Category Archives: Romans

Seminar CLX: reading backwards into Frankish brooches

I have to start with the now-usual apology for lapse in posting; quite a lot is being required of me right now and mostly there is no time for blogging. In fact, like a proper obsessive compulsive I have a 12-step triage list for getting through the day without any of the spinning plates dropping, in which the blog is only no. 10 and in which on an ordinary day I’m rarely reaching no. 5… but we struggle on. In particular, I struggle on with the first seminar I went to in the Autumn term of 2014, and you can tell I was a bit busy then because that wasn’t till the 15th October. But on that date, Professor Guy Halsall, no less, was giving the David Wilson Lecture at the Institute of Archaeology in University College London, so obviously I was going to go. His title was “The Space Between: the ‘undead’ Roman Empire and the aesthetics of Salin’s Style I’.

A bronze clasp from Gotland

One of Salin’s own illustrations, a bronze clasp from Gotland busy with animal bits. Originally from Berhard Salin, Die altgermanische Tierornametik (Stockholm 1904).

For those that don’t know, Salin was a nineteenth-century archaeologist who worked on the artefacts of the period of the end of the Roman Empire in the West, particularly of the Franks, and he distinguished two styles of carving and ornament among their metalwork, which we still know as Style I and Style II.1 Style I is characterised by intertwined animal-form creatures (zoomorphs, is the rather splendid technical term) and disconnected animal or bird heads, in sometimes quite complex conjunction as you see above. Salin thought, and since he wrote many others have thought, that this was characteristic of the art of the barbarian peoples invading the Roman Empire, and could indeed be used as a proxy for their presence or at least influence.

Silver Style I bracteate with suspension loop

Silver Style I bracteate with suspension loop, a clearer but more abstract example of the style

With this, Guy began by arguing, and arguing that Style I is not, and was never, characteristically Germanic, not least because it only appears in the fifth century, so was obviously being generated within the Empire and could hardly therefore be barbarians’ imported ancestral custom, and still less the shared ancestral custom of a whole range of previously-unconnected groups. With that out of the way, and entirely in keeping with his other writing on the subject, he proceeded to what on earth this style of carving may have meant.

A sixth-century Anglo-Saxon square-headed brooch from Chessell Down, now British Museum 1867,0729.5

A good example case, a sixth-century Anglo-Saxon square-headed brooch from Chessell Down, now British Museum 1867,0729.5, with many significant-looking bearded heads to focus in on as this decoder page on the British Museum blog shows.

It’s not that no-one’s tried doing this, of course: people have seen in this art archetypes of Germanic folk heroes and gods and apotropaic serpents and so on, but as Guy pointed out such information can only be drawn from much later Norse sources, written after Christianization, which is thus in several ways the wrong direction to make these artefacts face; those traditions and that worldview not only come from later than the objects, but might have been partly formed by those objects or objects like them.2 Rather than being anachronistic like this, therefore, Guy opted to be ‘achronic’, and employ the work of the modern theorist Derrida to try and understand how these signifiers did their signifying.3

The Roman general Stilicho portrayed in the dress of a citizen with wife and child, though also with weapons, in Monza Cathedral

The master signifier made manifest, a supposed barbarian—none other than the Roman general Stilicho—portrayed in the dress of a citizen with wife and child, though also with weapons, in Monza Cathedral

The question here seems to me to be a good one, and perhaps it could not have been asked like that without the use of such modern work, but it still seems to me that this is not achronism but witting anachronism. That might not be bad, though, depending on what it gets you. What it got Guy was a development of his argument that Roman identity is idealised as the civil self-governed male, and that from the third century onwards that identity was challenged to the point of destruction by peripheral and destructive identifications, for Guy more or less what being ‘barbarian’ meant, the powerful other whom it became increasingly cool to be like. For Guy this only works because of the core referent, the old Roman identity against which this was expressed, a periphery set against a centre which comes to be the new defining cultural identification.4

Late Roman fourth-century military belt buckle

Late Roman fourth-century military belt buckle, with animal heads confined to its ends

So on this occasion Guy tried to fit Style I into this framework, as an artform in which the periphery takes over, the beasts and interlace erasing the geometric centres common in late Roman ornamental metalwork. He argued that this was a deliberate artistic expression of uncertainty, in which it is no accident that we can’t tell,that contemporaries could not have told, how many animals there actually are on the brooch. It was born ‘out of disturbance’, that disturbance presumably being the breakdown of the Roman West with all its concomitant changes in social and economic organisation and prosperities. The areas worst hit by all this are not where Style I seems to have originated, Guy admitted, but it spread into them very quickly. The signification of the Empire was now uncertain, indeterminate and ‘undead’, in the sense that no-one could be sure it wouldn’t yet rise again, as it had done before.5 And the art that best captured that mood was Style I.

The Sutton Hoo belt buckle now in the British Museum

I’m not sure if this is technically Style I, but it gets the point about indeterminacy over nicely… It is of course the Sutton Hoo belt buckle now in the British Museum. “Belt buckle” by Michel walOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

I like that this lays such emphasis on uptake of material culture by an audience, rather than requiring it to move with immigrants as per the nineteenth century narrative that likewise refuses to die. Nonetheless, I have reservations. One of these is chronology: it was very recently, for example, that the relative stylistic chronology of lots of Anglo-Saxon metalwork was pushed back by fifty years.6 Even that preserves a stylistic chronology where some of the directional links are assumption. My limited knowledge of the Frankish metalwork suggests to me that there are lots more of those assumed links, many of which Guy has contested. With them uncertain, however, a similar shift backwards of the dating of this stuff would possibly radically change its relationship to other styles of metalwork. I am just not sure that we know well enough what comes before what and whether people necessarily only used one of these styles at once to hang such large arguments about cultural change off them. Then secondly, of course this is an argument Guy has also made from other evidence. With the aid of Derrida he is now able to fit the metalwork into that theory comfortably too, and he might not even have needed the theorist. But it’s not a free reading of the evidence, if that were even possible.

