Category Archives: Now working on…

A cautionary tale

Obverse of a gold laurel of James I of England and VI of Scotland, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, BR0025

Obverse of a gold laurel of James I of England and VI of Scotland, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, BR0025; coins like these were the ‘Jacobuses’ referred to in the post below

This week, here is an excellent story to frighten young archaeologists and numismatists in their methodological cradles! I encountered this while reading up for an article that still hasn’t come out about changes in the coinages of the post-Roman world; I’m assured it’s now in final stages… But that doesn’t matter for these purposes. I will not, therefore, paraphrase what John Kent, no less, wrote better:1

One of the few comprehensive accounts of the collection, concealment and recovery of a hoard is related in Pepys’ Diary. At the Restoration of 1660, Samuel Pepys declared himself to be earning £50 a year, and to have £40 cash in hand. By the end of 1666, his average annual income exceeded £3,000, and he ‘was worth in money, all good’, above £6,200, beside two-and-a-half dozen silver vessels. Like many of his thrifty contemporaries, he kept his surplus cash under lock and key in his own house; the unfortunate Mr. Tryan, of Lime Street, who kept the key of his cash-chest in his desk, was robbed of £1,050 in money and £4,000 in jewels held as securities for loans. In June 1667, deeply worried by the penetration of the Dutch fleet into the Thames estuary, Pepys resolved to conceal his money. He was at first undecided whether to conceal it elsewhere in London to to despatch it to the family estate in Brampton, Northamptonshire. The latter counsel prevailed and his father and wife took coach, with a bag containing some £1,300. Finding himself unable to convert his silver in hand for gold – he had been forestalled by others – Pepys sent on another 1,000 gold pieces by special messenger, and carried on his own person another £300 worth, together with ‘directions where to find £500 and more in gold and silver’.
“Recovery of the treasure in October of the same year proved a gruelling experience. His wife gave him ‘so bad an account of her and my father’s method in the burying of our gold, that made me mad; and she herself is not pleased with it, she believing that my sister knows of it. My father and she did it on Sunday, when they were gone to church, in open daylight, and in the midst of the garden, where for aught they knew, many eyes might see them; which put me into trouble, and I presently cast about, how to have it back again to secure it here, the times being a little better now’. Recovery began at night, with a dark lantern, but ‘they could not justly tell where it was’, and Pepys began to fear the worst; but ‘by poking with a spit’, it was at length located, ‘not half a foot under ground’. Frantic digging merely succeeded in scattering the coins in the grass and loose earth. Finally, coins, dirt and all, were raised and washed. To Pepys’ chagrin, he found himself about one hundred pieces short, and fearing that the neighbours might have observed him, and come searching on their own account, he and his servant sieved through the earth until they had recovered a further seventy-nine. Pepys considered it quite acceptable that his special messenger should have lost some twenty to thirty pieces en route, and regarded himself as well content with the matter when all was finally safe back in London, ‘under a bed in our chamber’.
“This true story prompts several reflections. Pepys’ wealth, though certainly a ‘savings hoard’, was assembled over a very short period. It certainly included some old coins – he gave three ‘Jacobuses’ (gold pieces of James I) to his father-in-law and its random origin and rapid assemblage suggests that it would have been indistinguishable from a ‘currency hoard’ assembled ad hoc in 1667. Indeed, since his surplus increased in 1666 by only £1,800, as against £3,000 in 1665, we might suspect that the dates 1666 and 1667 were relatively slightly represented, i.e. that the hoard ended ‘weakly’. The really extensive coinages of guineas lay, in any case, in the future, and we may postulate that Pepys’ fortune consisted predominantly of the old ‘broad pieces’. Great quantities of these were certainly still available; a poulterer of Gracechurch Street died in November 1662 leaving an unsuspected hoard of 40,000 ‘Jacobs’. We may conclude that the recovery of a hoard was not necessarily an easy matter, and that there was a significant risk that it would not be recovered intact. The discovery in modern times of a scatter of twenty or thirty broad pieces at Brampton, or between Brampton and London, would give a totally false impression alike of date, of the circumstances of concealment and of the size of the original treasure.”

I think Kent actually relied on the intelligence of his audience a bit too much here in pushing the full implications of this story. It might be worth just setting out what a likely, nay, reasonable, interpretation of a find of say, twenty-five gold pieces of James I and Charles I in a Northamptonshire garden would be: firstly, that it was a small hoard by someone of moderate means (since it was not larger); secondly, that the owner lived thereabouts, since otherwise why would it be there and how would they recover it? and thirdly, that it was probably deposited because of trouble in the English Civil War, since nothing later than that appeared in it and one would hardly expect the Anglo-Dutch Wars to be troubling people in Northamptonshire, landlocked on the far side of the country from the North Sea. And all of these reasonable deductions would be wrong. On this occasion, there is no actual hoard to interpret and we know what happened. But what of even quite recent cases where it’s the other way about, eh, what about them?


1. John P. C. Kent, “Interpreting Coin-Finds” in John Casey & Richard Reece (edd.), Coins and the Archaeologist, 2nd edn. (London 1988), pp. 201-217 at pp. 205-206. Links in the text go to the online version of Pepys’s Diary.

Periodical Coincidences

Here’s something a bit more light-hearted this week, or if you prefer, trivial. This builds on a very old realisation of mine of something basically meaningless, when during building up a list of things I hoped to read for my MA dissertation I clocked that the journals Viator and Britannia started in the same year, with their first issue in 1970.1 Both Latin titles, too, but different sides of the Atlantic and basically different, though overlapping, period focuses, so it’s hard to do anything with that fact other than notice it. And there that idea rested until some way into my doctoral research, which I approached fresh from employment which had given me the dangerous idea that you could solve almost any information management problem with an Access database, as long as you didn’t mind solving it badly. And we have already seen since long ago that my instincts in these directions are rarely sanely guided

So, what I wanted was a database into which I could transcribe my old paper lists of things I hope to read (present tense because by and large I still do hope to…) along with the somewhat crazy system I had devised of clocking their apparent importance and the number of times I’d seen them cited (which is also a measure of importance, however bad), basically an accumulating set of marginal sigla.2 Well, that could be turned into a numerical score and apart from the fact that this system inevitably privileged stuff that was ancient, it was a functional way of building reading lists as far as it went. That wasn’t very far, though, really, because my old paper lists, in an effort to keep things one line long only, had only ever recorded the volume-level location of articles and chapters, not their actual titles, which might have been invaluable as keyword. Without them, however, I just new that, for example, there were lots of things I apparently needed to read in the 1986 volume of Annales but without raw memory or going and looking at it, I’d no idea what they were.3 Not my best piece of diversionary work, all told, but there we go; you don’t go building bibliographical databases by yourself in every developer’s least favourite database software if you’re a completely sensible person, do you?

Screenshot of Jonathan Jarrett's custom bibliographical database

Screenshot of the madness

Anyway, all this does have a point, honest. Because I didn’t have article and chapter titles in the database, when I came across what might be a new journal article, the easiest way for me to find if I had it recorded was not to search for the author’s name or the journal’s title, but to search for the combination of volume and year, which in theory should be close-to-unique. So, for that issue of Annales I’d have searched for ’41 (1986)’. But doing so reveals that also in their 41st volume that year were, probably among others, the Deutsches Archiv of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica and the Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie.4 Now, obviously, this isn’t really surprising: there’s hundreds and thousands of academic journals, even just in the arts and humanities, and only a couple of hundred years of journal-issuing academia in which for them all to have existed. Most of them will be crowding the newer end of that timeframe, too.5 Coincidences are obviously inevitable. But there are an awful lot, once you start noticing them.

Now, I am a pattern-spotting animal and, like man as a species, perhaps so evolved for it that I spot patterns that aren’t really there too easily. This leads one to start asking those always-dangerous questions that begin, “Can it be a coincidence that… ?” For example, Cambridge’s Anglo-Saxon England (not then meant to be controversial…) and the Deutsche historische Institut in Paris’s Francia (perhaps never to be controversial) both seeing first light in 1972 could be coincidence, but could also be certain constituencies of academia all feeling that their interests, perhaps looking a bit fringe in the wake of Vietnam, the hippy movement and its disintegration (remember all those campus occupations…), needed a new forum for their mutual recognition. Was there a cross-channel medievalist moment happening there?6 Or am I spinning hay?

Anyway, whether or not this is crazy pattern spotting, I notice two really boom years, in which I don’t see what any plausible connection could be across so wide a range of journals but something feels like it was going on. The weaker of these is 1975, in which year it seems clear that several academic networks had decided that existing fora for their kind of work were inadequate, as a result of which in one year you get Birmingham’s Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, the Jahrbuch für westdeutsche Landesgeschichte and things like Islamochristiana, Critical Inquiry, Journal of Historical Geography and Journal of Medieval History, as well as the Royal Numismatic Society’s briefly separate list of Coin Hoards. One can work towards reasons for some of these: there’s a Marxist thread linking some of those journals, and if I dug enough into their histories and first editorial boards I might find people who had bounced ideas off each other, but while you might adduce something about the general state of growth of, especially, UK academia in the 1970s, it’s hard to explain why 1975 rather than 1974 or 1976, and of course if I were interested in different journals or different fields perhaps those years would show up instead…

Still. We already drew attention to the student riots and general academic upheaval of 1968, and I can’t help wondering if something really did rattle a lot of cages at that point because the real bumper year shown up by this utterly unscientific and useless sampling method is 1970, when as well as Britannia and Viator already mentioned, the academic world was given, in no particular order:

I can’t help but feel that something was going on, and of course, something had been. Almost certainly it is only coincidence, of course. But let me ask you: can all these coincidences really just be coincidence… ?


1. The former for Herwig Wolfram, “The Shaping of the Early Medieval Kingdom” in Viator Vol. 1 (Berkeley CA 1970) pp. 11-20; the latter, apparently, for A. L. F. Rivet and Kenneth Jackson, “The British Section of the Antonine Itinerary” in Britannia Vol. 1 (London 1970) pp. 34-82 and Anne Robertson, “Roman Finds from Non-Roman Sites in Scotland: More Roman ‘Drift’ in Caledonia”, ibid. pp. 198-226.

