Category Archives: Uncategorized

Is Victorian the New Feudal?

University and College Union pickets outside the University of Leeds on 9th March 2020

University and College Union pickets outside the University of Leeds on Monday

Since we are back on strike this week and I can blog unpaid if I want, let me bounce an idea off you all. I’m not sure how strongly I hold to this, but I found myself reflecting on it after going to the paper by another colleague of mine, Dr Elisabeth Leake, that I mentioned a few posts back. It is this: that whereas for many years, nay, centuries, the medieval past has been the one that modernity sets itself against, with especial reference to the word ‘feudal’, we are now moving into an age where that thing we do not wish to be is Victorian. Obviously, in saying such a thing I need to define ‘Victorian’ and more particularly I need to define ‘we’, given how much some people do in fact want to be Victorian in at least some ways. I probably mean ‘nineteenth-century’ more than ‘Victorian’, in fact, since I want to think more broadly here than Britain (so often the best plan). Still, I think there is something here to chew on, which I’ll try and set out a bit more.

Star performers at the 2013 Llandrindod Wells Victorian Festival

Star performers at the 2013 Llandrindod Wells Victorian Festival, image Crown Copyright and used under Open Government License

You would have to have been reading here for a very long time, or else have got here after avid pursuit of reviews in Early Medieval Europe, to remember that in 2010 I reviewed for that august journal a book by Kathleen Davis called Periodization and Sovereignty.1 Looking back now, and knowing how much I have continued to cite that book since then, I should have been nicer about it; I still think it is really two ideas extended to book length by considerable repetition, and it’s not really about the Middle Ages, but those two ideas are quite important. Specifically, one of them is that the pejorative sense of the word ‘feudal’ goes back to seventeenth-century discourses of modernity in which it came to typify the outdated aristocratically dominated social structures against which both the Jacobean kingdom, to an extent, and the new Parliamentary movement to a different and greater one, now set themselves. As Davis argues, here (and everywhere?) periodization is an act of power and differentiation; by saying that there is a division between ‘now’ and ‘then’ you mark yourself off as having left the ‘then’ behind.2 Whether or not you think that medievalists should use the ‘f-word’ to describe their societies of study, this helps understand how everyone else is using it and is arguably another reason to be careful.3

Cover of Kathleen Davis, Periodization & Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism & Secularization Govern the Politics of Time

Cover of Kathleen Davis, Periodization & Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism & Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia, PA, 2008)

However, it’s now possible to find people trying to argue away the term ‘modern’ in much the same way as Brown and Reynolds want to get rid of ‘feudal’, albeit not for the same reasons. Indeed, their reasons are not the same as Davis’s, and I think it’s something more Davis-like that we’re watching. Of course, we have arguably never been modern, or equally arguably never haven’t, and paradoxically for medieval people ‘modern’ would have been the bad word with which to define that which was wrong, because their acts of power by periodization most often worked in the other direction; we are not ‘novel’ but still hold to the ancient ways…4 But, dear reader, I digress; this post, like Davis’s book, isn’t really about the Middle Ages. What I’m getting at is that we now most definitely have the word ‘postmodern’, which is another periodization term and therefore, per Davis though she doesn’t say it, another act of power by disassociation: modernity? We’re beyond that now.5 So where did it stop?

I can see two obvious answers here, and they’re both World Wars, although I think one could definitely add the financial crash of 2008 in the role of the buffers that finally stopped the intellectual train of modernity from rolling. At each stage things gave way: in particular, though not uniquely, in the Great War, among so much else, such as the last medieval empires, the idea of social progress by industrialisation, squashed into the corpse-filled mud of the trenches; in the Second World War one might single out colonialism, the price charged by the colonised for the survival of the colonial powers turning out to be decolonisation; and in 2008 it was the self-assurance of global capitalism, which had until then managed to maintain its own progress narrative and globalisation operations but now found itself faltering.

Julian Berthier's 'Love Love' on display at Canary Wharf, London, UK

Hereby hangs a separate tale. For a short while in 2008, you could see this in the small dock that is what remains of the original Canary Wharf, London, surrounded by the banking and finance megalopolis that now occupies the rest of the site. At the time my anthropologist of resort was working nearby and later lamented that they had not photographed it and labelled it ‘Capitalism’ for dissemination by Internet, but it turns out to be weirder than that, because the boat was not sinking. It has in fact been modified to float and indeed sail like that as a piece of art by one Julien Berthier called ‘Love Love’. That briefly raised the possibility that M. Berthier or his patrons (Lehman Bros, ironically!) had themselves hit on the very same satire as T’anta Wawa, but actually it had been arranged nearly two years before the crash. I’m no longer sure what the moral of the tale should be, therefore…

Now, I’m well out of my area of expertise here and a suitably-equipped modernist or cultural studies specialist can probably shoot me down in flames. But I reached this argumentative position by considering the things that the Western academy currently disparages: the most obvious, and for me quite rightly, is colonialism, as we try to decolonise the curriculum and address the structural whiteness of the profession and indeed the attainment gap between white and non-white students—which, ironically, seems actually to be generating more work on colonialism rather than on non-Europeans when they were not subject to colonial rule (or even recognising colonisation within Europe, where traditional medievalists could, if they chose, get involved…)6.

That would probably make the starting point of the new dispensation circa 1948, which fits with Elizabeth’s work indeed, and that in turn would make the disparaged past the wartime Europe of fascism and empire.7 (Of course, Europe maintained quite a bit of fascism thereafter, as another of my colleagues, Professor Peter Anderson, works to remind us…) But from a medievalist perspective, the roots go back further. Of course they do, right? Medieval studies has come lately and somewhat violently to the idea that colonialism affects it at all, but we have been deconstructing some older ideas for quite a while, sometimes with modernists’ help and sometimes coming up with things that the modernists might profit from learning. In the former category I think of the idea that nations existed before the modern nation-state, whose weakening hasn’t exactly reduced the volume of medievalist scholarship in search of national origins but has at least moved it forward to points where those origins could be the work of government rather than the inborn ethic of an inexplicably coherent people.8 Associatedly, in the latter, I think of all the post-war work that has been done to dilute and question the idea of steady and reliable ethnicity. It would not be unfair to say that, like at least modern-day geneticists, early medievalists now either don’t think about ethnic identity very hard or, if they do, don’t believe in it as a stable category; even if one doesn’t accept that an early medieval individual might have been able to self-determine in ethnic terms, I think we would pretty much all accept that ethnicity could change across one or two generations, rather than being something you were stuck with that travelled in your blood and never diluted out.9 Of course, most of that work is about people who were, functionally, white, which does potentially distance it from the problems we now see ourselves facing; there is of course now quite a lot of work on the almost contradictory attitudes of various medieval writers to issues of race that did map onto skin colour, which could certainly be negative, even when the people in question probably weren’t actually black (I’m thinking here of Berbers in al-Andalus), but also apparently perfectly accepting (as with the black bishop in my previous post).10 Nonetheless, the separation of ‘identity’ from ‘race’ within ‘ethnicity’ and the idea that identity must be both expressed and accepted to do its social work remain, I think, some of our big teaching points.