And thirdly, of course, we cannot know what this stuff meant to people, not least because of a lot of it presumably being unconscious: how many people who wear black leather jackets have consciously thought “I want to look like a nineteen-fifties motorcyclist” rather than, “that’s cool?” How many people who wear Ramones t-shirts have actually heard any of the songs? And so on. “What were they thinking?” is one thing to ask; “what did they not realise they were thinking?” is a whole new order of superiority to take over our study subjects… So I am still fairly clear that what Guy was offering was, explicitly in fact, a theory brought from outside to bear upon dead people who can’t be questioned, and whatever it was that they thought about their dress accessories, they weren’t reading Derrida to do it. I don’t know that we can work out what this stuff meant to its users, but if we must try I would rather start with tools that they also had.7

1. The starting point for Salin style is of course Bernhard Salin, Die altgermanische Tierornamentik (Stockholm 1904), but an Anglophone introduction can be found in Günther Haseloff, “Salin’s Style I” in Medieval Archaeology 18 (Leeds 1974), pp. 1-18, online here.

2. An example of the kind of work Guy meant here, I guess, is Lotte Hedeager, “Myth and Art: a passport to political authority in Scandinavia during the Migration Period” in Tania Dickinson & David Griffiths (edd.), The Making of Kingdoms. Papers from the 47th Sachsensymposium, York, September 1996, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 10 (Oxford 1999), pp. 151-156.

3. I don’t know Derrida’s writings, but I guess from this webpage that the key text here is Jacques Derrida, L’écriture et la différence (Paris 1967), in which case I should probably think twice about calling it modern; that’s older than Geertz…

4. See most obviously G. Halsall, “Gender and the End of Empire” in Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies Vol. 34 (Durham NC 2004), pp. 17-40.

5. On this I thoroughly recommend Guy’s Barbarian Migrations and the End of the Roman West 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), which has become part of how I think about this period.

6. John Hines (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: a chronological framework, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 33 (London 2013). the primary text of reference for Merovingian stuff other than the work of Patrick Périn, which has its own problems, seems still to be Edward James, The Merovingian Archaeology of South-West Gaul, British Archaeological Reports (Supplementary Series) 25 (Oxford 1977), 2 vols, so some such reevaluation can’t be too far away! Guy’s Cemeteries and society in Merovingian Gaul: selected studies in history and archaeology, 1992-2009, On the Early Middle Ages 18 (Leiden 2009) starts this work but a systematic review will be necessary for a while yet.

7. I am aware in writing that that Guy posted on social media shortly after the lecture that he thought it was beyond the understanding of most of his audience. I may well have misunderstood it, given both that and that I’m reconstructing from year-old notes, but the text is online should you want to try it yourself, and I’m sure he will correct any misunderstandings too awful to be allowed to stand…

Towards a Global Middle Ages II: the middle of what, exactly?

Picking up again the threads of the Global Middle Ages Network meeting I was at in September 2014—see the last post on this for the background if you like—the second post I want to dedicate to this is on the question of periodization. Of course periodization is an issue for the medievalist of any scope. The very fact that we study a period called medieval, of the age in the middle, raises the question of what it is between and how those twin poles define it. Calling something ‘medieval’ began as a way of dismissing it into the past, says Kathleen Davis, and despite the problems I find in the book where she says it the case is persuasive.1 To be medieval is to be defined as between other things, usually the great glories of Classical Antiquity and the Roman Empire and the new modern Age of Empires, which is problematic not least because the people whom we as medievalists study did not think of themselves so. Indeed, those who thought about such things instead tended to think that they were at the end!2

An illustration of the two beasts of the Apocalypse from Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional. Ms. Vit. 14.2, fo. 191v.

Reasons not to periodize, no. 1: we are all about to be destroyed by many-headed dragons anyway so what’s the point, right? From the copy of Beatus’s Commentary on the Apocalypse known as the Facundus Beatus, Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional. Ms. Vit. 14.2, fo. 191v. By Facundus, pour Ferdinand Ier de Castille et Leon et la reine Sancha (Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

One form of argument that this has raised is one about where the period begins and ends. For Westerners, 476, the death of the last Roman emperor to rule from that city, has often been a good marker of the beginning but it is, in many ways, the final bits falling off a building’s ruins after it has already collapsed, and on the other hand, the fifth-century arrangement of the Roman West endured for centuries by many measures and was possibly only fully reconfigured by the secondary collapse of the Carolingian Empire, or even the semi-legendary ‘transformation of the year 1000’.3 That has led many scholars to hive the whole early Christian period off as ‘late Antiquity’ and just postpone the Middle Ages as the rest of the world understands it till after they cease to be interested.4 And there are genuine changes that make good reasons for doing that, while at the other end of the period, while the discovery of the New World in 1492 makes a similarly good marker, a European maritime empire was already funnelling the wealth of another Continent into Europe by then in the form of Portugal in Africa; firearms, the printing press and plague were already well-established, the Renaissance long under way; and Christianity would remain only either Catholic or Orthodox for a few years thereafter too. So, the impact that 1492 made needs to be argued too if we are to stop the early modern era spreading back into the quattrocento or the end of the Middle Ages disappearing under a pile of bodies in the Wars of Religion.

