clear that we still had a dribble of machine time budget left at the end of these experiments, we set up one more to address that problem specifically, and that will be the last of these posts when I get so far. But for this one I can basically give you only a very simplified set of findings, some of which might address real questions if only we could trust our results, and then gently suggest that even what we did get might justify some careful conclusions, though they might not really have justified the labour. So: some late antique numismatic questions, as answered by the S8TIGER in January 2016!

Bruker S8 TIGER XRF analyser open for business

Our tool of analysis, the S8TIGER WD-XRF machine, ready for action

Our first question in this set of tests was about fractional denominations. Though the primary imperial gold coin was the famous solidus, the “dollar of the Middle Ages”, there were also small numbers of halves (semisses) and thirds (tremisses) struck, with slightly different designs.1 Were these actually struck from the same metal as the solidi? Our results, shaky as they were, suggested that the answer was broadly ‘yes’, at least at Constantinople and, as far as we could test, Carthage. The only place where we picked up any reasonably substantial difference was Syracuse, in Sicily, but we’ll come back to that…

Gold solidus of Emperor Maurice struck at Ravenna 582-602, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2390

Gold solidus of Emperor Maurice struck at Ravenna 582-602, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2390

Gold tremissis of Emperor Maurice struck at Ravenna 582-602, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2391

Gold tremissis of Emperor Maurice struck at Ravenna 582-602, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2391; note the different design

The other thing we were hoping to establish in this set of tests was variations between mints. I admit that I was cynical about this; as I think I’ve said before, it had sort of become clear that almost all the elements were shared, and that this made sense in a world where imperial coin was being sucked into Constantinople in tax from right across the Mediterranean each year, melted down and then returned to the world as new coins; the recycling should have mixed everything together over time.2 So the only place we had a hope of seeing such variation was in places where that centralisation was breaking down, and in fact, from very early on it had become clear that late coins of Syracuse were gold-poorer than their Constantinpolitan contemporaries, to the extent where the one of us who hadn’t loaded a coin, so didn’t know what it was, could still tell if it was a Syracusan one from its results.

Graph of gold content over time for Byzantine mints of Constantinople and Syracuse

A very rough Excel-generated graph of coins’ gold content over time for the mints of Constantinople and Syracuse, by your humble author

Some of that impurity was visible by eye, indeed, but we could pick it up from before that. Indeed, there are one or two problem cases where mint attribution is uncertain for such coins, and for one of those at least, we were pretty sure we could now partly answer the question.3

Powerpoint slide showing three tremisses of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V from different mints

This is a slide I’ve grabbed from a presentation I will come to tell you more about in Princeton, and it’s the one on the right that’s the undecided case; but its metal content is much more Italian than Constantinopolitan, and we might get further yet

Why Syracuse was allowed to run its coins differently is a separate question, since as far as we know it was still paying tax to the centre and its coins must have been detectably poorer there too, but maybe what we’re seeing here is actually proof that it didn’t pay tax; its small change, too, seems to have been treated in such a way as to restrict its circulation, and Rebecca Darley (I can take no credit for this thought) wondered therefore if Sicily was persistent suffering a currency drain to the East that these measures were meant to stop by deprecating the exchangeability of Sicilian money.4 It might have helped!

Scatter plot of silver content versus copper content of Italian-attributed Middle Byzantine coins

Scatter plot of silver content versus copper content of Italian-attributed Middle Byzantine coins, which is probably Maria Vrij’s work, though I don’t remember; it was certainly her idea to do it

But as it turned out, we could get one step further with such distinctions. One of the other enigmas about coinage in Byzantine Italy is that we’re not totally sure which issues belong at which mints. Syracuse’s particular characteristics become distinctive after a while, but there are a rook of issues which are tentatively attributed to Ravenna, Rome or just ‘Italy’ that no-one’s really sure about.5 We haven’t solved this problem, but we may have spotted something that will help with it. I say ‘we’, but just as I owed the previous point to Rebecca Darley, this one was thought of by Maria Vrij; I sometimes think my sole intellectual contribution to this project was mainly defeatism. Maria noticed that whereas the Syracuse coins were debased with both silver and copper, and thus maintained a ruddy gold colour even once quite poor-quality, the elemental profile we were getting from supposed Ravenna issues included nothing like as much copper. Instead, the Ravenna issues seem to have turned ‘pale’, being adulerated only with silver. In that respect, they were following the trend of the post-Roman West at large, but it also makes sense in its own terms: Ravenna issued silver coin, which Syracuse didn’t, so when they had to cut corners with the solidi it makes sense that it was the refined silver from the local coinage that went into the pot, while Syracuse was presumably using less processed metal with accompanying copper content.6 So that’s something that belongs to Maria to write up properly, but hopefully it won’t be as many years before that happens as it has already been since we found it out… I make no promises there, as we all have other priorities, but nonetheless, we did find stuff in these tests that people might want to be able to refer to, and I hope this write-up at least gives some basis to believe that!