Lombard belt fittings, from Wikimedia Commons

“Lombard belt buckles”, says Wikipedia, to which one might reasonably ask, “How do we know who wore them and whether they claimed to be or thought they were Lombards? Maybe these were just cool. Wearing Levis doesn’t make us all American…” Image by Sailko, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Now, the ideas that this work attacks are nineteenth-century ones. And when you start looking around, there are other nineteenth-century ideas dying on the spears of postmodernism: the idea that there is necessarily such a thing as a fixed definitive archetype of a text, rather than whatever we have that the author left which maybe he or she wanted to change, or had already circulated in other versions, or in charter terms, the idea that there is an ‘original’; the idea that trade is necessarily a benefit to the societies involved, perhaps, although the current global trend isn’t listening to the post-colonial scholarship about how empires used trade to dominate weaker partners here as it might; and there are probably others.11 I think that there are probably many more, and that it’s not just the medievalists who now find themselves wanting no longer to be the heirs of their nineteenth-century forebears. Of course, it’s ironic that we set about doing this while our own dying empires return to protectionism and the restriction of movement, defensive measures that make perfect political sense when you’re in a weaker position with respect to your opposing quantities but sit badly with postmodern, post-state, post-capitalist ethics, not least because they only make sense in terms of those same nineteenth-century stable national identities. We’ve either got something important to tell the political world here or we’re badly out of step with change—perhaps both—but as ever, we are struggling to convince the world, or indeed our employers, to listen to us.

Logo of the Societas Aperiendis Fontibus Rerum Germanicum Medii Aevi, which has edited the series Monumenta Germaniae Historica since 1819: 'Holy Love of the Fatherland Gives the Spirit'

Logo of the Societas Aperiendis Fontibus Rerum Germanicum Medii Aevi, which has edited the series Monumenta Germaniae Historica since 1819: ‘Holy Love of the Fatherland Gives the Spirit’, image from their site. This is the ethic that gave us medievalists so many of our core texts, almost all edited to produce that single Urtext that may never have existed. The thing I love about this as a teaching point is, of course, that its expression of German identity predates the German state by some way…

What that thing we have to tell and what the wider implications of this are, I haven’t got as far as working out—part of the problem with getting people to listen, of course—except maybe this one point. If, in fact, the medieval world is losing its relevance as the Great Other of Our Past to which both disparagement and fantasy resort, in exchange for factories, steam, brass, smoggy alleys and empire, then we may at least be a bit freer to decide what it should mean or tell people; but that elusive term ‘relevance’ is going to be harder and harder to claim, unless we work on two things. The first of these, more difficult, is medievalisms in the post-modern; I’m sure there are some, not least because even if the gaslamps might be encroaching there’s still a lot of market for medievalising fantasies at the moment. The second, though, and the one I’ve contended for for longer, is the value of the Middle Ages as a society that did things differently to us, which probably actually now grows more powerful, because if it also did things differently to the Bad Other, the reasonable use of it as an alternative perspective should become easier to promote. Since the Bad Other of this hypothesis was itself quite medievalising, though, and the Middle Ages did of course also have empires, slavery, and mass production even if not industry as the modernists would see it, that might require a level of special pleading and blinkers I’m not sure I personally can pull off…12

Silver dirham struck at Wasit in AD 734/735, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73

Here is a mass-produced medieval item, a silver dirham struck at Wasit in AD 734/735, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73. Florentine textile would be another obvious example; so would thirteenth-century Paris study Bibles… The production line is itself not a difficult idea to come up with, it was mechanised energy that made the difference.

Anyway, this is where my musings have led me. There is probably plenty wrong with the above and I offer it up only for testing, perhaps to destruction, but I wonder what people think?


1. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia PA 2008); Jonathan Jarrett, “Periodization and Sovereignty. How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time. By Kathleen Davis. The Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2008. viii + 189 pp. £28. ISBN 978 0 8122 4083 2” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 348–349.

2. Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty, pp. 23-50.

3. Old reasons to be careful to be found in Elizabeth A. R. Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe” in American Historical Review Vol. 79 (Washington DC 1974), pp. 1063–1088, DOI: 10.2307/1869563, or more extensively Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: the Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (Oxford 1996); for recent resistance, see Richard Abels, “The Historiography of a Construct: ‘Feudalism’ and the Medieval Historian” in History Compass Vol. 7 (Oxford 2009), pp. 1008–1031. I have never quite finished forming my own view.

4. ‘We have never been modern’ is easy to cite, because in French it was the title of an influential book by Bruno Latour, available in English as Latour, We have never been modern, transl. Catherine Porter (Cambridge MA 1993). “We have never not been modern” is harder. The earliest use of it I can quickly find as a reaction to Latour is in a 2004 blog post by Steven Shaviro, “Bruno Latour”, The Pinnochio Theory 18 February 2004, online here, but it was already being used as a phrase that needed quotation but no referencing in a much earlier article on a quite different subject, Donna J. Haraway, “The Virtual Speculum in the New World Order” in Feminist Review, Consuming Cultures, No. 55 (New York 1997, pp. 22–72, on JSTOR but not recommended reading with food or if squeamish. The quote was obviously already around but I can’t find out who first said it. Presumably it was a response to Latour… Anyone know? As for medieval reverse period snobbery, I immediately think of Hrabanus Maurus, and I probably do that because of listening to Mayke de Jong, who briefly dicusses that learned cleric’s studied avoidance of novelty in her “Monastic Writing and Carolingian Court Audiences: some evidence from Biblical commentary” in Flavia De Rubeis and Walter Pohl (edd.), Le scritture dai monasteri, Acta instituti Romani Finlandiae 29 (Roma 2003), pp. 179–195, online here, at pp. 189-190 with references.

5. For writing of this kind a good anthology is Joyce Appleby, Elizabeth Covington, David Hoyt, Michael Latham and Allison Sneider (edd.), Knowledge and postmodernism in historical perspective (New York City, NY, 1996), though a review of this and other works in the same vein by Patrick Karl O’Brien here shows that the victory of the postmodern is far from complete, and may even be heading for mainstreaming.

6. Two justifiably and simultaneous strident calls for this work in L. Le Grange, ‘Decolonising the University Curriculum’ in South African Journal of Higher Education Vol. 30 (Matieland 2016), pp. 1–12, online here, and Savo Heleta, “Decolonisation of higher education: Dismantling epistemic violence and Eurocentrism in South Africa” in Transformation in Higher Education 1 (Durbanville 2016), a9, online here, but it’s not just South Africa with this problem, as witness Hannah Atkinson, Suzanne Bardgett, Adam Budd, Margot Finn, Christopher Kisane, Sadia Kureshi, Jonathan Saha, John Siblon & Sujit Sivasundaram, Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History: A Report and Resource for Change (London 2018), online here, esp. pp. 63-64 but really passim. As for colonisation within Europe, I was thinking straightforwardly of R. R. Davies, The First English Empire: power and identities in the British Isles 1093-1343, Ford Lectures 1998 (Oxford 2000), which people seem slowly to be forgetting.

7. See Elisabeth Leake, “At the Nation-State’s Edge: Centre-Periphery Relations in post-1947 South Asia” in Historical Journal Vol. 59 (Cambridge 2016), pp. 509–539, and eadem, The Defiant Border: The Afghan-Pakistan Borderlands in the Era of Decolonization, 1936-65 (Cambridge 2017).

