Category Archives: Romans

Seminar CCXXXIX: medieval fragments of the Father of History

My pile of unreported notes makes it look as if by the time I returned from Kalamazoo last year I was very firmly in the conference season, and there’s a good deal of that coming, but there was a brief interlude into which one seminar at the Institute of Historical Research fitted, on 20th May 2015 when Professor Scott Bruce was addressing the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar with the title, “The Dark Age of Herodotus: shards of a fugitive history in medieval Europe”. This was the only IHR paper of the summer term to which I was able to go, and I picked a good one, not least because of how extremely elegantly it was delivered, but also because of the enigma it set out to explore.

The River Ganges at Benares in the nineteenth century

The River Ganges at Benares in the nineteenth century, by which time other tactics of control had been adopted from those described below; photo from A. V. Williams Jackson (ed.), History of India volume IX: historic accounts of India by foreign travellers Classic, Oriental, and Occidental, ed. A. V. W. Jackson (London 1907), p. 6

This enigma can be phrased very simply: we think we know that the ancient Greek historian Herodotus was not known in the Middle Ages, so how come Abbot Peter the Venerable of Cluny can be found using one of his stories, about King Cyrus of Persia dividing up the River Ganges after it drowned one of his soldiers? (Peter was not the only person using this story, either, as Google quickly reveals). The simple answer might be that many Classical texts were copied in the Middle Ages and we’ve just missed one, but no-one mentions Herodotus in Latin between the fifth and fifteenth centuries that Professor Bruce has been able to find, although the so-called Father of History was much better known in the Greek-speaking world. A lost manuscript of the Histories kicking about somewhere probably still ought to be obvious to us in citation. Instead, Herodotus seems to have dropped out of the canon as being too pagan and, unlike Plato or Virgil or more obviously Josephus, could not be wrestled into a framework that made him somehow a precursor or vehicle of the Christian truth later to be revealed.

Roman bust of Herodotus in the Palazzo Massimo del Terme, Museo Nazionale di Roma

You gotta wonder though. This bust is supposed to be Herodotus, and to be a Roman copy of a Greek original of the fourth century B. C. It only entered the collections of the Museo Nazionale di Roma, where it can even now be seen in the Palazzo Massimo del Terme, in 1940, but is apparently known to have been found in the Porta Metronia area. Even if all that’s reliable, we obviously can’t tell if it was around to be seen in the Middle Ages or already buried. If it had been, though, would they have known who it was? And, really, how do we? Image public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The alternative, therefore, is that Herodotus was circulating unrecognised and in fragments, as stories without authors transmitted through more respectably Christian or Christianised authors. By dint of considerable labours, Professor Bruce had found two such stories in Western contexts, and this one travels in Orosius’s Seven Books of Histories Against the Pagans (where it is of course serving as an example of pagan stupidity), but also in the much earlier Seneca, whose treatise On Anger seems likely to have been Abbot Peter’s source in this case. This all made a really good example of how knowledge was transmitted in the Middle Ages, excerpted, carried around in mental baggage, passed through filters and denuded of its context. As Professor Bruce pointed out in discussion, Seneca doesn’t cite Herodotus as his source for the story about Cyrus; neither does Orosius, and he may not even have known but, given that, there’s no way that Abbot Peter could have known the origin of the story he was using.

Manuscript illustration of Peter the Venerable

Manuscript illustration of Peter the Venerable transmitting his knowledge, from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 17716, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Many people were able to throw in other examples of transmission of such ‘shards’ of history and knowledge through their favourite sources, the learned late-antique equivalent of urban legends. As a sign of the way in which giving such a paper can be both a revelation and a danger in the electronic age, in discussion Simon Corcoran managed to find an example of Josephus, whose Antiquities were widely used in the medieval period, using Herodotus, again without citation but recognised by his modern editors, by virtue of knowing where to look and having an Internet-enabled tablet handy while people were talking. Thus another possible transmission route for investigation was opened up in two minutes searching… As Professor Bruce had already concluded, there is a lot more to be done about how people came to know things in the Middle Ages once we start looking down at this level where their information was actually moving, but for any that might not have believed that, this paper certainly showed it.

Kalamazoo 2015, Part 4 and final

Although it continues to be a ridiculous reporting backlog I have, yet it does advance, and we now reach the last day of the 2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo. This is always the hardest day, because the dance is the night before but the first session starts early so that play closes in time for people to head home. I suppose I should just be grateful that for the first time in my attendance I wasn’t presenting first thing Sunday morning… But some people of course were, and since they included both a friend and someone talking about the Picts, there I duly was.