Fort Sao Jorge da Mina at Elmina, Ghana, erected by the Potuguese in 1482.

Colonial African architecture of the Middle Ages: Fort Sao Jorge da Mina at Elmina, Ghana, erected by the Potuguese in 1482. “Elmina slave castle” by Dave LeyOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In actual fact, the modernists seem largely happy to draw back modernity even further, to the Enlightenment and industrialization, which I think is probably justifiable, myself.5 That raises the question of why the people who work on the Tudors or the early Ottomans aren’t medievalists, one to which I don’t have good answers, and this conflation has been repeated structurally by many universities’ Centres or Institutes for Medieval and Early Modern Studies. But I do observe this same trend that Kathleen Davis points out, to distance modernity from the Middle Ages rather than to colonise them with it, and one of the declared aims of this group meeting (remember the meeting? This is a post about a meeting) was to write something that would force the modernists to stop ignoring the period before their own. But attacking this boundary and still putting a book out about the Global Middle Ages becomes conceptually difficult very quickly; if the boundary doesn’t exist, or is much later, then what does ‘The Middle Ages’ actually consist of? About the only alternative characterisation of the era that’s so far been floated, the ‘Age of Faith’, doesn’t get us out of this hole at all: I already mentioned the Wars of Religion…6 ‘The Age Modernists Ignore’ hardly seems better. And the other end of the periodization also presents problems, not least because with so many big empires with farflung (if ephemeral) contacts up and running, Alexander reaching India overland and Rome doing so by sea, Egypt reaching into Africa and so on, it’s so tempting for a global research agenda to start much earlier.

The Darial Gorge, on the border between modern Russia and Georgia

The Darial Gorge, on the border between modern Russia and Georgia, one of the places where it has been suggested that Alexander the Great built Iron Gates to keep the monstrous peoples who lived beyond them away from civilisation. Not necessarily true, but impressive! “Darial-Gorge” by Not home at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But the modern division is the one that’s defended, it seems; thanks to the border crossing of late Antiquity traffic between medieval studies and specialists in the ancient world is reasonably feasible. And that later division could be attacked in the European world, but trying to ‘go global’ with it introduces a whole host more problems as cultures other than Western Europe, working on quite different timescales, start to be factored in. China had a state bureaucracy, a fiduciary currency system, gunpowder and factories for most (all?) of the European medieval period; much of what we know of Africa looks a lot more ‘Ancient’ in any test against both the Classical or medieval worlds, on the other hand, and Meso-America wasn’t playing the same game at all, while at the other end of a scale I am suddenly reminded of a chapter of David Abulafia’s about Portuguese contact with the Canary Islanders in which the word ‘Neolithic’ is used to illustrate the culture gap.7 And it’s really hard to put India onto this scale, not least because of the legacy of Orientalism and history by colonists that framed it as eternally backward and a rival sort of writing that instead made it a pluralistically enlightened Utopia, both of which are responses to a terrible absence of actual datable evidence for what India was like in the period in which we’re interested.8 Then at the other end of the process there’s the problem of lack of change: that version of China could be argued to have continued till the Boxer Rebellion, and the whole awful ‘West and the Rest’ narrative derives from the appearance that changes happened in Europe which put the Middle Ages behind it, but which were not mirrored elsewhere in the world.9 Identifying something like feudalism in Japan is not going to be enough to force the rest of the world unwillingly into a fundamentally European chronology.10

A suit of hon kozane dou gusoku Samurai armour in the Tokyo National Museum

Medieval armour? A suit of hon kozane dou gusoku Samurai armour in the Tokyo National Museum. By Ian Armstrong [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Note, though, that the rhetoric of difference here really goes hand-in-hand with the defensive one of modernity. Actually, what differentiates the West from the Rest in that narrative, at least at a visible level, are the same things that differentiate Modern from Medieval: mechanisation, so-called Enlightenment, long-range commerce and the development of the two cultures, to pick an arbitrary handful. Doing that differentiation for the pre-modern is a lot harder. Mark Whittow suggested that one of the things that makes the West different from the Rest during the Middle Ages as we usually count them was an ‘archival habit’, the practise of keeping documents for a long time (rather than destroying them with each change of administration, for example, or never making them at all). And as I said in the last post on these issues, the variation in source materials is probably the most important one for any potential reader of the book that is to come out of all this to get their heads round, but otherwise to get too deep into the variation, however tempting and even analytically necessary, may be to miss a point. Invoking the Middle Ages at all engages scholars working on such themes immediately in two probably-useless exercises of justification: the identification of something as characteristically medieval which does not prevent comparison with the early modern era but keeps things distinct from the ancient one (without disparagement from either direction) and then an attempt to find it in areas where the tripartite division of ancient, medieval and modern has no relevance. One wonders whether just sticking with a title that invokes no period but only a division (The World Before Columbus was bruited) would present fewer problems. Alan Strathern argued something very much like this when he early on described the group as ‘pre-modernists who work on the Middle Ages’, but I’m not sure if even he had yet reasoned this through: to write on the Global Middle Ages and get away with it, we may have to cease identifying our work with the Middle Ages…

1. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia PA 2008).

2. See for example Robert Markus, “Living within Sight of the End”, in Chris Humphrey and Mark Ormrod (edd.), Time in the Medieval World (Woodbridge 2001), pp. 23–34.

3. Two cites of many many possible: Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), esp. pp. 279-283, and Guy Bois, The Transformation of the Year One Thousand: the village of Lournard from Antiquity to Feudalism, transl. Jean Birrell (Manchester 1992), esp. pp. 2-4.