8. In this area we’re all more or less stepping in the path laid down by Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, 2nd edn. (London 2006), online here, which may not be a perfect book if you’re a medievalist but is a very good place to start, and means that for example we now have the assumptions behind George Molyneaux, The Formation of the English Kingdom in the Tenth Century (Oxford 2015) rather than those behind, say, William A. Chaney, The Cult of Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England: the transition from paganism to Christianity (Manchester 1970).

9. The case for self-determination in Patrick Amory, People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489–554 (Cambridge 1997); my go-to reference for this concern is Walter Pohl, “Telling the Difference: Signs of Ethnic Identity” in idem and Helmut Reimitz (edd.), Strategies of Distinction: The Construction of the Ethnic Communities, 300–800, The Transformation of the Roman World 2 (Leiden 1998), pp. 17–69, with honourable mention to Florin Curta, “Some Remarks on Ethnicity in Medieval Archaeology” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2007), pp. 159–185. Resistance in Heinrich Härke, “Anglo-Saxon Immigration and Ethnogenesis” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 55 (Abingdon 2011), pp. 1–28, online here, even though the same man can write “Archaeologists and Migrations: A Problem of Attitude?” in Current Anthropology Vol. 30 (Chicago IL 1998), pp. 19–46. For a geneticist’s statement of the irrelevance of race, see Andrea Manica, Franck Prugnolle and François Balloux, “Geography is a better determinant of human genetic differentiation than ethnicity” in Human Genetics Vol. 118 (New York City NY 2005), pp. 366–371, online here.

10. My references for the work that’s gone on demonstrating that the Western Middle Ages were not completely lacking people of colour are sadly thin; I need to collect more, but at the moment the best thing for it I own is Pamela A. Patton (ed.), Envisioning Others: Race, Color, and the Visual in Iberia and Latin America, The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World 62 (Leiden 2016), and I’m more aware of work that wants to stress that there was also racism in the Middle Ages, such as Debra Higgs Strickland, Saracens, Demons & Jews: making Monsters in Medieval Art (Princeton NJ 2003), Sara Lipton, Dark Mirror: the medieval origins of anti-Jewish iconography (New York City NY 2014), or Geraldine Heng, The invention of race in the European Middle Ages (New York City NY 2018). We might also ask why all this work is by women and why there are no equally obvious male contributions, but that would be a different post, by somebody else!

11. While I know that I’ve read short punchy proclamations of the death of the single original Urtext in scholarly editing, trying to find any of them on the web drowns you in Biblical scholarship that is predictably uninterested in the idea of plural originals, so right now the best I can find is the first part of John Bryant, The fluid text: a theory of revision and editing for book and screen (Ann Arbor MI 2002). On the same problems in charter studies I tend to cite Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph.D. thesis (University of London 2005), online here, pp. 38-48, which some day I will write up into a proper methodological article. As for exploitative trade, the most obvious example available right now to me is probably Erika Rappaport, A thirst for empire: how tea shaped the modern world (Princeton NJ 2017), which should probably make me feel guilty rather than thirsty but sadly doesn’t.

12. On Victorian medievalising the best thing I’ve found is Marcus Bull, Thinking medieval: an introduction to the study of the Middle Ages (Basingstoke 2005), pp. 7-41.

Metablog XII: A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe now ad-free

I’m hoping for time to get another post up as well as this one this weekend, since this will be short (really), but, the attentive reader may have noticed a small change in the appearance of this here blog over the last week, which is to say that where once there were advertisements there are now (I believe) none. I’d love to say this was out of much-delayed concern for my readers, but actually what happened is that the photos for the last post took me over my free storage limit. At which point, I balanced all, brought all to mind, and so forth, and reasoned that firstly, I really didn’t want the grief of going back through old posts to remove pictures, secondly that that would probably be bad anyway since some of the old posts tend to get much more traffic than my new ones do these days, and thirdly that it would only to be ‘kick the can down the road’, in the phrase that the UK’s recently indecisive politics have made popular, since I don’t plan to stop taking or uploading photos any time soon.

Early modern building to let in Istanbul

Here’s one now! Property to let in Istanbul, just up the hill from the Archaeological Museum, convenient for the trams, and I suspect its own special set of maintenance surprises inside. We did not enquire…

But fourthly and perhaps most important, I have been writing this blog for 13 years and 1 month now; it has got me a few conference invitations, a number of vital references, some academic help here and there, two actual publications at least and an uncountable number of friends and contacts, and in none of that time have I paid its actual hosts anything at all. When thus balanced, that last fact seemed the most out of kilter, especially given my nowadays more-or-less-secure status. So, this is now a paid-for blog, I have twice the storage space so ought not to have to worry about that for another decade, and as a side benefit, you no longer have to put up with advertisements. I hope this is a good thing! Meanwhile, thanks to you, the audience, who make it worth doing!

When is a Nestorian not a Nestorian? Mostly, that’s when

This is a post I stubbed long ago apropos of a discussion that followed on Jonathan Dugdale’s long-ago seminar paper at Leeds in late 2015, which was then brought home to me afresh as I taught the early spread of Christianity in my module Empire and Aftermath for the first time there in February 2016. You see, the early spread of Christianity was mainly eastwards, into the Caucasus, Persia, and then points even further east, India at an uncertain date between first and fifth centuries and China, even, by the seventh, if not before.1 The West was a much slower adopter. What this post is about is how, when that story of eastward spread is told, the Christians of the East are almost always termed ‘Nestorians’, which is mostly wrong. That has been pointed out, but only for two of three reasons and here I want to point out the other one.

Nestorian priests in a procession on Palm Sunday, in a seventh- or eighth-century wall painting from a Nestorian church in Qocho, China

‘Nestorian’ priests in a procession on Palm Sunday, in a seventh- or eighth-century wall painting from a ‘Nestorian’ church in Qocho, China, by DaderotOwn work, CC0, Link, with snigger quotes all to be explained below

So firstly, who are these ‘Nestorian’ Christians anyway? Well, Nestorius was a patriarch of Constantinople in the early fifth century, before orthodox (and therefore, later on, Catholic) Christian doctrine was fully settled. One of the big issues in Christian theology is exactly how to imagine the crucial mystery, the embodiment of God as man, and this remains one of the biggest rifts in the Christian firmament: did God have to shed his divinity to be a human being? If so, wouldn’t that mean that God didn’t Himself die on the cross, but merely His human avatar? Contrariwise, if God remained fully divine, and therefore immortal, even when walking around in human form, how can He be said to have died for our sins, or to have died at all, since God did not cease to be at the Crucifixion? If the Son was a separate and separable part of God, not only do both of those questions still arise but so does the problem of how an explicitly monotheistic religion can have plural godheads, and so on. It’s not simple, and the orthodox solution, that Christ has two natures, human and divine, intermixed without division, remains fairly mysterious.

