Category Archives: Uncategorized

The kind of maths we should not do

A lot of the problems any historian of the early Middle Ages faces are about how typical any given piece of evidence is. When so little survives, can we generalise from the few fragments we have across the great spaces where we simply know nothing? I came up against this while writing the post some time back about widow warlords, where as you may remember I wound up trying to argue for a level of social occurrence that could be common enough to be frequent while still being statistically unusual. The question remained then: how unusual? And this led me to thinking about the best evidence I have for female presence in local society, the good old Vall de Sant Joan hearing, and then the temptation stole upon me to do some very bad maths.

Aerial view of the Vall de Sant Joan de les Abadesses

Aerial view of the Vall de Sant Joan de les Abadesses. I know I use this picture a lot but I find it really hard to get tired of. However, I can no longer find where I got it from, so if you happen to own it do let me know…

Y’see, the Vall de Sant Joan hearing seems to be really good evidence for population size, at least by our starvling early medieval standards. We do not know the whole population of the area, but we think we know how many households there were in it, and we know what size it was: 269, by my count, and about 7 km2.1 Now, we could just multiply up, because the Vall de Sant Joan is in some sense a jurisdictional term and we know how many of those there were in the tenth-century county of Osona, give or take a few for changes, and it’s thirty-seven. If each contained this many households, tenth-century Osona would have been a county of nearly ten thousand households.

The town of Sant Joan de les Abadesses, viewed from across the Pont Vell

There probably aren’t that many households in the Vall de Sant Joan now, for a start, though I wouldn’t mind going back again to look (albeit this time with a car). Image by Espencat (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In fact, that is really unlikely to be true, because this was a frontier county and we’re counting its very inward corner, where we can document, more or less by the fact that we can document anything but also by the nature of the actual documents, that an ambitious lordship interest was moving people in here and encouraging settlement that is quite unusually dense.2 Such a figure is likely to be a massive over-estimate. So what should we do instead? Now, here the words of my old colleague Ted Buttrey come back to me with force:

“What should we do? We should do nothing. Nothing can be done. There is no solution to this problem, beyond inventing new data to push the inquiry into the realm of the fanciful. This is uncomfortable but it is true. If we allow ourselves, in our frustration, to confect the missing data, we will to that extent have destroyed our own purpose. To create quantitative studies built of imaginary data, to force an answer by assuring ourselves and others that we know what we do not, and cannot, is to compromise everything that we hold important. Each of us builds, and others build upon us: when we dress up guesses as data we do permanent damage to our scholarship, and to the scholarship of others.”3

He is right, of course, I know he’s right. He is also right that bad guesses get out there and get used even when they are explicitly qualified as such.4 So I must not, I must not attempt to correct the above error by breaking the data down, down to the level of households per villa (which would be 12·2 NO STOP IT), and then multiplying up by the number of villae in Osona. I should not do that not least because we don’t know with any certainty how many villae there were in Osona around the year 913, which is when this data would be comparable, probably not even in total for the tenth century which would add many more than there then were and would fail in any way to counter for the factor of population change over that century; I should not do that because, again, villae in the Vall de Sant Joan were probably over-many and over-stuffed compared to other areas and though those two errors might tend in opposite directions, we cannot know that they would cancel each other out; I should not do it because any operation involving multiplying up a small number to obtain a large one necessarily multiplies the error in that number just-as-many-fold; and I should not do it for many other good solid reasons of mathematical rigour. And in fact I will not. But it is sorely tempting, just because it’s hard to rid myself of the idea that if I could allow for enough factors, this would actually be a better basis for early medieval population figures than we currently have anywhere else.5 But every one of those corrections would be another piece of fiction, an error to be multiplied up. Ted again has the correct admonitions:

“When we enter on these kinds of calculation, we can be confident of two things. First, the answer will be wrong. Whatever it is, it will be wrong, since it cannot be right—once you are guessing, the number of possible permutations is gigantic. Worse, where the errors lies, and how serious they are, cannot be determined… Secondly, we can be confident of something e;se: when we publish this sort of thing, no matter that it be all set about with caveats and qualifications, the very fact that we thought it publishing will give it credibility.”6