2. Ironically, partly because I now actually do use better software, I can now easily produce citations on how useless citation counting is, such as Michelle L. Dion, Jane Lawrence Sumner and Sara McLaughlin Mitchell, “Gendered Citation Patterns across Political Science and Social Science Methodology Fields” in Political Analysis Vol. 26 (Cambridge 2018), pp. 312–327, DOI: 10.1017/pan.2018.12; Eric A. Fong and Allen W. Wilhite, “Authorship and citation manipulation in academic research”, ed. Lutz Bornmann in Public Library of Science One Vol. 12 (San Francisco CA 2017), e0187394, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0187394; or Jack Grove, “Quarter of citations in top journals ‘wrong or misleading'” in Times Higher Education, 16th October 2020, online here.

3. Actually, they were Dominique Iogna-Prat, “Le « baptême » du schéma des trois ordres fonctionnels : L’apport de l’école d’Auxerre dans la seconde moitié du IXe siècle” in Annales : Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 41 (Paris 1986), pp. 101-126; Michel Rouche, “La crise de l’Europe au cours de la deuxièèe moitié du VIIe siècle et la naissance des régionalismes”, ibid. pp. 347-360; Stéphane Lebecq, “Dans l’Europe du Nord des VIIe-IXe siècles : commerce frison ou commerce franco-frison?”, ibid. pp. 361-377; Bailey K. Young, “Exemple aristocratique et mode funéraire dans la Gaule mérovingienne”, ibid. pp. 379-407; Patrick Geary, “Vivre en conflit dans une France sans État : typologie des mécanismes de règlement des conflits (1050-1200)”, trans. Jacqueline Falquvert, ibid. pp. 1107-1133 and Robert Bartlett, “Technique militaire et pouvoir politique, 900-1300”, trans. Falquevert, ibid. pp. 1135-1159. Crikey, when Annales still meant something…

4. For, respectively: Hartmut Hoffmann, “Kirche und Sklaverei im frühen Mittelalter” in Deutsches Archiv für Erforschung des Mittelalters Vol. 42 (oops)(Hannover 1986), pp. 1-24, and Kenneth H. Jackson, “The date of the Tripartite Life of St. Patrick” in Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie Vol. 41 (Amsterdam 1986), pp. 5-45.

5. If the whole format of the academic journal is a bit strange to you at this point, here’s a confirmation that you’re not daft, it is strange, at least now: Jo Guldi, “Reinventing the Academic Journal” in Daniel J. Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt (edd.), Hacking the academy: new approaches to scholarship and teaching from digital humanities (Ann Arbor MI 2013), pp. 19–24, online here. However, it is arguable that it did make sense once: see for a lightweight intro Bonnie Swoger, “The (mostly true) origins of the scientific journal” in Scientific American 27th July 2012, online here.

6. I’m conscious that I tend to tell the history of culture in the 1960s and 1970s largely on the basis of my music collection, but I could also cite Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture (London 1968) as an intimately involved primary source.

Fomenting New Islands Ideas

Staying where it was relatively safe in mid-2017, the workshop I’ve just described was only the first of three days’ funded activity, which Dr Luca Zavagno and I had scheduled to allow him to do everything we’d been given money for him to do in the UK in a single trip. Whereas the previous day’s work had been on my Frontiers project, we now turned to Luca’s one, The World of Byzantine Islands. Here we’d planned two things in Leeds, the first being a kind of consultation workshop with the most obviously interested medievalists on Leeds’s staff, and the second being a graduate seminar the day after. Actually, in retrospect, I think we might better have planned to do these the other way round, as the way the latter worked was that Luca effectively presented his project in a twenty-minute paper and then invited discussion, whereas in the former the presentation was much quicker, as for peers; I think that in theory he’d have got better discussion for the staff having had the extra day to think about his project having seen the fuller presentation. However, I say only in theory, because actually we got very little take-up for the graduate seminar – my own fault for late publicity as much as anything – and so it became an extension of the already-active discussion from the previous day. So maybe it all went as well as it could have done. Anyway, to write about it now probably means reprising Luca’s project brief, and then picking up on the same kind of points of interest as I did in the previous Frontiers post. There is inevitably some overlap, because several of the same people were involved and thinking with what they’d done the previous day, but I don’t think that was a bad thing either…

So, Luca has of course written about his own project and you can see the brief for it here. Plus which, we have subsequently published on it, together even, and you could also read that.1 Because of all that I’ll be ultra-short here. Basically, Luca is contending with an established historiography that sees the islands of the Mediterranean as a frontier zone of the Byzantine Empire, and that largely in the sense of a defensive bulwark, peripheral, cut off and generally hostile, both to outsiders to the empire and, sometimes, to outsiders from within the empire.2 Luca, whose research in this area started on Cyprus and has now spread, is however aware of an increasingly busy amount of archaeology which suggests that most of the Mediterranean islands remained quite vibrant, both in terms of their connection with the wider empire and of their own ecologies, economies and political self-determination within the imperial sphere.3 Where this leaves Luca is arguing that the islands, and particularly Cyprus, Sicily, Sardinia and the Balearics, maybe also Crete and Malta, all of which were Byzantine long after the land-ward coastlines that would be lost to Islam had been, were not an edge or somehow a central part of a landward territory but a kind of third space, whose characteristics he is now trying to define.4

View of the Mediterranean from the Castell de Santueri, Felanitx, Mallorca

View of the Mediterranean from the part-Byzantine Castell de Santueri (not this part, I suspect), in Felanitx, Mallorca, once a seat of Byzantine island government; image from Mallorca Tourist Guide, no copyright stated

So in the first of these workshops, as I say, Luca gave us less of this than he would in the graduate seminar the next day, I think because he didn’t want to exclude any approaches. As a result, he found himself in the midst of a kind of all-comers ideas tennis, in which the other players, apart from myself, were my colleagues Dr Alan Murray, who had been in on the previous day’s session too and who knew Luca independently, and Professor Emilia Jamroziak, then-Director of the Institute for Medieval Studies at Leeds, as well as Dr Rebecca Darley of Birkbeck, University of London, who is an affiliate of the IMS but was also the third partner in Luca’s project. (Alan and Rebecca also came along to the graduate seminar the next day, but I’m going to concentrate here on the workshop, because it’s there that, going back over my notes, I can see the roots of a lot of things the project ended up generating, and it thus helps to explain a bit what it is that we academics actually get out of the travelling to talk to each other that we’ve largely had to give up this year. I’m not sure if we could have got the same results though video-conferencing, I will admit…)

So. Because Luca had left relatively little defined, we spent the first part of the discussion trying to establish what made good parameters for the project. The high medievalists wanted to know what it was about Luca’s 7th- to 9th-century timeframe that made sense, which is of course the Byzantine-Islamic transition in the islands; but that meant working out what that transition was for the islands and when it happened to them. Even the conquest dates of some of them are not very clear, but there were arguably bigger, slower changes afoot anyway. Rebecca, for example, argued (following Chris Wickham) that the critical change in the government of the Mediterranean in late Antiquity was not that of Islam but of the Vandal capture of North Africa in the early 5th century and the Persian one of Egypt in the very early 7th, both of which broke tax spines that maintained Roman capitals (Rome and Constantinople respectively) and ended the Roman mare nostrum.5 Luca pointed out that the islands didn’t necessarily fall out of imperial orbits when the coastlines did, not least because of their role as naval bases, which tended to maintain other features of control too.6 Nonetheless, we coalesced around the idea that cultural change might have been happening at different times and in different directions from place to place, or even the same things happening for different reasons, such as settlement moving off the coasts, which could be either because fewer people were coming to these places across the sea, making trade less viable a living and port cities less useful (as may have happened in Malta) or contrarily because more people were coming by sea and they were dangerous (as is supposed to have happened in the Balearics—but see my subsequent article on that…).7

The citadel of Mdina, Malta

The citadel of Mdina, Malta, another erstwhile site of Byzantine island government, image by 5-five-5, copyright not stated, linked through

With the idea of variation sort of established, I tried to apply that favourite intellectual jemmy of mine, scale, to try and group the variations and thus be able still to say something general about the change.8 It seemed to me that not all the Mediterranean islands could have had the same range of options in the period: some were too small to defend themselves, and some too big to be closed off from seaward access. I still think this is important, but in fact in the subsequent publication, it was Rebecca who really took this point and made it useful, whereas I kind of dropped it, so I’m not sure how much credit I can take.9 Still, it is interesting to review the notes and see the sharing of ideas that generated those papers which became articles; as I say, it maybe justifies the whole endeavour…

Perhaps the most interesting idea, though, at least for me, came from none of the project partners but from Professor Jamroziak, who rightly said that none of the categories by which we seemed to want to define ‘islands’ managed to include all Luca’s test cases terribly well and that we seemed to need a new definition or category. If not, he might have to deal with the possibility that things which were not, geographically, islands, still shared all the important characteristics of them. This really sparked thoughts for me, as I started coming with Byzantine landward fringe settlements that might fit. I should have thought of the various city-states down the Adriatic coast, like Ragusa or Dubrovnik, which was still basically an independent town in the tenth century as Emperor Constantine VII records, but what I actually thought of was Byzantium’s Crimean outpost at Cherson and the Islamic military colony at la Garde-Freinet, near modern Saint-Tropez.10 And you can see that this sank deep from what I ended up writing for the project.11 I don’t think I really gave Emilia the credit she was due for that thought in that piece, though; so, belatedly, I do so now. She started that hare, and my thanks to her!