536. Pathways to Power in Early Medieval Northern Europe

  • Jan-Henrik Fallgren, “Early Medieval Lordship, Hierarchies and Field-Systems in Scandinavia and the British Isles”
  • Álvaro Carvajal Castro, “State Formation within the Localities: a comparative approach to land management and productive processes in early medieval England and Northwestern Iberia”
  • Óskar Sveinbjarnarson, “New Evidence for Emerging Power Structures in Northern Pictland”
  • Douglas Bolender, “A Household Perspective on State-Formation in Medieval Iceland”
  • This was a tightly-focused session. All were looking for answers to the same question: what can we say about how social hierarchy and power emerge in the northern edges of Europe in the post-Roman centuries? For Dr Fallgren one answer lay in farm organisation: he saw a pattern of central big houses, often long-houses, with surrounding fields with a marked-out perimeter in all of Öland, Gotland, Ireland, England and Pictland. This meant ignoring a considerable amount of variation about how this was done in practice and I thought the similarities he was detecting risked being more or less demographically determined, but if the causation could be more clearly worked out there’d be something to say here all the same. Álvaro, in the way that perhaps at the moment only he can, was also comparing widely, England, Ireland and Spain, emphasising that there was never a mythical autarkic peasant moment on which lordship comes to be imposed in any of these societies, but that still, lordship and organisation of settlement do intensify together in ways that we can observe in the historical and archæological record.1 His paper was valuable for emphasising that despite this, that lordship does not include everyone and Spain especially shows us lots of small independent proprietors continuing alongside and between the big coagulating lordships in their areas.2 For Mr Sveinbjarnarson, working with the much less forthcoming evidence from the erstwhile Pictland, where he had been digging at the fort complex of Rhynie, the significant time was the fifth and sixth centuries, when after a period of breakdown we see wealth acculumation and deposition as hoards, prestige imports reaching this far north again, an increase in size and decrease in numbers of fortifications, big old forts being reactivated and so forth. I think we sort of knew this but Mr Sveinbjarnarson was able to colour in a lot more of the picture than I knew about.3 Lastly Professor Bolender, who had the hardest job in some ways: although there is textual evidence for settlement organisation in early Iceland in the form of Landnámabók, ‘the book of the taking of lands’, finding enough of any kind of archæology to challenge it is very difficult; one question asked him what tools, roads or place-names might add to the enquiry, to all of which his answer was pretty much “the evidence doesn’t exist!” For now, Landnámabók‘s picture of initial large farms set up by the earliest settlers then infilled by smaller settlements, and eventually large consolidated interests emerging seems at least not to be contradicted. Iceland of course offers that initial purely peasant society which Álvaro was stressing didn’t exist in his areas, and it’s interesting to see the same dynamics nevertheless emerging, but I did think that the messages of this session might have been even clearer if one of the papers had tackled an area where large landownership never went away, like Southern Gaul, just to get a better idea of what they were seeing that was close-to-universal and what that was specifically extra-Roman. Still, to want so much is already a sign that the comparison was forcing some quite high-level thinking!

Then, I think we couldn’t face the canteen lunch and went into town for nachos. This was a good idea from the point of view of food, but less good from the point of view of timing, as we returned late for the last session of the conference, which was this one.

540. Peasants and Texts

  • Helen Cushman, “Marcolf’s Biological Warfare: Dialogue, Peasant Discourse, and the Lower Bodily Stratum in the English Solomon and Marcolf
  • Sherri Olson, “Peasants, Texts, and Cultures of Power”
  • Shane Bobrycki, “The Peasant and the Crowd in the Early Middle Ages”
  • Maj-Britt Frenze, “Textualized Pagans: Depicting the ‘People of the Heath’ in Conversion Era Anglo-Saxon England”
  • Because of the late return, I can tell you nothing about Ms Cushman’s paper, which I entirely missed; my apologies for that. Professor Olson, however, mounted a strong argument from fourteenth-century court rolls from Elmlea and Durham that despite the popular picture of peasant societies as being illiterate, these ones both generated and disputed with written records, from their own agreements (kept at home, apparently) right up to the court rolls itself, which were sometimes consulted by peasant plaintiffs; while not by any means all themselves literate, they were still what the more theorised among us would probably call a textual community, bound by a shared interpretation of what these texts that governed their tenures meant.4 Shane, whom I met in Cambridge years ago and had not seen since, gave us an erudite run-down of shifting attitudes to crowds in the largely élite-written sources for the early medieval West: the Romans distrusted all forms of public crowd, for all that the élites needed their approbation, but in the early medieval context crowds were sometimes good, the legitimate forum for validation and expression of justice, righteousness and so on. Unless, argued Shane, that crowd was made up of peasants, in which case pretty much all our sources still consider them dangerous and illegitimate and use the language of ‘rusticity’ only for things they want to denigrate… Lastly, Ms Frenze did that most Kalamazoid of things, trying to strain new meanings out of Beowulf and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Her conclusions were roughly the same as Shane’s: the ‘heath’ is dangerous, though for Bede Christian blood could sanctify it. I had managed to dodge all the Beowulf papers so far, so I guess I had to catch one, and I do understand why there are always so many, but if the deliverer of one doesn’t at least acknowledge the problem of dating the poem I’m afraid my response to them will always be sceptical.

And so that was that! Goodbyes were said and we variously made our ways to our transports, for us a train to Detroit and then a plane out the next morning after a small amount of cautious sight-seeing around that post-lapsarian city, and back to the groves of UK academe. But it was a good conference, more surprisingly like Leeds in demographic than usual but with most of the people I’d hoped to see seen and many things learnt. I always hope to make it to Kalamazoo again, but one has to know about one’s schedule so far in advance to mesh it with a UK teaching job that it takes forethought I rarely possess. Next time, though, I might now be exalted enough not to settle for the dorms…


1. Álvaro’s cites here seem worth giving, they being Susan Oosthuizen, “The Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia and the Origins and Distribution of Common Fields” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 55 (Exeter 2007), pp. 153-180; Aidan O’Sullivan, Finbar McCormick, Thomas R. Kerr & Lorcan Harney (edd.), Early Medieval Ireland, AD 400-1100: the evidence from archaeological excavations (Dublin 2013); Fergus Kelly, Early Irish Farming: a study based mainly on the law-texts of the 7th and 8th centuries AD (Dublin 2000); and Thomas Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland (Cambridge 2000).

2. The best cite for this case may still be Pierre Bonnassie, “Du Rhône à la Galice : Genèse et modalités du régime féodale” in Konrad Eubel (ed.), Structures féodales et féodalisme dans l’occident méditerranéen (Xe-XIIIe siècle) : Bilan et perspectives des rercherches. Colloque Internationale organisée par le Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientifique et l’École Française de Rome (Rome 1980), pp. 17-44, online here, trans. Jean Birrell as “From the Rhône to Galicia: origins and modalities of the feudal order” in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. Birrell (Cambridge 1991), pp. 104-130.

3. He cited Leslie Alcock, perhaps his “Early historic fortifications in Scotland” in G. Guibert (ed.), Hillfort Studies: essays for A. H. A. Hogg (London 1981), pp. 150-180, or his “The Activities of Potentates in Celtic Britain, AD 500-800: a positivist approach” in Stephen Driscoll and Margaret Nieke (edd.), Power and Politics in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland (Edinburgh 1988), pp. 22-46. I’m not sure how the field at large feels Alcock’s stuff has held its value but I learnt an awful lot from it when I was still insular in my interests.