And that is of course exactly the pain of it; there are figures that are thought credible abroad already that I feel must be wrong, because the person who put them together on the evidence we don’t have made his own set of assumptions about how the lack of evidence should be countered, and now I prefer my assumptions to his and would like to put into circulation alternative figures that are no more verifiable but feel more likely to me. But this will not make things better. Ted can have the last word, albeit he gives it to someone else:

“We should take to heart the dictum of a character in Umberto Eco’s novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, who explains, ‘For every complex problem there is a simple solution; and it is wrong.'”7


1. The reason we assume that the document, which is a vast parchment recording the names of people who swore that Abbess Emma of Sant Joan de Ripoll had been given the valley to settle by her father Count guifré after he expelled the Saracens from it, records households is because about half of its signatories are female, and mostly appear with a male partner. This looks like an attempt to implicate all the conjugal pairs of the valley in what was in fact a political fiction (see Jonathan Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2005 for 2003), pp. 229-258, DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-9462.2004.00128.x), but since there are others who aren’t in pairs, it must also be more than that. Hence, households seems likely. The argument is made most thoroughly in Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, “Sant Joan de les Abadesses: algunes precisions sobre l’acta judicial del 913 i el poblament de la vall” in S. Claramunt and M. T. Ferrer i Mallol (edd.), Homenatge a la memòria del Prof. Dr. Emilio Sáez: aplecs d’estudis dels seus deixebles i collaboradors (Barcelona 1989), pp. 421-434. The count of these households I just redid from a spreadsheet I constructed when writing the thesis that lies behind Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Tenth-Century Catalonia: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), where you can find more detail at pp. 35-51. The area I estimate from the map in Jordi Bolòs & Victor Hurtado, Atles del Comtat d’Osona (798-993) (Barcelona 2001), pp. 94-95 at p. 94. Thus my doubtless inaccurate estimation is already one basic source of error!

2. This is the basic story of Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, as above and also pp. 57-64.

3. Theodore V. Buttrey, “Calculating Ancient Coin Production: facts and fantasies”, The President’s Address in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 153 (London 1993), pp. 335-351 at p. 351.

4. My best example is another numismatic one, an article by Warren Esty, “Estimation of the size of a coinage: a survey and comparison of methods” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 146 (London 1986), pp. 185–215, which pitted a range of statistical techniques then in use to reason up to ancient currency sizes from current surviving evidence against each other by means of a randomly-generated virtual hoard, and concluded that all were more or less rubbish but a combination of two the least rubbish way to do this, the result of which has of course been that his least-worst method is now the standard among those who do such things…

5. I look here with especially narrowed eyes at Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: warriors and peasants from the seventh to the twelfth century, transl. Howard B. Clarke (London 1974), pp. 11-13, which does exactly the trick Ted decries (Buttrey, “Calculating ancient coin production”, pp. 349-350) of surrounding the data with all kinds of cavils and conditions and then rhetorically building on it just the same.

6. Buttrey, “Calculating ancient coin production”, pp. 349-350.

7. Ibid. p. 339.

Gallery

Dead scholars’ books II

This gallery contains 4 photos.

In very late August 2014 I found myself the recipient of a slightly morbid parcel of books that had once been in the library of Professor Nicholas Brooks. His academic library was sold off via Amazon to raise money for … Continue reading

Big News VI: Leeds for the future

So, I promised something about the hiatus and what was going on in it and this is that post. I made a serious attempt to get back up to date with the blog from July 2014 to Christmas 2014, but then Christmas happened and in that time someone heard me saying that if I was going to get another job after this one I probably needed to heed one academic’s advice and get myself a second book. That someone pointed out that I had been going on about the one I’d write for ages, and would probably be both happier and more successful if I actually got on with it, and they were right, of course, but really the only time I could free up for that was the time I was using for blogging. So I wrote and wrote, hoping that I would still be able to blog on some days, but as you will have seen, that didn’t really work. In any given day I was trying to write a thousand words or so, put in a day at work or teaching, deal with at least the minimum of housework and e-mail and get through the three most immediate three things on my to-do list and, if there was time, read or blog, and basically I never got beyond the three things before midnight. From January to March I was also teaching the fourteenth century for the first time in my life and trying to keep up with the same basic reading I’d set my students. There wasn’t much time spare.