Old city of Dubrovnik, Croatia

Old city of Dubrovnik, Croatia, site of Byzantine coastal government but for a long time linked to Byzantium only by sea; ‘island’? Image by Diego Delso, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

By the end of this workshop, then, we’d all more or less prevailed upon Luca to develop a more variegated model of change in his study area, to reconsider his chronological scope and to rethink his optimistic view of connectivity as always being sufficient to have much effect on society or, if it did, always being positive. This last argument was still going on in the publication, indeed, but the use of the workshop was pretty clear and when Luca’s book on all this emerges you’ll be able to see where we were any help!12 This was not by any means what we spent most of that grant money on—in fact, we weren’t even able to spend all we’d got and had to give some back—but if I’ve shown you how it might have been usefully spent even so, then my purpose here is achieved, for today anyway…


1. Luca Zavagno, Rebecca Darley and Jonathan Jarrett, “Editorial” in Al-Masāq Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 129–139, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1596645.

2. Perhaps centred upon Elizabeth Malamut, Les îles de l’Empire byzantin, VIIIe‒XIIe siècles, Byzantina Sorbonensia 8 & 9 (Paris 1988), 2 vols.

3. For Luca’s work on Cyprus see Luca Zavagno, Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (ca. 600-800): an island in transition, Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies 21 (London 2017).

4. See for an early take on these issues Luca Zavagno, “‘Islands in the stream’: toward a new history of the large islands of the Byzantine Mediterranean in the early Middle Ages ca. 600 – ca. 800” in Mediterranean Historical Review Vol. 33 (Abingdon 2018), pp. 149–177, DOI: 10.1080/09518967.2018.1535393; now see Zavagno, “‘No Island is an Island’: The Byzantine Mediterranean in the Early Middle Ages (600s-850s)”, The Legends Journal of European History Studies, Supplement 1 (Tokat 2020), pp. 57-80, DOI: 10.29228/legends.44375, and between the two one can set Zavagno, “‘Going to the Extremes’: The Balearics and Cyprus in the Early Medieval Byzantine Insular System” in al-Masāq Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 140–157, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602375.

5. Based on Chris Wickham, ‘The Other Transition: from the Ancient World to Feudalism’ in Past & Present no. 103 (Oxford 1984), pp. 3–36, DOI: 10.1093/past/103.1.3, revised in Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400–1200 (London 1994), pp. 7–42.

6. On the navy in the period see most obviously Salvatore Cosentino, “Constans II and the Byzantine navy” in Byzantinische Zeitschrift Vol. 100 (Berlin 2008), pp. 577-603, DOI: 10.1515/BYZS.2008.577.

7. Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates? ‘Islandness’ in the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet” in Al-Masāq Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101 at pp. 199-204 for the Balearics and pp. 218-220 for Malta, largely based on Nathaniel Cutajar, Core & Periphery: Mdina and Ħal Safi in the 9th and 10th Centuries, ed. Godwin Vella, Medieval Malta 1 (Valletta 2018), for my copy of which I must thank the author.

8. My tools here come from Julio Escalona, “The Early Middle Ages: A Scale-Based Approach” in Julio Escalona and Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Scale and Scale Change in the Early Middle Ages, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 9–30, DOI: 10.1484/M.TMC-EB.3.4766.

9. See Rebecca Darley, “The Island Frontier: Socotra, Sri Lanka and the Shape of Commerce in the Late Antique Western Indian Ocean” in Al-Masāq Vol. 31 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 223–241, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1604930 at pp. 239-241.

10. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii, ed. Gyula Moravcsik & transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, rev. edn., Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 (Washington DC 1967; reprinted 1993 and 2008), cap. 29 (pp. 122-139) covers the various cities of the Dalmatian coast, including Ragusa, and for what it’s worth cap. 53 (pp. 259-287) gives an extensive and mostly legendary account of Cherson.

11. Jarrett, “‘Nests of Pirates’?”, pp. 212-218.

12. It should be coming out pretty soon as Luca Zavagno, The Byzantine Insular World: beyond the periphery (Amsterdam forthcoming).

A Defence of Osona at Lleida

So, where are, or rather were, we now? On inspection, actually, almost immediately I had survived the 2017 IMC I was away again on a jet-plane. This time it was to a place I’d never been, the city of Lleida, and what was taking me there was that I was on the panel examining one of the city’s university’s doctoral students, Elisabet Bonilla Sitja.

Volum 1 of Calaix 6, Arxiu Capitular de Vic, open to show internal arrangement

Within volum 1 of Calaix 6 of the Arxiu Capitular de Vic

This situation had been some time in the building, in fact. I first met Elisabet when I was in Oxford, when she did a term visiting so as to work with Chris Wickham, and at that point it became clear to each of us that we were perhaps the only people in the world who cared about trying to do something new with the charters at Vic, as seen above. At that stage she was still working on her MA thesis, which went well, and when I next ran into her, in Barcelona as documented here, she asked then if I would be willing to be on her thesis panel when it came to it, as she and her supervisor thought that having one foreign scholar who could speak for her in the English-speaking world would probably be useful, and so did I, so I said yes.1 And now, finally, that obligation had come due and so there I was in Lleida, having spent the interlude between then and Leeds reading a thesis as carefully as I could in the time available…

Cover of Elisabet Bonilla Sitja's doctoral thesis

Cover of Elisabet Bonilla Sitja, ‘Percebre i relacionar-se en els comtats d’Osona i Manresa durant la primera meitat del segle X’ (Ph. D. thesis, Lleida, 2017).

Now as you may remember I was by now just about not a stranger to doctoral examination, but only in the UK, where the system is quite different from that in Catalonia. In the UK, there is one examiner from the home institution and one from outside, they independently read the thesis and reach a decision on it pending the viva voce (i. e. oral) examination, meet to compare notes and then examine the candidate in person to be sure that it is in fact their work and to establish whether they can explain or defend the weak or curious bits, and on the basis of that the final recommendation is made. In Catalonia, instead, firstly everything is much more public. This panel was three people, and I have since been on one of five, and while they do make the final decision in private between themselves, before that happens each member makes a speech about the thesis, raising all the questions they want, to a gathering of the department and whomever the candidate has invited, and then the candidate has to give a speech in return, the actual defence, and then they make the decision and announce it. This all takes a while. There is also a secret ballot over whether the thesis passes summa cum laude—unless everyone votes in favour, it doesn’t. It’s a little arcane compared to the British experience, at least if you’re working in your fourth language, and pretty gruelling for the candidate, I’d imagine, especially as at least in Catalonia the candidate is then supposed to buy the panel lunch! Elisabet managed that last obligation by having her family bring in a huge and generous cold collation and set it up in a seminar room, which was fine by me, but before we’d got that far I had had to ask what the heck was going on in any of three languages several times.

New building work around the old(er) cathedral in Lleida

This was the first picture I took in Lleida, which gives you an impression of a city under work… More on this next post, but here is some scene-setting

But I managed, and of course Elisabet passed, since we all agreed that the thesis was excellent.2 And it also gave me the chance to meet my co-markers, Jordi Bolòs i Masclans, the internal for Lleida, and Aymat Catafau of Perpignan, both of whose work I had used a lot of before this time and both of whom were extremely nice and generous.3 It also left me with most of a day spare in Lleida, indeed, and that will generate a photo post that’s coming up next. But mainly it was a development step, in which I learnt a new process, made better contacts in my area of study and got to feel like a professional and expert for a while, and also help someone who deserved it, so I recount it with happiness even now. It all went well and as it should have gone.


1. That thesis being Elisabet Bonilla Sitja, ‘Aproximación al estudio de la vida y mentalidad altomedieval: La Plana de Vic, 872-936’ (M. A. thesis, Universitat de Lleida, 2011).

2. And that thesis being Bonilla, ‘Percebre i relacionar-se en els comtats d’Osona i Manresa durant la primera meitat del segle X’ (doctoral thesis, Universitat de Lleida, 2017), online here.

3. To pick but one piece each, Jordi Bolòs, ‘Paisatge, poblament i societat a Catalunya entorn 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. 254–283, and Aymat Catafau and Claudie Duhamel-Amado, ‘Fidèles et aprisionnaires en réseaux dans la Gothie des IXe et Xe siècles : Le mariage et l’aprision au service de la noblesse méridionale’ in Régine Le Jan (ed.), La royauté et les élites dans l’Europe carolingienne (début IXe siècle aux environs de 920) (Villeneuve de l’Ascq, 1998), pp. 437–465, have both been common cites of mine for quite a while.

Chronicle VIII: April to June 2017

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

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

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


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

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

Name in Print XXVI: in honour of Simon Barton (and Mark Whittow)

We interrupt my usual programme of backlog for a current announcement, though it is one that necessarily has lots of my past in it, which is that I have another new publication out, the first of 2020 though hopefully not the last. I arrived in my current job with this chapter forthcoming some day, and couldn’t then tell my bosses when it might actually arrive. Now it has all come together rather suddenly, not because of the pandemic but by complete coincidence, and so I should tell you all about it.

Dr Mark Whittow at Corpus Christi College, Oxford

Dr Mark Whittow at Corpus Christi College, Oxford

This is also, as the title implies, a story relating to two late and much lamented scholar patrons of mine, whose untimely deaths I had to announce here some time back. The first of these was Mark Whittow, who in late 2010 when I arrived in post in Oxford, as I told you more-or-less then, asked if I could give a paper to the Medieval History Seminar there. I offered him a choice between something actually researched two terms distant or something made out of bits and string three weeks distant; he cheerfully took the latter, I wrote the thing cursing my own goodwill and it actually turned out to be one of my better pieces of work. So in a sense I wrote the paper for Mark, and it is a great shame that he never got to see it, though I suppose he did at least hear the first version and then entertain me to dinner for it afterwards. Anyway, it is partly for Mark now.

