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Carrying Things to War in Frankish Gaul

Pausing briefly with the photography, let’s drop back in on my more academic self in the latter part of 2018. One might observe that I seem to have spent much of the summer of 2018 abroad, and certainly, I don’t seem to have stubbed many blog posts, which itself suggests that I was not reading very much. An inspection of my Zotero library suggests that actually, what I was mainly doing was clearing up references for the final push on what became my ‘Outgrowing the Dark Ages’, but still, the trail goes faint in June, July and August and I suspect that I was mainly marking or prepping for next year’s teaching.1 I had also picked up again after a long time away – about twenty years in fact – Martin Aurell’s Les Noces du comte, which was to become its own whole big thing that more may be written of at some point, but at this point I was only restarting that. Two things I definitely did read that summer, however, for quite unrelated projects, were Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands / La Frontera and, quite unlike it in every detail except sharing the English language and a paperback format (and, of course, being excellent), Guy Halsall’s Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West.2 And on getting properly into the latter, I stubbed this post mainly to express surprise and delight at two incidental things I found there.

Cover of Guy Halsall's Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900 (London 2003)

Cover of Guy Halsall’s Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900 (London 2003)

In the template, issued by Charlemagne King of the Franks and his counsellors probably around 793 or 794, for how royal estates should manage their economy and renders, the text we call the Capitulare de Villis, there is so much interesting detail that one can’t take it all in at once.3 I had most recently gone to it looking for what happened to agricultural produce, and so had managed to skip straight over some of the regulations for military provisioning. But of course Guy was looking for the latter, and so he points out quite justly, firstly, that Charlemagne wanted people to send carts to the army from all over the place, which has one contemplating trails of carts wending their way across the various kingdoms towards wherever the muster was each year.4 But, later on, there are further specifications about these carts, namely, that they had not just to be waterproof but be able to float, so that if a river had to be crossed, none of their cargo (which should, for reference, be up to twelve modia of grain) would get wet. Also, each one was to be equipped with a shield, a lance, a javelin and a bow, which as Guy observes is equipment for at least one and maybe two defenders.5 At which rate, these swimmable, hide-covered battle carts stop sounding quite so much like produce wagons and just that bit more like ox-drawn armoured personnel carriers… It had me thinking of some of the odder-looking walker machines in the Star Wars prequel movies, and that storming a Carolingian baggage train might have been a prickly experience, as, presumably, was intended in these laws. Circle the wagons!

LEGO Star Wars AT-TE walker

This is the kind of thing I had in mind, although obviously made of wood rather than LEGO, with wheels rather than legs, oxen and men rather than mini-figs and weapons other than laser cannons, but come on, share my vision can’t you? Also, I should probably say at this point that I am not getting any money from Amazon for using their images like this, I just think they’re least likely to complain about the free advertising…

Now, I might not have noticed the waterproof castles on wheels that Charlemagne apparently wanted everyone to make, but I did at least register that people were supposed to send carts when I had previously read that text; it did not fall upon me as a complete surprise. Not so much the second thing, dealing with a much earlier episode in a civil war around Comminges. There, the would-be king Gundovald had taken refuge from the pursuing forces of his enthroned rival, and alleged brother, Guntram, and Bishop Gregory of Tours, whose Ten Books of Histories tell us all this, writes from the point of view of the pursuers here:

“In their search for Gundovald they came upon camels and horses, still carrying huge loads of gold and silver, which his men had abandoned along the roads because the animals were exhausted.”

I don’t know about you, but the word that really struck me there was camels. I don’t think of camels as being normal beasts of burden around the Garonne area, even in the sixth century. But Gregory gives no further attention to it and rolls onward with the story (which, at the risk of spoilers, ends badly for Gundovald).6

Now, of course I was not the first person to notice this. I found out a month or two later that Bernard Bachrach notes it in his, er, classic, work Merovingian Military Organisation, but he does nothing with it at all.7 Sam Ottewill-Soulsby, no less, studying diplomacy of three centuries later in which some camels were sent to Charlemagne’s grandson Charles the Bald, emphasises the foreign, eastern resonance they would then have had, indicating Charles’s connections to the mysterious world of the caliphs.8 But does this leave us to suppose that, while a camel was an exotic rarity in the Francia of the ninth century, in the sixth the average king just had troops of them in his baggage train and they were an everyday animal for the time and place? I mean, come back Pirenne if so, right? But I think there might be another explanation.9

Detail of camel in wall-painting in a bedroom of the Château de Chillon

An actual medieval French camel picture, or very nearly, from the Château de Chillon in Switzerland

The question to ask is, where had this apparently-much-mocked apparently-pretender Gundovald got these vast quantities of precious metal to abandon anyway? And the answer may be in the next chapter of Gregory’s Histories, where in a set-piece of very useful exposition Gregory has Gundovald answer the taunts of his besiegers with a worked-out explanation of his claim to the throne. In the course of this he explains that, after he was driven out the second time (because yes, his career had been unsuccessful for a while), he’d run off to Constantinople and it was there that Guntram Boso (a duke, not a king, no relation to King Guntram, and the real target of Gregory’s rhetoric here) had sought him out to say, more or less, “all the other claimants are dead, come back and get what’s yours”. And Gundovald had then returned, under a safe-conduct which he now, not unreasonably, felt had been broken.10 But to my mind, when the Roman Emperor sends you west to try for your brother’s throne, especially when your brother’s kingdom is one the Romans were fighting in the Alps only twenty years before and which still threatens imperial possessions, he probably sends you with some gear. The Byzantine strategy of paying people to start civil wars with their enemies rather than risk their own forces was not new at this point, and would get much older, but it makes perfect sense here.11 In short, I suspect that much of Gundovald’s pay-chest and, therefore, quite possibly the baggage train that carried it, had come from Constantinople, which at this point still had control of almost all the lands which Caliph Muhammad would in 865. Emperor Justin II, in short, could have laid his hands on some camels (as it were). He could likewise then have sent them west laden with bullion or coin with which, with a bit of luck, this enterprising young Frank would embroil the Frankish kingdom in civil war for a good few years and leave the empire free to handle the increasingly bad situation in the Balkans. Sam is probably right that sending camels had a special valence, even in 585, but it would not then have been connection to the world of Islam, since that had not yet been created, but to the distant, but also quite close-by, Empire in whose erstwhile territory this was all being fought out. Gregory makes Gundovald look ridiculous, and perhaps he was, but by marching with camels and showering people with solidi he was probably supposed to look a good deal more serious and better connected than the Frankish bishop’s character assassination has let him be remembered.

Gold solidus of Emperor Justin II struck at Constantinople in 565-85 CE, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B1131

Perhaps the more powerful tool in Gundovald’s armoury, a gold solidus of Emperor Justin II struck at Constantinople in 565-585 CE, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B1131

All the same, Gregory apparently did not think his audience would need it explained what a camel was (though to be fair, neither did the annalist in 865). This is not like the single elephant sent to Charlemagne that Sam has also studied, or the occasional lions sent westwards or northwards in diplomacy, which occasioned wonder from most writers dealing with them; a camel was a known thing in this world.12 (And after all, what do we suppose happened to the camels of Gundovald’s baggage train? I doubt they got eaten; too useful! Perhaps there were generations of subsequent Garonne camels. I’m just waiting for the zooarchaeologists to find one now, it’d look ever so global…) We might, as with some other phenomena this blog has looked at, once again need that word we don’t have which means something that was conceptually normal but hardly ever happened. Such a thing, I suggest, was the sixth-century camel in Francia. It’s not by any means all I learnt from Guy’s book; but for the rest, you’ll have to wait for the article…


1. Of course I never miss a chance to reference my own work, and this time it’s Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1–28.

2. Referring to, in sequence, Martin Aurell, Les noces du comte : mariage et pouvoir en Catalogne (785-1213), Histoire ancienne et médiévale 32 (Paris 1995); Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands / la Frontera: the new Mestiza, 4th ed. (San Francisco 2012); and Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbaian West, 450-900 (London 2003).

3. It’s translated and explained at the link given, but if you need a critical edition (and indeed a facsimile , whose odd shape governs that of the whole book), then it’s Carl-Richard Bruhl (ed.), Capitulare de villis: cod. guelf. 254 Helmst. der Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, Dokumente zur deutschen Geschichte in Faksimiles, Reihe 1: Mittelalter 1 (Stuttgart 1971), and for scholarship see recently Darryl Campbell, “The Capitulare de Villis, the Brevium exempla, and the Carolingian court at Aachen” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 243–264.

4. Halsall, Warfare and Society, pp. 149-150 n. 97 citing Capitulare de villis cap. 30, where indeed you can see it yourself.

5. Ibid. but now looking at cap. 64, which is here.

6. Here quoting Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1974), VII.35, though Guy of course cites the Latin (at Warfare and Society, p. 151 n. 111), which you can see here; the relevant Latin word is camellos, which seems hard to misinterpret.

7. Bernard S. Bachrach, Merovingian Military Organization, 481-751 (Minneapolis MI 1972), p. 58.

8. Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, “The Camels of Charles the Bald” in Medieval Encounters Vol. 25 (Vienna 2019), pp. 263–292.