4. The culprit usually blamed for the late Antiquity label is Peter Brown, especially in his The World of Late Antiquity: from Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad (London 1971), which is unfair in this case as he does much more interesting things with it than mere defence against later periods. Nonetheless, something started there.

5. A relevant example: Peter van der Veer, “The Global History of ‘Modernity'” in Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient Vol. 41 (Leiden 1998), pp. 285-294, DOI: 10.1163/1568520981436228, and the debate of which that article forms part in that journal issue.

6. Not least because the most obvious scholarly example of that terminology for me, Peter Sarris, Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam, 500-700 (Oxford 2011) as that implies stops barely two centuries into the period.

7. D. S. Abulafia, “Neolithic meets medieval: first encounters in the Canary Islands” in idem and Nora Berend (edd.), Medieval frontiers: concepts and practices (Aldershot 2002), pp. 255-278.

8. On the colonial contempt for Indian history, see Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty, pp. 98-100, largely on the basis of Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Time of History and the Times of Gods” in Lisa Lowe & David Lloyd (edd.), The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital (Durham NC 1997), pp. 35-60. For the idealising sort of writing fiction is the best source: try, for example, John Masters, The Venus of Konpara (London 1960), but the appeal to history is as political as ever inside India: see N. Pai, “Towards a shared understanding, and why it is important” in idem (ed.), A Sense of History, Pragati: the Indian National Interest Review no. 27 (Bangalore 2009), online here in PDF, last modified 26th July 2012 as of 30th June 2014, pp. 2-3.

9. The argument about the Boxer Rebellion can be found in Bodo Wiethoff, An Introduction to Chinese History: from ancient times to the Revolution of 1912 (London 1975), pp. 9-31. The West and the Rest analysis we love to hate is of course, Niall Ferguson, Civilization: the West and the Rest (London 2011), but it’s a much older trope than him. I could also mention once again Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York City 1997), repr. as Guns, Germs, and Steel: a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years (London 1998), which is one of those books one lends out and doesn’t get back.

10. On Japan I’m thinking of Jospeh Strayer, Feudalism (New York City 1975), whose comparative aspect derived from a genuinely global treatment of the same phenomenon in which Strayer also participated, Rushton Colbourne (ed.), Feudalism in History (Princeton 1956). Of course it is necessary also to mention Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the medieval evidence reinterpreted (Oxford 1994) as a required counter to Strayer and his views.

Leeds 2014 Report IV and Final

The 2014 bookfair, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds

I should, given that I’d missed the dance the previous night, have been up bright and early on the following and final day of the 2014 International Medieval Congress, but I confess I was not. I had had a couple of sessions in mind to go to, but in fact by the time I was fully operational it was just too late gracefully to get in, and so I gave into temptation and went to the bookfair to check along a few final stalls I hadn’t yet reached. With that achieved, and coffee consumed, I threw myself back into academia for the last two sessions.

1607. Law and Empire: editing the Carolingian capitularies, II

The earlier one of these sessions was one of those I had been thinking of going to, and once I’d been to the second I regretted my failure, as it was very much on my interests. It was, I gathered, part of a thread coming out of the ongoing work to re-edit the disparate body of texts emanating from the Carolingian empire which we call ‘capitularies‘, because they are arranged by capitula, headings or articles. This covers everything from programmatic law through sermons to meeting agendas and so many problems arise, which the speakers were variously facing. This was the running order:

  • Jennifer R. Davis, “Manuscript Evidence of the Use of Capitularies”.
  • Matthias Tischler, “Changing Perceptions of a Carolingian Constitution: the legal and historiographical contexts of the ‘Divisio regnorum’ in the early 9th century”.
  • Karl Ubl, “Editing the Capitula legibus addenda, 818-819, of Louis the Pious: text and transmission”.
  • The first problem tackled was : did anyone ever actually use the legislation that the Carolingian kings issued like this? Doubts have been raised, even though they were later compiled into something like a new lawcode for Emperor Louis the Pious (814-840), because however interested the court may have been in them, only one citation of them is court has so far been located, making them vulnerable to an old argument by the late Patrick Wormald that early medieval law-making was about performance, not about actually trying to govern people’s behaviour.1 Professor Davis had however found a private manuscript that collects capitulary legislation, perhaps, given its contents, made for a courtier bound for Italy who needed to know about the laws there, and she argued that this was the tip of a lost iceberg of people making their own legal handbooks of the bits they needed from the central law-bank at the court.

    Part of Charlemagne’s789 capitulary, the Admonitio Generalis, in St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 733, DOI: 10.5076/e-codices-csg-0733, f. 13r. (, Professor Davis’s chosen manuscript.

    This was in part supported by Dr Tischler’s paper, which found several manuscripts collecting one capitulary in particular, that by which Charlemagne promulgated the division of his empire which he planned in 806, before the death of his two elder sons. Since Louis the Pious, the remaining son, had three sons of his own, this text retained a worrying relevance and Dr Tischler thought he could identify several of the people worrying from the provenance and contents of the manuscripts; they too went back to these texts for models of how things might be done even after the moment of the text itself had passed. Lastly Professor Ubl spoke of the difficulty of categorising his chosen text, the Capitula legibus addenda, ‘articles for adding to the laws’. If lawcode and capitulary were really separate categories, as their initial editor believed, what are we to do with a capitulary that updates the lawcodes? And again, the manuscripts show us that this is indeed how it was used: of 32 surviving copies, two-thirds also contain one of the Frankish law-codes, the Lex Salica and an overlapping third contain the other, the Lex Ribuaria. The people writing these manuscripts didn’t necessarily know which king had issued the capitulary but they knew what it was for and wanted it available.