4. The theory in question would be Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy: written language and models of interpretation in the 11th and 12th centuries (Princeton 1983), accompanied in Professor Olson’s citation by Michael Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307, 2nd edn. (Oxford 1993, 1st edn, 1979). These two books certainly have kept on giving…

Link

Busy-day links

Today is a day with no time in it, where the morning goes on training and the afternoon goes on meetings and in the evening I am celebrating someone’s viva, and there’a about half an hour all told to complete daily tasks such as updating the blog. Happily, I have a stash of links saved against just such an eventuality! Let me therefore distract you with things that others have put on the web, with headings!

Discoveries of stuff

Frescoes in underground church at Nevşehir, Turkey

Frescoes in underground church at Nevşehir, Turkey


You would think that Byzantine churches had little in common with London buses, but there is at least this, that as the saying goes, you wait ages for one then two come along at once, one in Turkey for which grand claims are being made (for which link a hat tip to Georgia Michael of the University of Birmingham) and one off Turkey which is just really cool to look at.
Submerged foundations of a Byzantine church in Lake Iznik, Turkey

Submerged foundations of a Byzantine church in Lake Iznik, Turkey


And then there’s an especially shiny hoard of Roman and non-Roman silver from Scotland which people are using to draw conclusions about the Picts in a period before all of us would be comfortable using the word, for which link I owe a tip of that same hat to the Crofter.1
Objects from the Gaulcross Hoard

Objects from the Gaulcross Hoard

Sad News

While writing the long-delayed post on the Bíblia de Danila, I noted briefly that to my sadness John Williams, a scholar of the art of the medieval Iberian peninsula whom I did not know but whose work has been very useful to me, had died; here’s a memorial of the sort he richly deserved.

Interesting Research

We have here a pedigree (as it were) of looking at work on genetics with a critical eye; this new study looks better than usual and I’ll have to give it its own post. The hat is here tipped to James Palmer at Merovingianworld.

Quality medievalism

If you’re going to try to relive the Middle Ages then your soundtrack needs to be right, amirite? Here’s an example of how to do it. Resuming my metaphorical hat, I now tip it to Z the Cold-Hearted Scientist for passing this my way.

Resources!

A museum in Japan has some old maps. Perhaps not surprising, even if they have obligingly put them on the web? But medieval maps don’t usually work the way we expect, and it turns out that there are eighth-century maps of field systems in here which kind of do. Obviously this is Japan so links to what I do not at all except that here are people using the kind of tools we would use for the kind of jobs that our study population must too have had but for which they used… well, we don’t know. But it’s one in the eye for all those who suggest that representational cartography has to postdate some major Western intellectual development innit? Maybe you don’t care as much as I do about this but Rebecca Darley, who provided me with the link and to whom the hat is now tipped, probably does so I bet there are others too.

Map of the field at Ikarugi, Tonami district, Etchū Province

Map of the field at Ikarugi, Tonami district, Etchū Province

Then, fellow frontiers and charters enthusiast Igor Santos Salazar has let me know about this monumental task on which he has been engaged, a database of the judicial records from medieval Tuscany which is now online. Lavoro erculaneo, Igor!

And lastly in this section, they said it would never happen; several people died in the course of trying to do it; it has been complicated by two world wars, international tension and the Iron Curtain, to say nothing of funding and staffing troubles, but it is done: the charters of Emperor Louis the Pious (814-840) are published at last.2 Here not a tip of the hat but sincere congratulations to Herr Professor Theo Kölzer for making it to the end of such an inauspicious task!

This is cool

Lastly, much more in my regular line, firstly just a really cool Spanish church site, well written up and photographed, for which thanks to José Manuel Serrano Esperanza for introducing it to me, and now to you.

San Zoilo de Cáseda, Navarra

San Zoilo de Cáseda, Navarra

And then last of all, heard of only today, an exhibition opening on Monday at the Yorkshire Museum (in York), entitled Constantius: York’s Forgotten Emperor, curated by an old colleague of mine, Andy Woods, which exhibition has been brought about by the discovery of a huge hoard of Constantius I’s coins that the Museum hopes to acquire. Do have a look!


1. There’s an actual article behind this one, which a quick websearch reveals as Gordon Noble, Martin Goldberg, Alistair McPherson and Oskar Sveinbjarnarson, “(Re)Discovering the Gaulcross Hoard” in Antiquity Vol. 90 (Cambridge 2016), pp. 726-741.

2. On the troubles of the project up to 1990 see Peter Johanek, “Probleme einer zukünftigen Edition der Urkunden Ludwigs der Frommen” in Roger Collins & Peter Godman (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (Oxford 1990), pp. 409-424.

Kalamazoo 2015, Part 1

People in conversation at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, West Michigan University, Kalamazoo

Other people in conversation at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, West Michigan University, Kalamazoo (official photo)

Well, we’ve had another lapse in posting, for which I apologise, but there was good reason, I promise you, not least the International Medieval Congress just gone, which was a success but really very busy. I will write about that at some point, I promise, but my ridiculous backlog is only made more so by the passing of another IMC, not least because the next thing I have to write about is an ICMS, the International Congress on Medieval Studies at West Michigan University, which I didn’t make it to this year but did last year, that being where the trip to the US lately described wound up, and that’s how far behind I am. Given that, while I don’t want to say nothing about it I do want to say less than usual, so: I am going firstly to let all the stuff about dreadful accommodation, food and coffee go as standard; secondly I will add that the actual town of Kalamazoo does however have some places worth exploring for food and drink if you are not, as I used to be, determined to scrounge all the free alcohol going on campus; and thirdly, I will try and keep my reportage on the papers I saw down to one sentence of summary or commentary each, a writing challenge I should probably set myself much more often. So, here we go with day 1, 14th May 2015!

