All that Glitters 7: the slight return

With due respect thus paid to events that have overtaken us, I return to my sort-of-scheduled programming here at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe and also to the subject of Byzantine coinage, from which it seems I will probably never entirely escape. And why indeed would one want to? But I can bring one thing to a close with this post, which is my reports on the experiments that my collaborators and I did on the All That Glitters project analysing Byzantine gold coins by X-ray Fluorescence of which you have by now heard so much, at least until we actually publish properly on it. So here is the last post on the theme for the time being.1

Bruker S8 TIGER XRF analyser open for business

And therefore last chance to re-use this photograph of the S8TIGER WD-XRF machine in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Birmingham!

I’ve done so many of these posts now that summarising the experiments in any detail would be quite difficult as well as tedious, so for the purposes of this post, let’s just say, we’d gone into the project hoping to say something about changes in the trace elements present in the coins that might tell us something about changing metal sources and minting practices, and we’d found that for two reasons that wasn’t really possible, although we did still find some stuff out doing it. The first and more historical of those reasons why not was simply the nature of the Byzantine tax system, which persistently called in coins from across the Empire, melted them down and redistributed their metal centrally to the mints for striking, thus ineluctably mixing all the different mints’ practices together; the only place we could really see compositional difference was provinces that were falling off the Empire, and even then interaction was usually sufficient to keep things mixed up. But the other reason was that the detection machinery, be it never so sophisticated, couldn’t really tell us what we wanted to know, and that also for two reasons, one being because of invisible surface deposits from the soil that we couldn’t properly see through with the X-rays (and couldn’t safely remove very effectively), and the other being simple and frustrating variation in results.

At what had been supposed to be the end of the project, therefore, because of the various constraints and inefficiencies of getting the coins safely to the analysis machinery and back, we had unspent money left in our grant budget, and so I thought—I think this was me, but if not, I’m sorry to either Rebecca Darley or Maria Vrij for stealing their credit here—that one useful thing we could do with half a day was get some kind of baseline figure for how bad that variability was. So on 16th February 2016 we did a very simple experiment. We took one coin, put it in a sample cup and then without touching it, moving it or changing it in any way beyond what the automatic handling in the spectrometer put it through, ran it through exactly the same test five times, and then turned it over in the cup and did that again for the reverse side, giving us ten runs on the same object in which there was literally nothing more that we could have done to reduce variation.

Apparently I wasn’t taking the security photographs that day, so I cannot show you that coin in its sample cup, but here it is in shiny catalogue image; it is a gold-ish tremissis of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V probably struck in Sicily or Italy, as we demonstrated in the last one of these posts, between 717 and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4542

The results were not encouraging. Admittedly, in terms of gold content they were not too far apart, ranging from 85.26% to 87.21%, an error margin of only about 3%, but even that is 2% raw difference in apparent metal content. People have founded theories about currency alteration on the basis of disparities like that, so if you’re getting them between measurements of a single coin that’s a problem. But the less present elements had similar amounts of variation: silver 7.63% to 8.84%, copper 1.78% to 2.39%, iron 0.15% to 1.04%, aluminium 0.38% to 0.67%, magnesium 0.13% to 0.67%, and then a host of other elements that one didn’t even see in some or most tests. Again, these margins may not seem like a lot, less than a per cent in some cases, but those less-than-per-cent margins are in some cases more than the total percentage of a metal in question, which meant that the error margins we were seeing were mathematically huge, in the order of 300% to 500%. Basically, no respectable scientist would trust such figures, because they could have no confidence that they would be able to reproduce them, and fair enough, because here we were trying to do so and more or less failing.

So what did all this tell us? One gloomy conclusion, that for all we’d hoped to find differently, XRF probably still isn’t a workable way of analysing trace elements in coins, we had more or less already reached, but this let us actually put numbers on why not, which is worth something. I’ve since looked at quite a lot of papers using XRF analyses on coins, and I’ve found only one that used an average of several experiments as their working figure, and that was from 1983 (and was by none other than the late lamented Michael Metcalf, and he was dealing with variations of over 20% depending on what he’d done to Philip Grierson’s coins to get those results, which we know because he actually said so in his write-up).2 He wasn’t even a metallurgist! And he presumably also wasn’t paying for machine time, which is the basic reason that I guess people don’t otherwise do this. But it is, one might say, a little embarrassing for the subdiscipline. Still, I’m not sure that even an average figure from our tests would be very safe to use. How many tests would one need to run on each object to make safe a 300% error margin? What if one of those tests increased that margin? In general, I think that even the best XRF machinery we can get just can’t give accurate figures for small-percentage composition elements, even if it probably still has some application for the big-ticket components. It’s not the conclusion we’d aimed for but when we can get anyone to publish such a negative finding it may not be without value.3 And thus endeth, for now, the sequence.


1. Of course, we have actually published on the project a tiny bit, in the form of Rebecca Darley, “All that glitters…: the Byzantine gold solidus, c. 300-1092″, in Maria Caccamo Caltabiano (ed.), XV International Numismatic Congress, Taormina 2015: Proceedings (Rome 2017), II, pp. 982-985, but that was actually written and given before we’d done these final experiments.