1. If you want the basics on these coinages, you can do no better even now than consult Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), where pp. 50-56 will cover you for these purposes. The catchphrase, though, comes from Robert Sabatino Lopez, “The Dollar of the Middle Ages” in Journal of Economic History Vol. 11 (Cambridge 1951), pp. 209–234, online at http://www.jstor.org/stable/2113933.

2. My picture of this process comes pretty much direct from M. F. Hendy, “Aspects of Coin Production and Fiscal Administration in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Period” in Numismatic Chronicle 7th Series Vol. 12 (London 1972), pp. 117–139, which is clearer than his later treatment in Michael Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, c.300-1450 (Cambridge 1985), pp. 257-303.

3. The standard reference for such matters, Philip Grierson, Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection, volume three: Leo III to Nicephorus III, 717—1081 (Washington DC 1973), Part I, where the coins in question are listed under Leo III 18a.1 (the Barber’s specimen online here), 48 (the Barber’s specimen online here) and, maybe, 12, 13 or 42 depending on what the Barber’s specimen (online here) actually is; the metallurgy makes type 42 seem likely though!

4. On the relevant Sicilian small change see for basics Grierson, Byzantine Coins, pp. 166-168, but for a different view of what was going on with its currency see Cécile Morrisson, “Nouvelles recherches sur l’histoire monétaire byzantine : évolution comparée de la monnaie d’or à Constantinople et dans les provinces d’Afrique et de Sicile” in Jahrbuch der österreichischen Byzantinistik Vol. 33 (Wien 1983), pp. 267-286, repr. in Morrisson, Monnaie et finances à Byzance : Analyses et techniques, Collected Studies 461 (Aldershot 1994), chapter X.

5. Grierson, Byzantine Coins, pp. 168-171.

6. Ravenna’s silver is discussed ibid., p. 140, but for the bigger picture see Mark Blackburn, “Money and Coinage” in Paul Fouracre (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History volume I c. 500‒c. 700 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 660–674.

Chronicle III: January to March 2016

I’m sorry there was no blog last weekend. Frustratingly, the thing I spent that time on now isn’t going to work out, so I’m determined to make sure there is a post this weekend, and the post that is due is the next round-up of my academic life, which has now reached 2016. It has been five months since I posted the last of these three-month slices, and the only real consolation there is that it took me less time to get through those three months of blog content than it did the previous one, but we will hopefully still see further gains made as marking ebbs and the summer shapes up. Can but hope, eh? But meanwhile, here’s how it looked at the beginning of 2016 for your humble blogger.

Teaching

It’s not just tradition but also a reflection of the real state of life that the first item on the bill is always teaching. Actually, in the first half of 2016 I had a lower teaching load than I have had since or likely ever will at Leeds, given what they need me to cover; I was running one module, albeit a big one, and contributing bits to a couple of others. That said, the beginning of the semester was still a fairly steep learning curve, as the module I was running was an inherited first-year course called Empire and Aftermath: The Mediterranean World from the Second to the Eighth Centuries, and even my undergraduate study experience only previously went back to AD 284; I’d never done the second or third centuries before in any context, let alone one where I needed to show expertise. Thankfully I had the help of two postgraduates who’d taught the module before and that made everything easier, although I did also have to second-mark and observe those postgraduates so they were not solely a labour relief. It was all a fair bit of work, and it coincided with the early part of the excellent but intensive Palaeography: Reading Medieval Manuscripts that we put our MA students through, which has continuous assessment. Furthermore, Leeds has examinations on the first semester’s modules as soon as the students get back in January, so I was reading up for the new stuff and choosing manuscript images for palæography at the same time as marking these exam scripts, and by the time I was done with those the first palæography assignments were in, and they were only just back to the students by the time the first-years’ formative essays came in, alongside the second palæography assignments… and in general it seemed a long time before the marking stopped.

Wolfenbüttel MS Codex Guelfybertiani 13, fo. 6v

One that was set; can you read this? Come to Leeds and we’ll teach you! But if you want to know more independently, it is Wolfenbüttel MS Codex Guelfybertiani 13, folio 6 verso, and you can find out more via the link through the image

In between these I fitted a couple of workshops for an Institute for Medieval Studies module, Medieval Narratives on the Modern World, on European national origin myths and on the so-called Reconquista, but those were fun and much less work. And there were also personal tutorials to be fitted in, to which only half the students turn up but of course you must book the time anyway, and feedback meetings, and also joint care of a visiting Chinese Ph. D. student. I felt fairly busy. Still, looking back, I was not carrying very much and the next year would have been much harder if I hadn’t had this run-up.