So in the fifth century divisions arose over this.2 (If you’re a decent theologian, the following is probably going to be horribly over-simplified, which please forgive; if it’s actually wrong, though, please also chime in and correct me. But, as I understand it…) One view, the ‘Monophysite’ one, which is the root but not the modern belief of the Coptic Church of today, held that there was only one nature in Christ, fully divine; this faction lost their imperial support at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, setting up all kinds of future problems.3 Before that, however, there was an argument about whether Christ could perhaps have two natures, and Nestorius, according to his opponents, held that He could have. It’s important to specify that this is not something that Nestorius clearly says in his surviving writings, but lots of those were written after he was fired at the Council of Ephesus in 431.4 After that, many of his supporters were removed from their posts too, and a good proportion of them made their way eastwards, firstly to Persia where they alternated between being a rival form of Christianity to the Empire’s that the Persians encouraged as a diplomatic strategy and being a mistrusted potential fifth column, depending on the level of paranoia in the Persian establishment of the day.5 In the worse patches of that, and also out of the general desire to spread the good word, Christians of this stamp also moved further east, and this is why we have this historiographical trope that Eastern Christianity was Nestorian. But it ain’t necessarily so…

The Daqin Pagoda, controversially claimed to be part of an early Nestorian church in what was then Chang'an, now Xi'an, China, built during the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD)

The Daqin Pagoda, controversially claimed to be part of an early Nestorian church in what was then Chang’an, now Xi’an, China, built during the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD), image by J. Coster, Jcoster, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link. For problems with the identification of this otherwise-seventeenth-century-recorded building, see Michael Keevak, The Story of a Stele: China’s Nestorian Monument and its Reception in the West, 1625–1916 (Aberdeen HK 2008), pp. 132-135, though I have to say he doesn’t exactly produce any evidence against it, or attempt to level any dispute at the claimed evidence beyond colonialism.

There are three ways this can be wrong, you see. One is that these eastern Christians may not actually have believed what Nestorius is supposed to have professed. That is obviously doubly likely if Nestorius himself did not but was misrepresented by his opponents, but secondly, even if he did, positions near his but more acceptably orthodox could easily exist, and this is in fact where the modern-day Church of the East, in its various denominations, now sits. That doctrine itself was only first agreed at the Council of Beth Lapat in 484, after the Persians had recognised a follower of Nestorius as the new Catholicos of the Christians in their empire, but then it was not Nestorius, but his follower Theodore of Mospuesta who was taken as the fount of doctrine. Theodore’s position, modified further by the Eastern theologian Babai the Great, was something much more like the orthodox one, “with the two qnome (individual natures) of Christ… unmixed but eternally united in his single parsopa (person)”.6 Of course, the Syriac terms used here aren’t necessarily equivalents of the Greek ones on which the Orthodox theology is based, but that could be held to reduce the difference between the two Churches to one of translation, although both sides tended to emphasise more difference than that. This is still the position of the Assyrian Church of the East, but it isn’t very Nestorian; indeed, they managed to resume communion with the Catholic Church in 1994. Sebastian Brock made this point quite some time ago in an article whose title declares his position loud and clear: “The Nestorian Church: a lamentable misnomer”.7

St Mary's Assyrian Church, Moscow

St Mary’s Assyrian Church, Moscow, image by By A.Savin (Wikimedia Commons · WikiPhotoSpace) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

So the so-called Nestorian Church wasn’t actually Nestorian? Well, not so simple, according to more recent work, because after some centuries Nestorius’s name and history, rather than his theology, began to surface as an anchor to the Church of the East’s past, its origins in the lands of the Empire and its nature as an exilic faith.8 I guess this has something to do with the replacement of the Persian state that had once nurtured the Church by the new non-Christian power of Iran; roots now needed to go back to somewhere Christian and Nestorius, as Patriarch of Constantinople, was their highest-placed founding figure, even if doctrinally superseded. Thus we find parts of the modern-day Assyrian Church of the East who would call themselves Nestorian, as well as moves to cease the veneration of this troublesome maybe-heretic in the Church. It’s all still alive.

The so-called 'Nestorian Stele'

The so-called ‘Nestorian Stele’, photography by your humble author. As you can possibly tell, it is an absolute pain to photograph, being covered in glass and open to the sunlight, so what you can mainly see there is a window’s reflection. There is a much clearer image here, and I’ve no idea how they got it; it’s so bright that having seen the real thing I have to suspect Photoshop…

But I said there were three ways that the trope of Eastern Christianity being Nestorian could be wrong, and what set me off on this rant originally was running again into this object in the literature, and then later on, as you can see, seeing it myself. This is known everywhere as the Nestorian Stele, and it is a marvellous thing, being a dedicatory inscription set up in 781 that tells the history of the ‘Luminous Religion from Da Qin’ in China, and it is clear that this religion was Christianity.9 It’s written in Mandarin characters and some Syriac, which tends to confirm what it says about the origins of its teaching, and it’s quite a long text, in scripts I don’t read and languages I don’t understand, so it seems simplest to present the summary of John Lawton which you can find in context on the web with its references:10

The text consists of three sections. The introduction is primarily doctrinal. It relates how a supreme, triune, creator Being responded to the disobedience of humanity by being born to a virgin in Da Qin (大秦), a name that loosely refers to the Roman Empire. The inscription summarizes the life and mission of this Son, or Messiah (弥施訶), and states that works of scripture were preserved. In addition, it describes the way of life and liturgical practice of his followers in China, who named this doctrine Jingjiao (景教), the Luminous Religion or the Religion of Light. The second section of the inscription relates the history of the first 146 years of the Church in China. In the year 635 C.E. (early Tang Dynasty, 618-907 C.E.), a priest named Alopen (阿羅本) traveled from Da Qin (most likely Syria) to Chang’an (長安), then the capital of China and now named Xi’an, and met with Emperor Taizong (太宗). This tradition’s scriptures were translated into Chinese, and after studying them the emperor issued an imperial edict in 638 endorsing the dissemination of the religion throughout China. Monasteries were built in Chang’an and many other cities, monks served the needs of the poor and the sick, and the Jingjiao community enjoyed imperial gifts and support. With thanksgiving for the success of the Luminous Religion in China, the writer concludes with a celebratory poem. The inscription then documents that the stele was unveiled on February 4, 781, and subsequently lists approximately 70 names of Christian clergy, written in both Syriac and Chinese.

So it’s not that ambiguous, you might think, and much has therefore been written about it and its evidence for cultural transmission, religious syncretism, Chinese religious plurality and of course the early history of the Church of the East.11 But wait. I haven’t given you a full translation because it’s quite long, but, I have read one and there is nothing in it to tell you more about that crucial bit, exactly how God was born to a virgin as the Son.12 The Christology of the Luminous Religion is not made clear. Perhaps it was thought too abstruse for the monumental context, perhaps too high-level for a Chinese public new to Christian ideas at that point, perhaps it didn’t seem seriously definitional to the writer, a priest called Adam in Syriac and Jingjing in Chinese. We have some writings of the missionary he says brought the faith to China, one Alopa, which also don’t settle this point.13 But the Nestorians were not the only exilic Christian denomination, not even the only one originally from Syria; what with the Empire’s various theological divisions, the Persians’ occasional suspicion of Christians and then Islam’s takeover of much or all of both areas, there was probably no Eastern Church some of whose members didn’t at some point start moving eastwards looking for more tolerant homes.14

Chinese characters and Syriac letters alongside each other on the so-called 'Nestorian Stele'

Still plagued by glass reflection, this shot nonetheless catches some of the Chinese characters and Syriac letters side-by-side

So there’s just no way to be sure that Adam/Jingjing was a member of what would come to be known as the Church of the East. For exactly this reason, as well as Brock’s older point about the term ‘Nestorian Christian’ possibly just being discourteous, a very recent piece by Scott Fitzgerald Johnson refers to him only as a ‘Syriac Christian’.15 But the tide is not far out on this, and I think it has a long way to go before turning. So, in the terms of that metaphor, this post is my little sandcastle, intended to defend historical ambiguity and uncertainty where it is needed. Not all Christians in the East were Nestorians; not even all ‘Nestorians’ are or were theologically Nestorian; it’s possible even Nestorius himself wasn’t. We know something about what Adam/Jingjing believed, and that he had fellows, but we don’t know how large his Church was or that it was the only one in China. This is one of those places where a bit more recognition of what we don’t know would open our minds to a lot more possible stories…


1. I think what I was reading when this kicked off in my head was Garth Fowden, Empire to Commonwealth: consequences of monotheism in late antiquity (Princeton, NJ, 1993), which is excellent on that eastward spread and the remaining connections with the Empire.