Folie Charles VI forêt du Mans

That said, I did rather enjoy meeting Froissart properly for the first time...He goes on my list of medieval figures I'd like to have a drink with.

Also, I had committed myself to heroic levels of over-achievement rather than fall out of the machine, so that even once there were two sample chapters out for review with a press (about which process I will write separately), I also submitted two articles to journals, went to Catalonia again, then had to consider what I was presenting at Kalamazoo and organise my parts of the travel, and then I was in the USA and then I was giving a paper in Oxford and then it was time to start on the work for Leeds, during which time there was also a big funding bid going in of which I was part. And once I’m done on the Leeds paper, indeed, I’ll be needing to put together one for the week after and then I’m not committed to speaking before an academic audience until September but I do have two chapter-length pieces to write on coins at the Barber… So it’s been pretty busy (and there’s lots to write about).

Jonathan Jarrett standing atop the Castell de Gurb

Me standing on the Castell de Gurb, vainly trying to convey a sense of scale, image used by permission

But also in that time, as you may have noticed if you’re inside the Academy on the British side of the pond, in late January the government’s Research Excellence Framework published its initial results, allowing everyone in the top 30 universities in the UK to claim to be in the top 10 but also allowing them all to guess roughly how much money they might have for the next five years, and there was a consequent deluge of academic vacancies the like of which I have never seen before in this country, pretty much all permanent. So I was also applying for more or less a job a week after that started, and that lasted for two months. In total I applied for seven, I think, and had got some of the way with three other applications when, as it turned out, the first one of all offered me first an interview and then, to my surprise and delight, the post. And thus the real news of this post, already known to many it seems but very much worth announcing even so, is that as of September I will be moving to the University of Leeds to become a Lecturer in Early Medieval History, making up in some way for the retirement of Professor Ian Wood, and that will be my base and job for the foreseeable future!

Jonathan Jarrett plus contract from the University of Leeds

Incontrovertible evidence!

This is obviously really great news. Leeds is a brilliant place to wind up, with many colleagues of like interests and a great deal happening, and I’m really looking forward to it. I now have quite a lot to finish very quickly at the Barber, of course, and I’ve very much enjoyed Birmingham generally in academic terms, it’s been extremely supportive and very good for me as a scholar as well, broadening my comparative range and encouraging me to try for things I wouldn’t have before, as well as much improving certain other crucial details of my life. Still, it’s hard to see what a better outcome could be than this. Neither am I entirely leaving coins behind, not just because of various publication projects ongoing but because of local coin collections whose curators are willing to let me use them for teaching. So it all looks very much like development and success and that all-important security of knowing where one lives for long enough actually to put down roots. Mind you, it also looks like finishing that book, ideally an article or two and starting three new courses all of my own all at the same time; but actually that sounds pretty great too. It has already been suggested to me that I won’t have time to blog any more, of course, by someone who presumably hadn’t checked in in a while and realised I’d stopped already, but I have great hopes of managing it, you know. I may not in fact have blogged last year’s Leeds International Medieval Congress before this one again, I admit. But stay tuned anyway, I’ll be catching up. And now we know what the future holds, who knows what that will cause to happen!

The Parkinson Building, University of Leeds

The most obvious face of the University of Leeds, the Parkinson Building. By Tim Green from Bradford [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.


This post was written with the aid of Clandestino by Manu Chao and Maui by Kava Kava.

