Name in Print XXIV: women writing in tenth-century Catalonia

I have been waiting to be able to post this for some months, and now thanks to the good offices of Cambridge University Press and the continuing operation of the Royal Mail even in lockdown—about which I am genuinely thankful and also slightly remorseful, not that anyone should be catching anything from me at this time—I can. In September of last year I got an article out that I have been hoping to see in print for a very long time, and about a week ago I finally got my own copy, so now it’s time to announce it here!

Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 39

Remeber this charter? Surely you must. It is, of course, Archivo de la Corona d’Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 39

Our subject is a piece of work with a very long history indeed, pretty much all of which has been recorded on this blog. In 2007 I first recorded some frustration with a scholarly view that nuns in Catalonia couldn’t write, because I knew full well two charters that they signed autograph, showing that they could at least write their own names.1 One of these was the above, where actually you have at least four and maybe more nuns doing so, along with signatures for some of them by the scribe as if he didn’t expect them to do so.2 The palaeography of this document, which at that stage I knew only from a bad colour scan I made from the Catalunya Romànica, is actually really tricky, but at some point before late 2009 I had realised that the fact that they all signed in different hands meant that they had not been taught to write at Sant Joan, and so presumably already knew how to write, more or less, when they arrived.3 In other words, this document proves lay female literacy in certain circles of tenth-century Catalonia. By early September 2009 I was trying to work out what those circles were, using prosopography, and then I got to stand up in front of one of my old supervisors and explain my first results. So far so good, and this is where the complications started…

Initially, it was proposed to publish the proceedings of that conference as a celebratory volume for that aforesaid supervisor, but the person who bravely took on the editing was not then in a safe position of employment, and they spent longer in the precariate than is good for one and had to concentrate on other things. It took a little while for that to become clear, but around 2013 it did, and then I was looking for a new home for what I thought was quite a good piece. In mid-2015, already, Magistra et Mater alerted me to a relevant-looking call for papers for an edited volume on women in the Iberian Peninsula, and so I brought the paper up to date, having by then caught up with Michel Zimmermann’s work on the subject and thought a bit harder about the gender angle due to the excellent company I had been keeping, and sent off an abstract in November of that year.4

Initially this seemed to go well. I was invited to send in a full version, which I duly did in May 2017—in the middle of this the prospective publisher had been swallowed up by a bigger fish, so the delay wasn’t the editors’ fault, it’s just the kind of thing that happens to my publications… That was accepted, as I understood it anyway, but I then got into a tangle with the editorial panel over female agency, which they wanted emphasised. I felt that Sant Joan, which was shut down by papal decree in 1017 after an all-male embassy of relatives of the then-abbess went to Rome and told his Holiness that the nuns were ‘parricides and whores of Venus’, and then chucked them out onto pension estates and established a bishopric for a male relative on the patrimony instead, was a really bad place to look for that and preferred my old first-wave interpretation, that it was tough to be up against the Man in circa 1000 Catalonia.5 I sent in a revised version in May 2017, got feedback, and then sent another in January 2018 which I hoped was an acceptable compromise, pointing out that the nuns had most agency when they acted alone but that was also when they had the least power. To that, I quickly got back a decision that shifts in the theme of the volume meant that my chapter was no longer going to fit. So it was orphaned again.

Cover of Traditio volume 74 for 2019

Cover of Traditio, volume 74 for 2019

Now, at this stage, for reasons I won’t go into, it was very important for me to get some more quality publications into play. So, I cast around for possible alternative homes and lit upon the venerable periodical Traditio, where long ago I had been encouraged to send something else that, as it turned out, wasn’t ready. I like to try to cross these misses off when I can, and I had not given up on Traditio. So I took a careful look at their editorial board, added suitable references to relevant work, revised again with the previous rejection comments at least partly accommodated, and sent it off again the very next month. This meant working during strike, but not on anything I was supposed to be doing, so I thought I could justify it. And when Traditio‘s review timetable rolled around to it in April 2019—about which they were explicit from the start, and 100% accurate—they accepted it, almost as was, which was the kind of good news I badly needed at that time.

First page of Jonathan Jarrett, "Nuns, Signatures, and Literacy in late-Carolingian Catalonia" in Traditio Vol. 74 (Cambridge 2019), pp. 125–152

First page of Jonathan Jarrett, “Nuns, Signatures, and Literacy in late-Carolingian Catalonia” in Traditio Vol. 74 (Cambridge 2019), pp. 125–152, DOI: 10.1017/tdo.2019.7

And so, after a series of copy-editing back-and-forths with a keen and competent Fordham graduate student over June to August 2019, and then finally proofs in late September 2019, in very late September 2019 it went online, and I was assured that print copies were winging their way to me.6 Now at last I have them and so the world can know, if you hadn’t seen it already, that it exists. I’m rather pleased with it, too; I always thought it was a clever piece of work, though I say it as shouldn’t, and I think it has found a suitable home. (It has also been an exemplary editorial experience, for which I am very thankful.) If you want to see it, I have an access link I can share with a small number of people (which means signing up to Cambridge Core), or there may be other means of sharing we can work out; just let me know! But, basically, ta-da! Article. I thank you…


1. I was then kicking against M. Zimmermann, “Langue et lexicographie : l’apport des actes catalans” in O. Guyotjeannin, L. Morelle & M. Parisse (edd.), “Pratiques de l’écrit documentaire au XIe siècle” in Bibliothèque de l’École des Chartes Vol. 155 (Paris 1997), pp. 185-205, the start of a grand tradition of disagreeing with that learned man’s work.