9. I cannot find that I have references to what I’m about to suggest anywhere, so I may have thought of it. However, something scratches in my brain when I try that idea, some sense that I have heard or seen parts of this before, and if I have, it may have been either (perhaps most likely) from talking to Sam Ottewill-Soulsby; possibly, from reading Bernard S. Bachrach, “Animals and Warfare in Early Medieval Europe” in Bachrach, Armies and Politics in the Early Medieval West, Collected Studies 405 (Aldershot 1993), chapter XVII, which I have done but where my notes don’t go into this kind of detail; or, longest shot, from a Kalamazoo paper of really long ago, Benjamin Wheaton, “Reasons for Byzantine Support of Gundovald through 584 C. E.”, 46th International Congress on Medieval Studies, West Michigan University, Kalamazoo, 14th May 2011, which I would tell you otherwise I remembered nothing of but which must have covered this material. If what I go on to say has been accidentally ripped off from any of these, or indeed someone else, I apologise…

10. Gregory, History, VII.36.

11. On the general practice, see Evangelos Chrysos, “Byzantine Diplomacy, A.D. 300–800: means and ends” in Jonathan Shepard & Simon Franklin (edd.), Byzantine Diplomacy: papers from the Twenty-fourth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Cambridge, March 1990 (Aldershot 1992), pp. 23–39, but for the specific context here, even though it doesn’t mention camels, still really good is Walter Goffart, “Rome, Constantinople, and the Barbarians” in American Historical Review Vol. 86 (Washington DC 1981), pp. 275–306, on JSTOR here.

12. On East-West diplomatic gifts of this period, you must expect me naturally to cite Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, “Carolingian Diplomacy with the Islamic World” (Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge University, Cambridge, 2017), or his marginally more accessible idem, “Carolingian Diplomacy”, in Gordon Martel (ed.), Encyclopedia of Diplomacy (Oxford 2018), DOI: 10.1002/9781118885154.dipl0042, so now I have.

What to remember from the 2018 International Medieval Congress?

Although I feel that it probably is a sign that I am catching up on my blogged past, I have to admit that I face the fact that the next thing in my blog pile is the International Medieval Congress of three-and-a-half years ago with a certain unwillingness. I mean, I’ve spent much of the last two years either trying to stay off or being told I can’t go onto the campus where it happened, for a start, so there is definitely a sense that this is deep past which doesn’t have so much to do with time as experience. But I’ve done all the rest and the format for them seems pretty well worked out now, and so I will give it a go.

Postcard advertisement for the International Medieval Congress 2018

Postcard advertisement from the IMC website

This was, I am reminded as I fish the programme off the shelf, the 25th International Medieval Congress, and the programme is the fattest of all the ones on that shelf. I can’t actually work out how many sessions there were: it says that there were 392 sessions on the conference theme of Memory, 9 keynote lectures and 394 further sessions, plus 4 lectures, so I think it’s 799, but firstly I’m not sure if that was everything and secondly, that was the programme as initially published, not the result of all the subsequent changes you find in the also-thick booklet of changes when you register. And in any case, however many sessions there are, you still can’t go to more than 17 because that’s how many slots there are in the programme, which is massively parallel, and most delegates won’t manage that because of their feeble needs for food and sleep or because of wisely placing socialising with people you otherwise never see over more direct forms of academic engagement. I do like, however, how this means that it’s probably mathematically possible for more paths through the Congress to exist than there are attendees, since there were this year 2,545 attendees and, if my GCSE maths does not fail me, 1 x 53 x 1 x 54 x 54 x 13 = 2,009,124 possible combinations of sessions just on the Monday not including any of the receptions. How would we know if it got too big? Anyway, this just means that what I have done the last few times, just listing my own path and then offering a few remarks where things still stand out for me, seems like the best approach still, because I can’t give an impression of 2 million plus possible other Congress experiences in one blog post, now can I? So mine is below the cut, day by day with brief commentary on each day to lighten the data dump. As ever, I’m happy to try and answer questions about the papers if people have them, but I will try and stay short unless you do. Here we go! Continue reading

Increased recognition and research capability

I figure you’ve probably had about enough of me this week, what with the strike posting, so for the regular post of the week I shall keep things short with two bits of good news amid the current woes, and not even backdated like most of my posting. (Well, a little bit, but not as much as usual.)

In the first place, those of you who’ve been tracking me a while may remember that I arrived at Leeds in the post of Lecturer in Early Medieval History and the mission, more or less, of keeping coverage of the years with three digits going in whatever fashion I thought best. Apparently, despite my early difficulties, that has gone all right because on 30th June I was able to accept promotion to Associate Professor in or of [no-one seems sure] Early Medieval History. My core mission remains unchanged, but this does mean that people sending me mail from the US addressed to Professor Jarrett will technically no longer be incorrect! There are also implications for my take-home wage (still not keeping up with inflation of course) that make the 15-page form, 19-page CV and 18-month process (admittedly thrown sideways by Covid-19 like so much else) a bit more worthwhile, but mainly it’s quite nice to have some form of reassurance that actually, I have been doing my job not just well enough but well enough for it actually to be a better job. But actually probably nearly as important for my academic future is this:

Volumes 2 through to 8 of the Catalunya Carolíngia on the blogger's shelf

Yup, that’s a whole lot of uniform-looking books on a shelf all right…

What is that? you say, and I answer, it is the entirety of the Catalunya Carolíngia charter volumes, on my shelf and ready for use and consultation, which is to say that I now own texts of every known charter from Catalonia prior to the year 1000. You must all have seen these volumes in my footnotes, but until very recently they took up less space in my house because not all of them existed yet. It’s been a long project, founded by the lawyer and amateur scholar Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals in the 1920s, which saw the royal charters for Catalonia and the charters of Pallars and Ribagorza published beginning in 1926 and finishing in 1955, and then a long nothing till Ramon Ordeig i Mata published the 1,500-odd documents from Osona and Manresa in 1999. Since then Ordeig seems to have been the magic ingredient, as every subsequent volume except the three covering Barcelona, which came out in 2019 thanks to Ignasi Baiges i Jardí and Pere Puig i Ustrell, has been completed by him, even if it wasn’t started by him, and in 2020 that culminated with volume 8 for Urgell, Cerdanya and Berga.1 The facility this gives my work is hard to explain. It has dramatically slowed work on the book because of having new data, the dangers of which I have described before and which have again come true, but you see, now I have everything there is: almost no future evidence of this kind can be expected to be discovered.2 That means that if I check my notes and the indices to these volumes I can be pretty sure how much something does or does not occur over a corpus of just about 5,000 documents and about 20,000 square miles over two-and-a-bit centuries. It may only be in print, but it’s still a heck of a searchable database, and I intend putting it to work for many years yet. If I ever meet Ramon Ordeig i Mata I will shake his hand gratefully; his work has really made, and continues to make, my research possible.3


1. I won’t cite all the volumes here now, as those who really want to can find the details themselves without trouble, but there is a useful history of the project in Gaspar Feliu, “La Catalunya Carolíngia” in Joandomènec Ros, Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Mercé Morales Montoya, Josep María Salrach Marés, Feliu and Marta Prevosti i Monclús, Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals: sessió en memòria, Semblances bibliogràfiques 97 (Barcelona 2021), pp. 75–89, online here.

2. There probably are more documents in private hands still—indeed, I kind of live in hope of one or two caches that went missing during the Spanish Civil War turning up some day—but it’s probably not many that go back as far as my period of interest, and the project had already been quite good at getting at the ones that do exist. Their advantage was largely having Church connections, rather than government ones, as far as I can see, because a similar government venture did not meet with the same success: see Daniel Piñol Alabart, “Proyecto ARQUIBANC – Digitalizacion de archivos privados catalanes: Una herramienta para la investigacion” in Antonella Ambrosio, Sébastien Barret and Georg Vogeler (edd.), Digital diplomatics: The computer as a tool for the diplomatist?, Beihefte der Archiv für Diplomatik 14 (Köln 2014), pp. 99–108.

3. A lot of other people are owed thanks here too, but especially Josep María Salrach who made it much easier for me to get several of the volumes. I should also note that the intention of the Institut d’Estudis Catalans is actually to turn it into an electronic database too, via Project CatCar, which has already generated a lot of interesting essays about what these documents have to tell us about Catalonia’s past. I’m sure the full electronic version will make a difference when it exists but right now, just wait till you see what I can do with all these indices!

Gallery

Flying Visit to Montserrat, III: Manresa by night

This gallery contains 17 photos.

The last of these photo posts from my rush April 2018 trip to Catalonia covers the evening of the day covered in the previous one. With the later part of the day still free after my climb nearly to the … Continue reading

Gallery

Flying Visit to Montserrat I: Santa Cecília

This gallery contains 21 photos.

There was a time, just a few years ago, when one could, if one wanted, hop on an aeroplane from the north of England to Barcelona at only a few days’ notice for somewhat less money than it cost to … Continue reading

From the Sources XVI: a document that nearly wrecked some of my work

Since I wrote my last post, about something I found in the last stage of work on an article about Sant Pere de Casserres, that article has come back to me in proof, so even though I laid down that stub in 2018, it is evidently exactly now that I was meant to be writing about it! So, here is another post about that final stage of work on it, and it relates to that great fear of the historian, new data.