Metablog X: academics and the blogosphere

Returning to the blog after a long absence means contemplating viewing figures that are a fraction of what they once were, my own fault really, and some of the peculiar questions about audience that I have explored in print.1 In particular, the blog now has more followers than it gets views per day, a new and rather odd development, given how few of the followers seem to have medieval interests. But is this blog confined to medievalists? Well, evidently not; even from the commenting population we see—and that is all we can see, really—that there are people of many fields reading here, and that’s great, I love it. But there are some medievalists too, challenging me both to write for them and for the untrained but interested who presumably make up most of the readership.

Picture of a WordPress comment box

This is not an actual comment box, this is just a picture of a comment box. I’m sure it won’t be confusing at all.

The other side of this coin, however, is that I know that many more medievalists read this than ever comment, because they’ve told me so, either in person or by e-mail (usually with corrections…). Only a very few leave comments. I struggle to profile them, but they are much outweighed by those who do not. Now, this puzzles me to an extent. It’s an open forum, after all, you only need to enter an e-mail address to comment and it doesn’t have to be real, so I’d expect the old Usenet rule to work and to be corrected in the open pretty much every time I make a mistake.2 I’d welcome that, except for the bit where I make mistakes, but I’d also think that there are conversations here in which people could usefully participate, either by demonstrating their own expertise or by helping in our greater mission of outreach and the modelling of scholarship to an interested but untrained audience, which anyone who has a blog that has run long enough to get an audience knows we have.

My pet example, showing both sides, is the argument that blew up about my attitude to Alcuin in this post. Probably rightly telling me off for being dismissive of the character and work of Charlemagne’s own teacher, the scholar commenting told me I should have read a piece of theirs in Peritia, which is not an easy journal to get. After a few exchanges this conversation went to e-mail, in which among other things I tried to persuade the scholar to put it back on the blog and explain to people who could not get at a copy of Peritia, which is to say, all but maybe two per cent of the readership, what they had said in this article and why it mattered for the argument. I could not persuade them—I guess because I was essentially declining to do the work of reading them while asking them to do the work of free writing for my blog, kind of fair enough—and eventually—most of a year later—I read the article and tried to fill in the gap. But we could have kept the conversation going here, and I think people would have been interested.

Beyond my guesses, I’ve heard three sorts of explanation for non-participation on this blog, but each from one person only and there must be more. One, the most obvious, is that it’s my blog, and that people feel they need some kind of permission to participate. (I had one person even ask me if I minded if they read it, and this was not someone new to the Internet.) And yes, I do exercise some kind of control here; I’ve only ever deleted one comment that wasn’t plainly automated spam, for explicit racist attack on another commentator, but I’ve warned a few people and I argue back. But on the other hand anyone can comment and sometimes this produces wonderful meetings of minds that could never happen in real life (though if I ever could get Joan Vilaseca and Alex Woolf together in a bar that would be a grand gathering indeed). I don’t know how I would make it more appealing for such persons to join in. Then secondly there is the old time argument, ‘I just don’t have time to do more than read’, which is also very hard to argue with given I don’t even have time to read others’ blogs any more myself. And thirdly there is the answer I got from one very senior scholar, that they felt that their participation might intimidate other people from joining in, more thoughtful, if bewildering when one knows how approachable the scholar in question is in real life, but understandable, although I hope misjudged. I have no idea which of these might be more common more widely.

But I could suspect especially also, that people fear that, like blogging themselves, an exercise that even now it’s de rigeur for project outreach most scholars leave to their department’s or project’s postgraduates, it makes them look unserious. Yet this is, I do believe, one of the easiest and most important ways to be out there among the wider world, our notional public, showing what we do and how and why it might be fun or even worth supporting. So I also suspect a basic discomfort with doing that, with somehow being answerable to a demand to explain one’s work. We do, after all, get paid to teach, so in some ways this is pro bono labour. But the fear of explaining and demystifying what we do leaves us vulnerable to charges of living in ivory towers, unable to contend with pop historians who tell people what they remember from school dressed up as research, and in general making a poor impression, as well as depriving the audience of the value of your contribution. So, please, if you’re a scholar and reading, and your interest is piqued by a post, do consider leaving a comment on it; and if your interest was piqued and you’re not a scholar or don’t think of yourself as such, don’t let that stop you doing so too. This is all a conversation worth having!