2. I think I first learnt all this stuff from Robert Markus’s The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge 1991), whch I heartily recommend still, but a shorter introduction might be Richard Lim, “Christian Triumph and Controversy” in G. W. Bowersock, Peter Brown & Oleg Grabar (edd.), Interpreting Late Antiquity: Essays on the Postclassical World (Cambridge MA 1999), pp. 196–218.

3. On why the Copts are not Monophysite, in more detail than that link, try Sebastian P. Brock, “Miaphysite, Not Monophysite!” in Cristianesimo nella storia 2016 no. 1 (2016), pp. 45–54, DOI: 10.17395/82929.

4. Brock goes through the Church of the East’s theological statements in detail in Sebastian Brock, “The Christology of the Church of the East in the Synods of the Fifth to Early Seventh Centuries: Preliminary Considerations and Materials”, in Everett Ferguson (ed.), Doctrinal Diversity: Varieties of Early Christianity, Recent Studies in Early Christianity 4 (New York City NY 1999), pp. 281–298.

5. For three very different perspectives on Persian Christianity, see A. V. Williams, “Zoroastrians and Christians in Sasanian Iran” in Bulletin of the John Rylands Library Vol. 78 (Manchester 1996), pp. 37–54; Philip Wood, “Collaborators and Dissidents: Christians in Sasanian Iraq in the Early Fifth Century CE”, in Teresa Bernheimer & A. Silverstein (edd.), Late Antiquity: Eastern Perspectives (Warminster 2012), pp. 57–70; and L. E. Patterson, “Minority Religions in the Sasanian Empire” in Eberhard W. Sauer (ed.), Sasanian Persia: between Rome and the Steppes of Eurasia (Edinburgh 2017), pp. 181–198.

6. As well as Brock, “Christology”, this is laid out fairly clearly in either of Wilhelm Baum and Dieter W. Winkler, The Church of the East: a concise history (London 2003), online here, or Christoph Baumer, The Church of the East (London 2013), not online but beautifully illustrated.

7. Brock, “The ‘Nestorian’ Church: a lamentable misnomer” in Bulletin of the John Rylands Library Vol. 78 (Manchester 1996), pp. 23–35.

8. I found it in Philip Wood, The Chronicle of Seert: Christian historical imagination in late antique Iraq (Oxford 2013), pp. 140-142, but it’s done in more detail in Nikolai N. Seleznyov, “Nestorius of Constantinople: Condemnation, Suppression, Veneration” in Journal of Eastern Christian Studies Vol. 62 (Leuven 2010), pp. 165–190.

9. On the equation of Da Qin with the Roman Empire, see Krisztina Hoppál, “The Roman Empire According to the Ancient Chinese Sources” in Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae Vol. 51 (Budapest 2011) 263–306, DOI: 10.1556/AAnt.51.2011.3-4.5.

10. David Lawton, “Description and Significance of the Nestorian Stele, ‘A Monument Commemorating the Propagation of the Da Qin Luminous Religion in the Middle Kingdom’ (大秦景教流行中國碑)”, online here.

11. See P. Y. Saeki, The Nestorian Monument in China (London 1916), online here; Michael Keevak, The Story of a Stele: China’s Nestorian Monument and its Reception in the West, 1625–1916 (Aberdeen HK 2008); Zhao Liguang, Treasures Engraved on the Steles: Art of Calligraphy in the Xi’an Beilin Museum (Xi’an 2016), pp. 162-165 (no. 65); or now Richard Todd Godwin, Persian Christians at the Chinese court: the Xi’an Stele and the Early Medieval Church of the East, Library of Medieval Studies 4 (London 2018), only the last of which catches the point I’m trying to make here.

12. There is a full translation in Saeki, Nestorian Monument, pp. 162-165, and a more modern one in L. Eccles and S. Lieu (transl.), “大秦景教流行中國碑 : Stele on the diffusion of the Luminous Religion of Da Qin (Rome) in the Middle Kingdom”, online here.

13. Lawton, “Nestorian Stele”, p. 4, citing Saeki, Nestorian Monument, pp. 116-117, but actually I can’t find it there.

14. Fowden, Empire to Commonwealth, pp. 121-137.

15. Scott FitzGerald Johnson, “Silk Road Christians and the Translation of Culture in Tang China” in Simon Ditchfield, Charlotte Methuen & Andrew Spicer (edd.), Translating Christianity, Studies in Church History Vol. 53 (Cambridge 2017), pp. 15–38; cf. also Godwin, Persian Christians.

Aside

I’ve just realised on starting to write the next post that in the last one, covering January to March 2016, I forgot one fairly major thing that helps explain why I was finding that period so difficult to manage, which … Continue reading

He’s a jolly good Fellow

This is, for now, the last of the posts about my great achievements; I have so much stuff in publication queues that another can’t, hopefully, be too far away, but for now this is the last one. (Then we can get to really clearing backlog… !) I already mentioned these two things in passing, but in the last couple of years I have achieved a certain level of professional recognition that lets me start adding more letters after my name when I really want to show off. In late 2016, I managed to achieve election as a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Then, in August 2017 I also attained Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. These two things are quite different in both process and signification so I thought I’d say something briefly about both.

New Royal Historical Society logo as of 2018

The Royal Historical Society is a 150-year-old learned society in the traditional mould, which it is now working to break down a bit as it generates important work about how that ‘traditional’ mould has restricted career progress for anyone who’s not male and white.1 (I was born lucky in this respect, of course.) The way you get to be a Fellow of it is that you make a case to them that your work is a significant achievement in the field, get someone else who already is a Fellow to write agreeing with that, and then they decide. In my case, I had a slight starting advantage in that the book of my thesis was published through the Royal Historical Society and they nearly (alas, only nearly) gave it a prize, so I was pretty sure it was OK in their eyes, and I made it the cornerstone of my case. I took a long time doing this, however, and I will admit that what made me actually apply in the end was a combination of going to hear Katy Cubitt talk at the Society and there being names announced of new fellows whom I thought of as much younger than me (because they are) and became outraged that I hadn’t already achieved this before them—which was my own fault of course—and of trying to achieve some sense of recognition in my new job. But once the application was in it was easy, I was elected and since then it’s just been a matter of remembering to pay my society fees.