Sant Pere de Casserres, from above

Sant Pere de Casserres, from above, just to remind you

You might think, of course, that most historians, especially medievalists with our paucity of sources, would always be glad to have new data become available, and to an extent that’s true. But, when you reach the point of having assimilated everything you know there to be of significance, and of having risked doing the pattern-tracing and generalisation that constitutes interpretation and you think and hope you might be right about the past in this one area, then honestly it is a person of the strongest of character who can with equanimity face the sudden realisation that actually, there is more. It’s bad enough if you’ve set out a conclusion based on the existence of evidence; whatever pattern you’ve drawn or progression you’re depicting, it could be ruined by an outlier or contradictory piece of data, but at least you can hope that your overall findings still look plausible even if once or twice something else happened. Much worse, however, if you’ve risked an argument from silence, constructing a pattern in which the fact that something is not in the evidence is important, because then at any point it could turn up and make you look a fool; and my article partly rests on the argument that a certain document we would expect to exist was in fact never written… All we historians, maybe all academics, live in fear of the hypothetical person at a conference or seminar who might in discussion begin, “I don’t know if you’re aware, but…” (which of course means, ‘Obviously you are not aware…’) and expose the vital, contradictory, piece of evidence which destroys one’s argument. And as already discussed both long ago and recently, this article was a project on which this happened to me twice, so I was already reading the edition of the charters of the viscounts of Cardona (explained last post) with some trepidation.1 As it happens, I escaped major embarrassment on anything to do with the actual article—that document still doesn’t exist!—but there is one other document there which was a complete surprise to me and nearly made several other things I’d already said or even published elsewhere fail.2 So I thought it was worth a post, and after a few minutes looking at it I decided the only way to do it was a proper ‘from the sources’ translation. It’s, um, not easy reading, so there is a summary below. But if you want the full flavour, here it goes.3

“In the name of the Holy, Eternal and Immanent Trinity. Let nothing be held by anyone on the basis of an unknown constitution, but rather let it be known and made open to all and everyone that I, Borrell, by Grace of God Count and Marquis, son of Count Sunyer, of good memory, and also of Countess Riquilda, whose memory may God keep, and my wife Countess Ledgarda, by the highest divine clemency providing some offering for love of the divine celestial kingdom and out of fear of the pains of horrible Gehenna, do consider the weight of my sins and become very frightened of the coming Day of Judgement, and so that I may hope to acquire pleasingness to God and may come before the tribunal of Christ so as to be acquitted of those sins of mine by God’s help, having considered in my heart, for the love of God and of the congregrated Christian people, in honour of Omnipotent God and all the Saints, and have by way of generosity made over all rent and service and the bearing of all servile yoke to all the people dwelling within the limits of the castle of Montdó, which they call Tallat, for all rights which devolve to me in the aforesaid castle, and just so do I, so that it ineluctably may be free.

Therefore I wish and order that the aforesaid castle be free, with all its bounds and limits, just as King Charles or his son Louis ordered the city of Barcelona to be free by their order and indeed precept or also by the donation which the counts or inhabitants of the already-said city received from them and as it thus dwells nearby in the precepts of the Holy Father.4 These royal powers carry forward the donation of royal power, which is by my right bestowed upon or awarded to whatever persons it may be, so that it remains in my name, by such a rationale that, by this royal means a benefaction awarded in his name who should promise it remains transferred, so that his may be the power to do or judge whatever he wishes with it.

Thus I order that the already-said castle be free with all its bounds and limits just as commemorated and confirmed below, such that no count, vicar, reeve, prior, officer or procurator, nor any person greater or lesser, may by custom there seek or require nor bear off any rental service in no way, except the selfsame tithe that he offer to God, and to him whom I or my successors will ordain; and they shall equally serve in the the army against the regions of Spania in the service of me the already-said count; and if there shall arise among them contempt or a quarrel shall exist between them, let no-one by custom distrain them except before me or my successors so that everything may be emended according to the order of the Law and the precepts of the Holy Father, and just as the law of the Goths contains.5

The hill of Castelltallat, including its castle, church and the observatory

By way of a break, here’s what is under discussion, or at least its centre, the Serra de Castelltallat, including eventual church, castle and modern-day observatory (because this is also still relatively speaking nowhere). Image by Victor M. Vicente Selvas, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

The aforesaid castle in the county of Manresa, in the neighbourhoods of the Marches, whose bounds begin: from the east, on the slope, and thus it runs along the torrent and comes to the yard which was the late Guisard’s, and then it runs by the steading that was Eldrud’s, and thus it descends by the torrent and it comes to the settlement which they call Porques; and from the south clearly it ascends along the ridge which they call Centelyes and runs from the pass that was Ataulf’s and thus it runs to the ancient [sic] from the torrent of Bono and thus it ascends to the pass of Corregó and thus it runs by the pond and thus descends to the settlement which they call Luvosa and thus it runs to the stronghold; and from the west side indeed it begins at la Tuscela and climbs to the tower which was Nantovigi’s and thus it runs by the torrent of Matadeporos and reaches the dip that is called Sorba; from the part indeed around it descends by the peak of the ridge and runs by the pass that was Marwan’s and comes to the settlement that was Marwan’s and comes to the settlement that was Agela’s and thus it descends to the stronghold where that cross is which the already-said Count Sunyer of good memory had made, and it comes to the settlement which they call Mulnent and thus it reaches that stone which is at the bound of Salau and thus it descends to Fontfred and climbs by the summit of Puigros and comes to the settlement that was Daco’s and comes to the altar and thus it ends at the selfsame slope or at the pass of Figuera.

The aforesaid bounds of the already-said castle with all its neighbourhoods and with all the houses that have been built there or all those which can be built, I wish and order and hand over into the power of the inhabitants who live or shall live or shall come to live within the aforesaid bounds; let them hold this freely in their possession in quiet order, whoever God may let be able to have acquired or be going to acquire whatever it may be there or be able justly to have such things there, let them be allowed and able to have, except my own alod that I have there or may justly acquire there according to the order and precept that is described above. That none of the already-said persons shall presume to demand or bear off any rent and service and tribute from the aforesaid inhabitants or dwellers or their successors but let each one of them be free in his own power and if they choose lords let them have power to commend themselves to whomever they want of the men from my counties or other counties and not to another count.

For if I the already-said Count Borrell or any of my successors or whatever person it may be, greater or lesser, should presume to do anything or acquire any rent or bear off any tribute or to collect anything unlawful there, let this not avail but remain in all things and furthermore let him compound in bondage to the aforesaid inhabitants or dwellers five pounds of gold and furthermore let him be obliged to bear the sins of my soul and let the aforesaid castle with all its limits and bounds with all improvements remain by enough in the power of the inhabitants or dwellers intact and sound and let this scripture, pact or agreement remains firm and stable as before now and for all time.

This page, pact or agreement done in the year of the Incarnation of the Lord 982 in the 10th Indiction in the Era 1027 on the Kalends of October in the 29th year of King Lothar, son of a certain Louis.
Sig+ned Count Borrell. Sig+ned Countess Ledgarda, who have equally made this scripture of endowment or pact or agreement and asked for it to be confirmed. Sunifred SS. Sig+ned Amalric. Signed Guisad.
Sendred, judge, who wrote SS

Now, if you found that heavy going, believe me I have simplified and emended throughout to get it even into that state (and put in the paragraph breaks). The scribe, the judge Sendred, seems to have thought that ad was the only preposition of relation left in Latin, and used it for all of ab, ad, de, ex and probably others, and also blurs it with aut, at, ac and maybe more things too. This may tell us a lot about how he actually pronounced the language, but it’s not easy to follow him through it. His care about inflection and number of nouns and their agreeing adjectives is also highly variable, and his spelling is awfully inconsistent. Furthermore, he went back over the charter and corrected it even to get that far: quite a few words are added in superscript between the lines. (Features like this at least mean it is definitely an original.) So to get that translation, I have throughout had to do the exercise I sometimes advise to my students, of taking a step back from the actual grammar, deducing what it must mean to say, and then going back to see what words the scribe thought would mean that. Then there are some words I would rather not have translated: cens and its cognates, for example, which I’ve given here as ‘rent’ or ‘rental’ but which is halfway between there and ‘tax’ really, and villa which I’ve given as ‘settlement’… In short, it’s a right pain to understand, but if I have done so, then the below is a summary, from paragraph to sentence, of what’s being said:

  1. Count Borrell, and perhaps his wife Countess Ledgarda, are very afraid that he may go to Hell. So—and why this is supposed to help with that is not clear—they are conferring all the rights they hold in the castle at Montd´, known as Castelltallat, upon the inhabitants of its district.
  2. This is possible for him to do because once Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, apparently with papal backing, did the same for the inhabitants of Barcelona and that royal power now sort of falls to Borrell and a royal grant of that kind frees people utterly of obligations.
  3. That means that no public officer of any kind may henceforth make any demands on the inhabitants except tithe, which will go wherever Borrell and his successors demand, and the inhabitants must still serve in the army against al-Andalus; also, any disputes involving them must come before the count.
  4. Just to be clear where we’re talking about, here’s its boundary [about which I will say more in a moment].
  5. So everything within that is now the inhabitants’, including whatever they already have and whatever they or those who may come to live there shall have in future, which by the way still includes Count Borrell who has his own land there too, thankyou; and they can set up a lord or take whatever person they like as a lord, in Borrell’s counties or anyone else’s, but it mustn’t be a count.
  6. If anyone tries to mess with this, firstly that shouldn’t work and secondly they must also pay five pounds of gold to the inhabitants who can then go on exactly as before.
  7. And lastly the date and signatures.

Now, there is so much I could say here. It may be worth starting with the circumstances. The Muslim first minister al-Mansur had just begun making serious raids on the north of the Iberian Peninsula. The Barcelona area had already been lightly pillaged in 977, so defensive measures were by now very much on Borrell’s mind.6 The people here may have been extra aware of that, because it is very noticeable how few of the people named as neighbours of the property were in fact alive, just one of the seven named individual neighbours, it seems to me. One of the dead guys had had a tower, though, and there were two strongholds (archae) here too, so this was already a defensive landscape; maybe it just hadn’t been defensive enough… (It’s also interesting to see an Arabic name, Marwan (Marvano) among the dead estate-holders, isn’t it?) So the overall context was a need to move settlers in on attractive terms, and the terms offered were basically total indemnity from any requirements of the state except military service and loyalty to the count.