1. J. Jarrett, “Views, Comments and Statistics: Gauging and Engaging the Audience of Medievalist Blogging” in Literature Compass Vol. 9 (Oxford 2012), pp. 991-995, doi: 10.1111/lic3.12016.

2. Though if you are using a fake address, I do hope you are Internet-savvy enough to use <nothing@example.com>, the only e-mail address guaranteed never to exist.

Aside

Is this thing still on? Is anyone still here? Well, whether you are or not, I think I’m back. I’ve been complimented on this blog by so many people in the last few months, all apparently unaware I’d more or … Continue reading

Aside

Obviously there are deaths all over and many much less expected or peaceful than these, but nonetheless, with Terry Pratchett yesterday and Daevid Allen this morning, to the latter of whom I still owed a hug as well as years … Continue reading

Seminar CLII: the modern decline of Charlemagne

My progress through my ridiculous seminar report backlog now picks up in the summer of this year with none other than old acquaintance and collaborator Charles West, who on 6th May 2014 found himself in Birmingham addressing a new seminar of the Institute of German Studies, the Not the First World War Centenary Seminar, which was concentrating on alternative anniversaries to the one that we aren’t allowed to miss this year. Therefore Charles was brought in to address us on the topic, “Charlemagne and the Future of the European Past”. Now, as it happens, of recent years Charles has ventured onto the Internet himself along with a cadre of colleagues from Sheffield who contribute to their History Matters blog, which I recommend, and thus it is that you don’t have to take my word for it what Charles thinks about this issue, because he had already written something about it here. So I’ll be brief here and refer you over there if you want to debate things.

A perfectly-arranged photograph by Andreas Herrmann of the statue of Charlemagne outside the Rathaus in Aachen

A perfectly-arranged photograph by Andreas Herrmann of the statue of Charlemagne outside the Rathaus in Aachen

The short and essential pitch of what Charles had to say is that Europe used to be a lot more fussed about Charlemagne as a figure of importance than it has now become. Whereas he was the point of origin for the Holy Roman Empire and the man whose achievement in bringing a swathe of Occidental territory under one rule both Napoleon and Hitler expressed an intent to beat, and even after the war still the figurehead of various prizes and speeches intended to foster European unity, this has fallen off of late. In this, the 12th centenary of his death, which has sparked a number of exhibitions and celebrations around the Continent, that at Aachen was expecting only a third as many people as attended a similar exhibition at Paderborn in 1999 (and I’ve no idea how many it in fact got).

Poster for the triple exhibition at Aachen, Karlder Grosse: Macht, Kunst, Schätze

Poster for the triple exhibition at Aachen

Charles put this down to two related things: in the first place, the early European Union was surprisingly close in extent to the territories ruled by Charlemagne (including the British Isles obviously attached but clinging to ideas of sovereignty anyway); Spain, Portugal and Greece kind of sneaked in, Scandinavia in general has some explaining to do but the lines east and south were otherwise close, whereas now that we count Eastern Europe in full and the Baltic States and are dithering over Turkey, the old model no longer fits even slightly. This larger Europe also has no collective history together: this group of countries have never been a unit, even Rome never ruled them all, so appeals to our great common history and its unifying figureheads (of whom, after all, there are few enough if that’s your aim) cease to have anything like as much traction. The whole paper thus served as another reminder that whatever we think we’re doing as historians, our work is put to use by people with political agendas that determine why people are interested, and when those agendas don’t need our work they instead put it out to grass. Charles concluded that the best way we can proceed is to tell the story we have and let it find its own audience, but of course we would also usually like it to find financial support and, well, there has ever been the rub…