2. That being D. M. Metcalf, “Interpreting the Alloy of the Merovingian Silver Coinage” in C. N. L. Brooke, B. H. I. H. Stewart, J. G. Pollard and T. R. Volk (eds), Studies in Numismatic Method Presented to Philip Grierson (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 113–126, out of 16 studies I know of from 1966 to 2019; I’m sure there are more, though, and if you feel I’ve missed an important one it would be really useful to know!

3. The main reason that we haven’t yet done more on publication of these experiments, even three years down the line, I should explain, is professional mobility. Even in the course of the project, every single project member changed jobs and only two of them even stayed within the same company/institution. Since then several more of us have moved again. Of course, our new employers all hired us for our own individual qualities and while some of them might like us to do this kind of collaborative inter-disciplinary research, they would prefer to have been part of it, so that only those of us who remain in Birmingham have any immediate professional interest in making this part of our workload. We will publish something on it, because we spent money on the assurance that we would, but it will be when one of us needs it more than whatever else we’re supposed to be working on, and the path to that isn’t yet clear.

In memory of Simon Bendall

I’m sorry as ever for a lapse in posting. Firstly I went on actual holiday, without a laptop—some day there will be pictures, because I did take a camera—and then as soon as I was back I had feverishly to read a 723-page thesis so as to be able to help examine it the following week in Barcelona, in whose airport indeed I now write this post. I had hoped to have written you something about Byzantine coinage by this time as well, and so, I suppose, I am about to do, but it’s not the thing I had hoped for and it must come first, as is unfortunately now common on this blog, because somebody died, and that somebody was Simon Bendall, Byzantine numismatist extraordinaire, whom I knew a little and so want to commemorate here. He died on 26 June after what was apparently a long illness, at the age of 82.

Simon Bendall (1937-2019)

I’m not sure when I first heard of Simon Bendall; it’s possible that it was in citation as I read frantically to prepare for the interview that got me the job managing the coin collection at the Barber Institute. However, I heard from him very shortly after I got that job, because his ever-active networks had brought him the news of régime change and he wanted to ask me for some images for a book he was then working on, which became his Introduction to the Coinage of Trebizond, of which he later kindly gave me a copy.1 That was an illustrative exchange for several reasons, which all help give a sense of the man, so I’ll tell them.

Firstly, I managed almost without effort to enlist him in checking over the Barber’s own initial catalogue of coins of that Byzantine splinter state, because he had once been going to catalogue them for us anyway and had been frustrated at never finding out what we actually had; as a result, to go online at some future point, there is a marked-up printout of the catalogue in the Curator’s work pile, I imagine, where I sadly had to leave it when I demitted. Secondly, yes, print-out, because Simon didn’t use e-mail, and barely used computers; the only practical way to send him a PDF was in print, and all the correspondence I had with him was actual letters, answered in longhand and in scrupulous detail in rather shorter time than I tend to manage with e-mail. Thirdly, that correspondence also got me several stories about one of my predecessors as Curator, the learned but sometimes difficult Michael Hendy, which I was later able to verify from the coin catalogue, because Simon, in his position at the coin dealer Baldwin’s, had been responsible for choosing and sending several important parts of the Byzantine collection while it was under Hendy’s care. Fourthly, it gave me vital ammunition to get the Barber to rethink its image pricing, based on full-size paintings and not really applicable to coins, that when I told him what we would have to charge him he gently pointed out that for that price he could buy an actual one of the relevant coins and photograph it himself for less money. From all this, I got the impression of a man who was a quantity, if you see what I mean.

Before long I was encountering this quantity in print, as well, because Simon was one of the people who had written about the concave fabric of later Byzantine coins, and one of the very few who had asked the important question: well, how did they do it?2 And by then I was also aware that for the coinage of the last and longest-lasting dynasty of Byzantine emperors, the Palaeologans, the standard reference was by one Simon Bendall…3 And in fact, I now learn, a full bibliography of his work would have two-hundred-plus things in it, from two- or three-page notes in the little auction house periodicals we used to have to full-length monographs, because he just knew a lot, largely through his ongoing connections with those same auction houses as employee and then consultant expert. Numismatics is one of the last fields where you don’t have to be an academic to be a major contributor, and that is not least because of the demonstrable importance of the work of people like Simon.

I think I finally met Simon at the International Numismatic Congress in Taormina in 2015, and then again at a couple of meetings of the Royal Numismatic Society. Somewhere in there I must have been told the single event that got Simon onto the web other than his publications, which was the theft of his coin collection in February 2018, sadly not the only retired collector’s collection to get taken from their home that I can think of. Typically, he took it phlegmatically—I suppose he must already have been ill, because he said to me that at least it had saved him the pain of disposing of it. He had once hoped to give it to a museum, he explained, but since it had all been acquired in trade, no UK museum would now touch it; though the thieves had obviously deprived him of one of his life’s works, it did at least mean the collection had not had to be broken up and auctioned as would otherwise have happened. In another of those conversations, more cheerfully, I learnt that his childhood home (and therefore lifelong) football team, Wolverhampton Wanderers, had sent him a card signed by all the squad after he’d passed some 50-year attendance marker I wish I could now remember. Anyway, as this all suggests, he was a fount of stories, and it’s a considerable sadness that he won’t be amassing and telling any more, quite apart from all the other horrors and misfortunes of mortality. He won’t be at the next RNS party I make it to, and people will miss him. So will Byzantine numismatics in general, indeed, and so probably will Wolverhampton Wanderers, and that’s not a bad combination of mourners to have. I hope he went and remains in peace; goodbye, Simon, it was good to have known you.