2. Your editions of reference for this charter would be Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: Estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18 (Barcelona 1951), doc. no. 128, or Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia Volum IV: Els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica 53 (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 645.

3. The scan came from Antoni Pladevall i Font, Núria Peíris i Pujolar, Joan-Albert Adell i Gisbert, Xavier Barral i Altet, R. Bastardes i Parera and Rosa M. Martín i Ros, “Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Antoni Pladevall (ed.), Catalunya Rom&aagrave;nica X: el Ripollès (Barcelona 1987), pp. 354–410 at p. 364, where Udina’s text is also reprinted. After a while, however, I was able to get a much better facsimile out of the Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, whose shelfmark for it is Barcelona, Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Sunifred 39, and which they kindly let me publish, for which many thanks.

4. Zimmermann’s work here referred to being M. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIe siècle), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols.

5. By this stage, because I thought it had been accepted, I had cited it in a few places as forthcoming in this volume, so if you really want to do some cyber-stalking you can probably find out the volume’s notional details, but I shan’t name it here, because it’s not yet out, could still change, isn’t mine to cite any more and, frankly, as things have turned out they probably did me a favour by rejecting it, as well as making it a better article, so ingratitude seems misplaced.

6. Citation therefore: Jonathan Jarrett, “Nuns, Signatures, and Literacy in late-Carolingian Catalonia” in Traditio Vol. 74 (Cambridge 2019), pp. 125–152, DOI: 10.1017/tdo.2019.7.

Seminar CCXLV: me judging judges in Sheffield

We are living in interesting times, and the last few weeks have been extremely busy for a whole bunch of reasons no-one wanted. I came back off strike, had one day in the office and then had to move all my teaching online, then reinvent it again for different patterns of online delivery as instructions changed, and I was also behind with quite a lot of other things but still on action short of strike, and in general it’s been a complex time and I couldn’t make blogging a priority. So far me and mine are still well, or at least, only ill with things other than the novel coronavirus, and I hope that you can all say as much or better, but please look after yourselves anyway. I did wonder whether it was really important to blog about old stuff already backdated at the moment, but if it’s ever important, I suppose that that hasn’t changed much, and it’s Sunday and I’m not legally allowed to work, so why not, eh?1

So we go back, then, to December 2016, when as you may recall I saw a paper that I’d promised to give becoming less and less possible to write under my workload, grimly ignored that workload for a weekend and wrote anyway, the result being called, “Judging the Judges in the Frankish March of Spain before the Year 1000” and presented at the Medieval and Renaissance Seminar in the University of Sheffield on the 7th of the 12th. I’d been meaning to do something about judges in Borrell II’s Barcelona for many years, it was now part of the work for the book I still thought I was writing, and although I had no time to do the kind of reading in the recent historiography that I’d have liked, really long-term readers may remember that Dr Theo Riches once kindly described me as being different from other historians because I can count, and so I sat down with the Catalunya Carolíngia and my notes and I counted judges until the numbers started telling me things. I will, some day, do something with this work, but at the moment it’s one of a number of things I’ve been told by my management not to pursue, so there seems not much more to do with it than to bank a couple of its conclusions here and hope some day for different instructions.

Signature of the judge Dacó, highlighted on Vic, Arxiu Capitular, calaix 6, núm. 882

Signature of the judge Dacó, highlighted on Vic, Arxiu Capitular, calaix 6, núm. 882, my photo

So what the paper did was firstly to introduce late-Carolingian Catalonia to the audience, and then to introduce within it the concept that the historiography has developed of a super-learned clerical judicial cadre working around tenth- and eleventh-century Barcelona making impartial judgements on the basis of written law, a picture that once caused Roger Collins, no less, to ask, “whether anything better could be found anywhere else in Europe in the earlier Middle Ages?”2 We’re talking people like the man I have often named here as Ervigi Marc the Wonder Judge, who wound up as a bishop without portfolio because of his great importance.3 So far my sole contribution to this scholarship has been a footnote pointing out that these people don’t really appear before the 970s, and wondering, of course, if they might be Count-Marquis Borrell II‘s fault. Jeffrey Bowman‘s work has done something to add variegation to that picture by suggesting that there were other judges not quite so impressively trained, more like the Carolingian (or Lombard) idea of people who know the law whom you get to come and hear disputes rather than professionals, and Josep María Salrach‘s recent book does a lot to show that even the ‘professional’ judges were sometimes fallible or corruptible, as indeed we’ve seen here too.4 There’s also now a good bit of prosopographical work on these super-judges to work out who they were, and I’m not as aware of that as I’d like to be, but by repeating some of that work with the indices of the Catalunya Carolíngia I did work out at least two things that I, at least, hadn’t previously noticed or read, and so I’ll tell you about them.5