Professor Simon Barton of Central Florida University

Professor Simon Barton, of Central Florida University and previously of Exeter University, photographed by James d’Emilio in 2017 and borrowed from Professor D’Emilio’s Twitter stream

But the person who actually decided to publish it was the other scholar whose death I reported with Mark’s, Simon Barton. As I said when he died, Simon had invited me to conferences from an early stage in my career, and in 2013 did so for what turned out to be the last time, in a fun gathering of basically all the active UK scholars of medieval Iberian history. What I then gave was a part of my long-running project on Sant Pere de Casserres, but when the decision was made between Simon and Rob Portass to produce a volume of essays out of the conference, it seemed to me that my Casserres paper firstly couldn’t be finished in time, secondly it would be too long and thirdly it wouldn’t really fit the theme, and so I offered them the Oxford paper, for which no home had by then appeared. And I sent it to them, lightly revised, in the absolute last days of 2014.

After that point things moved slowly. Rob was finding his way in a new job and, unbeknowsnt to me at least, Simon was getting ready to leave his old one for a new life in the USA; some contributors dropped out and others had to be found; and although correspondence continued, when I arrived in Leeds, as said, I had no idea when this volume might really emerge. But I owed Simon and, increasingly, Rob for their various efforts on my behalf at one time or another and didn’t want to make the same mistake I’d made the last time I withdrew something, and so it rested with them. Things got going again in 2017: a revised version was solicited and sent in June and was further revised by both editors in October, and then of course Simon died. Rob might at this point reasonably have abandoned the project, but instead he decided that we owed it to Simon to complete it and so he has seen it the rest of the way, and the result, finally, now dedicated to Simon’s memory, looks like this.

Cover of Simon Barton† & Robert Portass (edd.), Beyond the Reconquista: New Directions in the History of Medieval Iberia (711–1085) (Leiden 2020)

Cover of Simon Barton† & Robert Portass (edd.), Beyond the Reconquista: New Directions in the History of Medieval Iberia (711–1085) (Leiden 2020)

As it has emerged this is quite the volume and I’m very glad not to be paying Brill prices for it, as it’s one I would have to read. Not only does it contain, as presaged two posts ago, Eduardo Manzano Moreno, aided by Alberto Canto, saying what he thinks was going on with the monetary economy in the post-Visigothic peninsula, it also contains Jeffrey Bowman‘s Exeter paper on élite women in the Iberian Peninsula, so often apparently a special case but never before actually examined comparatively, a paper by Wendy Davies on what counts actually did in the non-Catalan areas of northern Iberia, a new piece by Nicola Clarke on Islamic masculinity in al-Andalus, one by Lucy Pick on veiled references to Islam in Beatus’s Commentary on the Apocalypse (which I’d always figured there must be some of but the scholarship hasn’t previously found), Graham Barrett with a long-term study of the use and meaning of the word Hispania, and starting the whole thing off, after two sensitive pieces by Rob about Simon and the project, a shibboleth-destroying paper by Julio Escalona and Iñaki Martín Viso dealing at last with the 1960s idea of the depopulation and repopulation of the frontier space between Christianity and Islam in the Peninsula.1 And, of course, there is also me, and in case you haven’t gone back to the 2010 blog post my paper is about what the function of narratives is in charter material, and the short answer would be, almost always to hide the fact of a problematic and abnormal transaction’s problems and abnormality.2 I think this paper actually has something to tell anyone who deals with transaction records, court depositions and functional documents of any kind, but especially charters, whose basis is normally so formula-driven: when people abandoned or expanded upon the formulae, it was because a normal document wasn’t going to work here.

First page of Jonathan Jarrett, "A Likely Story: Purpose in Narratives from Charters of the Early Medieval Pyrenees" in Barton and Portass, Beyond the Reconquista, pp. 123–142.

First page of Jonathan Jarrett, "A Likely Story: Purpose in Narratives from Charters of the Early Medieval Pyrenees" in Barton and Portass, Beyond the Reconquista, pp. 123–142

Several of these chapters are going straight onto my reading lists for next year and the whole thing is a volume I will not just have to, but will enjoy the time to, read from cover to cover, and I think my chapter holds its own in there too. The whole thing is a fitting tribute to Simon, and in some ways to Simon especially as patron rather than as scholar: not much of what’s in here touches closely upon Simon’s own research, mostly being earlier than his normal turf, but we can all be sure that he would have been interested and encouraging about what we have had to say, and it’s that aspect, the convenor of Historians of Medieval Iberia and the supervisor and examiner of many a doctoral student, that is commemorated here.3 For that and several other reasons I’m very happy to have this piece dedicated to his memory. But for me at least, the dedication is also to Mark Whittow, who would have pronounced the volume a ‘hoot’, or possibly even a ‘giggle’, and eagerly read it instead of whatever he was notionally supposed to be working on and then come up with something of his own for the same seminar based on whatever it had made him think about Anatolia, Italy, China or France, as his fancy then took him. I’d liked to have heard that paper, and to then try and get him and Simon into the same room, with wine, to see what resulted from that. As it is, this post is as close as I shall get, but it will have to do. To you both, gentlemen, and may it prove of interest!


1. This is the list of contents:

  1. Robert Portass, “Simon Barton† (1962–2017)” in Simon Barton and Robert Portass (edd.), Beyond the Reconquista: New Directions in the History of Medieval Iberia (711-1085): In Honour of Simon Barton, The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World 76 (Leiden 2020), pp. X–XI, DOI: 10.1163/978900423879_001
  2. Portass, “Beyond the Reconquista: An Introductory Essay”, ibid. pp. 1–15, DOI: 10.1163/978900423879_002;
  3. Julio Escalona and Iñaki Martín Viso, “The Life and Death of an Historiographical Folly: The Early Medieval Depopulation and Repopulation of the Duero Basin”, ibid. pp. 21–51, DOI: 10.1163/978900423879_003;
  4. Graham Barrett, “Hispania at Home and Abroad”, ibid. pp. 52–119;
  5. Jonathan Jarrett, “A Likely Story: Purpose in Narratives from Charters of the Early Medieval Pyrenees”, ibid. pp. 123–142, DOI: 10.1163/978900423879_004;
  6. Wendy Davies, “Counts in Ninth- and Tenth-Century Iberia”, ibid. pp. 143–168, DOI: 10.1163/978900423879_005;
  7. Eduardo Manzano Moreno and Alberto Canto, “The Value of Wealth: Coins and Coinage in Iberian Early Medieval Documents”, ibid. pp. 169–197, DOI: 10.1163/978900423879_006;
  8. Jeffrey Bowman, “Record, Chronicle and Oblivion: Remembering and Forgetting Elite Women in Medieval Iberia”, ibid. pp. 201–231, DOI: 10.1163/978900423879_007;
  9. Nicola Clarke, “‘He lashed his mawlā with a whip, and shaved his head’: Masculinity and Hierarchy in Early Andalusi Chronicles”, ibid., pp. 232–256, DOI: 10.1163/978900423879_008;
  10. Lucy K. Pick, “Islam Concealed and Revealed: The Chronicle of 754 and Beatus of Liébana’s Commentary on the Apocalypse“, ibid., pp. 257–282, DOI: 10.1163/978900423879_009.

For a more traditional view of Beatus’s apparent lack of care about Islam, see John W. Williams, “Purpose and Imagery in the Apocalypse Commentary of Beatus of Liébana”, in R. K. Emmerson and Bernard McGinn (edd.), The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages (Ithaca NY 1992), pp. 217–233.

2. It being Jarrett, “A Likely Story”, as above.

3. Simon’s normal sphere would be occupied by, among other signal works, Simon Barton, The Aristocracy in Twelfth-Century León and Castile, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 34 (Cambridge 1997); Barton and Richard Fletcher (edd. & transl.), The World of El Cid: chronicles of the Spanish reconquest (Manchester 2000); Barton, “Traitors to the Faith? Christian Mercenaries in al-Andalus and the Maghreb, c.1100–1300″ in Roger Collins and Anthony Goodman (edd.), Medieval Spain: culture, conflict, and coexistence. Studies in honour of Angus MacKay (Basingstoke 2002), pp. 23–45; Barton, “El Cid, Cluny and the Medieval Spanish Reconquista” in English Historical Review Vol. 126 (Oxford 2011), pp. 517–543; or Barton, Conquerors, Brides, and Concubines: Interfaith Relations and Social Power in Medieval Iberia (Philadelphia PA 2015).

Name in Print XXV: un treball nou sobre l’Abadessa Emma i el comte Guifré el Pelós

This post was delayed by the time it took my copies of my previous publication to arrive, because my obsessive sense of chronology demanded that I do them in the order they came out. But even at the time I posted my last publication news there was already another in the queue, and in fact had been since December 2019—that different world, when there was no global pandemic and people were still hoping Britain would somehow stay in the European Union—when, from that very international bloc and specifically from Barcelona, this arrived in my hands.

Cover of Irene Brugués, Coloma Boada & Xavier Costa (edd.), El Monestir de Sant Joan: Primer cenobi femení dels comtats catalans (887-1017) (Barcelona 2019)

Cover of Irene Brugués, Coloma Boada & Xavier Costa (edd.), El Monestir de Sant Joan: Primer cenobi femení dels comtats catalans (887-1017) (Barcelona 2019). You may recognise the cover image…

The significant name for me in this story is the third one on that cover, that of Xavier Costa, who will enter our backlogged story next post but, in the short version, was at Leeds for a term in early 2017 and thus found out (more) about my work. Then, in October of that year there was a conference at Sant Joan de les Abadesses, a town that bears its name because of the nunnery that was established there by Count Guifré the Hairy, and about which I wrote my first ever article and a decent part of my first book.1 I found out about this a little while later, when one of the participants got in touch asking for a copy of what would become my Traditio article, and I was sorry not to have been invited—there was no budget for international travel, I later found out—but was intrigued to know that new work was being done on the abbey.2 But although I had not been able to go to the conference, Xavier being one of the editors meant that I did get invited to contribute to the resulting book, which meant an awful lot to me as it was almost my first recognition from the Catalan academy. At first, being given carte blanche, I offered something that turned out to be almost exactly what Xavier had been intending to write, but when that became clear I instead offered to take over a chapter about the establishment of the nunnery for which they had no author assigned.