There was heated discussion after this, because who loves categories more than legal historians? And who loves questioning them more than modern social historians? But one of the questions that was being asked throughout, but especially by Professor Ubl, was just what kind of an edition one can make of a text like the Capitula legibus addenda, of which there are thirty-two different versions none of which are evidently definitive and all of whose constructions are, as these papers had shown, potentially informative. Professor Ubl wanted a born-digital edition but it wasn’t quite clear how it would work yet. I thought that a kind of database of clauses, from which a website could cook you up any given manuscript, would still actually give you a form of text to print, but there were reasons my notes don’t let me recall why this wouldn’t answer. I still like it, though. Anyway, then there was lunch and then it was the final straight.

1715. Networks and Neighbours, VII: relationships of power in the Early Middle Ages

I have a certain loyalty to the Networks and Neighbours strand at Leeds, mainly out of self-interest since I am in the journal, or will be, but also because the organisation behind it is quite the creation for a then-bunch of postgraduates, and it is doing several quite important things in terms both of methods and of subject of publication. This session was no longer being organised by the same crew as are behind the journal, however, and I should have realised that. The order of ceremonies was this:

  • Paulo Henrique de Carvalho Pachá, “The Visigothic State and the Relations of Personal Dependence: transition, transformation, and domination”.
  • Michael Burrows, “Lower Class Violence and the End of the Roman Empire”.
  • Renato Rodrigues Da Silva, “Donation of Land and State Building in 7th- and 8th-century Northumbria”.
  • Senhor de Carvalho set up for us a separation of aristocracy and state in Visigothic Spain: he argued that king Wamba had tried to bring it about and that Ervig, his successor, was able to gain power by conceding a rôle in government to part of the aristocracy, thus splitting them while still looking conciliatory. This is certainly one way to read the texts, but not perhaps a new one, and was reacting to a book published in 1978, what may no longer need doing.2 Mr Burrows picked up the terms of his sources in distinguishing a ‘more humble’, lower class from a ‘more honest’, upper class in the late Roman Empire, and asked what our sources, written largely by the latter, thought of the former resorting to violence. You would think the answer obvious but Christianity, because of its founder’s interest in the poor and because of the way that mob action sometimes brought about what seemed to our writers like the will of God, made some of those writers find a space for rightly-guided popular violence, thus making some of it seem legitimate in the terms of the time. Lastly Senhor Rodrigues tried to put the limited evidence that donations of land were made in pre-Viking Northumbria (we don’t have any charters, but we have some sources that talk about them existing) into the context of political turmoil in that kimgdom in the eighth century. Since we don’t have any of the relevant donations, the links between them and events never really crystallised for me here, and I was left wondering how Senhor Rodrigues thought it all joined up.

Any unsympathetic feelings I had for the panellists, however, evaporated in horror during a five-minute mini-lecture that a commentator delivered to Senhor de Carvalho, condemning him for not having read many things which got listed and bombarding his argument with a supposedly-revisionist view of the development of Spain that was clearly based on the even older work of Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz. Senhor de Carvalho had spine enough to point this out, whereupon the commnetator, who was from Valladolid as he told us although I never identified him, dismissed Senhor de Carvalho contemptuously as a Marxist. This was quite the rudest attack I’ve seen an academic deliver upon a junior scholar, and I felt I had to go and reassure Senhor de Carvalho afterwards that we had all met such people and that they should not be allowed to triumph. I had had my own reservations about the paper, yes, but this was a whole circle of Hell below anything I would ever say, or mean, in a postgraduate session or indeed elsewhere. Professor Ian Wood exemplified how this could be done by also offering Senhor Rodrigues a reading list, but one couched as possibly-helpful suggestions, and the other questions were also, I think, intended to guide and suggest rather than demolish. I understand rage at wrongness as much as anyone, but I also regard such anger as a sign that it’s not views of the early Middle Ages that are threatened… To remember that was, alas, and through no fault of the panellists, the most striking lesson of this final panel, and pondering it I departed southwards, many books the richer and another International Medieval Congress down.

Books I bought at the International Medieval Congress, Leeds, 2014

The Leeds 2014 bookhaul, reconstructed for this post. What is now mainly evident is how very sure I was that I would still be teaching Anglo-Saxon England whatever happened, which I shall somehow have to contrive to do even now, because the sunk costs of my library are just awful otherwise!

1. An eloquent statement of doubt on this score, and the lone legal citation, can be found in Christina Pössel, “Authors and recipients of Carolingian capitularies, 775-829” in Richard Corradini, Rob Meens, Pössel & Peter Shaw (edd.), Texts and Identities in the Early Middle Ages, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 12, Denkschriften der phil.-hist. Klasse 344 (Wien 2008), pp. 253-274, online here. The work of Wormald referred to is “Lex Scripta and Verbum Regis: legislation and Germanic kingship, from Euric to Cnut” in Peter Sawyer & Ian N. Wood (edd.), Early Medieval Kingship (Leeds 1977), pp. 105-138.