In short, this document is what would later be called a franchise. Now, there is a big collection of these from Catalonia but the editor didn’t know about this one, and if he had I think he might have needed to think again about some of his early inclusions.7 The first unimpeachably original franchise, other than this, is Borrell’s massive grant to the townsmen of Cardona of 986, very similar in some ways; it refers to earlier grants, but we don’t have them separately.8 We do have a few other things which purport to be earlier franchises, and even use that term, but they are dead dodgy, only surviving in late copies and conferring rights which we otherwise have no basis to believe even had their own names before the early eleventh century.9 Now, you may have noticed this already, but the word franchise (franchitatum), or even ‘frank’ (franca, basically tax-free), doesn’t occur here. In fact, the scribe and/or count seem to have been quite unclear as to what sort of document this actually was, using four different nouns in sets of three to cover it. I think this is because this was their first franchise, and they didn’t yet have a stable idea of what that actually meant. Borrell was trying something new here. I think this is also why we have the almost spurious pious preamble about the pains of Hell for what is not, actually, a donation to the Church; I guess that all the documents like this that Borrell or Sendred might have seen were royal ones to churches and so they thought that’s how this one needed to begin. They definitely had something like a royal precept before them, because the phrase ‘no count or vicar etc.’ comes straight from that formula-book; you can find it in many such royal documents.10

That, then, is what the weird paragraph about royal power is doing. Those who know my work well will know that this was not the only place Borrell made such claims; there is one dodgy charter of 972 which also refers to a grant of royal rights in waste lands made to one of Borrell’s ancestors, and then two of 986 in which he uses the same phrase (written by different scribes) to describe the general transfer of royal power in the area to his ancestors by some kind of grant.11 It’s bubbling up here because Borrell was effectively granting an immunity, a grant which removed an area from public jurisdiction and tied it only to the sovereign, but that was something which up till now only kings had done here; so he felt that there had to be some kind of explanation of how come that was all right for him, not a king himself, to do, and the fudge about royal rights devolving on him is what is trying to do that, made more complex by the later emergent fact that he himself was immune from this immunity and kept his property there—by which we presumably mean not that he had a holiday chalet there he sometimes popped in on, but that in this island of freedom there would still be some people who worked his land as tenants and jolly well did still pay cens and do service if demanded.12 The grant to Barcelona by Charlemagne and Louis the Pious which he mentions is unknown, meanwhile, but it’s not impossible that Borrell knew about one of Charles the Bald’s ones (and Charles also had a son called Louis, who had a son called Charles who also had a son called Louis, for heaven’s sake, so maybe I’m just wrong that it’s Charlemagne and the conqueror of Barcelona who are meant). At this point Borrell just needed a plausible legal precedent, because there wasn’t one; this had never been done by a count here before! (We could also say things similar to those I’ve said before about the clause requiring no commendation to another count; in sixty years that would be called ‘solid’ or liege homage, but at this point those concepts just didn’t exist, so other ways had to be found to say this thing.)

So, I don’t think anything I’ve said in my early work is wrong because of this document; but I wish I could have written that work with knowledge of it, because it would have deepened and made more convincing my claims there that Borrell was trying to find new ways to assert power in and manage his territories, and that when he did this he looked for ways to justify them as being old.13 He wasn’t the first person to fortify or develop these frontier areas: his grandfather and brother had made grants to Cardona before him, and we see here the cross put up by Borrell’s father Sunyer which tells us, probably, who also put those strongholds on the ridges in one of which that cross apparently stood. But for whatever reason, Borrell needed a better reason than that and wanted to make arrangements which would stick, as indeed, evidently, his predecessors’ had not. And it’s this almost-unnecessary ingenuity about how to do this, here filtered and fragmented by the good but grammatically dubious offices of the judge Sendred, that makes me so interested in Borrell as a ruler. I may not have known about this document when I first needed to; but it’s going to be part of my thinking from now on.


1. Francesc Rodríguez Bernal (ed.), Col·lecció diplomàtica de l’Archivo Ducal de Cardona (965‒1230), Diplomataris 71 (Barcelona 2016), online here.

2. It should be noted how much worse this could have gone, because it has done for at least one other. The editor’s introduction to Rodríguez, Col·lecció, describes at pp. 58-59 how he only found out about this archive just as he was finishing his thesis on, of course it would have to be, the viscounts of Cardona, and it more or less invalidated everything he’d done and meant he took three years longer to finish after a complete rewrite. It’s every Ph.D. student’s nightmare and he actually had to live it. The edition may not be enough recompense…

3. Rodríguez, Col·lecció, doc. no. 15.

4. I honestly don’t know what’s going on here, and if you can do better than I have with, “et vel ita comine morat in praecepciones Sancti Patris” then, please, offer it up! (Full Latin ibid. p. 94, and it’s online as said in n. 1 above.)

5. Actually “sicut lex gothorum continet”, just like Roger Collins’s title of yore (Roger Collins, “‘Sicut lex Gothorum continet’: law and charters in ninth- and tenth-century León and Catalonia” in English Historical Review Vol. 100 (Oxford 1985), pp. 489–512), but Collins can’t have known this document. It matters only in so far as the phrase in Collins’s title doesn’t actually occur anywhere else in his article, so I’ve always wondered what charter he got it from…

6. I can immediately cite only Philippe Sénac, Almanzor: el azote del año mil, transl. Antoni Furió (Valencia 2011), pp. 88-93. I realise it may not be on everyone’s shelves, but (thanks to the translator) it is on mine.

7. Josep M. Font Rius (ed.), Cartas de población y franquicia de Cataluna, Textos 36 (Barcelona 1969-1983), 2 vols.

8. Ibid. no. 9, but better edited as Antoni Galera i Pedrosa (ed.), Diplomatari de la Vila de Cardona (anys 966-1276): Arxiu Parroquial de Sant Miquel i Sant Vicenç de Cardona, Arxiu Abacial de Cardona, Arxiu Històric de Cardona, Arxius Patrimonials de les Masies Garriga de Bergús, Palà de Coma i Pinell, Diplomataris 15 (Barcelona 1998), doc. no. 7, and see also Rodríguez, Col·lecció, doc. no. 18. On it see Victor Farías, “Guerra, llibertat i igualitarisme a la frontera” in Josep Maria Salrach (ed.), La formació de la societat feudal, segles VI-XII, 2nd ed. (Barcelona 1998), pp. 112–113.

9. Especially Àngel Fàbrega i Grau (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Barcelona: documents dels anys 844-1260, Fonts documentals 1 (Barcelona 1995), 1 vol only, doc. nos 108 & 123 (= Font Rius, Cartas, nos 7 & 8), clearly related and both purportedly given by Bishop Vives of Barcelona in 974 and 977. Fàbrega was inclined to accept the latter one, but I’m not sure why!

10. Those are of course all edited in Ramon de Abadal i de Vinyals, Catalunya carolíngia volum II: Els diplomes carolingis a Catalunya, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 1 & 2 (Barcelona 1926-1952), 2 vols, repr. in facsimile as Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 75 (Barcelona 2007), 2 vols, and examples therein would be Ripoll I, Sant Pere de Rodes I and Urgell III, spanning 835 to 935, and a similar formula not mentioning counts specifically in Albanya I (the very first document in it), Amer II, Amer V, Arles II, Arles IV, Banyoles II, Barcelona II, Camprodon I, Cuixà I, Elna III, Girona II, Girona VII & Sant Genís les Fonts I, in other words almost everywhere for a century, well into Borrell’s own times.

11. Esp. Jonathan Jarrett, “Caliph, King, or Grandfather: Strategies of Legitimization on the Spanish March in the Reign of Lothar III” in The Mediaeval Journal Vol. 1 no. 2 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 1–22 at pp. 9-11.

12. It is worth mentioning here that removing everyone from power relations with the recipient of such a grant except yourself was not necessarily a strategy of weakness, and may indeed have been what immunities were usually about—see Barbara H. Rosenwein, Negotiating Space: Power, Restraint, and Privileges of Immunity in Early Medieval Europe (Ithaca NY 1999), with appropriate consideration—but Borrell was levering off everyone above him as well as below him, which might have been a bit different. But it’s the whole sovereign paradox thing, isn’t it, that the granter of an immunity could choose to immunise people even to his own authority by which they held their immunity…

13. It’s yet another slight blow to Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), for example, where pp. 117-118 & 130 would now look a bit different, not least because I think I’d have now to admit that the first bit is arguing from a charter that’s at least part forgery.

Welcome to Ardèvol, Cardona, pop. [not very many]

Those of you still reading this blog from a long time back will remember, perhaps, that for a good while I was working on an article about a Catalan monastery called Sant Pere de Casserres (in Osona, that’s important), which seemed to get more complicated every time I looked at it; some new source or problem became apparent which was itself difficult to get or to incorporate and so on… It got me several blog posts, but the actual article I was only able to finish and send out in early 2018, and even that was a bit of a surprise. (It should be coming out later this year, for those of you who may be interested.1) But between about 2014 and 2018, the blockage was that I had discovered that there were probably relevant documents in the Archivo Ducal de Cardona, which resides in Toledo, and to which I could not easily get. The person who had told me this was editing them, however, and in late 2017 his edition actually emerged.2 So as soon as the chance arose I dived into it, and I will tell you next post about how much difference that made, but while I was gathering the information, I became briefly quite interested in a little place called Ardèvol.