Graph of judicial actions over time in Catalan charters pre-1000

Graph of judicial actions over time in Catalan charters pre-1000

So here’s a graph, because we know that works, and also because as Wendy Davies says in her own study of judges a bit west from here, “Firstly numbers.”6 The yellow background trace is the overall number of documents preserved over time, from about 880 up to 1000; it’s missing a lot, because I didn’t then have the Catalunya Carolíngia volumes covering Barcelona, and if I ever return to this adding them will be the first thing to do, but I hope it gives the overall trends, which is to say that we have a better chance of observing anything as time goes on because there’re more documents in which one might find it.7 The purple foreground signal is the number of dispute cases, which as you can see is neither very much of the evidence nor that continuous, at least until it gets late enough. Then the blue signal between the two is the total number of judges active in the documents for that year, counting each individual judge as many times as there are occasions when he appears.

There’s a lot one can take from this, but I choose two things: firstly, even when you have thousands of documents to work with, subsets of them can be so tiny that small numbers look more significant than maybe they are. The big spike in 842 is one case that generated lots of documents which were preserved; the 870s/880s peak is a lot of documents and meetings, but almost all coming from the hearings arranged by the monastic community of Sant Andreu d’Eixalada after their place was flooded and they had to reconstitute their holdings, so in some ways a single event.8 Even the spike in the 910s, while it is several events, is one person, Abbess Emma of Sant Joan de Ripoll, suing a succession of people for rights over lands, and when she stopped the sample drops right off again, and only really picks up with the activity of our learned college of judges in the 970s.9 But there is another change over time visible here, all the same, which is that in the early documents there are lots of people called judges (iudices) per ceremony, eight or ten at once quite often, which is why those blue spikes are so high in the 840s, whereas by the 970s one to three is more usual, and one not unusual.

Ruins of Sant Pere d'Eixalada, Catalonia

Not Sant Andreu d’Eixalada, because obviously that was destroyed, but one of the churches the displaced monks claimed, Sant Pere d’Eixalada, or what is now left of it. Photo by Jack maTreball propi, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The other change I’ll point out now, which is only just evident from the graph, is that in the ninth century, you only get people called judges recorded in actual court hearings. There’s a formula that introduces them in the case records, ‘judges who were ordered to judge’, and then a list of people follows.10 But the people who are named there very often don’t use the word iudex or anything like it in their signatures, and they don’t show up with the title outside court. In this respect, the title ‘judge’ is like the title ‘worthy man’ (bonus homo) that also appears in these contexts, and I think it has something do with standing in the court, and so is contextual, not fixed; on this occasion, these people served as judges, with those people recognised as worthy men who could approve a judgement.11 Presumably the judges knew a bit of what the law was understood to be, but they might be a lot more like Frankish scabini than Ervigi Marc, people whose knowledge could be called on for judging but whose usual rôle was not that of judge.12 This changes in 943, when a guy called Sunyer the Judge is seen as a neighbour of some property out at Manresa, but it’s really not till the 970s that we start to see people who sign as judges even when they’re not actually judging, usually because they were being called upon to act as witnesses but sometimes in their own property dealings.13 These people must have had some independent standing as judges even when they were not actually doing it, and people other than them knew they were judges all the time. And, predictably, our special learned judges are in this group, although that group is a lot bigger than just the really flash ones who show up a lot quoting law, as if I ever write this up I will show.

That’s enough for a blog post, except only that I’ll say that I was obviously wrong about Borrell II being responsible for this new class of judge; all the ones I could track seem to have started in Besalú, in fact, and be associated at least for a short while with Count-Bishop Miró Bonfill and his family, though Borrell seems to have managed to poach some of them pretty quickly… I think other people must already have realised that, but I’m not so sure that the other trends above have been spotted before. It shows what even a Saturday spent frantically dumping data into a spreadsheet can produce by way of historical insight, and also that you don’t need a born-digital corpus to do that kind of work. It went well, too, and Sheffield were excellent hosts and I was glad that I had managed to remain a researcher and not pull out despite the difficulties. Still, it’s not ideal, is it? I hope for better.


1. Because it’s not in my contract that I have to, it has to be there if my employers want me to and I’m working to contract.

2. Roger Collins, “‘Sicut lex Gothorum continet’: Law and Charters in Ninth- and Tenth-Century León and Catalonia” in English Historical Review Vol. 100 (Oxford 1985), pp. 489–512 at p. 512.

3. On Ervigi see now Josep Maria Font i Rius, “L’Escola jurídica de Barcelona” in Jesús Alturo, Joan Bellès, Font, Yolanda García & Anscarí M. Mundó (edd.), Liber iudicum popularis, ordenat pel jutge Bonsom de Barcelona, Textos jurídics catalans: Lleis i costums I/1 (Barcelona 2003), pp. 67-100 at pp. 82-87, though I would now be sceptical about the idea of the ‘Barcelona school’ in which he is set.