45. The State and its Loyal Constituencies in Late Antiquity

  • Michael Kulikowski, “Saying No to Government: Disintegrating and Reinstating States”
  • One sentence for this is actually all I have, because I arrived late to the session and missed almost the whole paper. That sentence therefore is: “A ‘collective sovereignty’ model of northern barbarian kingship gets picked up by those further south over the 5th and 6th centuries”; make of it what you will, but I wish I’d seen more.

  • Stefan Esders, “Regnum, Civitas, and Pagus: Rearranging Spatial Structures in Merovingian Gaul”
  • Arguing that although in Merovingian Gaul many of the functions of the Roman state fell away or were loaded onto new counts or old bishops, the territorial structures through which they continued to be organised necessitated a continuing level of fiscal sophistication that we could safely call a state. As Julie Hofmann pointed out, the missing part of this picture was Church organisation and its imprint on bishops’ fiscal responsibilities, but that was a part of the study still to come.

  • Guy Halsall, “Political Communities? A Comparison of the Roman and Merovingian Polities”
  • Guy, who it was that I had particularly come to see, argued instead that Merovingian Gaul was not a state, in as much as there was no single identity of which people could claim membership, but several, Frankish military, Catholic Christian, Arian Christian, Gallo-Roman aristocrat or peasant, all partially replacing the now-discredited Roman civil and patrician identity that, until Justinian I’s campaigns excluded them from it, the ruling élites in this area were still emulating. Michael Kulikowski pointed out that that identity had never been available to most of the Roman population either, but Guy argued that patronage would have joined them up to its holders.

Gold tremissis of the Merovingian King Chlothar II (584-628) in the British Museum, London

Arguably a part of a state apparatus, a gold tremissis of the Merovingian King Chlothar II (584-628) in the British Museum, London. By PHGCOM – Own work by uploader, photographed at the British Museum, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5969234

80. Leadership Profiles in the Tenth- and Eleventh-Century Church

  • Edmund McCaffray, “Leading by Example: customaries and abbatial conservatio at Cluny in the eleventh century”
  • Argued that we should see John of Salerno’s biography of the famous Abbot Odo of Cluny less as a straight biography than as a set of descriptions of the abbey’s custom justified by Odo’s good example, something that became irrelevant as actual custumaries became common and the Life was rewritten.

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “In the Teeth of Reform: reprofiling the Catalan Episcopate around the year 1000”
  • Argued that the commonly-propagated picture Catalan Church of the millennial era as a worldly monopoly of the comital family is based on misreadings of Catalan secondary work, rather than actual evidence, but that a binary appraisal of them in terms of being reformed or not in any case misses out what most of what made them suitable for their jobs. Rereading this paper makes me think I should get on and do something more with it, it’s maybe quite good.

  • Pieter Byttebier, “Intitulatio or Æmulatio? Developing New Forms of Episcopal leadership in Eleventh-Century Lotharingian Contexts”
  • A series of examples of new, and often foreign, bishops, boosting the reputation and even cults of their predecessors in order to better anchor themselves in the local traditions of their offices, and arguably imitating what could be known of their lives—Heer Byttebier argued it, but some of those supposed imitations were post mortem so I had trouble taking his case at full strength. Someone in questions asked about the æmulatio part of his title and he admitted that he had no examples as yet, so probably more could be done here.

St Clement of Metz  leading the dragon Graouilly to the River Seille

One feat probably beyond imitation, St Clement of Metz leading the dragon Graouilly to the River Seille, a legend of the tenth century. Domaine public, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17574925

99. Women and Power to 1100 (A Roundtable)

Quite how I, with only one paper on anything like gender to my name and that unpublished, got in on this may never be entirely clear but it was fun and I don’t think I disgraced myself. I think Julie Hofmann won the day early on with her remark that we’ve been being surprised by women with power in the Middle Ages since 1908, but her deepest point may have been that when you’re dealing with power, their gender is not as important in defining what power someone has as their placement in society and their efficacy at using that. There was a general preference for the word ‘agency’ over ‘power’, which got challenged in discussion by Teresa Earenfight for I think good reason—Lois Honeycutt offered ‘autonomy’, a right to decide, as being closer to what we were getting at. Martha Rampton spoke about magic, one sphere in which women were perhaps dominant, up until around 1000 at least, and I focused on the apparent plenitude of examples from my material of women doing stuff without reference to men, usually with property but still untrammelled, and suggested that even that could more usefully be seen as a way they operated within larger family contexts than trying to separate them out into a female sphere that never existed by itself, any more than a male or indeed, as Jonathan Lyon pointed out, royal or imperial, sphere did. Lastly in the formal section, Phyllis Jestice pointed out that work on women and power has either focused on individual strong women or the whole aristocratic class and asked if there was a middle level where variation and over-generalisation might coalesce into useful conclusions. In discussion I managed to steer that through my favourite point that we need to distinguish between things that are usual but infrequent and things that are actually unusual, and Julie reminded us that the limits on female power were less institutions than straightforward misogyny, so looking at rules about what women could do only gives us the tip of the iceberg. This was all fun to be part of and I felt a lot like a real scholar afterwards, but I can’t help feeling looking back that although progress does seem to have happened these are all quite old problems. The new work that many of us were agitating for seems to be hard to do.

Countess Matilda of Canossa, enthroned with attendants, manuscript portrait from the Vita Mathildis by Donizone

Not everybody can be Matilda of Canossa…

So that was the end of the first day, and then there was a certain amount of free wine and catching up with people. I can’t, by now, remember who those were, or what we did for food, but I don’t think we can have gone far because there was a blogger’s meet-up later in the evening. I felt somewhat as if I shouldn’t show my face at that given how little blog I’d written in the previous few months, nay, years, but others were in the same case and in any case these are to some extent my people, so, if any of you are reading, Another Damned Medievalist, Notorious Ph. D., the Medieval History Geek and Vellum (and others? Sorry if I’ve forgotten you), it was good to catch up and I learnt a lot in that conversation too. It overran well into the evening sessions: does anyone ever go to those? I’m not sure I ever have. Anyway, with that all concluded, it was off to my awful bed and ready for the next day, on which I will try and report shortly!