Extra Labours

That must also be how I had time for the other things I was doing. In particular, having found out that there was this coin collection in the bottom of the Library, I had resolved to make it part of my teaching, and so one of the few changes I did make to Empire and Aftermath was to turn one of the seminars into a coin-handling session to try and get people excited about the reality of the period in their hands. I’m not sure how well that worked, though commendably both my postgrad assistants leapt at the chance to be able to say they’d taught with coins and did some crash-course Roman numismatics with me, which made me feel useful. More prosaically, in the state of the collection there wasn’t really a way to find out what there was to teach with except to inventory it, so I put aside my Friday afternoons for most of this period to inventory the medieval, Byzantine and late Roman coins and got through a fair few. Some day soon I will get round to sorting out the photographs I took of the cool ones…

Copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Constans II overstruck at Constantinople in 641-642 on a coin of Emperor Heraclius, DOC II Constans II 59c, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued

Here is one that perhaps only I could think is cool, a horribly-made copper-alloy 40-nummi of Emperor Constans II overstruck at Constantinople in 641-642 on a coin of Emperor Heraclius, DOC II Constans II 59c, Leeds, Brotherton Library, uncatalogued

There was also other stuff involving coins. Back at the Barber Institute the process of replacing me had unfortunately crossed with their normal exhibition schedule, so my humble effort, Inheriting Rome, was extended for a few months to give the new curator a chance. I got to see my thus-prolonged exhibition again because there were still two more sessions of the now-legendary All That Glitters project to do, about which I will tell you shortly, and of course back at Leeds this was also the time in which I started the wheels turning on the project that would become Unlocking the Winchester Cabinet. My head of department was actually concerned that I was going to spend all my time doing late antique numismatics and not the research on whose basis I’d been hired, which I didn’t see as a serious worry because, at this point, there was still time and I used it on stuff that was interesting and useful for others as well as for me.

Other people’s work

I was also at this point still managing to travel for seminars a bit, and I have a lot of notes from this period that I’m not really going to say much more about. The itinerary looked like this, though:

  • Katherine Cross, Dominic Dalglish and Robert Bracey, “Images, Relics and Altars: comparing material religion on the first millennium”, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 20th January 2016, to which I went mainly because Robert is an All That Glitters collaborator, but at this stage he was also busy with a project called Empires of Faith, which was doing the kind of cross-cultural comparison implied by their title here, with Katy Cross bringing early English Christian monuments like the Gosforth Cross to the table, Dominic Dalglish coming from the ancient Mediterranean world and Robert from Kushan India, but here talking as much about what made for valid comparison in this set-up as the actual objects. This was interesting but the results of the project can now be investigated on the web, so I’ll leave this one aside and move on to…
  • Hugh Kennedy, “ISIS and the Early Caliphate”, Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages Annual Public Lecture, University of Birmingham, 27th January 2016, to which I travelled down and which I thoroughly enjoyed, but which needs treatment together with…
  • Julia McClure, “A New Politics of the Middle Ages: a global Middle Ages for a global modernity”, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 3rd February 2016, also substantially about the way people were reading the Middle Ages into the situation in the Middle East at that time, but approaching it from a very different direction. So I’ll do a post about those two together.
  • I also made it down to London for Alex Rodríguez Suárez, “The Komnenian Emperors: a Latinophone dynasty”, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 11th February 2016, about the extent of the changes brought about in Byzantine court ceremonial under, especially, Manuel I Komnenos that would be attributed to Latin influence, which Dr Rodríguez wanted, I think rightly, to read as appropriation of ways to assert dominance over the new Latin lords in the Middle East, not an aping of their flashy chivalric habits as they have often carelessly been read. That seemed convincing to me but I don’t have much more to say about it, so on to a clutch of things back at Leeds, as follows:
  • Pat Cullum, “‘Looking the Part’: presentation and representation of clerical masculinity in late medieval England”, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 24th February 2016;
  • Esther Eidinow, “Seeing into the Future? Oracles and the Ancient Greeks”, Classics Seminar, University of Leeds, 25th February 2016, about ancient Greek stories in which oracles were tested before being consulted for real, pushing at the edges of our categories of rational and irrational, interesting and my first step in a plan to make friends with my counterparts in Classics and Ancient History;
  • Natalie Anderson, “Tournament Trappings: Textiles and Armour Working Together in the Late Medieval Joust”, Medieval Group Seminar, University of Leeds, 7th March 2016, the culminating presentation by one of our Ph.D. students then about to finish and very much a mature piece of work about the ways in which combatants in late medieval tournaments displayed and distinguished themselves, which was as much or more a matter of fabric as the armour that more often now remains to us.
  • Then, back to London again to see a big name, Philippe Buc, “Eschatology, War and Peace: of Christ’s Armies, Antichrist and the End of Times between ca. 1095 and ca. 1170″, Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 10th March 2016, arguing for a change in the way that medieval people thought about the oncoming end of the world that occurred with Crusading, in which it becoming OK to kill for God was itself a sign of the end times, but one that could last for quite a long while, setting up the fight that would now go on until everyone was Christian and the End finally came. I remember this being fun and extremely erudite, but looking back over my notes I’m not sure what I have to add to that summary, so it’s back to Leeds for two more to close the season, the relevant items being:
  • Travelling the World: from Apuleius to the Icelandic Sagas, from the picaresque novel to travel literature, a more substantial seminar in Classics whose separate components were:
    • Regine May, “Travelling to the Land of Witches: Apuleius’s Golden Ass“, about Thessaly’s Classical reputation as a hotbed of magic and sorcery and how travel might thus lead you out of the known world in several dimensions, and
    • Ros Brown-Grant, “Encounters between the East and West in Fifteenth-Century Manuscript Cultures”, on pictures of Westerners meeting Easterners either in West of East as imagined by Western manuscript artists, usually for tales of betrayal where Greeks were concerned or conversion where Muslims were, sort of inevitably.
  • and finally, Ross Balzaretti, “Early Medieval Charters as Evidence for Land Management Practices”, Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 16th March 2016, to which I would have gone even had it been further afield since Ross has been a supporter of mine for a long time and I am very interested in his work, but precisely because it’s quite similar to my own, I’m not going to do a detailed write-up here because it would look a lot like, “Ross’s charters say things like mine do!” It was good, but you can already read the same sort of thing here.