1. Simon Bendall, An introduction to the coinage of the Empire of Trebizond (London 2015).

2. Simon Bendall and David Sellwood, “The Method of Striking Scyphate Coins Using Two Obverse Dies In the Light of an Early Thirteenth Century Hoard” in Numismatic Chronicle 7th Series Vol. 18 (London 1978), pp. 93–104, and Simon Bendall, “The Double Striking of Late Byzantine Scyphate Coins” in Celator Vol. 12 (Lancaster PA 1998), pp. 20–23.

3. S. Bendall and P. J. Donald, Later Palaeologan Coinage, 1282-1453 (London 1979).

The intellectual impact of Charlemagne’s coinage

One of the occasional, too occasional I think, debates in numismatics is how much the people who have used coins have understood of what’s put on them by their issuers. I sometimes use this as a teaching point by fishing out a British coin and asking people if they know what’s on it and what any of it means, and although someone does occasionally get it that’s not at all usual. In fact, there is even scholarly literature about how little the British know about their own modern coinage, and I don’t suppose we’re too unusual in this respect.1 But how can we judge this for the late antique and medieval worlds? Information is pretty scant, so it’s always nice to come across a hint in our sources that someone or other noticed the design or significance of the money they were using. And in early February 2016, while I was searching for manuscripts to use in Leeds’s palaeography course, I had such a moment. Observe this!

Sankt Gallen, MS 731, fo. 56r

The opening of the Salic Law in Sankt Gallen, MS 731, fo. 56r

What is this, you ask as you are by now well trained to do, and I respond: it is a page from a big collection of lawcodes that now exists in the monastery of Sankt Gallen in what is now Switzerland, the so-called Wandalgarius manuscript. It contains three texts, the Roman Law of the Visigoths, which is basically a filtered version of the Roman Theodosian Code for use in Visigothic territories, the Salic Law that belonged to some of the Franks, and the Law of the Alemans. Each text has a number of decorated initials in it, and in particular when a line starts with omnis or its derivatives, the Latin word for ‘all’, the illustrator often did the first O as a roundel of some kind. The Salic Law, however, is not in its first version which supposedly goes back to King Clovis of circa 500, but the updated reissue of the time of Charlemagne, and in case this wasn’t clear the illustrator has found a roundel that identifies it using the signifier of Charlemagne that most people would have seen, namely, one of his silver pennies.2

Silver denier of Charlemagne struck at Toulouse between 792 and 812

Silver denier of Charlemagne struck at Toulouse between 792 and 812, image by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Admittedly, the illustrator has combined the monogram from the reverse side with the legend from the obverse, but they clearly knew that both were there. I don’t know if that makes the figure holding up the not-to-scale coin the big man himself, but since his coins didn’t (yet) feature a portrait, neither presumably would anyone looking at this have known that either. The monogram, however, meant royal authority so clearly that once Charlemagne’s grandson Charles the Bald revived it, it didn’t fully leave the French coinage for a century or more.3 By his coins shall ye know him, it apparently seemed to our illustrator! And of course that would only work if people understood what that image was. Now, we are looking at a pretty intellectual milieu here, I grant you; wherever this manuscript was made but it’s more information than we usually get on this question in the west, so I’ll take it, and now I give it to you.4


1. I got the two weblinks in that sentence from Cécile Morrisson, “Précis de numismatique byzantine” in eadem, Georg.-D. Schaaf and Jean-Mare Spieser, Byzance et sa monnaie (IVe‒XVe siècle) : Précis de numismatique par C&eacutecile Morrisson suivi du catalogue de la collection Lampart par Georg-D. Schaaf (Paris 2015), pp. 7–104, but my notes don’t seem to record the exact page and I’m not going looking for it right now. More in-depth consideration of the issue has focused on Roman coinage, for which see for example C. H. V. Sutherland, “The Intelligibility of Roman Imperial Coin Types” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 49 (London 1959), pp. 46–55.

2. On the Salic Law, there is no easy guide, but T. M. Charles-Edwards, “Law in the Western Kingdoms between the Fifth and the Seventh Century” in Averil Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins & Michael Whitby (edd.), Late Antiquity: Empire and Successors, A.D. 425–600, Cambridge Ancient History 14 (Cambridge 2000), pp. 260–287 gives you a reasonably up-to-date account of both this and its fellows. For an account of the difficulties of the attribution of each recension, see Patrick Wormald, “The Laws of the Salian Franks. Translated and with an Introduction by Kathleen Fischer Drew. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania press. 1991. ix + 256 pp. £33.20 (£11.94 paperback). ISBN 0 812 21322 X (0 812 28256 6 paperback)” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 2 (Oxford 1993), pp. 77–79, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0254.1993.tb00011.x.

3. Charlemagne’s coinage is discussed in Simon Coupland, “Charlemagne’s Coinage: ideology and economy” in Joanna Story (ed.), Charlemagne: empire and society (Manchester 2005), pp. 211–229, reprinted in Simon Coupland, Carolingian Coinage and the Vikings: Studies on Power and Trade in the 9th Century, Variorum Collected Studies 847 (Aldershot 2007), chapter I.