Higher Education Academy banner

The Higher Education Academy no longer exists as such and was when I applied a youthful 14 years old. (It is now called Advance HE and is slightly differently constructed, but still awards the Fellowships.) Its focus is entirely on teaching quality. For a while the UK university sector proliferated teaching qualifications, ranging from the nationally-recognised Postgraduate Certificate in Education that schoolteachers take through to various bespoke university ones some of which weren’t recognised even throughout their own institutions, let alone more widely. The HEA Fellowship scheme was, as I understand it, a governmental intervention in that situation to provide a recognisable accreditation for university teachers, and it has become more and more popular, partly because of governmental use of it as a teaching quality benchmark but mainly, I think, because it has allowed universities to apply a universal standard of teaching qualification to the staff they take on. I, for example, hold a Certificate in University Teaching from Birkbeck College London. It was very useful to me, but no other institution could easily find out what it means in terms of training, not least because Birkbeck, University of London (as they now are) no longer offer it. But if you hire someone with an HEA Fellowship you know what they’ve done to get it. One can be a Junior Fellow, a straightforward Fellow or a Senior Fellow and what these more or less mean is “I have some recognised teaching training and experience and some idea that this is a subject of academic study in its own right”, “I am up to speed with modern requirements on university teachers, how we can teach and why the scholarship thinks we should do it so” and “I am all that, but have also made other people change how they teach”. I went for the middle one.

This was a lengthy process. Leeds supplies pretty extensive support, so there were training sessions, other people’s draft applications to read and so on, but it boils down to references from two people who’ve seen you teach, a log of one’s professional development over the previous year, a reflective account of one’s teaching practice with reference to the scholarship, and a form saying you’ve done all those things. The log was the most frustrating of these, and if I’d understood the process better I would have made a better job of it. As you may just remember me saying, on arrival at Leeds I threw myself into quite a lot of training, thinking I wouldn’t have as much of a chance later and conscious that it was one of my probationary requirements. But you may also remember me saying that while applying for Fellowship was also one of those requirements, the University had just, when I arrived, pulled its scheme for doing so, and the national one they were using as backup required you have a year of experience teaching in post first. So, by the time I could do my application, most of my training was already ageing out of relevance! Anyway, leaving that aside, the reflective log was also not something I enjoyed putting together. In the first place, it had to speak the right language, that of the UK Professional Standards Framework. That’s not actually hard to do, and there are worse jargon structures, but it does mean one starts to write in parrot form unless one’s careful, losing one’s own voice in the writing. In the second place, it means one has to at least show awareness of a lot of literature about university pedagogy and, while, there is much good stuff about that out there (I now know) there is also quite a lot of soapboxing or science-by-anecdote, and standards of proof are slippery in much of it. Some of it certainly did challenge me to improve my teaching. Nonetheless, I took a certain vicious pleasure, firstly in citing myself, and secondly in making sure that Hacking the Academy, and especially the chapter therein called “Lectures are Bullshit”, were in the Bibliography, as some kind of reward to myself for having perforce to cite this stuff without space for critique.2

Anyway, it all worked, I got the Fellowship and, eventually, cleared probation, though that is a longer and separate story that will not be told here. And I have to say, looking back over the reflective statement just now, there are things in there I had forgotten I’d done in a classroom, as well as many promises to do things I have yet to follow up. I could be a much better teacher if I followed my own advice… I have, accidentally, created a reflection that deserves further reflection, and in that respect, I have to admit that the process was and will continue to be more useful to me than it seemed at the time I was doing it. I should pay attention to that message! Such are the thoughts on this occasion of Dr Jonathan Jarrett, M. A., Ph. D., F. R. Hist. S., F. H. E. A.


1. See Gender Equality and Historians in UK Higher Education, The Royal Historical Society (London 2015), online here; Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History: A Report and Resource for Change, by Hannah Atkinson, Suzanne Bardgett, Adam Budd, Margot Finn, Christopher Kissane, Sadiah Qureshi, Jonathan Saha, John Siblon & Sujit Sivasundaram (London 2018), online here; Promoting Gender Equality in UK History: A Second Report and Recommendations for Good Practice, by Nicola Miller, Kenneth Fincham, Margot Finn, Sarah Holland, Christopher Kissane & Mary Vincent (London 2018), online here.

2. I got myself in there via talking about coins as a teaching tool (on which see Jonathan Jarrett, Coins in Collections: care and use. A Guide to Best Practice by the COINS Project (Cambridge 2009), if you can somehow find a copy). The other cite is of course Jeff Jarvis, “Lectures are Bullshit” in Daniel J. Cohen & Tom Scheinfeldt (edd.), Hacking the Academy: New Approaches to Scholarship and Teaching from Digital Humanities (Ann Arbor, MI, 2013), pp. 66-69. Of what I read without the intent to be smug, Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson, “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” in American Association for Higher Education Bulletin (Denver, CO, 1987), pp. 3-6, repr. in Biochemical Education Vol. 17 (1989), pp. 140–141 inter alia, repr. separatim as Wingspread Journal Vol. 9 no. 2 (Racine, WI, 1989) and thence online here, Michael Jackson, “But Learners Learn More” in Higher Education Research & Development Vol. 16 (Abingdon 1997), pp. 101–109, DOI: 10.1080/0729436970160108 and Anoush Margaryan, Allison Littlejohn & Gabrielle Vojt, “Are Digital Natives a Myth or Reality? University Students’ Use of Digital Technologies” in Computers & Education Vol. 56 (New York City 2011), pp. 429–440, DOI: 10.1016/j.compedu.2010.09.004 might be my top three, and John B. Biggs and Catherine So-kum Tang, Teaching for Quality Learning at University: what the student does, 3rd edn. (Maidenhead 2007) would be an incredible resource if trying to implement it wouldn’t clearly kill you from overwork. Philip Race, The Lecturer’s Toolkit: A Practical Guide to Assessment, Learning and Teaching, 3rd edn. (London 2007) is probably the single one I found most practically useful. It’s tempting to give a list of ones I thought were terrible too but that would just make me into a bad person.

What’s (Been) Going On

I stubbed this post in April last year, meaning then to tell you at least in outline what was happening in my life and with this blog. As the fact that it’s now most of a year on from that and that this post is being written in Turkey, you will guess that actually things are not much quieter, but they are better than they have been and I do have hopes that some kind of blogging can resume here. So this post is about what that might look like, and says something about how things got this way.

The path to this point (has not all been easy)

So. Obviously we all know that in October 2015 I got a job as Lecturer in Early Medieval History at Leeds, and at that point the blog was a little bit more than a year behind. Now, because I had not been around to advertise my new modules because I was then still working somewhere else, two of them did not recruit enough students to run, so in my first year in post I was teaching less than I expected. That said, I was still teaching on, er, two large-scale first-year courses, one second-year one I’d built myself and two graduate skills courses, plus a couple of guest appearances, all of which was new prep, and I put, um, 4 grant applications in in that time as well (of which I got 2, one of which is why I am right now in Turkey and the other of which saw me co-curating a numismatic exhibition at the end of the next year—plus ça change…). For a while I was also, of all things, enrolled on a MOOC by way of learning my way round an admin role which I subsequently demitted, so I was busy enough. But I was still blogging and still reading a bit. Nonetheless, I am told by my partner that in the second semester all this plus marking turned me into a grey joyless sink of exhaustion, in part presumably because I’d had minor surgery just before Christmas 2015 and was still recovering; one of our cats getting run over also didn’t help.