Now, this was not as easy as it might have been. You might think I could just have reprised my older work, but in the first place there was newer work to take into account, in the second place I’d changed my mind about some of the issues and most of all, this meant writing about Guifré the Hairy and his establishment of power in Osona, a subject on which I had previously written probably a paragraph at most and that not very well thought out.3 It’s not as simple as it seems, because as far as we can tell no-one had given Guifré rights over the county of Osona, which had been out of Carolingian control for fifty years when he succeeded to Barcelona, and why communities there should have engaged with him is not actually clear if you don’t start from the position that a nation was there waiting to be formed. This is, though, the same problem to which I devoted a tangled series of blog posts a few years back, which then turned into an article that was nearly lost, and that meant that I did myself now have a theory about how he might have done this, which to my delight seemed to fit.4 And with that realised, suddenly this became much easier to write…

Title page of Jonathan Jarrett, "La fundació de Sant Joan en el context de l'establiment dels comtats catalans", in Brugués, Boada & Costa, El monestir de Sant Joan, pp. 83-107

Title page of Jonathan Jarrett, ‘La fundació de Sant Joan en el context de l’establiment dels comtats catalans’, in Brugués, Boada & Costa, El monestir de Sant Joan, pp. 83-107

I got to write it in English, thankfully, but thanks again to the good offices of Xavier Costa it has been published in really quite stylish Catalan, which is another first for me.5 I got to see one or two of the other chapters in draft, so could take account of them, but with others there are inevitable differences of opinion and interpretation. Well, that is the nature of scholarship and I hope that even though I have not met all of my fellow contributors we will still be able to talk about those differences some day in the future, maybe even back at Sant Joan. Until then, here is a volume that is the state of our understanding about the place and its importance in the formative period of Catalan history, in which I’m very proud to appear, alongside some expert company. Thankyou Xavier, the other editors and the Abadia de Montserrat!


1. Jonathan Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (2004 for 2003), pp. 229–258, DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-9462.2004.00128.x; idem, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: Pathways of Power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 23-72.

2. That article, in case you had forgotten, being Jarrett, “Nuns, Signatures, and Literacy in late-Carolingian Catalonia” in Traditio Vol. 74 (Cambridge 2019), pp. 125–152, DOI: 10.1017/tdo.2019.7.

3. The newer work mainly being Antoni Pladevall, “El monestir de Sant Joan, del cenobi benedictí femení a canònica clerical” in Marta Crispi and Miriam Montraveta (edd.), El monestir de Sant Joan de les Abadesses (Sant Joan de les Abadesses 2012), pp. 18–37 and Martí Aurell i Cardona, “Emma, primera abadessa de Sant Joan de les Abadesses”, ibid., pp. 38–45, neither of which had noticed Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future”, but also Manuel Riu, “Església i poder comtal al territori d’Urgell: Guifré el Pilós i la reorganització de la Vall de Lord” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 29 (Barcelona 1999), pp. 875–898, online here, and Ramon Ordeig i Mata, “Cel·les monàstiques vinculades a Guifré el Pelós i a la seva obra repobladora (vers 871-897)”, edd. S. Claramunt and A. Riera, in Acta Historica et Archaeologica Mediaevalia Vol. 22 (Barcelona 2001), pp. 89–119, online here, both of which I’d shamefully missed in my own earlier work because, I know it’s hard to believe, but back then most journals weren’t online! Current issues of Catalan stuff were really hard to get in the UK even in 2007, when my book manuscript was sent off. Doubtless Drs Pladevall and Aurell could say something similar about my stuff.

4. That article being Jonathan Jarrett, “Engaging Élites: counts, capital and frontier communities in the ninth and tenth centuries, in Catalonia and elsewhere” in Networks and Neighbours Vol. 2 (2014), pp. 202–230, online here.

5. Citation therefore being Jonathan Jarrett, “La fundació de Sant Joan en el context de l’establiment dels comtats catalans” in Irene Brugués, Coloma Boada and Xavier Costa (edd.), El monestir de Sant Joan: Primer cenobi femen&icute; dels comtats catalans (887-1017) (Barcelona 2019), pp. 83–107.

Seminar CCXLV: me judging judges in Sheffield

We are living in interesting times, and the last few weeks have been extremely busy for a whole bunch of reasons no-one wanted. I came back off strike, had one day in the office and then had to move all my teaching online, then reinvent it again for different patterns of online delivery as instructions changed, and I was also behind with quite a lot of other things but still on action short of strike, and in general it’s been a complex time and I couldn’t make blogging a priority. So far me and mine are still well, or at least, only ill with things other than the novel coronavirus, and I hope that you can all say as much or better, but please look after yourselves anyway. I did wonder whether it was really important to blog about old stuff already backdated at the moment, but if it’s ever important, I suppose that that hasn’t changed much, and it’s Sunday and I’m not legally allowed to work, so why not, eh?1

So we go back, then, to December 2016, when as you may recall I saw a paper that I’d promised to give becoming less and less possible to write under my workload, grimly ignored that workload for a weekend and wrote anyway, the result being called, “Judging the Judges in the Frankish March of Spain before the Year 1000” and presented at the Medieval and Renaissance Seminar in the University of Sheffield on the 7th of the 12th. I’d been meaning to do something about judges in Borrell II’s Barcelona for many years, it was now part of the work for the book I still thought I was writing, and although I had no time to do the kind of reading in the recent historiography that I’d have liked, really long-term readers may remember that Dr Theo Riches once kindly described me as being different from other historians because I can count, and so I sat down with the Catalunya Carolíngia and my notes and I counted judges until the numbers started telling me things. I will, some day, do something with this work, but at the moment it’s one of a number of things I’ve been told by my management not to pursue, so there seems not much more to do with it than to bank a couple of its conclusions here and hope some day for different instructions.

Signature of the judge Dacó, highlighted on Vic, Arxiu Capitular, calaix 6, núm. 882

Signature of the judge Dacó, highlighted on Vic, Arxiu Capitular, calaix 6, núm. 882, my photo

So what the paper did was firstly to introduce late-Carolingian Catalonia to the audience, and then to introduce within it the concept that the historiography has developed of a super-learned clerical judicial cadre working around tenth- and eleventh-century Barcelona making impartial judgements on the basis of written law, a picture that once caused Roger Collins, no less, to ask, “whether anything better could be found anywhere else in Europe in the earlier Middle Ages?”2 We’re talking people like the man I have often named here as Ervigi Marc the Wonder Judge, who wound up as a bishop without portfolio because of his great importance.3 So far my sole contribution to this scholarship has been a footnote pointing out that these people don’t really appear before the 970s, and wondering, of course, if they might be Count-Marquis Borrell II‘s fault. Jeffrey Bowman‘s work has done something to add variegation to that picture by suggesting that there were other judges not quite so impressively trained, more like the Carolingian (or Lombard) idea of people who know the law whom you get to come and hear disputes rather than professionals, and Josep María Salrach‘s recent book does a lot to show that even the ‘professional’ judges were sometimes fallible or corruptible, as indeed we’ve seen here too.4 There’s also now a good bit of prosopographical work on these super-judges to work out who they were, and I’m not as aware of that as I’d like to be, but by repeating some of that work with the indices of the Catalunya Carolíngia I did work out at least two things that I, at least, hadn’t previously noticed or read, and so I’ll tell you about them.5

Graph of judicial actions over time in Catalan charters pre-1000

Graph of judicial actions over time in Catalan charters pre-1000

So here’s a graph, because we know that works, and also because as Wendy Davies says in her own study of judges a bit west from here, “Firstly numbers.”6 The yellow background trace is the overall number of documents preserved over time, from about 880 up to 1000; it’s missing a lot, because I didn’t then have the Catalunya Carolíngia volumes covering Barcelona, and if I ever return to this adding them will be the first thing to do, but I hope it gives the overall trends, which is to say that we have a better chance of observing anything as time goes on because there’re more documents in which one might find it.7 The purple foreground signal is the number of dispute cases, which as you can see is neither very much of the evidence nor that continuous, at least until it gets late enough. Then the blue signal between the two is the total number of judges active in the documents for that year, counting each individual judge as many times as there are occasions when he appears.

There’s a lot one can take from this, but I choose two things: firstly, even when you have thousands of documents to work with, subsets of them can be so tiny that small numbers look more significant than maybe they are. The big spike in 842 is one case that generated lots of documents which were preserved; the 870s/880s peak is a lot of documents and meetings, but almost all coming from the hearings arranged by the monastic community of Sant Andreu d’Eixalada after their place was flooded and they had to reconstitute their holdings, so in some ways a single event.8 Even the spike in the 910s, while it is several events, is one person, Abbess Emma of Sant Joan de Ripoll, suing a succession of people for rights over lands, and when she stopped the sample drops right off again, and only really picks up with the activity of our learned college of judges in the 970s.9 But there is another change over time visible here, all the same, which is that in the early documents there are lots of people called judges (iudices) per ceremony, eight or ten at once quite often, which is why those blue spikes are so high in the 840s, whereas by the 970s one to three is more usual, and one not unusual.

Ruins of Sant Pere d'Eixalada, Catalonia

Not Sant Andreu d’Eixalada, because obviously that was destroyed, but one of the churches the displaced monks claimed, Sant Pere d’Eixalada, or what is now left of it. Photo by Jack maTreball propi, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The other change I’ll point out now, which is only just evident from the graph, is that in the ninth century, you only get people called judges recorded in actual court hearings. There’s a formula that introduces them in the case records, ‘judges who were ordered to judge’, and then a list of people follows.10 But the people who are named there very often don’t use the word iudex or anything like it in their signatures, and they don’t show up with the title outside court. In this respect, the title ‘judge’ is like the title ‘worthy man’ (bonus homo) that also appears in these contexts, and I think it has something do with standing in the court, and so is contextual, not fixed; on this occasion, these people served as judges, with those people recognised as worthy men who could approve a judgement.11 Presumably the judges knew a bit of what the law was understood to be, but they might be a lot more like Frankish scabini than Ervigi Marc, people whose knowledge could be called on for judging but whose usual rôle was not that of judge.12 This changes in 943, when a guy called Sunyer the Judge is seen as a neighbour of some property out at Manresa, but it’s really not till the 970s that we start to see people who sign as judges even when they’re not actually judging, usually because they were being called upon to act as witnesses but sometimes in their own property dealings.13 These people must have had some independent standing as judges even when they were not actually doing it, and people other than them knew they were judges all the time. And, predictably, our special learned judges are in this group, although that group is a lot bigger than just the really flash ones who show up a lot quoting law, as if I ever write this up I will show.