4. I’m sure I’m not the first person to spot this, and the person I would bet has is Ildar Garipzanov, probably in Ildar H. Garipzanov, “The Image of Authority in Carolingian Coinage: the image of a ruler and Roman imperial tradition” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 8 (Oxford 1999), pp. 197–218, or idem, The Symbolic Language of Authority in the Carolingian World (c. 751-877), Brill’s Series on the Early Middle Ages 16 (Leiden 2008), but again, alas, I cannot check this right now. Sorry Ildar!

Name in Print XXI: Islands are the New Frontiers

After the drought, apparently, cometh the monsoon. The short delay in posting this caused by the International Medieval Congress just gone has seen me with another publication and I hadn’t even told you about this one yet!

Vol. 31 issue 2 of al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, entitled Not the Final Frontier: The World of Early Medieval Islands

Vol. 31 issue 2 of al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, entitled Not the Final Frontier: The World of Early Medieval Islands, editors Jonathan Jarrett, Luca Zavagno and Rebecca Darley

What is this, you may ask, and to that I say, it is a special issue of the well-known journal of the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean, al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, to wit volume 31 issue 2, which has been edited by Luca Zavagno of Bilkent University, Rebecca Darley of Birkbeck, University of London and also myself. If you cast your reader’s mind back you may remembr me saying Luca and I had got some money to run a program of workshops on Mediterranean islands in the early Middle Ages, on which Luca is preparing a book, a program that somehow turned into a small international conference about which I will eventually report but is already documented here; this issue is the proceedings of that conference.

Cover page of Jonathan Jarrett, "Nests of Pirates: the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet compared" in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31.2, ‘Not the Final Frontier’: The World of Medieval Islands (Abingdon 2019), 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101

Cover page of Jonathan Jarrett, "Nests of Pirates: the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet compared" in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31.2, ‘Not the Final Frontier’: The World of Medieval Islands (Abingdon 2019), 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101

Now, I spoke at that conference, setting up a deliberately odd comparison between the Balearic Islands and a coastal, landward space, the century-long Muslim colony at la Garde-Freinet in Provence, so I am in this issue, meaning I have a new article out.1 The basic point is that though you’d think there are some pretty basic defining characteristics of islands, they don’t affect how island spaces work as much as other factors, and as a result a landward space can be just as or more ‘insular’ as a geographic island, depending on other things. When I gave that paper I did so with very little knowledge of the areas concerned; by the time I submitted it I knew rather more; and by the time I’d finished dealing with the reviewers’ comments, I knew quite a lot, including about Malta (which is in there too, now), though not enough to prevent me running into someone on Tuesday who had published on la Garde-Freinet whose work I’d missed.2 Finding that stuff out, as it so often seems to do when I go looking for something, exposed a number of assumptions and flaws in the historiography, so there is definitely scholarship going on here, but the overall point that scholarship is serving is a little quirky. I still think it’s interesting and a good piece, however!

Start page of Luca Zavagno, Jonathan Jarrett and Rebecca Darley, "Editorial" in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31.2, ‘Not the Final Frontier’: The World of Medieval Islands (Abingdon 2019), 129–39, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1596645

Start page of Luca Zavagno, Jonathan Jarrett and Rebecca Darley, "Editorial" in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31.2, ‘Not the Final Frontier’: The World of Medieval Islands (Abingdon 2019), 129–39, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1596645

Now, in fact, because of being an editor, I’m actually in this issue twice, because Luca, Rebecca and I co-wrote the ‘Editorial’.3 Actually, truth be told, Luca wrote it, then we severally interveneed, but it’s basically Luca’s text and ideas, and Luca has read a lot about islands and can synthesize it very thoroughly. Otherwise you can find in this issue a study of Mediterranean sea traffic measured from shipwrecks by diving archaeologist Matthew Harpster of Koç University in Istanbul; Luca’s own thorough comparison of most of the islands of the Mediterranean in their transition from Byzantine to Islamic rule; a painstaking study of Chios, an island in the Ægean made unusual by its cash crop, mastic gum, which can be produced almost nowhere else; and Rebecca’s comparison of two extra-Mediterranean islands, Sokotra and Sri Lanka, to bring out some complications of how concepts of island and frontier interact that you couldn’t get without such exterior comparisons, then reflected back in on what the rest of us were doing.4 It’s all quite clever, if I do say so myself, and you might like to read it!

Statistics, as ever: the ‘Editorial’ went through four drafts but I only dealt with two of them, and was eleven months from submission of final version to print, which is really pretty good though demanded a lot to get it done; and my article went in nine days behind that so is basically the same stats, but went through five drafts as I picked up more information. The publication time lowers my average a bit, and the copy-editors were among the best I’ve ever dealt with, especially given that between us all we probably cite or quote in ten languages. So overall, despite tight timescales and some obscure procedures, this has been a good publication experience and I’m extremely pleased that one of my projects has delivered in such a tangible way.


1. Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates: the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet compared” in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31.2, ‘Not the Final Frontier’: The World of Medieval Islands (Abingdon 2019), pp. 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101.

2. That being Andreas Obenaus, “… Diese haben nämlich die maurischen Piraten verwüstet” in idem, Eugen Pfister & Birgit Tremml (edd.), Schrecken der Händler und Herrscher: Piratengemeinschaften in der Geschichte (Wien 2012), pp. 33-54 at pp. 44-49.

3. Luca Zavagno, Jonathan Jarrett & Rebecca Darley, “Editorial” in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31.2, ‘Not the Final Frontier’: The World of Medieval Islands (Abingdon 2019), pp. 129–39, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1596645.