4. My sally is in Jonathan Jarrett, “Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan ‘Terra de Ningú'” in †Alan Deyermond & Martin J. Ryan (edd.), Early Medieval Spain: A Symposium (London: Queen Mary University of London, 2010), pp. 89–128 at p. 105 n. 6. The other works just mentioned are Jeffrey Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000 (Ithaca NY 2004) and Josep María Salrach, Justícia i poder a Catalunya abans de l’any mil (Vic 2013).

5. The prosopographical work I mean is in Font, “L’Escola jurídica”, and Anscarí M. Mundó, “El jutge Bonsom” in Alturo, Bellès, Font, Garcí & Mundó, Liber iudicum popularis, pp. 101-118.

6. Wendy Davies, “Judges and Judging: truth and justice in northern Iberia on the eve of the millennium” in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 36 (Amsterdam 2010), pp. 193–203 at p. 199.

7. The Barcelona volumes are now out, and I have them, which is a separate and bloggable story by itself, but their citation is Ignasi J. Baiges i Jardí and Pere Puig i Ustrell (edd.), Catalunya carolíngia Volum VII: el comtat de Barcelona, Memòries de la Secció Històrica-Arqueològica 110 (Barcelona 2019), 3 vols.

8. I think there is still no better study of this event than Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “Com neix i creix un gran monestir pirinenc abans de l’any mil: Eixalada-Cuixà” in Analecta Montserratensia Vol. 8 (Montserrat 1954), pp. 125–337, repr. without the documentary appendix in Abadal, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i documents 13-14 (Barcelona 1969), 2 vols, I, pp. 377–484. Everyone I’ve found who’s written about Cuixà since has just pointed back to it, and not without justification.

9. On this see, of course, Jonathan Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2003), pp. 229–258.

10. For example, Santiago Sobrequés i Vidal, Sebastià Riera i Viader & Manuel Rovirà i Sola (edd), Catalunya carolíngia V: els comtats de Girona, Besalú, Empúries i Peralada, rev. by Ramon Ordeig i Mata, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 61 (Barcelona 2009), 2 vols, I, doc. no. 19: “iudices qui iussi sunt causas audire vel dirimere“, ‘judges who were ordered to hear and determine cases’.

11. On the ‘worthy men’ in this context, a quick reference is Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 35-36 & n. 55.

12. On Carolingian practice I think we can still rely on Janet L. Nelson, “Dispute Settlement in Carolingian West Francia” in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (edd.), The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1986), pp. 45-63, reprinted in Janet L. Nelson, The Frankish World, 750-900 (London 1996), pp. 51-74. On the Lombard one, I admit that I’m thinking back as far as D. A. Bullough, “Europae Pater: Charlemagne and his achievement in the light of recent scholarship” in English Historical Review Vol. 85 (Oxford 1970), pp. 59–105 at pp. 91-96, but I suppose an update, perhaps in the form of Marios Costambeys, “Disputes and Courts in Lombard and Carolingian Central Italy” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2007), pp. 265–289, would be wise to get.

13. The judge Sunyer turns up actually judging in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya carolíngia volum IV: Els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica 53 (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, I, doc. no. 443, but then again just as a neighbour ibid. doc. no. 532.

I found this coin, 3: imperial violence

I had intended to follow the last post, which was quite heavy, with something lighter-weight—specifically, about three and a half grams—by picking something out of the coins photography I was still doing in late 2016 and telling its story in that way that I sometimes do. And yet, without my having planned this, it functions rather well as an epilogue. So here’s three coins…

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Licinius I struck at Siscia in 320, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0650

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Licinius I struck at Siscia in 320, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0650

Reverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Licinius I struck at Siscia in 320, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0650

Reverse of the same coin, with the imagery that’s important for this post, under the legend Virtus Exercitus, ‘strength of the army’

In one of the previous ones of these posts I remarked on a well-known but still interesting fact, that the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine I (306-337) to Christianity, however loudly his biographer Bishop Eusebius of Cæsarea wanted to tell us about it, shows up almost nowhere on Constantine’s absolutely prolific coinage, which retained the pagan imagery of his immediate colleagues and predecessors. The other favourite subject, however, was by now the Roman army. And above there you see the ideal results of its operations, two unlucky captives bound below a military standard, a reasonably simple visual message to parse.

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Constantius II struck at Thessaloniki in 350-355, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Constantius II struck at Thessaloniki in 350-355, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

Reverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Constantius II struck at Thessaloniki in 350-355, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

And the reverse of the same coin, showing as you can probably see a Roman soldier skewering a fallen horseman with his spear

The three of Constantine’s sons who eventually succeeded him, Constantine II (317-340), Constantius II (324-361) and Constans I (333-350), were all, we suppose, raised Christian, and there is a bit more Christian imagery on their coins but mainly they stuck to the same theme. It is worth bearing in mind, of course, that the Roman army was the primary user base for new coinage, since they received it as pay, or in the case of pieces like these, as exchange for a low enough part of the value of their pay, which was made in gold, that they could actually spend it. So messages that say how great and fearsome the army was make sense on Roman coinage, but still, this imagery of violent and unequal battle and, let’s face it, death, was also the general circulating medium of exchange in the empire.