That’s enough for a blog post, except only that I’ll say that I was obviously wrong about Borrell II being responsible for this new class of judge; all the ones I could track seem to have started in Besalú, in fact, and be associated at least for a short while with Count-Bishop Miró Bonfill and his family, though Borrell seems to have managed to poach some of them pretty quickly… I think other people must already have realised that, but I’m not so sure that the other trends above have been spotted before. It shows what even a Saturday spent frantically dumping data into a spreadsheet can produce by way of historical insight, and also that you don’t need a born-digital corpus to do that kind of work. It went well, too, and Sheffield were excellent hosts and I was glad that I had managed to remain a researcher and not pull out despite the difficulties. Still, it’s not ideal, is it? I hope for better.


1. Because it’s not in my contract that I have to, it has to be there if my employers want me to and I’m working to contract.

2. 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 at p. 512.

3. On Ervigi see now Josep Maria Font i Rius, “L’Escola jurídica de Barcelona” in Jesús Alturo, Joan Bellès, Font, Yolanda García & Anscarí M. Mundó (edd.), Liber iudicum popularis, ordenat pel jutge Bonsom de Barcelona, Textos jurídics catalans: Lleis i costums I/1 (Barcelona 2003), pp. 67-100 at pp. 82-87, though I would now be sceptical about the idea of the ‘Barcelona school’ in which he is set.

4. My sally is in Jonathan Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan ‘Terra de Ningú'” in †Alan Deyermond & Martin J. Ryan (edd.), Early Medieval Spain: A Symposium (London: Queen Mary University of London, 2010), pp. 89–128 at p. 105 n. 6. The other works just mentioned are Jeffrey Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000 (Ithaca NY 2004) and Josep María Salrach, Justícia i poder a Catalunya abans de l’any mil (Vic 2013).

5. The prosopographical work I mean is in Font, “L’Escola jurídica”, and Anscarí M. Mundó, “El jutge Bonsom” in Alturo, Bellès, Font, Garcí & Mundó, Liber iudicum popularis, pp. 101-118.

6. Wendy Davies, “Judges and Judging: truth and justice in northern Iberia on the eve of the millennium” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 36 (Amsterdam 2010), pp. 193–203 at p. 199.

7. The Barcelona volumes are now out, and I have them, which is a separate and bloggable story by itself, but their citation is Ignasi J. Baiges i Jardí and Pere Puig i Ustrell (edd.), Catalunya carolíngia Volum VII: el comtat de Barcelona, Memòries de la Secció Històrica-Arqueològica 110 (Barcelona 2019), 3 vols.

8. I think there is still no better study of this event than Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “Com neix i creix un gran monestir pirinenc abans de l’any mil: Eixalada-Cuixà” in Analecta Montserratensia Vol. 8 (Montserrat 1954), pp. 125–337, repr. without the documentary appendix in Abadal, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i documents 13-14 (Barcelona 1969), 2 vols, I, pp. 377–484. Everyone I’ve found who’s written about Cuixà since has just pointed back to it, and not without justification.

9. On this see, of course, Jonathan Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2003), pp. 229–258.

10. For example, Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Sebastià Riera i Viader & Manuel Rovirà i Sola (edd), Catalunya carolíngia V: els comtats de Girona, Besalú, Empúries i Peralada, rev. by Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 61 (Barcelona 2009), 2 vols, I, doc. no. 19: “iudices qui iussi sunt causas audire vel dirimere“, ‘judges who were ordered to hear and determine cases’.

11. On the ‘worthy men’ in this context, a quick reference is Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 35-36 & n. 55.

12. On Carolingian practice I think we can still rely on Janet L. Nelson, “Dispute Settlement in Carolingian West Francia” in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (edd.), The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1986), pp. 45-63, reprinted in Janet L. Nelson, The Frankish World, 750-900 (London 1996), pp. 51-74. On the Lombard one, I admit that I’m thinking back as far as D. A. Bullough, “Europae Pater: Charlemagne and his achievement in the light of recent scholarship” in English Historical Review Vol. 85 (Oxford 1970), pp. 59–105 at pp. 91-96, but I suppose an update, perhaps in the form of Marios Costambeys, “Disputes and Courts in Lombard and Carolingian Central Italy” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2007), pp. 265–289, would be wise to get.

13. The judge Sunyer turns up actually judging in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia volum IV: Els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 53 (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, I, doc. no. 443, but then again just as a neighbour ibid. doc. no. 532.

Hay, flax, chickens and cash

A University and College Union picket outside the University of Leeds on World Book Day

A University and College Union picket outside the University of Leeds on World Book Day, managing to pursue both causes at once, from the Leeds UCU Twitter feed

Despite our still being on strike, it has been oddly hard for me to block out time for blogging these last few days, partly because of well-timed family celebrations but also because I have been taking the chance to fulfil promises that work had prevented me from answering. This means, for example, that I spent almost all of yesterday rewriting and editing numismatic scholarship for people in China, all of which would make my managers despair if I did it on work time rather than marking assessments or finishing one of the two articles I’m supposed to be prioritising just now in the time I can’t protect. This writing has actually involved some of my better work, I think, and I look forward to sharing it with you when it comes to fruition. Today, however, I want to go back to late October 2016, before the workload mentioned a few posts ago had completely smothered me, when I was apparently still reading Italian estate surveys in preparation for the supposedly-final version of my eventual article on early medieval crop yields.1 The aim here was simply to make sure that I wasn’t missing any data from which such yields might be derived—Georges Duby did, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake while setting out why he was wrong—but one can’t help noticing things as one reads, even if they don’t end up being especially useful…2

View of the medieval centre of Verona, from Wikimedia Commons

View of the medieval centre of modern-day Verona, by Jakub Hałunown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Thus it was that I was reading a partially-preserved list of renders and dues once belonging to the bishopric of fair Verona.3 You may remember, if you go far enough back with this blog, me getting all excited about the potential of the similar records from San Salvatore di Brescia to reveal not just local peculiarity and human interest stories (though plenty of them) but also the actual recording process—they were using a form, which otherwise we suppose Charles Babbage to have invented!4 The level of standardisation was surprisingly high, though it could accommodate personal variation all the same. At Verona, we have a different situation. The record, which probably dates to the mid-tenth century and survives on four-of-we-don’t-know-how-many pieces of parchment sewn together, is actually quite variable and doesn’t have the kind of formulaic language. It’s not that it’s not all by the same people, but just that they didn’t have the same kind of desire to keep it exactly consistent, and who’s to say they weren’t happier for that? But patterns do emerge, all the same, perhaps because certain areas of the bishopric’s property had arrived in lumps, with different terms for each batch.

A modern-day agricultural landscape outside Verona

A modern-day agricultural landscape outside Verona

The overall picture looks roughly as you’d expect: the normal estate rendered a third of its wine production, a quarter of its grain, paid a few deniers on Saint Zeno’s day and owed some other stuff, flax, linen, hay, beans, chickens and eggs, fish or whatever, depending on the estate and what it had, presumably. In many cases the tenants did a few days’ labour on the bishopric’s own land too. Certain bits stand out for oddity: some estates had to render particular sorts of cereal, for example—millet and sorghum in San Vito di Castilione, wheat, rye and millet in Bonerigo and wheat, fava beans, rye, millet, panic and sorghum in Arcila, since you ask—whereas most of the rest just rendered “grain”.5 A very few places rendered partly in hay, presumably only at some times of the year; the interesting thing there is that they all render to the same place, not the cathedral but an estate centre at Legnago. Did the bishopric have a stock-raising operation there which needed a lot of animal feed?6 A lot of places rendered in flax, but the state it arrived in varied: raw flax was acceptable from some places, but others had to render prepared flax and some actual woven linen.7

Flax fields near Bergamo

Modern flax growing near Bergamo

Apart from the delightfully variegated texture of human endeavour across the Veronese landscape which this gives us, it also makes it clear that the bishopric of Verona was a commercial operation in a commercial world, whatever the historiography would wish to tell you about the dates we can use such words.8 Much of what they were getting in was provisions, for sure, and they might have had a lot of people to feed even beyond the cathedral canons; the urban Church was what there was in the tenth century by way of poor relief, after all.9 But I don’t think they can genuinely have needed quite that much linen all by themselves, which implies that they were selling it as material for the textile industry for which the area would be famous later on. There’s nothing surprising about that, either, because the number of renders in cash show that there was obviously a money economy of some sort in operation and if they could in fact spend those coins, then others must have been able to buy as well, or what would the good of the coins have been to them?10 None of this seems very odd, perhaps, but it is nice to be able to show it for definite.

Ottonian denaro from an Italian mint, perhaps Verona

Some of that same cash, a silver denaro of Emperor Otto I struck perhaps at Verona in 962-973, Münzen Sänn, 3731900816, now in a private collection

Furthermore, the overall pattern was not controlled; the cathedral wasn’t turning certain parts of its property into specialist provision, or I think the picture would be very much more differentiated. What they mainly wanted was wine, grain, chicken and eggs and money, and those were probably also partly for sale (because yes, you can sell cash, it’s something banks do, we just don’t call it that when they do it). Where there are signs of specialisation, therefore, it’s probably fair to guess that they had been set up by the people who’d owned the land before it came to the cathedral, which is to say that this kind of economic optimisation had been a lay pursuit too for a little while by circa 950. I’d have to work harder to prove this, and I suspect it’s already been done, but with this kind of material, it can be, you see.