4. Luca Zavagno, “‘Going to the Extremes’: The Balearics and Cyprus in the Early Medieval Byzantine Insular System’, ibid. pp. 140-157, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602375; Matthew Harpster, “Sicily: A Frontier in the Centre of the Sea”, ibid. pp. 158-170, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602748; Nikolas Bakirtzis and Xenophon Moniaros, “Mastic Production in Medieval Chios: Economic Flows and Transitions in an Insular Setting”, ibid. pp. 171-195, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1596647; and Rebecca Darley, “The Island Frontier: Socotra, Sri Lanka and the Shape of Commerce in the Late Antique Western Indian Ocean”, ibid. pp. 223-241, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1604930.

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.

Name in Print XX: crop yields at last

Spelt growing ready for harvest

Spelt growing ready for harvest, by böhringer friedrichOwn work, CC BY-SA 2.5

This post has been a long time coming! It’s been a while since my last announcement of work in print, but there is a bunch coming and the first piece out this year is one that has a history going a very long way back and starting, dear readers, with this blog. For in late 2007, already, after having done a lecture on the medieval economy at Kings College London for Jinty Nelson and having had the good fortune to talk it over with her a while afterwards, I first got the idea that there might be something wrong with the standard literature on the productivity of the agricultural economy of the early Middle Ages. It wasn’t my field, but something in what I’d read didn’t add up. Then in late 2009 I was reviewing a textbook of medieval history and found the same clichés again, so wondered where they’d come from, and the answer turned out to be the work of Georges Duby.1 But at about the same time I also read some exciting experimental archaeology about crop yields done at my favourite Catalan fortress site, l’Esquerda, that seemed to show that he should have been completely wrong.2 So then I went digging into the sources for Duby’s claim, and the first one turned out to have been seriously misread. And I posted about it here, had a very helpful debate with Magistra (to whom many thanks, if she’s still reading, and I owe you an offprint) and thought that’s where it would end.

British Academy logo

But then later that year I decided, for reasons I now forget—quite possibly professional desperation after my fifth year of job-hunting—that I needed to go to the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, which I basically can’t do these days because of teaching. I had nothing else ready and thought that maybe this idea deserved a better outing, and because I was on a small wage back then I put in for a Foreign Travel Grant from the British Academy, a thing they still did then, and got it, which paid for most of my plane fare and made the whole thing possible (wherefore their logo above). And I gave that paper in May 2011, had a splendid time and got some good advice from the Medieval History Geek (to whom I also now owe an offprint I think) and began to wonder if this should actually get written up.

The Bodleian Library viewed from the south entrance

The Bodleian Library viewed from the south entrance, by OzeyeOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The trouble with that was firstly, that I was by now very busy because I had a teaching job, and secondly, that the source I’d already rubbished Duby’s treatment of wasn’t the only one he had used, and the others were largely Italian, plus which there was a decent amount of up-to-date French work I hadn’t used about the first one. I seemed to have Jean-Pierre Devroey’s L’économie rurale et société dans l’Europe franque vol. I (did vol. II ever emerge?) on reserve in the Bodleian Library for a very long time, and I’m not sure I actually started on the Italian material till I got to Birmingham in late 2013; it was just never my first priority.3 By then, however, I’d shown an early draft to Chris Wickham, who knows that kind of thing (and is definitely also owed an offprint) and he’d come up with several other things I ought to think about and read, and the result was that this was one of the articles I agreed to complete for my probation when I arrived at Leeds, by now late 2015. How the time did rush past! Now, the story of my probation can probably some day be told but today is not that day; suffice to say that finally, finally, and with significant help just in being comprehensible from Rebecca Darley, to whom even more thanks and an offprint already in her possession, the article went in with all sources dealt with, to the venerable and honourable Agricultural History Review. And, although their reviewers (whose identity is still a mystery to me) had some useful but laborious suggestions for modification (which needed a day in the Institute of Historical Research reading Yoshiki Morimoto and a day in the British Library reading I forget whom, also no longer easy4, it was finally accepted. And that was in October 2018, and now it is in print.5

Opening page of Jonathan Jarrett, "Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated" in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28

Opening page of Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28

In case you would like to know what it says, here is at least the abstract:

Despite numerous studies that stand against it, there remains a textbook consensus that agriculture in the early Middle Ages was unusually low in productive capacity compared to the Roman and high medieval periods. The persistence of this view of early medieval agriculture can in part be explained by the requirement of a progress narrative in medieval economic history for a before to its after, but is also attributable to the ongoing effect of the 1960s work of Georges Duby. Duby’s view rested on repeated incorrect or inadequate readings of his source materials, however, which this article deconstructs. Better figures for early medieval crop yields are available which remove any evidential basis for a belief that early medieval agriculture was poorer in yield than that of later eras. The cliché of low early medieval yields must therefore be abandoned and a different basis for later economic development be sought.

Not small claims, you may say, and this is true. If I’m right—and of course I think I am—this may be the most important thing I’ve ever written, and though I hope I will beat it I’m not yet sure how. So how do you read the rest? Well, in two years it will be online for free, gods bless the Society, but in the meantime, it can be got through Ingenta Connect as a PDF if you have subscription access, and I guess it’s possible just to buy the journal as a thing made of paper if you so desire! These are mostly your options, because I seem to have given out or promised most of my offprints already…

Offprint of Jonathan Jarrett, "Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated" in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28

Here’s one now!