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Julian II struck at Thessaloniki in 355-361, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

Obverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Julian II struck at Thessaloniki in 355-361, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

Reverse of a copper-alloy coin of Emperor Julian II struck at Thessaloniki in 355-361, Leeds, Brotherton Library, CC/TH/ROM/IMP/0780

Reverse of the same coin, showing the new emperor (admittedly then operating as junior to Constantius II still) maintaining the same imagery

Now, it seems to me that this is one of those lines our culture (by which I mainly mean the Anglophone liberal one in which I currently write) has set up between the past and us; we wouldn’t put imagery of our state employees killing the state’s opponents on our money. But where does the past start that we have chosen to mark ourselves off from in the manner I was describing last post?

Colin Gill, 'King Alfred's Longships Defeat the Danes', 1927, London, House of Commons, WOA-2600

Colin Gill, ‘King Alfred’s Longships Defeat the Danes’, 1927, London, House of Commons, WOA-2600, used under the Open Parliament License

Maybe not all that long ago, huh? We all know that the 1914-1918 Great War was not in fact ‘the war to end all wars’, but in 1927 the UK’s governing establishment was apparently still pretty proud of its previous wars, and of course this is still there now, part of the normal backdrop to the entry and exit of our ruling class from their place of daily responsibility. Not just them, either; the last time I was in the London auction house Spinks, there was on display there a, how shall I put it? ‘dramatic’, I think is the word, a ‘dramatic’ diorama of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, made in 1979. It eventually sold for £2,100 (lot 666, indeed). And we could go on piling up examples.

Which of us in the UK can, after all, honestly say that they have never uttered a line from this film? Not many! And yet it is the same message being delivered: this empire’s army surely does (did?) kill its enemies. Obviously, it surprises no-one to say that empires rest on violence. The Romans as a people knew this, not least because their state used means like these coins to tell them so. We would not put that on coins. But you can make a lot of money passing the message all the same. Funny, isn’t it, where our scruples now lie compared to theirs?

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.

Seminar CCXLIV: an East vs. West clerical normality contest

Today I am not on strike, because it is a Sunday, and thanks to the Working Time Directive I can blog if I like and no-one can tell me not to. I promised a few posts ago that I would do a proper write-up on a paper which Dr Maroula Perisanidi gave at the University of Leeds a long time ago, 16th November 2016 in fact, at the outset of what has proved to be a quite durable association with us, and before that association lapses I should at least manage to give m’colleague some blog space; besides which, it was an interesting paper. I think, in fact, it was a presentation of a topic which Maroula was even then moving away from—the book of it came out in 2019, but I have the impression that that was a long process—and this can serve as a plug for the book, therefore.1 Her title was “Clerical Marriage in A Comparative Perspective”.

Now a title like that raises one reaction that is perhaps natural to any enquiring mind, and another that is maybe only natural to a modern Catholic audience, which such an audience may indeed not realise is not natural to others. The first reaction would be, “where are we comparing?” and the second reaction would be, “but clergymen aren’t supposed to marry!” And this was exactly the point of the paper. Since the Church trying to prohibit clerical marriage is one of those things like monastic reform or plague outbreaks that can easily seem to have come round in a fairly frequent cycle during the Middle Ages, one could be forgiven for accepting a narrative that says it was always technically prohibited but that blind eyes were turned for long periods and then occasionally there was a back-to-basics campaign that got people into trouble.2 Thing is, that would be very much a Western narrative, which becomes very obvious when, as Maroula was doing, you compare somewhere like medieval England with Byzantium. There aren’t many people who can do that, but Maroula had spent some time becoming one of them, and what we got now was the fruits of that learning.

The famous unexplained scene from the Bayeux Tapestry “where a cleric and Æfgyva…” We have no idea who either were or whether the suggestive figure in the lower margin relates to them and their story. It’s actually quite hard to find pictures of medieval priests and their wives, but it’s probably easier than trying to find pictures of Byzantine and English churches meeting. Maroula’s poster for the seminar also opted for this image, which tells you that perhaps no search would find what I was looking for…

As my students often find, it’s very hard to know when the Greek Christian Church and the Latin one finally parted ways and became Orthodox and Catholic (rather than both being both); there’s about six different definitive dates of separation depending on what you count, but relatively few people would put them before, say, the mid-9th century, not least because not long before that you have Charlemagne trying to interfere in the imperial theological wrangling over icons, which you’d think he wouldn’t have bothered to do if he’d thought they weren’t the same Church over there.3 But still, there were divisions between Latin and Greek Christianities that went a way back even then, and this was then; from the 4th century onwards, about as early as organised Christianity can be called a single body (albeit by ignoring those groups already splintered), the Latin Church has either objected to the marriage of priests or been quiet about it, whereas the Greek one is basically cool with it. That is, of course, a massive over-simplification: both sides had variant views in play, many of which Maroula has found. But that general picture might still be fair.