My Own Research?

So that brings us to the end of the timespan, and I have only promised three extra posts out of it this time, though actually there are also one news and two tourism posts that should also be fitted in there. But what is as ever missing is my own research. What was I working on in this period, looking back? Well, for one thing I was finishing revisions on the conference paper that nearly wasn’t, “A Problem of Concavity”; the final version of that was fired off into what became a suspicious silence in the middle of February 2016. After that I seem to have turned to the reading to support the revision of my venerable paper on early medieval crop yields, of which I’d done the bulk while still at Birmingham, and I had a new draft of that done in March, although, it would seem, not one I thought submissible; that was still a way off, and I now don’t recall why. But beyond that it’s hard to see what I was doing, and the conclusion has to be, I think, that despite the apparently light load I was struggling. I would build up academic muscle from here, and reluctantly trim back a lot of the activity above to make other things possible, but at this stage I was still enjoying being an established academic as I’d imagined it and seen it done by others, as well as reading a lot for teaching, and perhaps not getting that balance entirely right, in retrospect. I think, also, I still hadn’t actually worked out how to schedule research in a job that finally actually included that as a duty, but had structured time only for other activities. Actually accepting that it was a legitimate use of my employers’ time to read a book, after years governed by the next deadline, was still proving weirdly hard for me… Of course, I still was governed by the next deadline, functionally, but I was only letting others set them, wherein a mistake with future complications. Anyway, this story will be continued! But for now there’s enough queued up to write about, and this has already been a long post, so I’ll wrap it here and thank you for reading.

All That Glitters, Experiment 5

Fittingly in some ways, given the distressing news of the last post, this post takes me back to Birmingham (which continues to happen, with a trip there on Wednesday coming that I will delight in telling you about before long if all goes to plan…). In fact, this is the last of the posts promised in my second Chronicle round-up, which means that we are now progressed in the story of my academic life to December 2015… It doesn’t look a lot like blogging progress, but let’s ignore that and instead tell the next part of the story of my project to zap Byzantine gold coins with X-rays, All That Glitters.

Bruker S8 TIGER XRF analyser open for business

The maw of the S8 TIGER XRF analysis machine in the Department of Chemistry, University of Birmingham, already much featured in these posts

It’s getting a little silly now to re-summarise the project every time I do one of these posts, however far apart they may be, so I’ll invite you to look here for the premise and just say where, by December 2015, the project had got up to. In brief, we had started from a belief that we might be able to find out about sources of metal for the Byzantine coinage and how those changed and maybe why by analysing them using a technique known as X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF). We got money to investigate this possibility in April 2015, and either before that or thereafter moved through the following developmental steps:

  1. finding out that the lightweight, energy-dispersive kit that we had hoped to use just wasn’t going to get the information we needed;
  2. finding out that the big, stationary, wavelength-dispersive kit we had to use instead (by kind courtesy of the Department of Chemistry, University of Birmingham) would get us the best results only on its longest cycle, cutting the number of things we could test in the time we could pay for down considerably;
  3. finding out that the results we were getting apparently included quite a lot of invisible surface deposits that seemed most likely to be leftover soil;
  4. discovering that, against all expectations, cleaning the coins in acetone actually made this problem worse, if anything;
  5. deciding, along the way, that we could not, as we had hoped, test different areas of coins for comparison of homogeneity either, because the results were just too darn variable to interpret;
  6. establishing that despite all these limitations, we could still distinguish between mint practices sometimes, but that only in the most difficult of cases was this telling us anything a competent numismatist couldn’t have seen by thmselves;
  7. and, although this was my colleague Dr Rebecca Darley, not myself, presenting these initial findings at the International Numismatic Congress in Taormina and at the Joint British Museum/Institute of Archaeology Seminar at University College London.1
  8. At the former of these presentations we got some pushback from the numismatists whose work we were implicitly questioning, which was understandable, but in the latter we got lots of pushback from one or two archaeometallurgists who felt that we were not people properly trained to do such work and that in fact it was pointless, which I saw as one of those ivory-tower problems; people are out there doing such work badly anyway, so would you rather just let them publish it and be accepted or shall we aim to do at least a bit better?2 Admittedly, we were having trouble doing much better, but that was what we now set about solving…