Aerial view of the centre of Ardèvol, Catalonia

Aerial view of the centre of Ardèvol, including the watch-tower that the village webpage thinks is 10th-century but which I, partly because of the work done for this post, suspect is mid-11th at the earliest. Photo by De Celsona – http://picasaweb.google.com/Celsona/ArdVol#5171644339944900722, licensed under CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ardèvol appears in nine documents in the Archivo Ducal, and as far as I know it doesn’t appear in any other archive, though I haven’t gone looking; I’ve just never seen the name anywhere else. The first of the nine is from 979 CE; three more follow from 980, two from the same day; one from 982; one from 984; it’s mentioned as a boundary in one from 998; and then, nothing more till 1130, by which time it had a castle, and I’ll come back to that.3 But our basic window on this place is 979 to 984, in six documents, and all of them are sales of land to the elderly Viscountess Ermetruit of Osona. That caught my attention because that is also the pattern around Sant Pere de Casserres, which she tried to set up by much the same means, buying up everything she could get and then (probably—but see the article) bestowing it on the monastery. That probably didn’t mean anyone even moving, just changing to whom they paid their rents. But out here in Ardèvol, there was no monastery; rather, she seems to have been setting up a family stronghold at Rocafort. But apparently not in her plans, the family managed to get themselves a controlling interest in the frontier town of Cardona, which Count-Marquis Borrell II reestablished in 986 with Viscount Ermemir II as its patronus (because Borrell has to be in this story somehow). Rocafort remained a family fortress, but the lineage effectively ran out of Cardona thereafter and had, before long, even changed their family name to that of the city.4 So this is probably why we stop seeing anything of Ardèvol; it just ceased to be part of the plans of those who generated our record of it.

That said, it is surprising it was part of any plan, because it was out in the back of absolutely nowhere. To be honest, as the above shows you, this is still true, but even if you couldn’t check a map, you would know from the documents and the descriptions of the property that Ermetruit was buying. One estate is surrounded on all sides by forest, for example. That’s the most extreme, but of the six purchases four were entirely land which the sitting owners had themselves cleared from wasteland and the other two were partly so; in fact, in the case of the last they hadn’t even finished and part of the property was still wasteland as sold.5 So this was the colonisation frontier in a completely real way, and it might be suggested that it just didn’t get any further.

Now, that same Google map makes it clear that it got at least some further development, because as you will see if you zoom out by one click on that map, it’s bifocal, with two churches perched a few miles from each other. One of them, Sant Just, is high up, with maybe six other buildings round it that could, from the satellite view, all possibly now be part of the same farm complex. The other church, Santa Maria, seems to sit bang opposite a tower which must be part of the the Castell that shows up in 1130; there were apparently 114 people living in the whole settlement as of about 2011 (when the village webpage was last updated), but I suspect that we’d have seen more going on here if we could have focused on our Google Map on, say, 1830 than since the post-war move to the cities that has emptied a lot of the Catalan countryside.6 Nonetheless, this is mountainous land and probably no-one ever got rich farming it. So what would we have seen if we could have focused the Google Map on 984?

This is a question worth asking because Viscountess Ermetruit obviously thought she could do something by owning this little patch of nowhere. Its proximity to Rocafort, which is not the only castle nearby either, must be part of the answer, but the area was also not absolutely empty. Not many people had neighbours, as we’ve seen, and where they did it was often often already Viscountess Ermetruit and her sons (suggesting other purchases we don’t have). Nonetheless, almost no-one recurs in these documents; it’s almost a different set of people every time. There is also a recurrent priest who wrote four of these charters, also called Ermemir, but I suspect he wasn’t actually from the area because he seems to have been very unsure how any of the locals’ names were spelt.7 It is, in any case, quite unlikely that there was a church yet for him to minister in (and there is no mention of a castle either, which along with the quite severe and Crusaderish architecture is why I think that tower is not tenth-century, though an older cylindrical one which apparently fell down in 1932 might have given me second thoughts). But there are fourteen households named all told, though admittedly three are said all or some to be dead, suggesting that some lands had already fallen unoccupied. At that rate, the settlement was clearly already some kind of focus, just a rather scattered one. Each family was presumably breaking into their own separate plot of wilderness in the hope that this would be the happy future of things, and that some day they, or their children, would have that church and square and some of them would go out into the world, perhaps in the viscounts’ retinues, and some of them would stay and carry on making their homes as best they could. (They may not have anticipated the public swimming pool which this village of 114 people now boasts, but to be honest who would have done?)

Torre d'Ardèvol

I admit, the masonry admits of other views as well. Photograph by PMRMaeyaert – Treball propi, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 es, via Wikimedia Commons.

Now, a sequence of documents that ends abruptly just before the year 985 has ominous implications in this area, because that was of course the year of the attack by the Muslim first minister al-Mansur, what local documents called ‘the day Barcelona died’; but I don’t think that’s the answer here, because it’s a long way north of any route anyone normally supposed that army took.8 I think, instead, that the resultant refortification of Cardona, twenty or so miles to the east still, refocused the viscounts’ endeavours. Probably Alfons, Godmar and Ermemir and their six other neighbours were still there doing their stuff; but since the viscounts didn’t buy any more land there, we don’t know anything further. Later on the castellans of Rocafort seem to have claimed to hold a castle next door to Ardèvol, Matamargó (which still has a pretty little museum), but evidently Ardèvol did also get its own castle, because look, there it is, so maybe the fact that that document is forged should matter for this deduction.9 Eventually, anyway, there were clearly enough people around to justify not just one but two churches, but it was possibly never really part of anything bigger because first the frontier came dangerously close, close enough to magnetise investment away from here, and then it went away in the way that Paul Freedman long ago described for Vic, and the rest is for someone else to tell.10 But although this is in no way what I was looking for – for that see next post – the fact that in sorting through charter evidence you get these tiny stories of people trying to make a life is one of the things that keeps me hooked on doing this kind of work.


1. And that will be, I believe, as Jonathan Jarrett, “On Stone and Skin: Inscription of Communities at the Foundation of Sant Pere de Casserres” in Studia Monastica Vol. 63 (Barcelona forthcoming).

2. Francesc Rodríguez Bernal (ed.), Col·lecció diplomàtica de l’Archivo Ducal de Cardona (965‒1230), Diplomataris 71 (Barcelona 2016), online here.

3. Rodríguez, Archivo Ducal, nos 7, 8, 9, 10, 16, 19, 24, 360 & 378. Note that Rodríguez’s index (ibid. p. 772 s. v. ARDEVOL) omits no. 7, and that his date for no. 19 is wrong.

4. This is a story which Dr Rodríguez has now made his own, and you can access it via his works such as Francesc Rodríguez Bernal, “Els vescomtes d’Osona: Dades familiars i gènesi patrimonial d’un llinatge nobiliari pels volts de l’any 1000” in Imma Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el Seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la fi del 1r. mil·leni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 163–173, and indeed the introduction to Rodríguez, Archivo Ducal, pp. 7-58.

5. Forest on all sides ibid. doc. no. 7; nos 7, 8, 9 & 19 all clearances by the current occupant; 10 & 16 partly so; 16 still partly waste.

6. I should admit that I know about that mainly from Imma Ollich i Castanyer, Maria Ocaña i Subirana, Maties Ramisa i Verdaguer & Montserrat de Rocafiguera i Espona, A banda i banda del Ter: Història de Roda, L’Entorn 30 (Vic 1995), pp. 177-254, and since Roda was or became a textile town of about a hundred times Ardèvol’s size, I would have to guess that their history may not be very similar.

7. The only definite recurrence is one Alfons, in Rodríguez, Archivo Ducal, doc. nos 9 (as neighbour) and 16 (as seller); Godmar, one of the sellers in ibid. doc. no. 7, may also appear with land in Cardona ibid. 11, 13 & 14, but 14 makes it clear that there were at least two Godmars in the viscounts’ circles at this time; Ermemir, a seller ibid. doc. no. 8 may also recur in 11, 13 & 16. The priest Ermemir wrote ibid. doc. nos 8, 9, 10 & 11. Other named persons are Lanfred, Miró and Vivenda, part of the same team as Godmar in doc. no. 7; Ermemir’s wife Sesnanda, Miró and his wife Imol in no. 8; Fruilà, Franco and Arnulf as neighbours in no. 9; Altemir & Eiló in no. 10; Alfons’s wife Saruilda and a widow called Aió selling in no. 16, along with Usila, Fidela widow of Fadribert and the late Undila and his late children as neighbours there; and Guiscafred, Ansall, Alaric and Gostremir selling in no. 19, with Bermon and his wife Eiló and a dead guy called Domènec as their neighbours.

8. See on all this Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, La presa de Barcelona per Almansor: història i mitificació: Discurs de recepció de Gaspar Feliu i Montfort com a membre numerari de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica, llegit el dia 12 de desembre de 2007 (Barcelona 2007).

9. The forged castle claim is Rodríguez, Archivo Ducal, doc. no. 24.

10. Referring to Paul Freedman, The Diocese of Vic: tradition and regeneration in medieval Catalonia (New Brunswick 1983), online here.

From Ankara to al-Masāq in eighteen months or so

Right, let’s see about that post I promised. I promised some account of the conference which had taken me to Ankara in February 2018, but given that a decent part of it emerged as a journal issue about which you’ve already heard, and that I already blogged much of the conference elsewhere long ago, I thought it might be more interesting to do this post as a story of how academic ideas becomes a publication at the moment.1 This will be old news to some of my readership, I know, but I’ll load it with enough stuff that didn’t get as far as the journal issue or into the other blog post to keep you interested as well, I hope. So here goes.

Dr Luca Zavagno at the entrance of Ankara Castle

Luca Zavagno, standing outside the walls of Ankara Castle on this very occasion

As I said in the last proper post, my friend and colleague Luca Zavagno had found himself with more of a grant he held with me left than we’d expected, and thus upscaled from what had been meant to be a single workshop at Bilkent Universitesi to a small but complete international conference with a few ancillary events, because he could. The whole program stretched over three days in the end. On the first of these and second of these the relevant events were public lectures held in the afternoon, and then the conference proper happened on the third day. In between times we climbed on castles, taught master-classes to the Bilkent students like visiting celebrities (which, I suppose I have to admit, we sort of were) and tried to make sure our papers would be OK. There were also, I admit, a few meals out. I have some pictures of parts of this academic jamboree, but I think I might be discreetly murdered if I posted them, so you will have to manage without. Instead, have some food for the mind in the form of the running order.