Medieval statue of Saint Zeno of Verona, from Wikimedia Commons

Saint Zeno, as depicted in a later medieval form still on display in Verona. (He was from modern-day Morocco, according to legend anyway.) Image by Mattanaown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The goods may have been for sale, then, but they were also for show. Remember that a lot of this stuff was to be brought to the cathedral on the feast day of its patron saint, Zeno (12 April, apparently). I imagine there was a feast, too, and perhaps the tenants got to eat some of what they had brought, but mainly, I imagine, they all saw each other paying up and were inescapably reminded who their lord was, how powerful he was and how much help he could draw on if he needed to (or you needed him to). A very few places also rendered single lambs, and just as I did at Brescia I wonder if those were to be delivered at Easter, but I can’t prove that whereas the big gathering on Saint Zeno’s Day looks pretty undeniable. It’s not quite conspicuous consumption, but one could call it conspicuous stockpiling, I guess, and the audience may have been the city population who might need the bishop’s charity in the tough months before the harvest as much as the tenants who had, presumably, still kept most of what they’d grown or raised. One could link this to the ancient role of bishops as civic patrons or remember that the English word for ‘lord’ comes from an Old English word hlaford meaning ‘loaf-giver’, but either way the person who can feed the poor when the poor need him is in a powerful position, and that’s what this ceremony must have set up in Verona.11

I can’t do anything especially novel with any of this, and the document didn’t have the smoking guns of crop yields for which I was searching. If I’d been one hundred per cent focused on the research outcome, I’d regret having read this estate survey. As it is, though, even though I will probably never really need to know anything about how tenth-century Verona hung together and what its citizens for sale saw in their marketplace, I have a quite lively mental picture of another corner of tenth-century Europe all the same, and that will do nicely for me, thankyou!


1. 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. The yields he missed were in Andrea Castagnetti (ed.), “S. Tommaso di Reggio” in Andrea Castagnetti (ed.), Inventari altomedievali di terre, coloni e redditi (Roma 1979), pp. 193–198, discussed even before publication in Vito Fumagalli, “Rapporto fra grano seminato e grano raccolto nel politico del monastero di S. Tommaso di Reggio” in Rivista di storia dell’agricoltura Vol. 6 (Firenze 1966), pp. 360–362, just too late for Duby’s big works. See Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages”, p. 25 for discussion.

3. Castagnetti (ed.), “Vescovato di Verona” in Castagnetti, <u<Inventari altomedievali di terre, pp. 95–111.

4. The Brescia materials are printed in Gianfranco Pasquali (ed.), “S. Giulia di Brescia”, ibid., pp. 41–94. As for Babbage, the claim rests upon Charles Babbage, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (London 1832), pp. 114-118, online here.

5. Castagnetti, “Verona”, pp. 107, 106-107 and 108 for the specific cases.

6. Ibid., pp. 103-104.

7. For example, linen from a half-colonica held by Atto in Cennserava and one colonica belonging to Tonono in Castolisine (ibid., pp. 104 and 106), prepared flax from another of Atto’s colonicae in Cennserava (ibid. p. 104), but raw flax from one of Legnago’s dependencies (ibid. p. 101), with many more examples available.

8. I refer of course to Robert S. Lopez, The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950‒1350 (New York City 1971), for whose narrative we seem here to be slightly early.

9. On poor relief you could see Peregrine Horden, “Poverty, Charity, and the Invention of the Hospital” in Scott Fitzgerald Johnson (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity (Oxford 2012), pp. 715–743.

10. This isn’t even that new an idea: the best cite I can immediately pick up for it is Gino Luzzatto, “Changes in Italian Agrarian Economy (from the Fall of the Carolingians to the Beginning of the 11th Century)”, trans. Sylvia L. Thrupp, in Thrupp (ed.), Early Medieval Society (New York City 1967), pp. 206–218.

11. On bishops and cities, try Claudia Rapp, “Bishops in Late Antiquity: A New Social and Urban Elite?” in John H. Haldon and Lawrence I. Conrad (edd.), Elites Old and New in the Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East: Papers of the sixth Workshop on Late Antiquity and Early Islam, Byzantium and the Early Islamic Near East 6 (Princeton 2004), pp. 149-178.

Frontiers Day at the 2016 International Medieval Congress

When, two posts ago, I recounted what still seemed worth recounting of the first three days of the 2016 International Medieval Congress at Leeds, you may have noticed that because of now being employed by the host university, I was involved in a lot more sessions as moderator than in previous years. This is the deal I get as staff, effectively; I can go to the Congress for free, because they can hardly charge me for coming to work, but they expect me to do my bit to keep it running. So my timetable for the Congress is now a lot more preset than you’d ordinarily expect. But on the last day of the 2016 edition, though my timetable was entirely fixed, it was down to me, because that was when the sessions I’d organised for my Rethinking the Medieval Frontier project happened, and since that was my doing and I was in them all it seemed worth giving them their own post.

1510. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, I: Control and Authority in the Iberian Peninsula, 5th–10th Centuries

There are only three regular sessions on the last day of the Congress, and none of them are the slots you’d choose; the first one is early morning after the dance, so attendance is weaker and more woebegone than usual, and by the third, which is after lunch, most people have already set out for home. The second one is better than those, but still thinly populated. I couldn’t have planned for this, except out of bloody-minded certainty that I’d get the hangover slot, which has happened to me at a quarter of my IMCs (I have just counted) and two-thirds of my Kalamazoos, but as it happened I put the most Iberian-focused of my three sessions first, with me in it, and so hangover slot again it was but at least I had there most of the people I actually wanted to hear it. The more-or-less-willing participants and their titles were these:

  • Sam Ottewill-Soulsby, “The Long Frontier: The Ebro Valley from the 5th to the 9th Centuries”
  • Sam started us off with the intelligent argument that the Christian-Muslim frontier on the Ebro valley from the eighth to eleventh centuries has an obvious, religious, dynamic to it but actually the area had been a frontier space for long before that, repeatedly in rebellion against the rest of the Visigothic kingdom when that was going, in rebellion against its own Muslim superiors when Charlemagne first led an army into it, and before long also in rebellion against his son Louis the Pious. There was something about the space that made it a unit that was hard to control from a distance, and Sam saw this as a brake on bigger changes that might want to affect it. I would have liked more on the last bit, but the main point was a sharp one that I have continued to think with.

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Heartland and Frontier from the Perspective of the Banū Qāsī”
  • This paper’s task was firstly to synthesize in English the quite large amount of recent scholarship there has been about the archetypal Muslim frontier warlord family, the Banū Qāsī, which was slightly embarrassing as the man who’d written much of that was in the audience to hear me repeating him back to himself.1 Its point in the session was that the Banū Qāsī, with a position in that same hard-to-control space from which the Umayyad Muslim régime couldn’t easily displace them, so that they could only control it through them, and strong links to the nascent Basque kingdom at Pamplona which made the Banū Qāsī the sole agents of peace on that northern frontier, meant that they could choose where the frontier was—on the northern border of Pamplona when they were working for the régime, and on the south of the Ebro zone when they weren’t, switchable with a simple agreement. Their own frontier status was what made them powerful, and in the end, I argued, while the central régime wisely promoted an alternative family step by step into an alternative option for them, they also displaced the Banū Qāsī by aggressively marking the frontier to their south; once the family were placed outside, they lost their position as brokers for their northern allies and thus any value they could bring southwards.

  • Albert Pratdesaba, “Battlefront Ter-Llobregat: Traces of Carolingian Forward Operating Bases in Catalonia”
  • Lastly in this first session, Albert, whom I’d met on my then-recent trip to l’Esquerda where he was then digging, got us down to the ground of this frontier we were all three discussing, looking for place-names of fortification on the Carolingian edge and matching those that have been dug up to any wider patterns going. At all of l’Esquerda, Roca del Pujol and Savellana they’ve found post-holes that could have supported a wooden guard-tower, such as which they have subsequently attempted to reconstruct at l’Esquerda.2 The initial Carolingian line of defence is now quite closely mappable, if these places are indeed on it, and while there’s a danger of circularity here the more places they dig and find stuff that matches, the less dangerous that guess will get.

The reconstructed watchtower at l'Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Catalunya

The reconstructed watchtower at l’Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Catalunya


Because I was in it I don’t have notes on the discussion, which is sad. My memory is that all went well, but that the audience was definitely larger for the second, late-morning session.

1610. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier II: Defining and Dissolving Borders in the Late Roman and Byzantine Empires

Although my own frontier of reference is indubitably in the Iberian Peninsula, the ones that have arguably generated the most thinking other than those of modern nation-states are those of the Roman Empire.3 When it became clear we had three papers offered, all of which were about how people in the Empire, in its Roman or later, ‘Byzantine’, phases, understood and strove to define its borders, it was obvious that they belonged together. These were they:

  • Thomas Kitchen, “Fatal Permeability: the Roman Frontier in Late Antiquity”
  • Tom, a friend of mine from back in Cambridge, had been coaxed into returning to the academic sphere for this paper and completely justified my certainty that this would be good by laying out for us a subtle thesis in which Roman borders, geopolitical or social both, were usually very clear but meant to be permeable, with legitimate ways for people and ideas to cross them and be accepted on the more Roman side, even if they retained roles and origins from outside. Tom’s argument was that it’s visible in the writings of contemporaries that this permeability exposed the Empire to identities and sources of status alternative to its own hierarchies with which it became less and less able to compete, often embraced on a temporary basis to survive a certain crisis but never again adequately rivalled by what survived of the older Roman patterns. The most emblematic one of those changes is the adoption of kings where an emperor had once ruled, but it wasn’t the only one and might have been one of the last. The writers of our sources still saw the empire around them, as they walked the same streets and did business in the same buildings, but we can see in their works the changes they wanted to ignore. This was one of those papers that set the audience all thinking whether their own teaching versions of this story could exist alongside this one or needed changing; it seemed clear to everyone that he must be at least sort of right. I was very pleased by this outcome.