So statistics, we always like the statistics here, yes, this has had a really long gestation but that’s not the press’s fault, that’s all me and my employment. There were six drafts in all, seven if you count the blog post: Kalamazoo, a 2016 version incorporating the Italian material, a 2017 one adding in what Chris Wickham suggested, and a 2018 one I finished under probational shadow, almost immediately revised into another thanks to Rebecca. Then the last one dealt with the journal comments in December 2018, and from there to print has been more or less six months, which is really not bad at all and involved one of the best copy-editors I’ve so far worked with in such circumstances. It’s certainly much better than my average. But the same is also true of the article, I think, and so I hope you want to know about it, because I certainly want you to! And so, now you do…


1. Jo Ann Hoeppner Moran Cruz and Richard Gerberding, Medieval Worlds: an introduction to European history, 300-1492 (Boston 2004), pp. 162 & 223, with 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), in the bibliography, and of which pp. 26-29 carry the relevant material.

2. Carmen Cubero i Corpas, Imma Ollich i Castanyer, Montserrat de Rocafiguera i Espona and María Ocaña i Subirana, “From the Granary to the Field; Archaeobotany and Experimental Archaeology at l’Esquerda (Catalonia, Spain)” in Vegetation History and Archaeobotany Vol. 17 (New York City 2007), pp. 85–92, DOI: 10.1007/s00334-007-0111-0.

3. Jean-Pierre Devroey, Économie rurale et société dans l’Europe franque : VIe – IXe siècles, 2 vols (Paris: Belin, 2003), I, though Jean-Pierre Devroey and Anne Nissen, “Early Middle Ages, 500‒1000” in Erik Thoen, Tim Soens, Laurent Herment, Michael Kopsidis, Per Grau Møller, Jankh Myrdal, Alexandra Saebznik and Yves Segers (edd.), Struggling with the Environment: Land Use and Productivity, Rural Economy and Society in North-Western Europe, 500‒2000, 4 (Turnhout 2015), pp. 11–68, DOI: 10.1484/M.RES-EB.5.108034, now gets you a lot of the same stuff shorter, in English and updated.

4. Yoshiki Morimoto, Études sur l’économie rurale du haut Moyen Âge : historiographie, régime domanial, polyptyques carolingiens, Bibliothèque du Moyen Âge 25 (Bruxelles 2008) is his collected papers, and very useful if you can locate a copy.

5. Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1-28!

Enlisting medieval history against the Islamic State

Every now and then most medieval historians must get told that their discipline is ‘useless’. Usually this is being done by politicians out to shrink budgets, and they think we’re an easy target, though as Charles Clark found out, sometimes we are better armed for that combat than they expect. (Much better therefore just to cut funding in secret, as Australia’s former education minister Simon Birmingham chose to! Although as far as I know medieval historians were not among the victims that time.) Nonetheless, history can get into trouble when it preaches its utility; perhaps that’s why the best such preach was by America’s finest news source, The Onion, rather than by an academic historian. Usually, though, the problems that history is called upon to address are much more current affairs than the medievalists can easily get purchase on. But an obvious exception was the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which it’s easy to find people calling ‘medieval’ without looking terribly hard. If this was a return of the Middle Ages to the world, what did medievalists have to say about it? In early 2016, as I mentioned, I got to hear two attempts, and they’re worth comparing, especially in the hindsight we now just about enjoy.1

Cover of Hugh Kennedy, The Caliphate (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2016)

Cover of Hugh Kennedy, The Caliphate (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2016)

First of these was by Professor Hugh Kennedy, at that stage just finishing up writing the above.2 He was keen to stress that there certainly were ways in which ISIS was medieval, not just because Islamic thought doesn’t necessarily impose the division of medieval from modern that Western thought does (on which more below), but because of conscious medievalism on the parts of the terrorists’ public image manufactory and even its deeper theology. The Qu’ran, after all, was written down in the (early) Middle Ages; most of the thought about it that ISIS used was also medieval hadith (in the western periodization in all cases), and its political claim to a caliphate, which regarded pretty much all other branches of Islam, as murtadis (apostates) or Rafidis (ISIS’s term for Shi’ites), required it to strike its root as early as possible in the succession to the Prophet, before those divisions had arisen; that first unity was what they professed to renew. Very few later heroic figures or thinkers therefore got into their theology, as those figures themselves were suspect. Now, that would place ISIS’s historical reference point somewhere around AD 650, but their visual imagery was very often taken from a century or two later, being pretty consciously ‘Abbasid.