Announcing Buried Treasures

Entrance to the exhibition Buried Treasures: Uncovering Hoards, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

New state of the entrance to the coin gallery at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

I no longer work at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, as keen readers will know, but you could be forgiven for making the mistake given that while I deal with the backlog about half the things on the front page of this here blog are posts about objects at the Barber and that until a few weeks ago they were displaying my work in the form of the exhibition Inheriting Rome, which for reasons I explained a while back has had the benefit of a considerably extended run while the new Interim Curator of Coins, Maria Vrij, got appointed and to work. This, however, she has now done and the results in the form of a new exhibition, Buried Treasures: Uncovering Hoards, is now open and I got to go to a private view.

Two of the display cases and the golden doors of the Coin Study Room in the coin gallery at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Two of the display cases and the golden doors of the Coin Study Room

I could, if so minded, at least claim an assist on this as, when it still seemed that I would be setting up the next exhibition after Inheriting Rome, I had the idea of displaying some of the hoards that reside in the Barber in their entirety, of which there are several, one of which I am even working towards publishing. They are all kind of bronze and damaged, however, and it remained an undeveloped idea. Maria, however, who has always known the Barber Collections far better than I got to, was also aware that lots of items in the collection had come from hoards, and that has proved the seed for a rather brilliant exhibition.

Introduction case from the exhibition Buried Treasures: Uncovering Hoards, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

Introductory case, naming and placing the 1945 Carthage Hoard, the 1954 Tunis Hoard, the 1957 Syria Hoard, ‘Hoard A’ from Syria, the Messina Hoard, the Dorchester Hoard, the Appleford Hoard and the Mardin Hoard, parts of all of which are on display

Using the hoards and their discovery as a platform, Maria has been able to open up in accessible terms many of the questions that lie beneath the practice of burying coins, such as: why do people do it? Are the purposes always the same? (To which, this exhibition makes abundantly clear, the answer is ‘no’.) What sort of coins get buried when? Where do the coins come from? Why were they not recovered? And what can they tell us, about the history of the coinage or about the history of their times?

Coins from the Messina Hoard and a replica of one of the vessels from the Dorchester Hoard against a backdrop of photographs from that hoard's discovery in 1936, in the exhibition Buried Treasures: Uncovering Hoards, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

Coins from the Messina Hoard and a replica of one of the vessels from the Dorchester Hoard against a backdrop of photographs from that hoard’s discovery in 1936

There are also more specific research outcomes on display here. Maria is of course one of the investigators on the project All That Glitters about which I have written here, and as a result one small part of one case uses our findings from that to talk about metal purity in the Byzantine gold coinage. If you want to know more about that, firstly rest assured that further posts will appear here as I slowly tackle the backlog, but more immediately, this coming Wednesday the 18th May there will be a lunchtime lecture at the Barber with the title, “The Marriage of History and Science: Testing the Purity of Byzantine Gold Coinage” and the speaker will be none other than myself! It’s not really my work I’ll be presenting so much as the group’s, set into a context in which the general public can understand it (or so I hope), but it should be fun, it is free and if you happen to be in Birmingham that lunchtime perhaps you’d like to come along?

Section of display on the concavity of late-Byzantine coins in the exhibiton Buried Treasures: Uncovering Hoards, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

Section of display on the concavity of late-Byzantine coins in the Syria case

I am, though, almost more pleased with this inset, in as much as without committing itself to any of my theories on the question, this is actually based on my research, which of course I talked out with Maria while I was actually working on it.1 I never thought of displaying the coins in a way that made their fabric this visible, however. As with so many elements of this exhibition, it is not unlike what we did in the coin gallery before (and the designers deserve a huge credit for making it recognisable as well as different) but it is probably better, managing to do more with less and make it more accessible. It runs until 26th February 2017, but go and see it soon! Then you can go again before it closes!

Website banner image created for the exhibition Buried Treasures: Uncovering Hoards, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

Website banner image created for the exhibition


1. Jonathan Jarrett, “A Problem Of Concavity: The Original Purpose Of The So-Called ‘Scyphate’ Byzantine Coinage”, paper presented at the XV International Numismatic Congress, Università degli Studi di Messina, 21st September 2015, now under review for publication.

Merchants in clerics’ clothing

Sorry: marking, a conference overseas and the finality of the semester’s teaching have kept me too busy to be active here; it’s not really catching up, is it? Still: if you were keeping an obsessive eagle eye on what I say on this blog, which presumably only I actually do, you might have noticed that by taking some affable and underresearched swings at David Bachrach’s recent book a few posts ago, I have moved into the posts promised in my catch-up post of last July that even now hangs at the bottom of the sticky announcement posts on the front page, and the new step towards Byzantium is also part of that. While reading Constantine VII, however, I was also reading the work of Mark Handley, a long acquaintance of this blog, and you can see from the catch-up post that I had high praise for it, and one tiny niggle.1

Photograph of a seventh-century funerary inscription from Capel Llanilltern, Wales

Photograph of a seventh-century funerary inscription from Capel Llanilltern, Wales, though not material for Mark since there’s nothing there to identify the deceased as non-local.2

The praise must come first, of course. Mark makes almost of all his contentions almost inarguable by virtue of having a well-managed database of evidence, in this case of inscriptions from right across the late Roman and early medieval Mediterranean, from which he selects those dealing with people who are identified in some way as being out of place, foreign, or else merchants or travellers, a sample of 621 people overall, and he uses this to test the many generalisations that are out there about such groups, like the predominance-to-exclusion of Syrians (or Jews) in Mediterranean maritime trade of the period, about directions of travel and foci of movement and so on. Some surprising things come out of this: for example, the largest sample of such inscriptions outside of Rome itself comes not from one of the other big maritime entrepôts but from Salona in the Balkans, which Mark admits he himself had not expected.3 Quite a lot of things come out of it that conflict with the views of other scholars too, and they get deliciously definite rebuttal in the extensive footnotes. I really do recommend this book as a scholarly read, I enjoyed it thoroughly. But of course, it being me, I do have a niggle.