On 17th December 2015, therefore, three of us brought our test set of coins back to the Department of Chemistry, but this time with a difference. We’d already tried cleaning the coins in acetone, as said, so we had decided that we needed to try harder. But how hard should you try to clean a relatively soft precious-metal object of considerable value? Thankfully, this was a question that the team working on the Staffordshire Hoard had already faced, and since I’d been able to talk with one of them earlier in the year, we had a kind of answer, which was, berberis (or barberry) thorns: tough enough to shift surface dirt, soft enough not to scratch the metal!3 So before the test, Maria Vrij, by now in post succeeding me as Interim Curator of Coins at the Barber following my move to Leeds, had taken the coins and more acetone down to the Barber’s most suitable room for the purpose and, with the windows wide open, had laboriously worked over their surfaces with thorns under a magnifying glass.4 I can only say that this made me very glad to have moved jobs before this could have become my task, and I remain very grateful to Maria for doing it, but of course the real question was, what difference did it make? And the answer was, sadly, ‘a bit’: the levels of presumably-surface material that shouldn’t really be in the coins (calcium, silicon, potassium, aluminium) dropped, but were not gone.

A gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius struck at Constantinople in 613-616, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2762, in a WD-XRF sample cup

A gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius struck at Constantinople in 613-616, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2762, in its WD-XRF sample cup for testing

This was, in many ways, not the answer we wanted, as with so many of the findings thus far. We would much rather not have had to use the big, fixed machine to which the coins had to be brought, rather than one of the portable ones we could have taken to other collections; we would rather have been able to use a shorter test cycle and thus test more things in the time we had; we’d rather not have had to clean the coins at all; but if we had to clean the coins, we’d rather it had been possible just with a wash and a rub in acetone, not with hours of picking at them with thorns with your face close over a bath of solvent. If we had (and by we, I really mean Maria, sorry Maria), to do all that, however, we’d at least have liked it to produce good results. What it actually produced, however, was only measurably less bad results, which was not the exciting scientific conclusion for which we might have hoped. But it might be a bit more like actual science, and sadly, it’s a lot more like real life; messy, never quite sorted out, but still interesting…


1. The former of these papers is now published, in fact, as Rebecca Darley, “All that glitters…: the Byzantine gold solidus, c. 300-1092″, in Maria Caccamo Caltabiano (ed.), XV Internationa Numismatic Congress, Taormina 2015: Proceedings (Rome 2017), II, pp. 982-985. A cite for the latter would be Rebecca Darley, “What does the science mean? Interpreting metallurgic analysis of Byzantine gold coinage”, unpublished paper presented at the British Museum/Institute of Archaeology Joint Seminar, University College London, 15th December 2015.

2. It seems mean to point fingers, but once it’s being cited it is probably fair game and, on the basis of our experiments, I might raise questions about Rasiel Suarez, “A Metals Analysis of Silver Roman Imperial Coins using X-Ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy”, online here, whose precision just seems impossible with the equipment he used despite his checks (which were not carried out against a standard), and one would like at least to be able to ask more questions about the methods and reproducibility of the tests in Monica Baldassarri, Gildo de Holanda Cavalcanti, Marco Ferretti, Astrik Gorghinian, Emanuela Grifoni, Stefano Legnaioli, Giulia Lorenzetti, Stefano Pagnotta, Luciano Marras, Eleonora Violano, Marco Lezzerini and Vincenzo Palleschi, “X-Ray Fluorescence Analysis of XII–XIV Century Italian Gold Coins” in Journal of Archaeology (2014), pp. 1–6, online here. Note that we are not the only researchers wondering about things like this, by now: see also V. Orfanou and Th. Rehren, “A (not so) dangerous method: pXRF vs. EPMA-WDS analyses of copper-based artefacts” in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences Vol. 7 (Basel 2015), pp. 387–397, DOI: 10.1007/s12520-014-0198-z, and E. S. Blakelock, “Never Judge A Gold Object by its Surface Analysis: A Study of Surface Phenomena in a Selection of Gold Objects from the Staffordshire Hoard” in Archaeometry Vol. 58 (Chichester 2016), pp. 912–929, DOI: 10.1111/arcm.12209.

3. See ibid.!

4. Of course, she is no longer Interim, but now actually properly Curator of Coins, and much better at it than ever I was, despite the acetone fumes!

Scribal individuation around Manresa c. 1002

Some time around the end of December 2015, in the fond expectation of soon having time to advance my old project on scribes and Church structures around the Catalan city of Manresa in the tenth century, when most of those structures were still in formation, I spent a bit of time staring at my images of the relevant documents and I was freshly impressed by the efforts the scribes went to differentiate themselves from other writers. And so I stubbed a blog post to tell you all something about it, and now we’re here in the summer of 2019 and I find myself just getting to it. As you know, lots else has been going on, of which there should be more to report soon, and I can’t say I have any massive new findings to present here, but some of this stuff is just cool, and that’s always been a good enough reason for a blog post before. So, here, have a charter!

Montserrat, Arxiu Monàstic, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, primera sèrie, no. 57

Montserrat, Arxiu Monàstic, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, primera sèrie, no. 57. Click through for bigger version.