What was it that the Western Church couldn’t take about clerical marriage? Interestingly, it shifted over time. To start with, the places we find rulings about this are mainly concerned with Church property falling into lay hands, either because of a priest having children to whom he wanted, naturally, to leave some kind of inheritance, or for some more immediately offended people, because of him supporting his wife on the offerings of the faithful. The Byzantine perspective was much more that the revenue from offerings was disposable, as long as the offerings themselves remained with the Church, and this meant that priests could, for example, be salaried; in the West, whether because of a later-developing cash economy or for some other reason, that wasn’t a popular solution. Byzantium was not blind to these concerns, but it kept them to bishops, who were supposed to be unmarried; a priest hoping for promotion needed either to be single and celibate or to agree on celibate separation from his wife. (Indeed, as became clear in questions, while priests could be married, they were not allowed to marry once priests, or even deacons, so marriage was a decision one presumably made very early in a Byzantine Church career.) Here, the different economic bases of the two societies do seem likely to be a major part of the reason for the differences, and there was probably more similarity than at first appears, especially in practice, but a difference does remain.

Mosaic depiction of Patriarch John Chrysostomos of Constantinople in the Ayasofya Musezi, Istanbul

John Chrysostom, salary-man? Perhaps the Patriarch of Constantinople isn’t the ideal example. This is the mosaic of him from inside Hagia Sofia, of which we have heard; image Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

However, the property concern died down over time in the West, and mainly because it was replaced by a growing concern about clerical purity and pollution.4 Now this was not a new concern either—you can find it in that translation of Bede’s Letter to Egbert I did ages back, and indeed in everyone else’s, and that’s eighth-century, but it seems to have taken a more popular root during the so-called Gregorian Reform, at the extreme points of which you had papally-supported mobs in Milan throwing priests and whoever they found them in bed with out of upstairs windows and so on.5 The concern seems to have been that anyone having sex might, you know, enjoy it, thus committing fornication, or just not be virginally pure, and thus perhaps not be in a very close relationship with God, in which case, what assurance had anyone that that person could truly be possessed with the Holy Spirit, Whom one would expect not to hang about in such dirty premises? I trivialise, but if what this meant was that maybe all your absolutions were invalid so your sins were still unforgiven, or that your marriage wasn’t valid so your children were the product of adultery and you a damned fornicator, you can see how it could start to have major implications for both this world and the next. The weird thing is that all these hang-ups seem to be basically Western; as close as Byzantine legislation gets is to ask for abstinence from sex with their wives for a certain time before and after performing the liturgy, so that the priest’s mind would be fully on God and his intercession would thus reach its intended recipient. There was in fact more Byzantine concern about this in the fifth than the twelfth century, whereas the West seems to have gone the other way.

Now, if Maroula offered any explanation of this, my notes don’t record it, but just to observe the fact is to raise not just the question “why”, but even the very fact of difference. Whose was the ‘normal’ position? (Erm, as it were.) Well, neither side’s, presumably, however natural they may have felt their own position was. (It would be interesting to get a third point of comparison in, of course: does or did the Church of the East require clerical celibacy? Wikipedia suggests not. The modern Anglican one of course does not, even of bishops. If that’s the game we’re playing, the Catholics look like the odd ones out now, but of course it was not so obviously so in the Middle Ages, before Anglicans…) This is the great value of comparative history, anyway; if done right, it makes one look at what one thinks is usual differently and question it.6 This paper was an example of it done right.


1. It is Maroula Perisanidi, Clerical Continence in Twelfth-Century England and Byzantium: Property, Family, and Purity (London 2019), and what I don’t provide cites for in what follows I am guessing you will find in there.

2. Some kind of prize for anyone who can tell me where, long ago, I read some historian glibly referring to some phenomenon which, “like the rise of the middle class, seems to have begun in every period”, which I presumably assumed I would never forget so didn’t record…

3. See now Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia, PA, 2009).

4. I feel as if I should mention Albrecht Diem’s Das monastische Experiment: die Rolle der Keuschheit bei der Entstehung des westlichen Klosterwesens (Münster 2005) here, but to do more than mention it would require me actually to have read it, which I confess I have not, as yet.

5. See H. E. J. Cowdrey, “The Papacy, the Patarenes and the Church of Milan” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 18 (London 1968), pp. 25-48, reprinted in idem, Popes, Monks and Crusaders (London 1984), chapter V.

6. Impossible to say such a thing, of course, without citing Chris Wickham, Problems in Doing Comparative History, Reuter Lecture 2004 (Southampton 2005), repr. in Patricia Skinner (ed.), Challenging the Boundaries of Medieval History: the legacy of Timothy Reuter (Turnhout 2009), pp. 5–28.