Funerary stone of the priest Opila at Sant Pere de Vilamajor

Funerary stone of the priest Opila at Sant Pere de Vilamajor, again out of Mark’s compass but one of these things that I have actually seen

The niggle is in some ways a danger of database work as much as anything else. Obviously to make it usefully sortable, searchable and organisable you want your data as atomised as possible, and this makes fields that contain more than one sort of data difficult. If one has categories into which a datum, be that a person or whatever, needs to be fitted, it is sometimes hard to let it go into more than one category; otherwise it winds up getting double-counted. Perhaps something like that explains this:

“Secondly, the evidence gathered here firmly indicates that many Syrians, and indeed others from the East attested in the West, were not engaged in commerce. Many 5th-c. Syrian solders were commemorated at Concordia; two Syrian priests are known from Salona; a Syrian sub-deacon is known at Tomis; Flavia Marthana, a nun from Antioch, is commemorated at Bolsena; a Syrian primipilarius is known in Gigen; and the woman Eusebia from Syria had lived in Trier 15 years before she died in 409. A Syrian lawyer was commemorated at Kallatis, and a Syrian stone-worker at Sofia. We should not add a ‘dot’ on a map to indicate a Syrian ‘trader’ when Agnellus of Ravenna states that the first 16 bishops of Ravenna were Syrian, when a Syrian autocephalous bishop attended the second council of Seville in 619, or when the Syrian Johannes helped Gregory of Tours with some Greek texts. Not all Syrians in the West were traders.”4

You may be wondering what needs explaining here, since this is pretty obviously methodologically right in summary, and many of these people are clearly not traders. But were none of them? You see, this puts me in mind of a story from Catalonia, as so many things do. In 1018 the chapter of Barcelona received a substantial bequest of cloth from a Flemish merchant called Robert who had fallen ill at the city while on a voyage, and made an emergency will for the good of his soul before dying, this largely at the behest of a Barceona canon by the name of Bonnuç. This actually got the chapter into trouble, because a few days later Robert’s brother turned up to reclaim the goods, and in the end the canons had to pay him off to be allowed to pray for his brother’s soul and keep at least some of the bequest. But the interesting thing from our immediate point of view is that Bishop Æci also made a gift of cloth for the merchant’s soul, and he had bought that cloth from none other than Bonnuç, who suddenly appears to have been Robert’s contact in the city, at least by the time Robert’s final deal was closed.5 So does Bonnuç go into our notional database as a cleric, or as a trader?

The Miracle of St Eligius by Sandro Botticelli, now in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The Miracle of St Eligius by Sandro Botticelli, now in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Clerics are in general a potential problem with this sort of categorisation, in fact. As a sometime numismatist I think rapidly of Bishop Eligius of Noyon, Saint Eloy, who was a goldsmith before he came to the Church and who seems to have continued to dabble thereafter.6 And at roughly the same time, as Mark himself notes:

“Gregory of Tours, Hist. 7.30 and 10.25, record a Syrian merchant Euphronius at Bordeaux and another Syrian merchant Eusebius becoming bishop of Paris, respectively.”

The latter is actually 10.26 and Gregory says no more about the guy than that he was a merchant and a Syrian by race (“negotiator genere Syrus”), and that he was elected by bribery.7 Do we know anything else about the guy? I don’t think, in any case, we should assume that this precludes him nonetheless being in holy orders, or indeed precludes him continuing trading once appointed. The more I look at the Catalan Church the more I see deacons with day-jobs being involved members of the chapters of cathedrals precisely because of those day-jobs, and yet the more I look at churches in other areas the less unusual the Catalan one seems to be.8 Mark may have accidentally provided me with more evidence for this! I’m sure that in outline and in most of his detail he’s right, and I don’t by any means want to restore the Syrian people’s historiographical monopoly on early medieval sea travel, but it is as I say the devil of database work on people that they won’t stay in the categories we set up for them.


1. M. Handley, Dying on Foreign Shores: travel and mobility in the late-Antique West, Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplement 86 (Portsmouth RI 2011).

2. It is V. E. Nash-Williams (ed.), Catalogue of Early Christian Monuments of Wales (Cardiff 1950), no. 214, for those that care about such things.

3. Handley, Dying on Foreign Shores, p. 97, with detail pp. 78-82.

4. Ibid., pp. 83-84, with the copious references to inscriptions in his appendix cruelly elided here.

5. The documents are now best printed as Josep Baucells i Reig, Àngel Fàbrega i Grau, Manuel Riu i Riu, Josep Hernando i Delgado & Carme Batlle i Gallart (edd.), Diplomatari de l’Arxiu Capitular de la Catedral de Barcelona: segle XI, Diplomataris 37-41 (Barcelona 2006), 5 vols, online here, doc. nos 121 & 125. The canonical study is Philippe Wolff, “Quidam homo nomine Roberto negociatore” in Le Moyen Àge Vol. 69 (Paris 1963), online here, pp. 129-139.

6. Bishop Dado of Rouen, Vita sancti Eligii, ed. Wilhelm Levison as “Vita Eligii episcopi Noviomagensis” in Passiones vitaeque sanctorum ævi Merovingicarum, ed. Bruno Krusch, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) IV (Hannover 1902, repr. 1997), online here, pp. 669-742, transl. Jo Ann McNamara as “Life of St. Eligius of Noyon” in Thomas Head (ed.), Medieval Hagiography: an anthology (New York City NY 2000), pp. 137-168, a fuller version without notes online here.