ISIS jihadis posed for propaganda video on horseback with black banners

ISIS jihadis posed for propaganda video on horseback with black banners

Perhaps this doesn’t look that medieval to the outsider, but let me quote to you a story supposedly told by the first Umayyad Emir of Spain, of the time when he was feeling to Africa from the Middle East after his family had largely been exterminated by the ‘Abbasid rebellion of AD 750:

“As I was on a certain day sitting under cover of my tent, to shelter myself from the rain, which fell heavily, and watching my eldest son Sulaiman, then about four years old, who was playing in front of it, I saw him suddenly enter the door, crying violently; and, soon after, he ran towards me and clung to my bosom for protection. Not knowing what he meant, I pushed him away; but the child clung still more to me, as one seized with violent fear, and began uttering such exclamations as children are wont to utter when they are frightened. I then left the tent, that I might see what caused his fear; when lo ! I saw the whole village in confusion, and the inhabitants running to and fro in great consternation. I went a little further on, and saw the black banners fluttering in the wind. At sight of these a younger brother of mine, who had also rushed out of the tent, and was with me at the time, began to fly at the top of his speed, saying, ‘Away, away with thee, O brother! for yonder black banners are the banners of the sons of ‘Abbas.’ Hearing this, I hastily grasped some dinars which I had just at hand, and fled precipitately out of the village with my child and my younger brother.”3

You can read the rest of it yourself if you like, but suffice it to say, the brother doesn’t make it to the next scene. So this has resonance, and the people who set it up knew that. But more subtle than that, argued Hugh, was the vision put forward by ISIS’s erstwhile magazine, Dabiq. The name itself was a clue: it is a town on the Syrian-Turkish border, as I guess we now know because of the efforts ISIS made to take it, but it’s important to them because it was, according to one prophecy, where the final confrontation between Islam and ‘Rome’ (i. e. Byzantium, in its original context, but for ISIS basically the West) was to take place. Not many people knew that when the magazine started, I think, and this is apparently far from the only such reference, to apocalyptic lore or particular theological slurs or just plain Islamic knowledge.4 Hugh said that he had struggled to place some of them, and you’d think he would be well qualified. Now of course this raises the question: if an expert in Islamic history isn’t catching their full drift, who is the audience for this kind of highly erudite theology? Well, doubtless there were (and are) people who were drawn in by the theology itself, but what may also have been happening here was a performance of superior Islamic knowledge; the normal reader didn’t always know what they meant but he or she could see that the writers know their Islam a lot better than the reader, average or indeed expert… So this is medievalism put to work, whether we like it or not.

Seminar poster for Julia McClure, «A New Politics of the Middle Ages: A Global Middle Ages for a Global Modernity", presented at the Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 3 February 2016

A western view was more in evidence at Leeds on 3rd February 2016, however, when Julia McClure of the University of Warwick (then, anyway) came to address the Medieval History Seminar with the title, “A New Politics of Middle Ages: a global Middle Ages for a global modernity”.5 ISIS were only one of her examples of the ways in which modern political agendas appropriate the Middle Ages as a seat of all that was barbaric, cruel, irrational and so on. Despite my anciently mixed feelings about it I still think Kathleen Davis’s Periodization and Sovereignty has the best explanation of this I’ve read, suggesting that progress narratives work best if you’re pejorative about the state before and emphasise how far you’ve come and that winds up putting a barrier of transition between you and the past which it would be barbaric, irrational and undeveloped to breach. Then you can start applying the category to other places and taking them over because they’re not really politically grown up like what we are; sound familiar?6 Anyway, this was not where Dr McClure went with it, or with ISIS; instead she invoked the idea of ‘multiple modernities’, weakening the idea that our way of being modern is definitive and attempts by different competitors to claim the pinnacle from others; and we should admit that some modernities (for her, Marxism) have failed.7 Having done that, however—and for me this was where I felt a skip in the logic—we should choose to emphasise not the violence and conflict with which agencies like ISIS want to populate the medieval past and thus modernity, but the contact, inter-cultural transmission and general getting along between cultures that the Middle Ages can also exemplify, and let that be our message for those who would make the Middle Ages in their chosen anti-image.8

Mihrab in the Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba

Mihrab in the Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba, by Ingo Mehlingown work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Much of this was therefore familiar to me, but some of her examples were truly ill-chosen. Above, for example, we have some of the inside of the once-Mosque of Córdoba, which Dr McClure invoked as an example of cultural fusion. And in as much as there is Islamic-style architecture justly lauded in what is now a cathedral, yes, there is fusion there; but given that it was first converted into a mosque by coercion then recaptured by violence for Christianity some centuries later, soon after which all Muslims in the relevant country were given a choice between conversion or expulsion, I do think the context should change how we read this monument! And indeed, Dr McClure said it showed how even in periods of conflict cultures still interpenetrate, showing the power of contact to survive conflict, but, as Michael Berube once said Auerbach said, “Ew ew ew ew ew!” Is it then OK to conquer people and nick their stuff as long as it’s a cultural growth experience? This was a building repeatedly established by the assertion of domination over one group by another and it is exactly the sort of thing that ISIS used and use to make their audiences angry at the ‘Crusaders’.9 Other examples included the adoption of Byzantine modes of decoration in the Church of il Redentore in Venice borrowed from the Hagia Sophia in what’s now Istanbul; that’s true but the fact that the Venetians also sacked and took over the city from which they got the idea again spoils it as a multicultural example for me, you know?10

The Chiesa del Redentore, Venice

The Chiesa del Redentore, monument to successful colonialism! By Il_Redentore.jpg: Wknight94derivative work: Alberto Fernandez Fernandez (talk) – Il_Redentore.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The problem here for me is not that Dr McClure’s paper was inaccurate, therefore. It’s that to follow her lead would be simply to choose another dominant modernity, or medievalism indeed, which would trump what anyone else sees as important. It’s not ‘multiple’ at all and neither does it seem to me decolonised; it’s still the western liberal philosophy being rolled out as a model to elsewhere. Of course, I am myself an exponent and a beneficiary of that western liberal philosophy but my problem with the strategy, if we were supposed to be applying this to an entity like ISIS, is that they simply wouldn’t have cared. Even if they did, they had a good enough grasp of the history to assert their own dominant medievalism, and their version of history arguably involved less special pleading…