21 February 2018

  • Public lecture: Rebecca Darley, “Speaking in Many Voices: Roman and Byzantine coins in South India as sources for maritime and inland histories”

22 February 2018

23 February 2018

    Workshop: Islands at the Frontier of Empires in the Middle Ages

  • Elif Denel introducing the American Research Institute in Turkey
  • Lutgarde Vandeput introducing the British Institute at Ankara
  • Leslie Brubaker, “Piercing the Cultural Frontier: images of the Virgin in insular churches and the Byzantine heartland”
  • Matthew Harpster, “Sicily: a frontier in the centre of the sea?”
  • Luca Zavagno, “‘I Don’t Know Why I Go to Extremes’: the Balearics and Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages”
  • Rebecca Darley, “Is an Island always a Hub? Sokotra, Sri Lanka and the Shape of Commerce in the Late Antique Western Indian Ocean”
  • Chris Wickham, “Looking Back at the Eighth Century from the Eleventh”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates:The Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet compared”
  • Francisco J. Moreno Martín, “Archaeology of Iberian ‘Ecclesiastical Frontiers’ between 6th and 10th centuries”
  • Round Table

Now, if you are as keen a reader of my work as I wish I somewhere had, you will have maybe noticed that there is a lot more there than got into the eventual publication, and indeed that one article there isn’t here. This is the story of how the moment becomes the monument that I alluded to at the beginning, really. Luca had thrown this together quite quickly; thus, some people had brought stuff that was directly related to the topic, some had fortuitously had something tangentially related presentable, and one or two papers slipped in because they were what the speaker could offer. In particular, it was only a very few days before that Luca had discovered that one of his planned speakers would not be able to make it (and this being before we all adapted to Zoom, that was considered prohibitive), so Francisco wound up stepping in with literally days notice, and the paper was definitely never expected to be more than work in progress. So it goes.

Of the ones that didn’t get published, therefore, I’ll say a little on content as well as process. Rebecca’s public lecture looked at the distribution of Roman and Byzantine coin finds in India as compared to local coinage systems and as compared to temple sites, pursuing a connection she had by this time already suggested in print.2 There seem to be some sharp differentiations; Roman silver, gold and even copper is sometimes found in most areas south of the Deccan, but Byzantine coin only much further south (and only in gold), and both Roman and Byzantine stuff often appears slashed, cut up or imitated using gold foil round base-metal cores, none of which happened to local coinages. The former Rebecca suggested might be to do with the emergence of the Vakataka Empire during the late Roman era, across whose borders Byzantine coin seems not have got (and which ran no coin of its own as far as we know); the latter is where the temples might come in, if the damage to the coins was somehow part of the ritual in which they were given to such institutions (some of whose treasuries are even now objects of mystery and speculation). This didn’t go into the journal issue mainly becaue Rebecca was still working out what these things might mean, but also because it was nowhere near that issue’s topic, however interesting, and so it was left for her to pursue further elsewhere.3

Francisco Moreno Martín and Rebecca Darley conferring before the latter's public lecture at the University of Bilkent in 2018

Francisco and Rebecca conferring before Rebecca’s lecture, Professor Paul Latimer at right about to do the introductions

The next day Francisco took us through some of the different ways in which Spanish nationalist politics had looked at and used the Visigothic period in their thought and propaganda. As the only period in which the whole Iberian peninsula has been under one autonomous rule, between 624 and 711 except during the numerous civil wars, and under a Catholic autonomous rule to boot, you can see how this would be useful to such agendas, and indeed it was seen so in the ninetheenth century by such historians as Lafuente and Amador de Rios, but initially at least it did not form a big part of the propaganda of the Franco era, the Generalissimo seeing himself (and having himself shown) more in the mould of a Crusader or hero of the Reconquista, but his state more like the Roman Empire (like most right-wing states of the period, one might observe). The alliance with Nazi Germany however brought a shift in emphasis away from the Romans towards the supposedly shared Germanic background of the Goths, and a chance to grab border territory off defeated France in 1941 was framed as revenge for several occasions on which the Franks of French had underhandedly defeated the Goths or Spanish. This powered some new archæology of ‘Germanic’ burials but, when Germany lost the war, Franco had to fall back on the Church, always his support and now the only apparent explanation for why his far-right government alone survived, and started paying more attention to the Reconquista and the Asturian kings again. This was an object lesson in how political preoccupations can drive not just propaganda but the research behind it, but it was also one that Francisco was largely reprising from the work of people he’d edited rather than being something of his to offer, as well as being nowhere near the theme of the workshop, so it too did not get included.4

When it came to the actual workshop, the first two papers were never intended to be more than advertisements for two scholarly institutes in the neighbourhood and the facilities they could offer scholars working on the area, which are indeed worth knowing about, but which were obviously not publications. Leslie Brubaker’s paper was closely related to the one she gave at that year’s Spoleto conference, which was printed as part of that, but her version of it for this workshop included some reflections on how, if you looked at the right way everything could be considered a frontier, and on how islands, our actual theme, were so rarely self-sufficient as for their coasts to constitute boundaries that were ‘meant to be breached’, and I wish we could have found some way to include those alongside what we did.5 Matthew’s, Luca’s and Rebecca’s papers did all go into the publication, so I’ll not say more about them here as I’ve already written them up once; they are all very good, however!6 Chris’s paper was about state-economy interactions across the three-century period of his title, and concluded that the eleventh-century world was economically busier but more broken up, making a tax-driven state harder to maintain and in some part, thus explaining a shift of economic basis; and from here, I can see that this was all work going towards his eventual (and amazing) article ‘How Did the Feudal Economy Work?’ As it was, it was still work in progress as far as he was concerned, and admittedly not even slightly about islands, and so we couldn’t really prevail upon him to let us have it.7 And then there was me, and I’ve already mentioned how Francisco had stepped into the breach.

So, in the weeks subsequent to all this when Luca, Rebecca and I worked this out, what this mean we had was Matthew, Luca, me and Rebecca’s workshop paper, and we also actually had the promise of a version of the paper which had been cancelled, by Nikolas Bakirtzis and a collaborator of his, Xenophon Moniaros. Five chapters is too few for a book, but it’s about right for a journal issue, so we looked around for likely venues and lit upon al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean. They turned out to be a more or less ideal venue except in one particular, which was that they could give us a choice of being published either three years down the line or in eighteen months; the former was too far away but the deadlines for the latter meant a lot of work squeezed in between teaching. In particular, as editors of the issue, it fell to us to find reviewers for each article. Since we were between us three-fifths of the authors who were being reviewed, and some of our expertises were pretty identifiable as well, this got a little surreal, though I did not know either of the people who reviewed mine and got a slightly rough ride from one of them, which did make it a better article but required work I really struggled to do in the time available (mainly reading about Balearic archaeology). I guess the article now provides quite a good state of the question on late antique settlement in the Balearics…

Volume 31 issue 2 of al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, entitled Not the Final Frontier: The World of Early Medieval Islands

Volume 31 issue 2 of al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, entitled Not the Final Frontier: The World of Early Medieval Islands, editors Jonathan Jarrett, Luca Zavagno and Rebecca Darley

But, on the other hand, it ran through editing and proofs very easily, partly I’d like to say because of the excellent editing work we’d done ourselves, but also because of very good type-setting by the publishers, working with a bewildering number of Mediterranean languages and some fairly scientific archaeology to boot, and the whole thing existed within eighteen months of our first having the idea, which was extremely convenient for us all, I think. Had I had world enough and time I would have done more work on mine—I’m not sure if there’s anything I’ve ever published bar my first article on which I might not, ideally, have done more work and of course my book then had to modify that first article extensively…—but as it was, it was one of those things which seemed impossible but, because there were three of us doing it and no-one wanted to disappoint the others was in the end possible anyway, and we are all (still) quite proud of it. But I’m not sure I foresaw that in Ankara in February 2018!


1. The journal issue being, of course, Luca Zavagno, Rebecca Darley & Jonathan Jarrett (edd.), ‘Not the Final Frontier’: the World of Medieval Islands, al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31 no. 2 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 129-241.

2. Rebecca Darley, “Self, Other and the Use and Appropriation of Late Roman coins in south India and Sri Lanka (4th-7th centuries A.D.)” in H. P. Ray (ed.), Negotiating Cultural Identity: Landscapes in Early Medieval South Asian History (London 2015), pp. 60-84, DOI: 10.4324/9780429274169-4.

3. Already in Rebecca Darley, “罗马-拜占庭钱币的流入与印度次大陆的社会变迁”, transl. Wang Baixu in 古代文明 Vol. 14 no. 3 (Changchun 2020), pp. 43–50, and soon to appear in English.

4. Francisco Moreno Martín (ed.), El franquismo y la apropiación del pasado: El uso de la historia, de la arqueología y de la historia del arte para la legitimación de la dictadura (Madrid 2016).

5. Leslie Brubaker, “The Migrations of the Mother of God: Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome, Hagios Demetrios in Thessaloniki, and the Blachernai in Constantinople” in Le migrazioni nell’Alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 66 Pt. 2 (Spoleto 2019), pp. 1003-1020.

6. Matthew Harpster, “Sicily: A Frontier in the Centre of the Sea?” in Zavagno, Darley & Jarrett, ‘Not the Final Frontier’, pp. 158–170, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602748; Luca Zavagno, “‘Going to the Extremes’: The Balearics and Cyprus in the Early Medieval Byzantine Insular System”, ibid., pp. 140–157, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602375; Rebecca Darley, “The Island Frontier: Socotra, Sri Lanka and the Shape of Commerce in the Late Antique Western Indian Ocean”, ibid. pp. 223–241, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1604930.