7. Handley, Dying on Foreign Shores, p. 84 n. 104. The source is Gregory of Tours, Libri decem historiarum, edd. Bruno Krusch & Wilhelm Levison as Gregorii Episcopi Turonensis Libri Historiarum X, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) I.1 (Hannover 1937-1951, repr. 1992), transl. Lewis Thorpe as The History of the Franks (Harmondsworth 1974, many reprints).

8. See Paul H. Freedman, The Diocese of Vic: Tradition and Regeneration in Medieval Catalonia (New Brunswick 1983), online here, pp. 21-25; cf. Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 122-125.

Seminar CCXXXIII: the limits of Byzantine contact with India

My backlog now crawls back towards a ten-month lag as I reach March 2015! Either I was busy during the early part of that month or not much was happening, but on the 11th I was in London at the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, because Dr Rebecca Darley, then still at the Warburg Institute, was presenting with the title “‘A Sign of God’s Favour’: Byzantine gold coins in Indian Ocean trade”. Now, as those who know me will probably be aware, there are good reasons why I can’t pretend to objectivity in discussing this paper, including my continuing collaboration with the speaker over our All That Glitters project, but hopefully you are not here for critique so much as for information, because what Rebecca knows is not stuff most medievalists do so there’s plenty of information coming…

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine I, struck at Siscia in 327-328, Classical Numismatic Group auction 2nd February 2014, lot 46

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine I, struck at Siscia in 327-328, Classical Numismatic Group auction 2nd February 2014, lot 46

But let’s start with this, a perfectly normal and respectable solidus of Constantine I but unusually pierced. This is, we were to learn, how Byzantine gold coins usually occur in India, which is a thing that happens. Roman gold is rather more common (which is to say, still pretty rare): Roman silver coins of Augustus and Tiberius are far from unknown from Indian findspots, as I remember discovering while cataloguing some at the Fitzwilliam years ago, and from Nero onwards gold also starts to turn up, and even some bronze, but the silver dies away quickly. The finds of coins from Constantine’s time are almost entirely solidi (for some quite special values of ‘almost entirely’ that I’ll come back to) and are much rarer, especially after the fourth century, and very often pierced twice, like this, over the portrait and from that side, as if to be stitched to costume as, indeed, coins still often are in India today. And this goes on more and more ephemerally till the end of the sixth or beginning of the seventh century when the supply seems to dry up. So what was going on?

Imitation of a gold solidus of Justinian I

Imitation of a gold solidus of Justinian I, struck who knows where but most likely in India during the sixth century I suppose

Well, inevitably given how archæology looks for connections and everyone has been very keen to emphasise contact and cooperation in world history over conflict and disengagement since the Second World War, if not before, the normal reading of these coins is that they are evidence of trade. There are texts that have been used to support this as well, but we should, argued Rebecca, be suspicious of this picture. This is at least partly because of the famous Grierson Objection, much beloved of this blog, that coins can be transferred by many processes that are not trade, partly because the texts are not as well-informed or objective as they have been thought to be, but the best argument against it is really the coins themselves, because when that supply dries up (or even before! Datable contexts for these finds are sadly almost entirely lacking) what seems to happen is that people in southern India at least start making imitations of these coins to supply the gap, as you see above.1

Imitation of a Byzantine gold solidus, R. Darley "Indo-Byzantine trade, 4th-7th centuries A.D.: a global history", unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of Birmingham 2009), cat. no. 60

Imitation of a gold solidus of, well, let’s face it, it’s just ‘a Byzantine emperor’ isn’t it? The die-cutters here were not after exactitude but impression. I have this image by the kindness of Rebecca herself, it being R. Darley “Indo-Byzantine trade, 4th-7th centuries A.D.: a global history”, unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of Birmingham 2009), cat. no. 60

Gold imitation of a Roman sestertius, R. Darley "Indo-Byzantine trade, 4th-7th centuries A. D.: a global history", unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of Birmingham 2009), cat. no. 57

This one is even better, because not only is the type hardly visible, but what you can see appears to have been copied off a Roman copper alloy sestertius; note the ‘S C’! Undatable as well as untradeable! Darley “Indo-Byzantine trade”, cat. no. 57.

Well, you might say, perhaps that shows that these coins had now become part of an exchange system and had to be supplied once they were no longer arriving. To which one can only offer the above, not imitations anyone cared to make terribly convincing in size, weight or imagery, and say, probably not really, not if gold value is what it’s about. Besides which, in so far as as we have findspots at all, which is not often, Rebecca showed us that they don’t map at all well to known port sites, usually being inland for a start. They might map slightly better to temple sites, and a few had red residue on that could be puja dust from ceremonies (though if so that could be much much more recent), but mainly what these coins, with their piercings and varying degrees of precision in replicating a portrait coinage with foreign lettering on, seem to suggest is some specific kind of personal ornament which it was important to have for who knows what purpose, in whatever quality you could afford, be that a real one, a best-level fake or the thin uniface knock-off or anything in between. They are not, in and of themselves, very convincing evidence for levels of trade, though obviously coins coming in at all implies some minimal level of contact.2

The world map from the Christian Topography of Cosmas

The world map from the Christian Topography of Cosmas. “WorldMapCosmasIndicopleustes” by Cosmas Indicopleustes, 6th century – “Les Sciences au Moyen-Age”, “Pour la Science”. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

So what about those texts, you may now ask? Well, there are two obvious candidates, one being the originator of the above, Kosmas Indikopleustes, whose scholar-given byname means that he had been to India but had actually as far as we can tell not got closer than the East African empire of Aksum, where he had met people who had, probably. Furthermore, it is worth bearing in mind that what Kosmas was writing was a treatise to prove that the world was flat, you can see from the above map that he was not afraid to fit his world into a particular scheme as dialectically necessary, and the point of his relevant story is that even the unknown rulers of Sri Lanka who have no meaningful contact with the Roman world can see that the Roman gold a traveller brings with him is way way better than the silly Persian silver coins that happen to have arrived at the same time.3 It’s not what you’d call neutral reporting on the balance of payments. Furthermore, it also sees to be more or less lifted from Pliny’s Natural History (which does seem to keep coming up these days), who told a similar story about Roman coins impressing the Orientals, except that then they were silver.4 Gotta move with the times! Meanwhile Indian texts, and indeed Sri Lankan ones of which there are rather more, simply don’t mention Roman traders at all.5 And while we’re at it, there are as far as Rebecca knows no Persian coins in southern India at all, and though there are some Persian ceramics known from Indian sites, it is of the order of a millionth of the evidence from those sites.6 Oddly, or perhaps not, there is a little bit more evidence for contact with Aksum, whose coins also got imitated locally. Obviously they would do as well!