This is from 1002, and so as far as I know has never been published.1 I haven’t done a transcription of it, but it’s a sale by one Tudiscle to a deacon called Borrell (no relation, I’m pretty sure) of a set of homesteads he was once given by his ‘lady’ (domina), Eigo. I picked it because of the subscriptions before I read it that far, but as it happens, you also have some female lordship there; you’re welcome. This happens in the Iberian Peninsula here and there. But I am, really, interested in the signatures. They start on the sixteenth line with the quartered disc with dots in it, which is a very abstracted form of the word signum, ‘mark’, ‘sign’, with a cross in the middle. Half of the signatures are by the scribe, a priest called Guifré, in the same unusual right-tilted hand as the main text, and those three all have that same disc, the people concerned being the seller Tudiscle and two witnesses, Guilabert and what seems to be Bonuspars, with which I can’t do much, I admit. But the scribe didn’t use that disc for himself: this was his sign for other people. He himself uses the four-pointed star device which, lexically, is filling in for the word subscripsit, ‘signed beneath’, ‘subscribed’, but looks nothing like it. Happily, the other two autographs show you different takes on the same idea, with Uuadamirsus sac(e)r, apparently not a man to whom spelling his name (which we would modernise as Guadamir) came easily despite being a priest, being clearest: the idea that lies under that messy ruche is a set of two or three Ss looped together as an abbreviation of the Latin. The other signature, MiRone leuita, the deacon Miró, does it more graphically, and that process of abstraction is the one that goes via the four-lobed version of the apparently-plural scribe Athanagild whom we looked at here years ago to the pointed version we have here. They’re all doing the same thing, these three churchmen, but they apparently didn’t want to do it in the same way.

Montserrat, Arxiu Monàstic, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, primera sèrie, no. 58

Montserrat, Arxiu Monàstic, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, primera sèrie, no. 58. Click through for a bigger version

There were apparently times when one differentiation wasn’t enough, even. Here you have another unpublished sale from the same year written by Ermemir (trust me, that is what the dribbled-down signature says) from another Ermemir and his wife Em (presumably for Emma? But there’s no abbreviation mark…) to Isarn, who is apparently plural; it is hard to resist the belief that scribe-Ermemir’s document-Latin wasn’t very precise, though one can forgive him given his nicely-drawn dagger as an initial I at the start.2 But as well as his deliberately decorative signature, he uses a really clear SSS-type ruche, and then seems to have tried out another in the far right corner. It’s not a separate witness signature, I think, firstly because there’s no name even though there’s space and secondly because the signatures otherwise finish at the far left, but it does seem to be the same ink. It’s possible some other scribe did a training run on a spare charter, of course, but the one scribe who’s clearly here is the one who’s named…

Montserrat, Arxiu Monàstic, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, Segona sèrie, no. 903

Montserrat, Arxiu Monàstic, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, Segona sèrie, no. 903. Again, a larger version lines beneath.

And then there’s this one, which is from 1002 as well. Unlike the other two, even though the two modern editions of these documents both stop at 1000, this has been edited before, because it’s a big deal (in both literal and figurative senses).3 What you have here is the monks of Sant Benet de Bages telling a story, and as ever when people in this area tell a story in documents, it’s because something had gone wrong.4 Their erstwhile abbot, Sunifred, had died during a Muslim raid on the area (probably in 997), at which point a dispute apparently arose between the founders of the church, apparently about the succession. At the time, however, that being 999 by this time, Count Ramon Borrell of Barcelona, presumably the obvious arbitrator, was in Rome visiting the pope. So they sent word out there, and when the query reached him the pope pointed out to Ramon Borrell that, canonically, monks ought to get to choose their own abbot. This seems to have come as news to our count (who elsewhere entitled himself ‘inspector of bishops’, not that I suppose he tried that before the pope), and he didn’t know what to do, and so the document says that the pope went to the actual monastery and asked the monks what they wanted, and they all praised God and asked for one Ramio, and this document celebrates his election.5

Monastery of Sant Benet de Bages, from Wikipedia Spain

Monastery of Sant Benet de Bages, from Wikimedia Commons; not the first time I’ve used this image and I’m sure it won’t be the last

Now, this is fishy as the hold of a homebound Atlantic trawler. Most obviously, even though he had once been in Catalonia, Pope Sylvester II (for it would have been he) didn’t pop in and visit Sant Benet de Bages in 999; someone would have noticed and recorded it and in fact his own letters lament that he doesn’t have time to visit his old school province.6 Secondly, the monastery’s foundation charter does in fact say that the founders’ family should provide the abbots, but actually beyond one young retainer of Count Borrell II’s I’ve not managed to trace any of them beyond 985, and they don’t seem ever to have provided an abbot to the place, so I don’t know who could have been disputing the abbacy.7 But there was once and may still be another parchment, which I don’t think I have a picture of, which gives a quite different version of this story, and that too was in the monastery when Jaime Villanueva came visiting in the 1800s.8 So something is probably wrong about this story, but at least we can see that this was the version that the monks quite literally signed up to because, look, there they are, all differentiated. So at least they all agreed, right? But actually no, it’s not as simple as that once you stop and take a good look at the signatures. Let me break it down as far as I’ve currently got:

  1. Firstly, there is no scribal signature. The line at the bottom left in the main text hand actually translates as, “We all unanimously who proclaim and confirm this election and have asked for it to be confirmed,” and then a ruche.9 But I think the main text scribe is the priest Ansulphus, more or less dead centre among the signatures, because the first signature in textual terms is Adroarius, whose signature is mainly in the main text hand because, as it explains, he was too ill to write but dotted the cross at the end of his ‘signature’ instead, and it looks to me as if the same hand that wrote Ansulf’s name formed Adroer’s too, in a deliberately different font. So that’s your first writing stint.
  2. However, after the first eight autographs—Baldemarus (with the hatched SSS device), Orucius (who abbreviates ‘monachus’ differently to everyone else and has the vertical monogram for presbiter, ‘priest’, that we’ve seen elsewhere), Teudalecus (with a waved SSS), Ermengaudus (with the repeated double knot ruche), Auduagrius (who is sort of sharing the ruche Ansulf gave Adroer), Argericus (who has got his double knot into a fortuitous gap in Adroer’s illness clause), Willelmus (whose knot lies on its side—because he liked it that way, or just to fit?) and Wifredus, with the cross-hatch—you have a new line of signatures, Vivencius, Ansolphus (another one?), Stefanus, Miro and Sendredus, all of whom seem to be written by the same hand and it’s not Ansulf’s, even though his own signature immediately follows theirs. And there is a second Sendre[d]us, signing autograph, too, on the bottom line in a very unpractised hand that misses out his second ‘d’. So is this a second batch of signing?
  3. If so, it wasn’t the last. Two lines above that Sendred, observe the signature of Pontius the deacon. This is probably Ponç Bonfill Marc (son of the Wonder Judge!), because his hand also seems to have written the signatures of the count and his two retainers in the bottom right corner. And you see that at very bottom right there is a spare cross, and one more below Ponç’s name, as if further names were expected but never arrived? That makes it look as if they took it to court to get the comital confirmation once Ramon Borrell had come back from Rome. But you see also, where that spare cross hangs about below Ponç’s name, there is what looks like more script in the main hand’s ink? I think that’s exactly what that was. I think that when they took it to the court, there was no room to sign, so not only did Ponç unusually use the shortest version of his name, they actually scrubbed out some of the existing names to make more room. So, three separate signing occasions?
  4. No, in fact, still more, because there’s also some sign of erasure beside Sendred’s big scrawl at the bottom too, so he didn’t sign with the rest of the monks either. At least four signing occasions, then. So how many of the monks were even at the first one? There’s not really any way to be sure. The main text names only Adroer, Todalec, Baldemar and Ermengol. Did everyone else get added in later? How much later? On how many occasions? How consensual an election was this? How many other names had been washed out by the time they’d finally got it confirmed?

Anyway, that wasn’t supposed to be the point of the post. The point is, of course, that where we have got autographs, though here there is certainly a preference for the double-knot ruche, nonetheless, no one autograph is made to look like another; every one is different. This is, by now, what I have come to expect, but every now and then someone reminds me that other places don’t necessarily do this.10 In a later era, this might be authentication, but it would take a fiendish local knowledge to be able to remember who used exactly what variant of a ruche, I think, and besides we’ve seen before that it’s not always quite the same even when it’s (notionally at least) the same scribe involved.11 So I think it really is just a local sense that in a document like this every signature should be different, perhaps so that everyone could see that it genuinely was another hand, not the scribe’s. But then, why not vary the signatures when it actually is the scribe as well? Cheating? I don’t, yet, have my head round this. But I may get there yet, if I just look at a few more charters…


1. It is Montserrat, Arxiu Monàstic, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, primera sèrie, no. 57, as the caption says.

2. Montserrat, Arxiu Monàstic, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, primera sèrie, no. 58.

3. Jaime Villanueva, Viage literario a las Iglesias de España, tomo VII: Viage á la Iglesia de Vique, año 1806 (Valencia 1821), online here, ap. XIII.

4. See some day soon Jonathan Jarrett, “A Likely Story: purpose in narratives from charters of the early medieval Pyrenees”, in †Simon Barton and Robert Portass (edd.), Beyond the Reconquista: Essays on the Politics, Society and Culture of Medieval Iberia (forthcoming), but till then (and as well), Jeffrey A. Bowman, “From Written Record to Historical Memory: Narrating the Past in Iberian Charters” in Robert A. Maxwell (ed.), Representing History, 900–1300: Art, Music, History (University Park PA 2010), pp. 173–180.

5. Ramon Borrell is “inspector episcopiis dante Deo nostræ ditioni pertinentibus” in Petrus de Marca, Marca Hispanica sive Limes Hispanicus, hoc est geographica & historica descriptio cataloniæ, ruscinonis, & circumiacentium populorum, ed. Étienne Baluze (Paris 1688; repr. Barcelona 1972, 1989), ap. CLXXII.