7. Chris Wickham, “How did the Feudal Economy Work? the Economic Logic of Medieval Societies” in Past & Present no. 251 (Oxford 2021), pp. 3–40, DOI: 10.1093/pastj/gtaa018, which was really never going to be published anywhere else given his long connection with the journal.

Changing Ways to Read a Graph of Landlordship

A day early and about four years late still, here is this week’s post. While in the very last days of my previous bout of research leave, in late 2017 and early 2018, I was reading my way through the various Italian polyptychs and inventories in a 1979 volume edited by Castagnetti; two of them actually contain crop yields data, only one of which I’d known about, and I wanted to make sure that I found any more.1 Now, there weren’t any more but there were a lot of references to a couple of early articles by David Herlihy. Herlihy was a bit of a legend, mainly for his work on town and women’s life in later medieval Italy but he also did a rook of short articles in the late 1950s to early 1970s on the basis of a huge database of published charter material he’d assembled somehow, and some of those articles are still really big in the literature. If you’ve ever seen a claim that in the Middle Ages the Church owned up to a third of all land, for example, that was Herlihy, and he also stands out as one of the first people to point out that actually female landownership is not uncommon in medieval documents, which gathered him a small raft of students who have become important gender historians, mainly because he was willing to see what was there.2 So I’ve always thought that Herlihy was not a bad model for the kind of historian I’d like to be, and when I catch references like these to work of his I’ve not read, I try and follow them up. And in one of these, there is this graph.3

Graph of types of rents in northern and central Italian charters 751-1200

David Herlihy, “The History of the Rural Seigneury in Italy, 751-1200” in Agricultural History Vol. 33 (Washington DC 1959), pp. 58-71 at p. 60

Now, if there is a weakness in these early articles of Herlihy’s it’s a tendency to proffer a single explanation and then cover no alternatives, which is why he could do in twenty-five pages what would take most people a book, I guess, and this is no different. Here Herlihy argued that money rents were the weak landlord’s option compared to service, since commutation to money deprived him of guaranteed labour and foodstuffs and subject him to the market (Herlihy liked the market, so he didn’t say that last bit, but it’s implicit). They also broke the closeness of a landlord’s connection to his tenants. For all these reasons, for Herlihy what this graph shows was a tightening of landlords’ control under the Carolingians and then its loss as the Italian kingdom disintegrated in the late ninth and early tenth centries, accompanied by an increase in tenurial fragmentation which he thought he’d showed in a previous article, till the economy was in genuine crisis, with which various ‘vigorous’ landholders dealt by consolidating holdings in aggressive campaigns of acquisition and subjection. But we should see those as a good thing! because they revitalised the agrarian economy and allowed the development of towns and government and developed economies and the Renaissance and so on.4 That last bit makes me wish to be Herlihy a bit less, I admit, but it’s an impressive bit of theorisation of massive changes from one graph. But there are times when a graph is not enough…

Ph.D. Comics for 13th February 1998

Ph.D. Comics for 13th February 1998. Admit it, you have seen this done in presentations

… and it’s necessary to ask what else might be going on here. As a self-denying numismatist, for example, one thing struck me straight away which is that you could, if you wanted to be equally careless, read this instead as a graph of monetisation of the Italian economy, by assuming that everyone would have used money if they could have, and so if they weren’t it wasn’t available.5 Certainly, Herlihy never really thought about money supply; he apparently just assumed it could be got if needed, but I’m not sure that was true in this era and in notes occasionally it becomes clear that neither was Herlihy, really.6 But it needs factoring in for his deductions to stand up. That is so not least because he stated an assumption that a shift to money rents automatically meant that the landlords were giving up on farming their manorial lands directly and breaking them up into tenancies because of no longer having labour available, but obviously that need not have been so if they were hiring labour instead, in which case of course they might have wanted money rents, because then they’d have been able to get work done when they needed it and not just when their peasants’ obligations came up.7 I don’t think that’s necessarily what’s happening in Herlihy’s graph but he certainly didn’t show any signs of having considered it.

Silver denaro of Emperor Otto I struck at Pavia in 956-73

The kind of money the peasants in question either could or could not get, a silver denaro of Emperor Otto I struck at Pavia in 956-973, image by FabioRomanoniown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In the end, therefore, I like this article to think with and I’m always impressed how well Herlihy’s charter stuff holds its worth, largely because of being so directly data-driven, but what is maybe most interesting to me is the difference your starting assumptions make to how you read that graph. Herlihy had already detected what he thought was a break-up of landholding and an economic crisis that fitted this graph’s chronology; but the sadly late Peter Spufford would probably have seen signs of European silver famine here, a number of economic historians might prefer to see a growth of wage labour hindered by big bad feudalism and eventually triumphed over by the dialectical triumph of the capitalist market economy, and I’m not sure where I myself stand but it definitely comes from Pierre Bonnassie‘s and Chris Wickham‘s similar but differently-timed cases for a period of light obligations on the peasantry in the early or central Middle Ages.8 I suppose it’s a reminder that data may be neutral but its interpretation is another matter…


1. Andrea Castagnetti, Michele Luzzati, Gianfranco Pasquali and Augusto Vasina (edd.), Inventari altomedievali di terre, coloni e redditi, Fonti per la Storia d’Italia 104 (Roma 1979); see now Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 77 (Reading 2019), pp. 1–28 at pp. 16-19 & 25-26.

2. His greatest hits would probably be D. Herlihy, Pisa In The Early Renaissance: A Study Of Urban Growth (New Haven CT 1958); idem, Medieval Households (Cambridge MA 1985); and idem, Opera Muliebria: Women And Work in Medieval Europe (Philadelphia PA 1990); but one also has to list the two ground-breaking articles, idem, “Church Property on the European Continent, 701-1200” in Speculum Vol. 36 (Cambridge MA 1961), pp. 81–105 and idem, “Land, Family and Women in Continental Europe, 701-1200” in Traditio Vol. 18 (Fordham NY 1962), pp. 89–120, repr. in Susan Mosher Stuard (ed.), Women in Medieval Society (Philadelphia PA 1976), pp. 13–45. He also had at least one Variorum volume which must have collected these and others like them.

3. David Herlihy, “The History of the Rural Seigneury in Italy, 751-1200” in Agricultural History Vol. 33 (Washington DC 1959), pp. 58-71 at p. 60.

4. Ibid., pp. 68-69, almost as explicitly as I render it; the previous article was Herlihy, “The Agrarian Revolution in Southern France and Italy, 801–1150” in Speculum Vol. 33 (Cambridge MA 1958), pp. 23–41, again not a small-scale study.

5. For a really sane critique of these kinds of views, see Dagfinn Skre, “Commodity Money, Silver and Coinage in Viking-Age Scandinavia” in James Graham-Campbell and Gareth Williams (edd.), Silver Economy in the Viking Age (Walnut Creek CA 2007), pp. 67–92, effectively printed again as Skre, “Commodity Money, Silver and Coinage in Viking-Age Scandinavia” in James Graham-Campbell, Søren M. Sindbæk and Gareth Williams (edd.), Silver Economies, Monetisation and Society in Scandinavia, AD 800 – 1100: Studies Dedicated to Mark Blackburn (Aarhus 2011), pp. 67–91, whence online here.

6. Herlihy, “Rural Seigneury”, p. 68 n. 53 is a dismissal of an argument by another historian that depreciation of the coinage might explain the drop in rent value, which of course it might; Herlihy argued that the coinage was down by half but the rents went up tenfold, but here and ibid. p. 61 where he suggested that peasants would have struggled to convert all their crop to cash, he showed some awareness that money supply might be a problem, a problem which he otherwise blithely ignored, presumably because that observation was all he needed to support the idea that money rents were necessarily a poor option. We might now think differently about the monetisation levels of the Italian countryside, but admittedly we might also not; see Alessia Rovelli, “Nuove zecche e circolazioni monetaria tra X e XIII secolo: l’esempio del Lazio e della Toscana”, ed. Alessandra Molinari, in Archeologia Medievale Vol. 37 (Firenze 2010), pp. 163–171.

7. Cf. Herlihy, “Rural Seigneury”, p. 61.

8. Pierre Bonnassie, “D’une servitude à l’autre : les paysans du royaume” in Robert Delort (ed.), La France de l’An Mil, Points-Histoires H130 (Paris 1990), pp. 125-141, transl. as Bonnassie, “From one Servitude to Another: the peasantry of the Frankish kingdom at the time of Hugh Capet and Robert the Pious (987-1031)”, in idem, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. Jean Birrell (Cambridge 1991), pp. 288–313; Chris Wickham, “La chute de Rome n’aura pas lieu”, transl. André Joris, in Le Moyen Âge Vol. 99 (Bruxelles 1993), pp. 107–126, published in English as Chris Wickham, “The Fall of Rome Will Not Take Place” in Lester K. Little and Barbara H. Rosenwein (edd.), Debating the Middle Ages: issues and readings (Oxford 1998), pp. 45–57, or Wickham, “Sul mutamento sociale ed economico di lungo periodo in Occidente (400-800)” in Storica: rivista quadrimestrale Vol. 8 (Firenze 2002), pp. 7–28, transl. Igor Santos Salazar and ed. Iñaki Martín Viso as “Sobre la mutación socioeconómica de larga duración en Occidente durante los siglos V-VIII” in Studia Historica: historia medieval Vol. 22 (Salamanca 2004), pp. 17–32; but cf. now Wickham, “How did the Feudal Economy Work? the Economic Logic of Medieval Societies” in Past & Present No. 251 (Oxford 2021), pp. 3–40, which I haven’t yet had time to internalise but threatens to change really quite a lot…

Image

Obviously not cricket

Bibliothèque national de France, MS Latin 10910, fo. 175r, showing a portrait of a female holy figure with a cross and book

Bibliothèque national de France, MS Latin 10910, fo. 75v, showing a portrait of a holy figure with a cross and book

I have another conference on which to report, but in case those are not your favourite posts, I thought that this week I’d first jump to the very end of 2017 in my backlog, when in a flurry of reading at the end of my first ever study leave, all intended to finish the article which became my “Nuns’ Signatures”, I was moving at speed through Religious Women in Early Carolingian Francia, by Felice Lifshitz.1 It is an excellent and provocative book, but it also contains a reference to this image, which I then went and looked up, and then I became quite confused.2

I take comfort in the fact that it is apparently not just me whom this image has confused. The manuscript cataloguer for the Bibliothèque nationale de France, when needing to tag this image, has opted for ‘probablement le Christ’, probably Christ, so they apparently weren’t certain either. I mean, there is the nimbus around the figure’s head and there is the Cross, and the robes of the ancients, so I see how they got there, but this identification still leaves things unexplained. The first of these is what this portrait is doing in this manuscript, which is a text of the Chronicle attributed to ‘Fredegar’ from the late seventh century.3 The image, a full-page drawing, falls within the account of failing diplomacy between King Alaric II of the Visigoths and King Clovis of the Franks, failing because it didn’t stop Clovis invading Visigothic territory and killing Alaric a very short time later, nearly provoking a war between every power in the Continental West.4 It’s interesting history, but it doesn’t mention Christ or explain this portrait at all. And then the second and arguably more important question is, why is He wearing cricket pads?