The Parkinson Building, University of Leeds

The office building where this story mainly takes place, the Parkinson Building, University of Leeds, its grandeur equalled only by the unpredictability of its upstairs water supply. By Tim Green from Bradford [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Now, come October 2016, I had been able to advertise my own courses, so the two that were dormant had recruited and now had to run for the first time. In addition to that, I co-led an overhaul of our medieval survey course, which is taught to the whole cohort, and I also co-convened our intensive palæography course. What this all meant was that, more or less by accident, I was now teaching across 10 modules and running 6, only 2 of which were repeating in the same form as the previous year and 2 of which were entirely new, one involving collaboration with our Library’s (brilliant) Special Collections team and the other, a full-year module, involving lots of translation of primary material on what quickly became a week-to-week basis. I also put in 3 more grant applications and got 2, and was of course now also dealing with the work coming from the previous ones… I was also now studying for and putting in for Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy, which I got, and Fellowship of the Royal Historical Society, which I also got. I mentioned the numismatic exhibition already. Oh yeah, and I bought a new house and moved halfway through all of this! The new house is much much better and a great delight, but the commute is longer and of course moving is never easy, especially when you’re buying in a chain.

Study right at Exley Hall

The other place this was all (by now) happening, my half of our study at home, complete with me at work in it and the (new) junior cat trying to work out why

In the classroom, again, the second semester was heavier than the first. By the middle of it, unable to progress anything outside teaching and working more hours than I ever have to keep that going, I had to tell my press that I could no longer deliver my next book in the foreseeable future, and shortly after that I hit a crisis point that meant that something had to be done. My bosses were personally sympathetic and quick to act, and I also owe thanks to my union representative and Chris Wickham, who were both vital support. Anyway, the main positive result of all this (apart from the successful funding bids) was that an application I’d made for a semester of study leave was approved; the secondary positive result was that despite everything I got a teaching commendation, for which I must mainly thank my students, and I suppose the third one was the HEA Fellowship. For the study leave I had targets that amounted to finishing an article-length piece of work every month—which I did do—so blogging time was still hard to find. And now study leave is over, I’m still on probation and I’m back to teaching, with what is for now a lighter teaching load, but still enough to mean that a short-lived attempt at weekly blogging has stumbled. Obviously (obviously!) the blog is not my first priority, but it is a priority, so what can happen with it?

The state of the blog, present and future

Well, if we take a look at the blog as it currently sits, it is upwards of 700 posts going back more than a decade, and its sheer mass on the web means that it continues to draw at least some traffic even if I do nothing with it, which is quite gratifying. I have at least been able to keep up with comments and I think some kind of community remains aware when I post, and to you folks also I am very grateful. But we have this silly double structure of ‘sticky’ front-page posts that I wanted you to know about straight away, as opposed to the regular posts emerging blinking from the backlog, and I have literally sixty more stubbed, and in some cases part- or all-written, from up to three years ago, which I was determined to post in order between my normal seminar reporting. Even with as little detachment as I can manage, this has become a structure of lunacy that can’t be maintained. On the other hand, I really miss the interaction and sense of having a public, and the constructive and amusing response to half-formed ideas I could get here; as a sandbox, as well as a public face, blogging has seemed a worthwhile exercise to me ever since I worked out what I really thought it was for, and I want to get it going again and keep it there. I have also, I admit, used the fact that I have a blog on which to publicise my endeavours in a couple of my funding bids, and it’s probably not wholly honest if I can’t shout about my successes here as well as via Leeds press releases.

So, most obviously, the seminar and conference reporting cannot continue as it once did. That may prove something of a relief to those who were covered, though I know some people liked it, but it just took so long, and in any case I’m now outside the so-called Golden Triangle so can’t report on it to those likewise outside as I used to. On the other hand, I don’t want just to jump-cut three years of my life, especially since as the narrative above tells you, they have been busy and full of things and successes on which I would ideally have reported with glee. And there are all these posts stubbed which belong in that time. So, I have a plan and it looks like this:

  1. The ‘sticky’ posts will all be unstuck when I next post, and return to their places in the stream; there should be no more of them.
  2. I will start a new series of posts called ‘Chronicle’ or something like that, in which I just record what was going on in my life academic in chunks of a month or two at a time, in as summary a form as I can manage, mainly to give chronology to the whole effort but also by way of presenting some kind of a record of what the transition into full-time long-term academia, with which I know I’m not the only one who has struggled, looked like (and looks like) from here. That will continue till I reach the present day, and I’ll adapt the size of them so that I am gaining on that goal each time I post.
  3. In between those posts I will insert shorter focused pieces on the things in each chronicle chunk that merit their own reporting, or which were stubbed at that sort of point, and so there’ll still be something here other than me trying to make my diary entertaining.

And maybe that will work! I hope that I can post most weeks, probably on Sundays, and that that ought actually to work down the backlog. I guess we’ll see how it goes? I’m very conscious that my previous promises of a return to blogging have, like prophecies of the end of the world, all so far proved false, but hopefully this is easier to bring about than Apocalypse. Assuming the horsemen don’t arrive, therefore, see you soon! And thanks for continuing to hang round A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe!

In memoriam Ted Buttrey (1929-2018)

2017-2018 has been a rough transition, like 2010-2011’s second instalment but with the deaths closer to me this time. I would have liked the last post but one to be enough for one winter but the toll has continued to ring and ring hard. I already failed to mention Professor Peter Spufford, whom I didn’t know well but should have recorded here after he died on 18 November 2017; I can’t point to a good obituary just yet but there must be one coming, probably indeed in the upcoming Numismatic Chronicle. I likewise would have wished to say something about John Casey, whom I only met a couple of times but was fun both to read and to talk to. But I cannot fail to mention Professor Theodore Vern Buttrey, Junior, because he was one of my favourite people in Cambridge and while his death, on 9 January, was not unexpected as he’d been fighting prostate cancer, more or less in secrecy (I found out last October) for some time, and also he was eighty-nine, still his praises must be sung because he was a fantastic guy. Also, he would be terribly embarrassed by my saying as much on the web, and so if I’m to commit such a sin at all, I must do it so thoroughly that he would feel obliged to step up to the role of his own personality. So Ted, this is your stage.

Professor Ted Buttrey in a seminar in Vienna

“Seriously, you’re gonna do this?” Ted, I am gonna; I owe you no less.

I’m not sure Ted was ever off a stage, if he was where people could see him; he actually did act, indeed one of the first conversations we had where I realised what an strong character he was was when he came into the Department of Coins and Medals announcing that he had been selected as one of the extras for Elizabeth: The Golden Age, which was then filming in Ely. He had thought it best to lie about his age so as not to risk crossing their insurance thresholds, and accordingly, apparently, his legs can be seen in one scene and his top half in another, amid a crowd of bearded Spanish grandees tutting in the background of Philip II’s court. I don’t know how many septuaganarians would do that; by the time I left the Department, however, I knew that Ted was one of them. He also quoted Shakespeare rather a lot, with great and stagey disappointment in the younger generation if it wasn’t recognised, but was as likely to throw out bits of Sophocles, on whom he wrote what is as far as I know his last book; with numismatists it’s always possible there’s another draft that someone is going to finish off, and while I don’t know of one he was always trying to get something else finished before it was too late, so I bet there’s at least one.1 He will also probably still have shipments of numismatic sale catalogues, of which he had amassed the world’s largest collection at the Fitzwilliam, inbound, which is going to be a touch day for the crew who remain there when they arrive, emotionally as well as physically. I remember celebrating the 35,000th catalogue’s accession and the Department’s new mobile shelving with an afternoon of tea, cake, Latin acclamations and sung rounds, accompanied by one of my colleagues on “the Giant Wurlitzer”, a very small Casio keyboard that she discreetly played behind a bookshelf so as not to dispel the illusion. Ted had, of course, written all the words himself, including apologies from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Queen and the Chancellor of the University none of whom, sadly, were able to be present, and I hope I still have the Order of Ceremonies somewhere. Again, who else would do such a thing, and do it over mobile shelving and auction catalogues?