6. Gerbert’s letters are translated in Harriet Pratt Lattin (trans.), The Letters of Gerbert, with his Papal Privileges as Sylvester II, Records of Civilization: Sources and Studies 60 (New York City NY 1961), but I confess I didn’t go and check there this time and am just running on Emília Tarracó i Planas, “Formació cultural de Gerbert d’Orlhac a la Marca Hispànica” in Imma Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu temps: Catalunya i Europa a la fi del 1r. mil·leni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 635–636.

7. The foundation charter is printed as Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 53 (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. 1127; on the family, see Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 144-151.

8. Villanueva, Viage literario VII, ap. XIV.

9. Nos om(ne)s unanimiter qui hanc electionem p(ro)-clamam(us) & firmam(us) & firmare rogauimus”, cf. ibid., ap. XIII.

10. All these issues and more are explored for French documents in the excellent Benoît-Michel Tock, Scribes, souscripteurs et témoins dans les actes privés en France (VIIe-début du XIIe siècle), ARTEM (Atelier de recherches sur les textes médiévaux 9 (Turnhout 2005), DOI: 10.1484/M.ARTEM-EB.5.105728.

11. For when it actually was done as authentication, see Alan Friedlander, “Signum mei apposui: notaries and their signs in medieval Languedoc” in Robert F. Berkhofer III, Alan Cooper & Adam Kosto (edd.), The Experience of Power in Medieval Europe, 950-1350: essays in honor of Thomas N. Bisson (Aldershot 2005), pp. 94-117.

I got given money for studying frontiers

I would, of course, be catching up on my backlog quicker if I weren’t alternating posts from it with differently-backlogged notices of my various achievements. But what am I supposed to do, either stop achieving things or stop reporting on them? I’m running a blog, the choice against false modesty or even politely refraining from self-publicity was made a very long time ago now. So, here is another achievement post, and it will not be the last such, either. I hope you can cope!

A view from the platform of the Castell de Gurb, Osona, Catalonia

A view from the platform of the Castell de Gurb down the erstwhile frontier of the Riu Ter

All that said, we are still in the past here, and the relevant markers in the past are October 2016 and April 2017. As even fairly short-term readers here will know, since about 2012 I’ve been thinking that the next big thing I’d like to do research-wise, alongside my general refinement of the world’s understanding of tenth-century power and authority as seen from Catalonia, is to get people thinking about frontiers using medieval evidence. I’ve organised conference sessions about this and I’ve even started publishing on it, against some odds (long story, near-future post).1 But I have also been planning a bigger project to do this. It was one of the things I promised, as part of my numerous probation obligations at the University of Leeds, that I would apply for funding for, and the two markers are, therefore, when the bid went in and when I got notice that I had in fact received the money. None of that would have been possible without the support of the Leeds Humanities Research Institute (as it then was), to whom I owe considerable collective thanks for guiding me in my first ‘big’ bid (and to then-Director Professor Greg Radick for scaling it down to a more-likely-successful size from my original aspirations), but obviously the main people who are owed thanks here are the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust, one of whose Small Research Grants paid for what followed. So this is where I express my gratitude to them all: thankyou folks, I think you chose wisely but I’m very glad you chose me.

Logo of the British Academy

A logo from my sponsor…

Now, the obvious question now is what did I do with the money, indeed what did we do, because this was a network project involving several other fine scholars of such matters. But actually, one of the answers to that was, “start another blog“, which was one of the reasons I was editing here rather infrequently during 2017, when this was all coming off. So, rather than write it all out again here, I will direct you to it on the project website (also my own work) if you’re interested, saying here only that it covers the genesis of the project, its historiographical and methodological bases, a workshop, some connected activity, a triumphant conference (there are pictures), a related conference run by someone else and some of our future plans. If frontiers are your thing, and you didn’t somehow hear about this at the time, you might want to have a look. And if for some reason you just like reading my writing about what I’ve been doing, well, there is another missing chapter of it over there for you. Thankyou, as ever, for the attention and feedback!


1. Jonathan Jarrett, “Before the Reconquista: frontier relations in medieval Iberia, 718–1031” in Javier Muñoz-Bassols, Laura Lonsdale and Manuel Delgado (edd.), The Routledge Companion to Iberian Studies (London 2017), pp. 27–40.

Chronicle II: October to December 2015

Somewhat to my surprise, I have now reached the second of the what-was-going-in-my-life round-ups I was promising to use as the anchor of the new blogging programme here at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe, back in, er, February. It wasn’t supposed to take eight months to record what had happened in three, but as you’ll have observed there was a fair bit of hiatus and strife in there, and I hope that we can pick things up a bit now. There’s only one way to find out, anyway, and thus we now reach the point where I try and give some impression of my first semester employed at the University of Leeds. The first thing that needs to be said about that is that my new colleagues were absolutely lovely, and guided me through new offices and routines with cheerful generosity; it all unrolled a great deal more easily than it could so easily have done while I found my feet. To try and explain what I was actually up to, however, probably needs breaking down into headings, and the obvious ones would be teaching, what we might generally class as extra labours, seminars and similar, research work and, lastly, life more widely; I’ll say the least about the last, but it holds the rest together. So here we go. Continue reading