Now as it happens, I think I can explain the cricket pads, but I’m not completely happy with my explanation. There is a particular depiction of Christ that is very common and has Him enthroned, with drapery over His knees which might, if you had only a poor version or a sketch of a sketch or something, be rendered in this fashion. Here’s a good manuscript example of the kind of image I mean.

Christ enthroned from Budapest, Orszägos Széchényi K&omul;nyvtár, MNY I

I. Berkovits, Illuminated Manuscripts in Hungary, XI-XVI Centuries, transl. Z. Horn and rev. A. West (Budapest 1969), plate IV, from Budapest, Országos Széchényi K&omul;nyvtár, MNY I; I have the cite from this page and that doesn’t give closer referencing, unfortunately

And here’s an Arab-Byzantine coin, where the same drapery technique for Emperor Justin II and Empress Sophia have been rendered into something very like our cricket pads here.5

Obverse of a copper-alloy follis struck at Jerash in 636-698, Washington DC, Dumbarton Oaks Library and Collection, BZC.2004.34, showing an emperor and empress enthroned

Obverse of a copper-alloy follis struck at Jerash in 636-698, Washington DC, Dumbarton Oaks Library and Collection, BZC.2004.34, showing an emperor and empress enthroned

However, this only gets us so far. Firstly, I can’t quickly find any parallel for Christ enthroned so early which has Him carrying the Gospels; the usual pictures of Him with the Gospels don’t have the throne. That by itself doesn’t mean much: I’m not an art historian and someone with a better internal mental library could probably find an example (and hey, maybe that person is reading…). But I don’t think even they will find Him also carrying the Cross, or wearing a crown, both of which we have here. So I wonder if this is really what we see here, and as it happened, Professor Lifshitz didn’t believe it either.

Instead, as part of a larger argument that Carolingian nuns often sought out and either wrote about or had stories copied for them about great religious women, by way of gender-appropriate role models and inspirations, Lifshitz identifies this image as Saint Helena, Emperor Constantine I’s mother who is famous in Christian sacred history for relocating the True Cross on which Christ was crucified.6 She gives no justification or explanation for this, and it does fit her argument very snugly, but one can more or less reconstruct the argument that perhaps she would make: it is obviously a holy figure, because of the nimbus, but apparently also a royal or imperial one given the crown; it is distinguished by the Cross, which as an attribute belongs to Helena more than to anyone else; and it is pretty plausible, what with the unusually long hair and what one can read of the body shape, as well as the fact that any source depiction of Christ being used here would have been bearded, which has also been changed, that this is meant to be a woman. And if that’s the case, there is perhaps no other Christian candidate. But the book and the throne remain unexplained—I suppose except in so far as Helena was an empress, and in so far as she is supposed to have found the Cross by painstaking contemplation of the Gospels and prayer?7

So I can construct a road that gets me to the same reading of this image as has Professor Lifshitz, but I’m not sure if I can construct it far enough backwards from the image. For a start, I am struggling a bit to imagine the source. It seems likely to me that it was not another manuscript, because I think the cricket pads can only be the result of stylisation or simplification, and so I, perhaps inevitably, suspect that the source is coin imagery, not least because we can see one die-engraver doing something very similar with knee drapery on the Arab-Byzantine coin above. But the empress in such portraits is always accompanied and always crowned, plus which the Arab-Byzantine derivation can’t be the manuscript source because it’s too late, and one might expect the image to be rightly understood if the source was an original coin of Justin and Sophia. So actually I wonder if the archetype is Christian at all, rather than Christianized, because there’s also another possibility.

Reverse of a gold solidus of Emperor Justin II struck at Constantinople 565-578, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B1154, showing Victory seated half-right with long sceptre and cross on globe

Reverse of a gold solidus of Emperor Justin II struck at Constantinople 565-578, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B1154, showing Victory seated half-right with long sceptre and cross on globe

The pagan deity Victoria, even if Christianized by association with the Cross—and thanks to Constantine Victory was the other female figure who regularly appeared with a cross—would perhaps explain the body shape in our manuscript, and perhaps the knee drapery. But, she’s only ever depicted in this half-stance, with only one metaphorical pad facing the metaphorical bowler, and she also always has one hand up on the long staff. And she doesn’t in any way explain the book. But I can see a path in which someone started with this as a prototype of an enthroned female figure with a cross and then altered it to more closely convey what they knew of Helena’s story. Unfortunately this still leaves us the question of why.

For Professor Lifshitz, the answer is obvious: a female scribe or artist, looking for a female holy figure for more relatable inspiration of devotion. And I can see how that might work, but is it what was happening here? My stumbling block is the text: with the best will in the world I cannot imagine anyone using the Chronicle of Fredegar for devotional inspiration, especially this bit. But some kind of illustration was always meant to go into this gap, because the text is continuous either side of it; the space was left clear at the time of writing. And the text doesn’t mention Helena, or Christ, or any saint or religious motif at all. (It is not the only image of a saint dropped into this text, I should say, but it is the only one which looks to be a woman.) So what were these nuns doing? And at that point, it is hard not to ask, how do we know they were nuns anyway? The manuscript’s provenance is not clear; it could have been made in a nunnery, but it could not’ve.8

The answer for Professor Lifshitz is simple: they were drawing a woman, so they were interested in women, so they were probably women. And this is not her only example.9 But this risks becoming circularity, where we use women’s drawing habits as evidence for women making manuscripts that we then analyse to deduce those drawing habits. It may be consciousness of difficulties like this that led Professor Lifshitz to say earlier in the book, “In the final analysis, a scholar’s own lens may be the determining factor in how the ambiguous evidence is interpreted,” and as long as that’s conscious, as here it evidently was, fair enough.10 But my lens may be differently focused, because while I am able to accept that whatever this picture is it is a female figure, and I can even probably explain the cricket pads, I don’t really think I understand why someone put this drawing there in the first place.


1. Felice Lifshitz, Religious Women in Early Carolingian Francia: a study of manuscript transmission and monastic culture (New York City NY 2014), p. 205 (with note p. 282 n. 86). My article to which I refer is of course Jonathan Jarrett, “Nuns, Signatures, and Literacy in late-Carolingian Catalonia” in Traditio Vol. 74 (Cambridge 2019), pp. 125–152.

2. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Lat. 10910 fo. 75v (not 75r as per Lifshitz’s cite), online here.

3. The Chronicle is printed in its original Latin in Bruno Krusch (ed.), Fredegarii et aliorum chronica; Vitae Sanctorum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) 2 (Hannover 1888), pp. 1-193, with the relevant bit here being p. 83. There is no translation of this early part of the text, I’m afraid. The text is not fully understood, but a serious attempt is made by Roger Collins, Die Fredegar-Chroniken, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Studien und Texte) 44 (Hanover 2007).

4. For context for this I went first of all to Ian Wood, The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450-751 (London, 1994), but his discussion pp. 46-48 doesn’t use Fredegar’s evidence, and I actually can’t quickly find someone who does. I am probably missing something here.

5. There’s a much better example in Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), Plate 34, no. 612, which is apparently (p. 364) a British Museum coin, but I can’t make it fall out of the British Museum’s online catalogue with the available search tools, so can’t give you a picture.

6. See n. 1 above.

7. I should admit at this point that most of my grip on Helena’s career comes either from numismatic works or Cynewulf, Elene, transl. Charles W. Kennedy (Cambridge Ont. 2000), online here, which is not exactly historiography; I should probably read something like Andriani Georgiou, “Helena: The Subversive Persona of an Ideal Christian Empress in Early Byzantium” in Journal of Early Christian Studies Vol. 21 (Baltimore MD 2013), pp. 597–624, the better to understand what sources there are for Helena’s life.

8. There is a good argument that we have a lot more manuscripts copied by women, but not named, than people tend to consider: see Janet L. Nelson, “Women and the Word in the Earlier Middle Ages” in W. J. Sheils and Diana Wood (edd.), Women in the Church, Studies in Church History 27 (Oxford 1990), pp 53–78, and Rosamond McKitterick, “Nuns’ Scriptoria in England and Francia in the Eighth Century” in Francia Vol. 19 (Sigmaringen 1992), pp. 1–35, repr. in Rosamond McKitterick, Books, Scribes and Learning in the Frankish Kingdoms, 6th to 9th Centuries (Aldershot 1994), chapter VII.

9. Lifshitz, Religious Women, pp. 196-206.

10. Ibid., p. 192.