Imitation of an Axumite gold coin of about 400

Imitation of an Axumite gold coin of about 400, with the double piercing again

So Rebecca here positioned herself explicitly against pictures of the early medieval world which are constructed on connectivity and a fledgling form of international relations, pitching instead a picture of low or missing connectivity, in which indeed rather than encourage trade and contact with foreign countries the big empires of the time actually sought to stop it where possible.7 And when objects did make it across the sea, their use, at least these ones, was not primarily economic. This of course provoked some lively discussion, not least because of the limited but significant evidence for commodities from the East reaching the West: as Edward James pointed out, Bede had a box full of pepper he was able to bequeath at his death, which must somehow have come from Kerala because pepper does, at least if it really was pepper.8 So it’s in some ways an argument about how much contact there has to be to count as significant, but I think that Rebecca would rather argue about whom it was significant to anyway, and why, and this paper put that alternative case very strongly.

Bronze fraction probably of Constans I struck in Alexandria in 337-350, found in Karur, Tamil Nadu, R. Krishnamurthy ,Late Roman Copper Coins from South India: Karur, Madurai and Tirukkoilur (Chennai 2007), pl. XII no. 5

Bronze fraction probably of Constans I struck in Alexandria in 337-350, found in Karur, Tamil Nadu, R. Krishnamurthy, Late Roman Copper Coins from South India: Karur, Madurai and Tirukkoilur (Chennai 2007), pl. XII no. 5

One little thing, though, or not so little in some ways, did stick in my mind. This was a paper about gold coins, primarily, not least because silver and bronze Roman or Byzantine coins aren’t found in significant numbers in India, except that in one or two places fourth-century and fifth-century Roman bronze kind of falls out of the river at you, and known examples from these places now number in the thousands, which is an order of magnitude more than the total Roman and Byzantine gold preservation across the whole subcontinent.9 As Rebecca said, it is possible that these all stem from maybe two deposits, just slowly washing down the river over the centuries, and without actually knowing where the deposits are or were, it’s very hard to say any more, but whatever the overall picture is it must, it seems to me, be made different by this. Gold is high-value, prestige, small, might travel singly and sporadically and yes, for non-economic reasons. What the reasons might be for shipping what must have been rather a lot of late Roman bronze across the Indian Ocean and then burying it, as even a minimal interpretation of this would have to involve—a maximalist one, which I’m not putting forward, would presumably be that this stuff was actually commonly shipped over, it was a circulating medium and the coins are either hoards or genuine losses from that circulation—we obviously can’t tell.10 Maybe it was only ballast! But it seems difficult for those reasons to be the same as for the gold. Rebecca could obviously be right about the gold, especially by the sixth century, and this be something else entirely, but I can’t help feel that a ‘global’ picture of Indian Ocean contact will have to account for this stuff as well, somehow.


1. For the Objection, as perhaps only I in this world call it, see P. Grierson, “Commerce in the Dark Ages: a critique of the evidence” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 9 (London 1959), pp. 123-140, repr. in idem, Dark Age Numismatics, Variorum Collected Studies 96 (London 1979), II. On the coins in India, meanwhile, you can now see R. Darley, “Self, Other and the Use and Appropriation of Late Roman Coins in South India and Sri Lanka (4th-7th centuries A. D.)” in Himanshu P. Ray and M. Palat (edd.), Negotiating Cultural Identity: landscapes in early medieval South Asian history (London 2015), pp. 60-84.

2. For details here see now ibid.

3. The Greek text is published in Cosmas Indicopleustes, Topographie chrétienne, ed. W. Wolska-Conus (Paris 1968-1973), 3 vols, XI.17-20; I here précis from the translation in Rebecca’s handout, however.

4. Pliny, Natural History, ed./transl. H. Rackham (Cambridge MA 1942), 2 vols, VI.24.

5. I did not realise till I started talking to Rebecca about such things that there was a Sri Lankan chronicle tradition that seems to have compiled a nine-hundred-year long history in the fifth century A. D.! I also have no clear idea of where the historiography now sits on its actual composition and reliability, either, but you can read it, as Wilhelm Geiger (ed.), Mahavamsa: Great Chronicle of Ceylon, transl. Geiger & Mabel Haynes Bode (London 1912) and Geiger (ed./transl.), The Culavamsa, being the more recent part of the Mahavamsa (London 1925), with all being online here.

6. A synopsis of available information here, I think, would be Roberta Tomber, Indo-Roman Trade: from post to pepper (London 2009).

7. Procopius, De Bello Persico, ed. & transl. H. B. Dewing in Procopius, History of the Wars (London 1914), 5 vols, I.20.

8. Cuthbert, Epistola de obitu Bedae, transl. in Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, The Greater Chronicle, Bede’s Letter to Egbert, transl. Roger Collins and Judith McClure (Oxford 1990), pp. 299-303 at p. 302.

9. R. Krishnamurthy, Late Roman Copper Coins from South India: Karur, Madurai and Tirukkoilur (Chennai 2007), is the only collected write-up of this material, which I should make perfectly clear I would not be able to cite without Rebecca having made her own copy available to me.

10. Ibid. pp. 10-17, while not taking a position in this debate, quotes a number of works that seem to align with that maximum view.