  • Rebecca Darley, “Trading with the Enemy across the Byzantine-Sasanian Frontier”
  • This paper had grown out of Rebecca’s persistent encounter with an idea that the Persian Empire was deeply invested in controlling and profiting from international trade.4 She went after the best-documented border, that with the Roman/Byzantine Empire, and argued that the sources we have, especially the treaties between the powers reported in Byzantine histories, saw this border as closed and trade across it as a problem, which might feed either of resource or information to a mistrusted enemy. Even the most optimistic communications between the two empires don’t discuss trade as an outcome of their peace, and there isn’t actually any proof that either state took toll at its borders with the other. Highly-placed people whom they could track, like ambassadors, were allowed to do some business on the side, but otherwise they wanted trade happening in certain places under careful watch, if at all. It could always be dispensed with, though: Rebecca pointed to Emperor Justinian I’s blockade of Lazica as an effective sanction on a place that relied on imports, but one which had arisen because of a Persian conquest that was itself possible because of an imperial governor having previously established a monopoly on several of those imports, i. e. excluding the operation of other traders, apparently using state power but to private ends.5 Trade was, in other words, not worth it for the state even where, as here, there was literally a captive market, and so it was done on the side even when the state did it. Rebecca argued that we should see these empires as more or less suspicious of and hostile to commerce, rather than reading modern global capitalism back onto their operations.

  • Alexander Sarantis, “The Lower Danube Frontier Zone, 441-602”
  • On the other side of the same Empire, meanwhile, and touching also on Tom’s paper, came Alex Sarantis, looking at the Byzantine border along, and sometimes across, the Danube. He viewed this border in a way that sat between the two other speakers, being a site of local interaction around fortresses but not moving much across it any distance, though some, and being home to a highly militarised, somewhat less civil, Roman culture that nonetheless still stopped at the actual front-line, with roads and cities behind and decentralised rural settlement before. This border was a space with a hard line at one edge, therefore, and a fuzzy one at the other, and as far as they could do so the Romans aimed to soak up and stop movement, both military and commercial, within the space between those lines rather than letting it escape into the Empire. And this more or less worked! The barbarian groups who arrived there all went west in the end, because the border was closed to them.

Two of the questions I had initially posed to the speakers of these sessions, in a sort of agenda document (which you can read here), were whether their borders of concern were open or closed, and whether people crossed them. The response in the two Byzantine cases here seemed clearly to be, ‘closed, but people crossed anyway even though it was risky, and the state could close them properly for short whiles’, whereas Tom had seen the Roman ones as ‘open, with limits’. Modernity suggests that it’s really hard for a state actually to close a border, but our Byzantine sources here are really thinking in terms of bulk trade, ships full of salt rather than a few chickens from a village on the ‘wrong’ side for grandma’s birthday—as so often, scale is a factor—and I can’t help feeling that if all three were right, the Byzantine Empire might here have learnt from its western progenitor’s errors.6 Anyway, there was clearly more to be got from getting these people talking to each other!

Entrance to the citadel of Berat, in modern Albania, from Wikimedia Commons

Entrance to the remains of the Byzantine citadel at Berat, in modern Albania, with a thirteenth-century church guarding rather older fortifications. Image by Jason Rogers – originally posted to Flickr as Berat, licensed under CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1710. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, III: Frankish Frontiers, Internal and External

Then, after lunch, fell the slot that nobody wants, in which nonetheless I had three brave speakers and, actually, more audience than I’d feared, because several of the earlier speakers and some of the audience stayed to hear more. I guess we were doing something right! And the beneficiaries of this were these:

  • Arkady Hodge, “The Idea of Aquitaine in the Early Middle Ages”
  • This was a longue durée study of an edge-space for a great many polities, running from the Phoenicians up to the Carolingians, and arguing that while there was quite possibly some consistent core identity here its edges were defined differently by each successive over-power that ruled it, and that its position on the edges of those powers let it alone to remain unchanged in ways that other more central provinces couldn’t. As is often the case with Arkady’s work, it drew on such a broad frame of reference that I wanted to check half a dozen things I’d never heard about before, but it certainly made comparison easier because of that breadth.

  • Jakub Kabala, “Rewriting the Border in Carolingian and Ottonian Historiography”
  • Kuba, our furthest-flung international guest star this time, arguing that borders are mainly mental constructions upon space, decided to look at the same border, the one of the East Frankish kingdom with Slavic-speaking polities, through two sets of eyes, one that of the Carolingian recorder of the Royal Frankish Annals and the other that of Thietmar of Merseburg.7 The Annals also have the advantage of going through progressive rewrites as they were adopted as the cores of other texts, and Kuba saw the border becoming clearer in each rewrite, a linear division in development. For the Ottonian writers, however, the border is indefinite, with even Germany only coalescing an edge when barbarians throw themselves against it. He thought that this might be because by then Poland, being on the way to Christianization, represented the outer edge in a way that the Carolingians hadn’t had available, but I thought it might be seen as an attempt to claim an open frontier, into which the Ottonians still hoped to expand as the Carolingians increasingly hadn’t.8

  • Niall Ó Súillheabáin, “Building Power on Feudal Frontiers: the Case of Landric of Nevers”
  • Lastly, after these two wide-ranging studies, we ended with a micro-study of an internal frontier, with the Nivernais sitting on the edges of both Burgundy, by the 980s more or less separate from the developing France, and of its old master kingdom in the west, but having also been held in subordination to Aquitaine against both in the recent past. Niall took us through the history of the area’s rulers and their contested loyalties until in the 990s our boy Landric became the first count of actual Nevers, a sort of independence with his own following of locals and a station of enough respect to broker deals between outsiders who thus accepted him as their equal. Nevers managed to become such a space because it could successfully be converted into a buffer everyone around it needed more than they needed the conflict that controlling it would have meant.

The final formal discussion, naturally, spent a while considering whether internal and external frontiers worked the same way, which our sources also seem to be unsure about, but for me mainly emphasised how our sources will tend, naturally enough, to redefine how a border worked according to their particular needs. That is only as much as to say that a critical approach to our texts is needed, and at the end of this session we were well equipped to provide that for each other. Thereafter the session decamped to the bar, where I think the informal discussion was even better. If Catalonia ever starts making whisky it will be because of us, take note…

Futbol Club de Barcelona Scotch Whisky

Still made in Scotland, sorry, doesn’t count

So that was 2016, that was the second year of these sessions and by the end of it we’d had 15 papers on such issues, all quite good. The previous time I attempted anything like that there was a book of the papers out within two years of us finishing; you might ask what’s going on this time. Well, I have had some money for the project, but what I ain’t had is time, and I have also repeatedly had to put work on this aside for higher-profile publications. It is still my intent to get one or two volumes of essays out of Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, not least because some of the people on these panels both deserve and need the exposure, but I’ll have to get external money before that can happen. The rub is that to get that money I’d ideally have some results to show from the project so far… and there, the Catch-22 of modern academia. But, as future posts will occasionally note, the absence of results or even a decent research plan doesn’t preclude people getting quite large grants, so that will have to be the hope for now. Even if I don’t manage to get things up to date here, the project blog on the Leeds website will reflect it quickly when there is any such news to report, and there is more that has already happened that needs reporting here, but as with All That Glitters, something will have to change before I can do with these projects what should be done, i. e. publish them. I continue to work towards that change…


1. That being Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, author of La dawla de los Banū Qasī: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus, Estudios Árabes e Islámicos: Monografías 17 (Madrid 2010).

2. I. Ollich-Castanyer, A. Pratdesaba, M. de Rocafiguera, M. Ocaña, O. Amblàs, M. À. Pujol & D. Serrat, “The Experimental Building of a Wooden Watchtower in the Carolingian Southern Frontier”, Exarc.net, 25th February 2018, online here; for more on the site and area in English see now Imma Ollich-Castanyer, Montserrat Rocafiguera-Espona and Maria Ocaña-Subirana, “The Southern Carolingian Frontier in Marca Hispanica along the River Ter: Roda Civitas and the Archaeological Site of l’Esquerda (Catalonia)” in Neil Christie and Hajnalka Herold (edd.), Fortified Settlements in Early Medieval Europe: defended communities of the 8th-10th centuries (Oxford 2016), pp. 205–217.

3. I’m thinking here especially, as so often, of Edward Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, from the first century A.D. to the third 40th Anniversary edn. (Baltimore MD 2016), opposed by Charles R. Whittaker, Frontiers of the Roman Empire: a social and economic study (Baltimore MD 1994). As you can tell from that, sadly, Luttwak’s work has shown better holding power…

4. This seems more or less to begin with David Whitehouse and Andrew Williamson, “Sasanian Maritime Trade” in Iran Vol. 11 (London 1973), pp. 29–49.

5. The primary source here is Procopius, printed in Procopius, History of the Wars, Books I and II, transl. H. B. Dewing, Loeb Classical Library 61 (London 1914), online here, II.XV.

6. For modern cases, see for example Sahana Ghosh, “Cross-Border Activities in Everyday Life: the Bengal borderland” in Contemporary South Asia Vol. 19 (Abingdon 2011), pp. 49–60, or Margaret E. Dorsey and Miguel Diaz-Barraga, “Beyond Surveillance and Moonscapes: An Alternative Imaginary of the U.S.–Mexico Border Wall” in Visual Anthropology Review Vol. 26 (New York City NY 2010), pp. 128–135.

7. Translations in Bernhard Walter Scholz and Barbara Rogers (edd. & transl.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, Ann Arbor Paperback 186 (Ann Arbor MI 1972), online here, and Thietmar of Merseburg, Ottonian Germany: the chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg, transl. David Warner (Manchester 2001).

8. On such language the best recent thing seems to me to be Juan Carlos Arriaga-Rodríguez, “Tres tesis del concepto frontera en la historiografía” in Gerardo Gurza Lavalle (ed.), Tres miradas a la historia contemporánea (San Juan Mixcoac 2013), pp. 9–47.