Hay, flax, chickens and cash

A University and College Union picket outside the University of Leeds on World Book Day

A University and College Union picket outside the University of Leeds on World Book Day, managing to pursue both causes at once, from the Leeds UCU Twitter feed

Despite our still being on strike, it has been oddly hard for me to block out time for blogging these last few days, partly because of well-timed family celebrations but also because I have been taking the chance to fulfil promises that work had prevented me from answering. This means, for example, that I spent almost all of yesterday rewriting and editing numismatic scholarship for people in China, all of which would make my managers despair if I did it on work time rather than marking assessments or finishing one of the two articles I’m supposed to be prioritising just now in the time I can’t protect. This writing has actually involved some of my better work, I think, and I look forward to sharing it with you when it comes to fruition. Today, however, I want to go back to late October 2016, before the workload mentioned a few posts ago had completely smothered me, when I was apparently still reading Italian estate surveys in preparation for the supposedly-final version of my eventual article on early medieval crop yields.1 The aim here was simply to make sure that I wasn’t missing any data from which such yields might be derived—Georges Duby did, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake while setting out why he was wrong—but one can’t help noticing things as one reads, even if they don’t end up being especially useful…2

View of the medieval centre of Verona, from Wikimedia Commons

View of the medieval centre of modern-day Verona, by Jakub Hałunown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Thus it was that I was reading a partially-preserved list of renders and dues once belonging to the bishopric of fair Verona.3 You may remember, if you go far enough back with this blog, me getting all excited about the potential of the similar records from San Salvatore di Brescia to reveal not just local peculiarity and human interest stories (though plenty of them) but also the actual recording process—they were using a form, which otherwise we suppose Charles Babbage to have invented!4 The level of standardisation was surprisingly high, though it could accommodate personal variation all the same. At Verona, we have a different situation. The record, which probably dates to the mid-tenth century and survives on four-of-we-don’t-know-how-many pieces of parchment sewn together, is actually quite variable and doesn’t have the kind of formulaic language. It’s not that it’s not all by the same people, but just that they didn’t have the same kind of desire to keep it exactly consistent, and who’s to say they weren’t happier for that? But patterns do emerge, all the same, perhaps because certain areas of the bishopric’s property had arrived in lumps, with different terms for each batch.

A modern-day agricultural landscape outside Verona

A modern-day agricultural landscape outside Verona

The overall picture looks roughly as you’d expect: the normal estate rendered a third of its wine production, a quarter of its grain, paid a few deniers on Saint Zeno’s day and owed some other stuff, flax, linen, hay, beans, chickens and eggs, fish or whatever, depending on the estate and what it had, presumably. In many cases the tenants did a few days’ labour on the bishopric’s own land too. Certain bits stand out for oddity: some estates had to render particular sorts of cereal, for example—millet and sorghum in San Vito di Castilione, wheat, rye and millet in Bonerigo and wheat, fava beans, rye, millet, panic and sorghum in Arcila, since you ask—whereas most of the rest just rendered “grain”.5 A very few places rendered partly in hay, presumably only at some times of the year; the interesting thing there is that they all render to the same place, not the cathedral but an estate centre at Legnago. Did the bishopric have a stock-raising operation there which needed a lot of animal feed?6 A lot of places rendered in flax, but the state it arrived in varied: raw flax was acceptable from some places, but others had to render prepared flax and some actual woven linen.7

Flax fields near Bergamo

Modern flax growing near Bergamo

Apart from the delightfully variegated texture of human endeavour across the Veronese landscape which this gives us, it also makes it clear that the bishopric of Verona was a commercial operation in a commercial world, whatever the historiography would wish to tell you about the dates we can use such words.8 Much of what they were getting in was provisions, for sure, and they might have had a lot of people to feed even beyond the cathedral canons; the urban Church was what there was in the tenth century by way of poor relief, after all.9 But I don’t think they can genuinely have needed quite that much linen all by themselves, which implies that they were selling it as material for the textile industry for which the area would be famous later on. There’s nothing surprising about that, either, because the number of renders in cash show that there was obviously a money economy of some sort in operation and if they could in fact spend those coins, then others must have been able to buy as well, or what would the good of the coins have been to them?10 None of this seems very odd, perhaps, but it is nice to be able to show it for definite.

Ottonian denaro from an Italian mint, perhaps Verona

Some of that same cash, a silver denaro of Emperor Otto I struck perhaps at Verona in 962-973, Münzen Sänn, 3731900816, now in a private collection

Furthermore, the overall pattern was not controlled; the cathedral wasn’t turning certain parts of its property into specialist provision, or I think the picture would be very much more differentiated. What they mainly wanted was wine, grain, chicken and eggs and money, and those were probably also partly for sale (because yes, you can sell cash, it’s something banks do, we just don’t call it that when they do it). Where there are signs of specialisation, therefore, it’s probably fair to guess that they had been set up by the people who’d owned the land before it came to the cathedral, which is to say that this kind of economic optimisation had been a lay pursuit too for a little while by circa 950. I’d have to work harder to prove this, and I suspect it’s already been done, but with this kind of material, it can be, you see.