2. That book being none other than Abilio Barbero & Marcelo Vigil, La formación del feudalismo en la Península Ibérica, 2nd edn. (Barcelona 1978), which of course even I thought worth many blog posts, so I am conscious that I would have done little better at that stage. Still, on this subject I’d probably have started with Roger Collins’s Visigothic Spain 489-711 (Oxford 2004) and gone on with the commentary in Joaquín Martínez Pizarro (transl.), The story of Wamba: Julian of Toledo’s Historia Wambae regis (Washington DC 2005) before I got back to Barbero and Vigil. These were, signally, not among the suggestions made by the commentator mentioned below…


An array of interesting links

I tend to store up interesting links against a day when I have no content to post, but the backlog situation has meant that not only does that never occur any more but that the links themselves get very old. I thought it was about time to clear some out! I had so many that categories seem necessary, even. So let me humbly suggest that you may wish to click to learn more about the following:

    Things from out of the ground

    A Celtic disc brooch looted by Vikings and now in the British Museum

    A Celtic disc brooch looted by Vikings and now in the British Museum, see below

  1. In no particular order, a previously-undiscovered Viking fortress, at Vallø in Denmark, located in mid-2014 by laser imaging and ground-penetrating radar;
  2. I have been known, in my cynical past, to say that the best way to hide an archæological discovery you wish to keep secret is to give it to the British Museum, due to their cataloguing backlog, but I was not wholly serious obviously, whereas this is a bit ridiculous (but has that brooch in it);
  3. further stuff has also been found, as is now de rigeur for all credible archæology in the UK, under a car-park, in Haddenham in Cambridgeshire where they hit what seems to have been a small sixth-century Anglo-Saxon cemetery during development work in February 2014;
  4. some eighth- to -tenth-century bodies found stuffed in a well Entrains-sur-Nohain in Burgundy provoke the writer of that post to several equally hypothetical Carolingian-history explanations
  5. an Iron Age hillfort at Broxmouth in East Lothian, Scotaland (just), has revealed what seems to be evidence of fifth-century BC steel-making;
  6. and there has been an array of hoards discovered that need their own subsection:
    A silver lidded vessel of Carolingian date recovered in a hoard from Dumfries in 2014

    A silver lidded vessel of Carolingian date recovered in a hoard from Dumfries described below

    1. a hoard of Viking silver loot, including what was once a really nice Carolingian lidded ewer or similar, found near Dumfries in south-west Scotland in late 2014;
    2. “one of the largest Roman coin hoards ever discovered in Britain”, 22,000 or so third-century coins found in Devon in November 2013 but only breaking into the news in September last year; I think Georgia Michael told me about this one so hat tip to her;
    3. and although 5,000 coins suddenly seems like not so big a deal, nonetheless, for the Anglo-Saxon period it is; I’m pretty sure this find nearly doubles the amount of King Cnut’s coinage known to exist in the UK, for example, and this one I definitely do owe to Georgia so off that hat comes once again;
    4. Posed photograph of some gold dinars from a hoard found off the coast of Israal

      I would not let someone do this with a gold find even before it had been catalogued, myself, but I am not the Israel Antiquities Authority, in whose care this hoard of Fatimid gold dinars ended up (see left)

    5. and two thousand is hardly trying, but firstly these ones were gold and secondly they were off the coast of Israel, dating to the reigns of the tenth- and eleventh-century Fatimid caliphs Al-Ḥākim and Al-Ẓāhir, and possibly coming from a sunken tax shipment, which I bet has caused a lot more diving since the news came out and which news I owe, once more, to Georgia Michael, who must have got the idea that I like coins or something…

    Things afoot in the research world (including those parts of it that blog)

  7. A new(-ish) project running out of Oxford to map all the various hillforts of the British Isles, presumably including that of Broxmouth above…
  8. … out of which project came the following endeavours from my native land, with lots to read if hillforts are of interest to you;
  9. a thorough and useful set of suggestions about what was wrong with the UK’s Research Excellence Framework exercise, not including its terrible name but with many other good points, from the self-appointed but persuasive Council for the Defence of British Universities (and here I owe a tip of the hat to Professor Naomi Standen);
  10. more light-heartedly, here is a reason for scribal errors that I had never considered, and still rather wish I hadn’t given some of the suggested remedies;
  11. a suggestion from a doctoral researcher at Sheffield that the current male fashion for extreme facial hair has medieval precedents, and plenty of modern ones too (a tip of the hat here to one of the Australian Medievalists);
  12. Things from out of the archive

    Fragments of a mid-seventh-century manuscript of the Qu'ran in the Mingana Collection, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham

    Fragments of a mid-seventh-century manuscript of the Qu’ran in the Mingana Collection, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham, see below

  13. Some extra fragments of illustration from the Catalan comital cartulary known as the Liber Feudorum Maior have been rediscovered!
  14. Following our theme of materials for the study of Anglo-Saxon England feared forever lost to scholarship, you may not necessarily be aware that after much deliberation about what to do with it, Professors Stephen Baxter and John Hudson have published the unfinished second volume of Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law on the Early English Laws website as Patrick Wormald, Papers Preparatory to the Making of English Law, vol. II, for which many people may be very grateful;
  15. the Vatican Library’s digitisation project has a new website and a much more searchable catalogue, though it does admittedly appear to be broken just now;
  16. and, to end with something at least that is very new and exciting, we have a lot of people coming to the Barber Institute just now because they have not read far enough down this story to realise that the very very early Qu’ran manuscript it describes is not yet on display here, but it is still extremely exciting!

Byzantium before Byzantium

This gallery contains 4 photos.