As I see it, the basic problem actually just comes down to a clash of two maxims. I am a big believer in the basic philosophy “do what thou wilt, an it harm none”, and not just because of the subjunctive in it, but it sometimes runs up hard against one I’ve seen attributed to Isaac Newton or Thomas Jefferson but have never been able to trace properly, which runs, “No man can have peace longer than his neighbour wishes”.11 What do you do when the other party doesn’t care about harming none? We could, I suppose, have tried to have video-conference debates with ISIS-inclined imams where we posed the western alternative and the virtues of inter-cultural tolerance and contact, and it would just have made it clearer how effective blowing up Palmyra would be in getting ‘Rome’ to commit forces for the final conflict. ISIS never wanted peace. Given that starting position, why would the ‘Crusader’ gospel of tolerance ever have been interesting to their potential supporters?

So the medievalists of 2016 didn’t really have the answers, it seems. I’ve explained why I think Dr McClure’s suggestions ineffective already, but even Hugh, famous for his knowledge in the field, had few suggestions to offer about how to contain ISIS beyond that we needed to understand what they were doing and that it was smart. That may, I suppose, have helped us avoid mistakes (like having white professionals preaching capitalist multi-culturalism to alienated near-jihadis) if taken up, but I don’t think even Hugh had a better proposal than ‘know your enemy’. I don’t think that’s quite what an attentive Onion reader would have hoped we might deliver. The question could of course be asked whether we should be expected to solve the world’s problems with our research, and I am of course on record with other reasons we might want historians, but the trouble is that the reply of our funding bodies, our lobbying groups and, indeed, our employers, would be a resounding yes; it’s all over their publicity and their themes of interest that solving the world’s problems is what academics are for. This was an obvious problem when the USA started recruiting anthropologist advisors to serve with the military, the weaselly-named Human Terrain System, but that pressure to help with what’s visibly wrong now is the same sort of thing, in as much as it channels our work towards contemporary political problems by throttling funding for anything else. But however you feel about the morality of it, I’m not always sure about the possibility of it, and I think these two papers showed that the closer one gets to trying to do it, the weaker one’s position becomes.


1. Of course some people have disagreed: see David M. Perry, “This is not the Crusades: There’s nothing medieval about ISIS”, News in CNN, 16 October 2016, online here, or Jason T. Roche, “Islamic State and the appropriation of the Crusades – a medieval historian’s take” in The Conversation, 12 July 2017, online here.

2. Hugh Kennedy, The Caliphate (Harmondsworth 2016), repr. as Caliphate: history of an idea (London 2016); there now exists a rival text in the form of David Wasserstein, Black Banners of ISIS: the roots of the new caliphate (New Haven 2017).

3. Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Maqqarī, The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain, extracted from the Nafhu-t-tíb min ghosni-l-Andalusi-r-rattíb wa táríkh lisánu-d-dín Ibni-l-Khattíb, trans. by Pascual de Gayangos, 2 vols (London 1840), II, online here, p. 59. Al-Maqqari is thankfully not the earliest historian to quote this story, given his eight-hundred-year distance from the events, but it’s almost certainly not contemporary; I think it does have to date to the Umayyad period in Spain, however, because why would you invent the story once the dynastic hero was no longer relevant?

4. By the time it fell, however, the legend was sufficiently well-known that it was left to Islamic troops—no ‘Crusaders’ or ‘Rumi’—to take the place.

5. This was, acknowledgedly, a presentation of an article that was by then in print, so you can see for yourself in Julia McClure, “A New Politics of the Middle Ages: A Global Middle Ages for a Global Modernity” in History Compass Vol. 13 (Oxford 2015), pp. 610–619, DOI: 10.1111/hic3.12280.

6. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia 2008), where pp. 62-74 show exactly this rhetoric being deployed by the English crown and the East India Company as they started their conquest of India, including invocations of ‘feudalism’.

7. McClure’s cite for the ‘multiple modernities’ idea is Arif Dirlik, “Global Modernity?: Modernity in an Age of Global Capitalism” in European Journal of Social Theory Vol. 6 (New York City 2003), pp. 275–292, DOI: 10.1177/13684310030063001), but in his defence, Dirlik warns against exactly the position I think Dr McClure reached.

8. Here, obviously, I would cite Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty or specifically for ISIS, Kennedy, Caliphate; Dr McClure’s cite was Michael Cook, Ancient religions, modern politics: the Islamic case in comparative perspective (Princeton 2014), which I admit I’ve not read.

9. A good essay on the symbolisms, and indeed chronology, of the building’s various existences is Nuha N. N. Khoury, “The Meaning of the Great Mosque of Cordoba in the Tenth Century” in Muqarnas Vol. 13 (Leiden 1996), pp. 80–98. If you prefer a more contemporary take, though, well, there’s me

10. And for a quick guide to this cultural aggressors’ church, there’s Deborah Howard, “Venice between East and West: Marc’Antonio Barbaro and Palladio’s Church of the Redentore” in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians Vol. 62 (Berkeley 2003), pp. 306–325.

11. I think, maybe, that I read it as a quote at the head of a chapter in a book by Gerald Durrell, in which case it is not impossible that he himself was the source. But I can’t find it, either way.