Professor Ted Buttrey with a cartload of numismatic sale catalogues in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

None but Ted! Here pictured with a fresh shipment and a very fake smile in the Grierson Room of the Department

But as the fact that a great numismatist’s last book would be on Classical drama should tell you, Ted was more than a numismatist, and indeed he sometimes described himself as a philologist first and foremost, and this was probably fair if you just take it etymologically (as of course such a person would), in as much he really loved words. It was from Ted I learnt to play Boggle, and while I got to the point where he didn’t often beat me, the real point of the game was not who won but the lengthy arguments over whether the particular combination of letters he’d found on the grid was in fact a real word or not; we haggled for long enough over ‘sawdusts’ that another then-member of the department subsequently got me a mug made with the word on it. To his delight, because my father had been (indeed, when I started there, still was) much of an age with him and had had an American wife, I knew quite a lot of Ted’s backdated Americana references, like Pogo, another huge sink of wordplay for the player with words, and could spar back at him with them. Lunches in the Department were made the more splendid for Ted appearing dramatically in the doorway with a Boggle set and proclaiming, “The hour cometh, and now is!” There was less Boggle after I left and still less after the mug-making colleague did, so I very much hope there’s someone willing to play wherever Ted’s spirit now roams.

Jonathan Jarrett, Ted Buttrey and Vladimir Nastich in the McClean Room, Coins & Medals, Fitzwilliam Museum

Myself, Professor Ted Buttrey and Professor Vladimir Nastich in the McClean Room, Coins & Medals; my beard is more sensible now

What else should be said of Ted? There are many stories to tell, most of which maybe don’t belong here like when I made his life dramatically easier at a stroke by showing him the double-click; Ted had determinedly learnt computers as an early adopter and then carried on using that computer in retirement from 1991 to about 2003, with no-one to tell him about some of the major changes his post-2003 machine embodied. But one cannot speak of Ted as a whole without also including his role as a fraud-busting detective. Not only did he catch two coin thieves at the Department during his tenure as Keeper, one of whom he quite deliberately set up with an opportunity he couldn’t miss, but, much more famously, exposed a traffic in early Mexican and American gold bars which he held to be fakes, including pointing a finger at the traffickers; they then sued him for libel, but the suit was dismissed and since no legal verdict was reached against Ted’s accused either I’ll leave it there, but it made the papers.2 Such was the man.

Cover of Buttrey and Hubbard, Guidebook of Mexican Coins

Cover of Buttrey and Hubbard, Guidebook of Mexican Coins

Obviously I have to mention his scholarship, as well, and it would be too seductively easy to pick out stuff like his work on Domitian’s rhinoceros, on spintriae (careful with that link, probably NSFW unless your work is Roman numismatics or history) or his three excellent and finely-written articles decrying attempts to put numbers on the production of ancient coins which I have praised here before, in general the quirky, funny or destructive (though always scholarly), if only because it would be so hard to pick a small number of the more important publications like the coins from the excavations at Sardis, with the late Ian Carradice the new standard catalogue of the coins of the Flavian emperors, or what is still the go-to book on Mexican coins though his first book of all…3 I mean, there is loads. The American Numismatic Society’s library catalogue contains 116 items under his name and they must be selling him short. Though, weirdly, as he told me once, he’d never actually found a coin in context himself, there were very few coins about which he didn’t know something; though I discovered later that it was not original to him, he was not wrong once to say, “I am a numismatist, and nothing numismatic is foreign to me.”4 And he will be missed for that, and for the work he might still have completed if he’d lived on further, but I don’t often cross with his actual fields of interest, and I personally will miss the Boggle, the elevated drama of his conversation, and the endless fund of stories he could tell—he had crossed the Atlantic by sea more than once, for example—and the fact that when next I go to the Fitzwilliam there will no-one with whom to “savage the reluctant scone” as I would have if Ted were still there. Ladies and gentlemen, I invite you to applaud; the show must end for us all but few of us will deserve reviews as glowing as Ted’s should be.

(I live in hope of being able finally to deliver the new shape of the blog that I have now repeatedly promised. But seriously, people just need to stop dying…5)


1. I actually can’t find any trace of the Sophocles book now that I look, so it may be that it is still in press and it actually will be his last book. I’m fairly sure he told me it had gone off to a press…

2. Of course, it’s a mark against the guy that he would say ‘who’ where he meant ‘whom’. In the words of Doc Owl from Pogo which Ted would sometimes quote, “Whom? Moom?”

3. T. V. Buttrey, “Domitian, the Rhinoceros, and the Date of Martial’s Liber De Spectaculis” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 97 (London 2007), pp. 101-112, online here; idem, “The Spintriae as a Historical Source” in The Numismatic Chronicle 7th Series Vol. 13 (London 1973), pp. 52-63; idem, “Calculating Ancient Coin Production: facts and fantasies”, ibid. Vol. 153 (1993), pp. 335–351; idem, “Calcuating Ancient Coin Production, II: why it cannot be done”, ibid. Vol. 154 (1994), pp. 341–352; S. E. Buttrey and T. V. Buttrey, “Calculating Ancient Coin Production, Again’ in American Journal of Numismatics Vol. 9 (Washington DC 1997), pp. 113–135; T. V. Buttrey, A. Johnston, K. M. Mackenzie & M. L. Bates, Greek, Roman and Islamic Coins from Sardis (Cambridge MA 1982); T. V. Buttrey and I. A. Carradice, The Roman Imperial Coinage, vol. 2 part 1 (revised edition): From AD 69 to AD 96 – Vespasian to Domitian (London 2007); T. V. Buttrey and Clyde Hubbard, Guidebook of Mexican Coins, 1822 to Date, 6th edn. ed. by Thomas Michael (Fort Collins CO 1992).

4. An earlier instance somewhere in P. J. Casey (him again) and Richard reece (edd.), Coins and the Archaeologist, 2nd edn (London 1988), but drat it, I haven’t written down where, sorry.

5. The 2010 post I mentioned was also weighed down by the death of many important musicians, at least important to me, and sadly this is no different. Not only have I taken this long to find out about the death of Walter Becker, bassist-and-more of Steely Dan, in September, but “Fast” Eddie Clarke, once of Motörhead of course, also didn’t make it through this killing winter. The classic line-up of Motörhead is now hopefully reunited, though if so Lemmy will have some serious retractions to make… Anyway, it needs to stop now please, this has just been too many figures of renown to lose in a month.