I’m pleased to say that since about May my team and I at the Barber have been making steady progress in getting at least some of our coins onto the Internet, and this is another post to tell you about … Continue reading

Leeds 2014 Report I

Crowds of medievalists at the 2014 International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds

IMC 2014 in session

I very much hope this is the last time this happens, but I find myself again reaching a Leeds International Medieval Congress in my write-up backlog only after the next one has already happened. Looking back at the 2014 one, too, I find that I remember remarkably little of it; for many of the papers I have notes on, I would have sworn to you I had never seen the presenter. I think this must be me and how distracted I was by various things back then. It could also be that we drove up the night before straight from the closing moments of The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours conference just recounted and that I was already a bit hazy from too much learning. Whatever it is, though, it means I’m very reliant on my notes and that may also make this briefer than usual; I can but hope. But let’s charge in. On Monday 7th July, once up, I seem to have ignored the first keynote lecture, I think largely so as to get in at the second-hand bookfair, and then dived in properly as follows:

121. Coining and Sealing Empire in the Middle Ages

  • Guido M. Berndt, “The Face of the Emperor and the Face of the King: numismatic evidence from Vandal North Africa and Ostrogothic Italy”.
  • Susan Solway, “The ‘Currency’ of Rome: coining empire in the Middle Ages”.
  • Florence Codine, “The Emperor’s New Hair: imitation and innovation in coin portraits in the post-Roman West, 5th-9th centuries”.
  • I do remember this session, however. You can see how it should have played to my interests somewhat, but in fact I went in sceptical because one of the papers looked very much as if it was along the line of an exhibition proposal I’d just pitched at interview (so it didn’t seem a novel idea to me) and another looked like an unknowing repeat of one of the best papers I ever saw given, so, there was a high bar.1 I am also leery generally of sessions where the moderator speaks, as was the case here, and of art-historical approaches to early medieval coinage (which is very far from naturalistic in its portraiture and so speculative at best to get real visual information from).2 Given all this, my expectations were probably always going to be low.

    Bronze 21-nummi of King Hilderic of the Vandals, Carthage, 523-30, Barber Institute of Fine Arts VV066

    Obverse of a bronze 21-nummi coin of King Hilderic of the Vandals, struck at Carthage in 523-30, Barber Institute of Fine Arts VV066. You can see how important it was to the die-engraver and moneyer that it look just right…

    It would be cruel to say that the session easily met those expectations, then, because I was probably the wrong audience: I knew most of what Dr Berndt’s paper had to say about what the Vandals and Ostrogoths minted (and would indeed be exhibiting some of it early the next year, as seen above), for example. Professor Solway, who overran by ten minutes, was arguing that the post-Roman world retained the imperial portrait on its coins and used Roman coins with it on in jewellery as a symbol of authority, and this may well be true but if so we need to think a lot harder about how that symbol was understood: it was obviously not necessary for it to show a current emperor, for example, nor an identifiable one, nor even show him the right way up. Neither was it necessary to do so at all: some early Anglo-Saxon pennies do carry something like an imperial bust, but others do not while a third group stylise it into mad hair and nothing else. Yet they all seem to have been exchangeable. It’s not simple, and some change over time from direct imitation to stylised representation to redesign and individuation would have made this canter from Julius Cæsar to Frederick II a bit more sensitive. Mme Codine’s paper meanwhile was very conscious of the limitations of the evidence, which ineluctably undermined its very tentative suggestions that the famous long hair of tthe Merovingian Kings of the Franks was represented on some of their coins. We don’t really understand who issued Merovingian coins, so this was always going to be a hard sell. Versions of the other two papers here are, however, already in press in a book edited by Professor Solway, so you don’t have to take my mean words for it, you can see how unfair I’m being for yourself, at least if your institution can afford Brepols.

Things rapidly looked up, however, even if it was somewhat of a rush to get food and make it to:

198. Keynote Lecture 2014

    This year, the IMC had split its keynotes up and this meant that I spent the early part of this one trying to eat crisps unobtrusively, but it was worth it for:

  • Hugh Kennedy, “The End of Islamic Late Antiquity: change and decay in the 10th-century Middle East”.
  • Hugh’s lecture was in two parts, in the first of which he made the case that the early Islamic state could be seen as a late antique one, with a civil service, a classicising historiography, a tax system running in coin and many other features, although not including any tax on trade. The second part then noted that most of this broke down in the tenth century, with a shift to paid soldiery tying up the state’s resources at a point when, in processes unfolding over decades and perhaps imperceptible at a lived timescale, it became less and less profitable to develop and maintain agricultural land in the caliphate’s rich heartlands and more and more profitable to be in the civil service, leading to a steadily more massive drop in base agricultural production, without which of course everything else suffers. Strapped for vital cash, and massively overspent, the caliphs farmed out more and more of their tax collection, thus losing more and more direct control over their territories. Hugh pointed out that any parallels with so-called feudalisation in the West would have to deal with the fact that Islamic justice remained public, not ‘seigneurial’, because it was a religious affair; there are many ways for an empire to decentralise and fragment, I think we can agree!3

214. Empire, Power, and Identity in Roman, Vandal, Byzantine, and Islamic North Africa, II

  • Uta Heil, “Fulgentius and Thrasamund”.
  • Christian Barthel, “At Empire’s Edge: ruling Libya in the late 5th and early 6th century”.
  • Because one of the presenters in this session hadn’t made it, the two papers were run separately with their own questions. Dr Heil introduced us to Bishop Fulgentius of Ruspe, a bishop who was exiled from Africa to Sardinia by the Vandal king Thrasamund. This was not a simple bouncing-out of an irrefragable Catholic by an Arian ruler, however, because there was apparently quite the written interchange between them, not the least of which is a dialogue, purportedly between king and bishop, in which the bishop explains the wrongs of a theological position the king was adumbrating, apparently not Arianism but Monophysitism. Fulgentius was apparently able to write books and books of theology while in Sardinia, teach, receive visitors and so on and the impression one gets is that the king had found a way to keep a high-powered theologian on call without his being able to intervene much in African politics, which were highly religious. I am guessing that a very large pension was presumably part of this deal… Meanwhile Herr Barthel wanted us to know about three inscriptions of Emperor Anastasius from what is now Libya. These show considerable military reorganisation, setting up wage-scales for the staff, prison administration and boundary policing, all quite detailed measures that show a government clearly still in operation, which is all the more striking because almost all we know otherwise is the names of obscure probably-Berber groups against whom these defences were now necessary, from the work of Synesius of Cyrene, which was a general harangue to let Constantinople know how bad the situation had got. That and the three copies of these inscriptions are almost the only sources we have for the whole area for most of a century, and it mainly made me think on what slender threads even this much therefore hangs.

Then caffeine and back to the fray for the final session of the day, in which my loyalties were happily combined in the form of the venerable Texts and Identities strand and speakers I knew from other contexts, as follows.

327. Texts and Identities, III: Italy between Eastern and Western Empire in the early Middle Ages

  • Caroline Goodson, “St Petronilla, Rome: cultural allegiances and family alliances”
  • Clemens Gantner, “Removing the Holy Pope Martin from the Church of the Saviour: uses of the arrest and trial of Pope Martin I in Roman sources from the 7th to 9th centuries”
  • Helmut Reimitz, “The Challenge of Rome for Carolingian Politics of Identity in the 8th Century”
  • This session had been much mutilated, but in a good way for me: both Caroline and Helmut were replacing absent speakers, whom I didn’t know, and so I now had a much better idea of what would be on offer and went in with confidence. Caroline told us about the papal use of the cult of St Petronilla, who at her earliest site of cult was held to be a fourth-century venerable lady, rather than a saint, but when moved by Pope Stephen II to her own church became, somehow, St Peter’s own daughter, martyred in the second century. The cult has usually been studied because King Pippin III of Francia linked his daughter Gisela to it by his patronage, but Caroline argued that if the aim of this was to bring the Franks into Rome in some visible way, the audience of this was nonetheless the Romans, and so the emphasis on Peter was probably what the popes were after, with the Frankish involvement a very secondary issue. Clemens looked at the history of Pope Martin I, which as I had learnt earlier that year involved appointment from outside, in 649, by a Byzantine administration which became so dissatisfied with the results that they arrested him and exiled him to Cherson. You can imagine that this is an episode that could be told very politically, as Rome generally detached from Byzantine in subsequent centuries, but the politics change a lot in each version: the issue is usually the wrongness of eastern doctrine, against which Martin boldly stood, but exactly which doctrinal controversy it was and how much the real issue was whether Constantinople could still take tax from Rome vary a lot from retelling to retelling. Lastly Helmut looked at how the relationship of the Frankish kings with the papacy is reported in various eighth-century Frankish sources, and concluded that here too things could change very fast, as the Franks’ own project did: he saw a shift from papal legitimisation of the new Frankish kingship through the Franks’ suitability for imperial power, to be conveyed by the pope, to the popes mainly being a way to bring the Franks into contact with the Lombards thus demonstrating how superior the Frankish people, and not just their kings, were. In conclusion: texts were political, very much the standard message of Texts and Identities but always worth showing afresh. Questions showed that the least understood source here in this light is the papal biographical compilation called the Liber Pontificalis, The Book of Pontiffs as the translator has it, of which there survive several versions, often differing in small additions that could as easily represent non-papal points of view.4 I know that lots of people have worked on the Liber just lately and I haven’t read it yet, but one feels that it can’t yet be enough…

And thus, anyway, closed the first day, and I seem to recall that we went to dinner in the refectory and decided not to do that again, and then I expect the bar called, but this at least gets you through the academic content. There’ve been hardly any coins this post, have there? I’ll have to fix that, stay tuned…

1. And that paper is now in print as Jonathan Arnoldd, “Theoderic’s Invincible Mustache” in Journal of Late Antiquity Vol. 6 (Baltimore 2013), pp. 152-183, DOI: 10.1353/jla.2013.0007.

2. That said, Anna Gannon, The Iconography of Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage: Sixth to Eighth Centuries (Oxford 2003) is a good go at such work because it is interested primarily in symbolism and doesn’t look for literal representation.

3. For example, long long ago, at my Ph. D. upgrade meeting no less, Professor Mark Mazower pointed out to me that the Ottoman Empire could be compared, which was (he did not say this bit, which may be stupid) already more or less feudalised and which fragmented when it tried to modernise instead!

4. Printed in Louis Duchesne (ed.), Liber Pontificalis : Texte, introduction et commentaire (Paris 1886–1892), 2 vols, online here and here, and translated in Raymond Davis (transl.), The Book of Pontiffs (Liber Pontificalis to AD 715), Translated Texts for Historians 6 (Liverpool 1989), idem (transl.), The Lives of the Eighth-Century Popes (Liber Pontificalis), Translated Texts for Historians 13 (Liverpool 1992) and idem (transl.), The Lives of the Ninth-Century Popes (Liber Pontificalis), Translated Texts for Historians 20 (Liverpool 1995).


Images in metal of the alleged image-smashers

This gallery contains 5 photos.

Not everything whose recataloguing I have overseen at the Barber Institute has been Byzantine—I invite those with interests in the Roman period to examine our coins of the reigns of Tiberius I (14-37) and Gaius (37-41) if you like, which … Continue reading