Medieval statue of Saint Zeno of Verona, from Wikimedia Commons

Saint Zeno, as depicted in a later medieval form still on display in Verona. (He was from modern-day Morocco, according to legend anyway.) Image by Mattanaown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The goods may have been for sale, then, but they were also for show. Remember that a lot of this stuff was to be brought to the cathedral on the feast day of its patron saint, Zeno (12 April, apparently). I imagine there was a feast, too, and perhaps the tenants got to eat some of what they had brought, but mainly, I imagine, they all saw each other paying up and were inescapably reminded who their lord was, how powerful he was and how much help he could draw on if he needed to (or you needed him to). A very few places also rendered single lambs, and just as I did at Brescia I wonder if those were to be delivered at Easter, but I can’t prove that whereas the big gathering on Saint Zeno’s Day looks pretty undeniable. It’s not quite conspicuous consumption, but one could call it conspicuous stockpiling, I guess, and the audience may have been the city population who might need the bishop’s charity in the tough months before the harvest as much as the tenants who had, presumably, still kept most of what they’d grown or raised. One could link this to the ancient role of bishops as civic patrons or remember that the English word for ‘lord’ comes from an Old English word hlaford meaning ‘loaf-giver’, but either way the person who can feed the poor when the poor need him is in a powerful position, and that’s what this ceremony must have set up in Verona.11

I can’t do anything especially novel with any of this, and the document didn’t have the smoking guns of crop yields for which I was searching. If I’d been one hundred per cent focused on the research outcome, I’d regret having read this estate survey. As it is, though, even though I will probably never really need to know anything about how tenth-century Verona hung together and what its citizens for sale saw in their marketplace, I have a quite lively mental picture of another corner of tenth-century Europe all the same, and that will do nicely for me, thankyou!


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

2. The yields he missed were in Andrea Castagnetti (ed.), “S. Tommaso di Reggio” in Andrea Castagnetti (ed.), Inventari altomedievali di terre, coloni e redditi (Roma 1979), pp. 193–198, discussed even before publication in Vito Fumagalli, “Rapporto fra grano seminato e grano raccolto nel politico del monastero di S. Tommaso di Reggio” in Rivista di storia dell’agricoltura Vol. 6 (Firenze 1966), pp. 360–362, just too late for Duby’s big works. See Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages”, p. 25 for discussion.

3. Castagnetti (ed.), “Vescovato di Verona” in Castagnetti, <u<Inventari altomedievali di terre, pp. 95–111.

4. The Brescia materials are printed in Gianfranco Pasquali (ed.), “S. Giulia di Brescia”, ibid., pp. 41–94. As for Babbage, the claim rests upon Charles Babbage, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (London 1832), pp. 114-118, online here.

5. Castagnetti, “Verona”, pp. 107, 106-107 and 108 for the specific cases.

6. Ibid., pp. 103-104.

7. For example, linen from a half-colonica held by Atto in Cennserava and one colonica belonging to Tonono in Castolisine (ibid., pp. 104 and 106), prepared flax from another of Atto’s colonicae in Cennserava (ibid. p. 104), but raw flax from one of Legnago’s dependencies (ibid. p. 101), with many more examples available.

8. I refer of course to Robert S. Lopez, The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950‒1350 (New York City 1971), for whose narrative we seem here to be slightly early.

9. On poor relief you could see Peregrine Horden, “Poverty, Charity, and the Invention of the Hospital” in Scott Fitzgerald Johnson (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity (Oxford 2012), pp. 715–743.

10. This isn’t even that new an idea: the best cite I can immediately pick up for it is Gino Luzzatto, “Changes in Italian Agrarian Economy (from the Fall of the Carolingians to the Beginning of the 11th Century)”, trans. Sylvia L. Thrupp, in Thrupp (ed.), Early Medieval Society (New York City 1967), pp. 206–218.

11. On bishops and cities, try Claudia Rapp, “Bishops in Late Antiquity: A New Social and Urban Elite?” in John H. Haldon and Lawrence I. Conrad (edd.), Elites Old and New in the Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East: Papers of the sixth Workshop on Late Antiquity and Early Islam, Byzantium and the Early Islamic Near East 6 (Princeton 2004), pp. 149-178.

Seminar CCXLIII: creating the law under Charlemagne

Pickets outside the University of Leeds on 26th February 2020

Pickets outside the University of Leeds today

It’s back to work for the UK’s academics tomorrow, in what for me will be one very frantic day of teaching followed by another one of marking, but then, unless some substantial progress is made in negotiations, we’re back on strike again on Monday. There is therefore time now, but maybe not later, for me to deliver on the first of the posts I just promised, by reactivating a long-dormant series with a post about a visit to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, like I used to do so much long ago. On this occasion the beneficiary is Professor Jennifer Davis, who had at this point just published an important book on Charlemagne’s government and had come to talk to us with the title, “Rethinking the Frankish Capitulary”.1 This is stuff that affects how the Frankish kings who separated Catalonia from the rest of the Iberian peninsula ruled there, so I care enough to make a post out of it so as to think more about it.

Barcelona, Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Ripoll, MS 40

The opening page of an actual Catalan text of some Frankish capitularies, in the copy of the collection of Ansegis in Barcelona, Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Ripoll, MS 40

Now, if you’ve never met the word ‘capitulary‘ that is not a reason to feel ignorant, because it’s arguably a word without a solid definition and is only used by scholars of the line of Frankish kings we call the Carolingians, but what they usually mean by it and what was meant here is documents of legislation arranged as headings or chapters, in Latin in capitula. This was how the rulers of the Carolingian kingdoms liked to issue new law, in collections of points that had needed ruling on at the same time. Some of them are more programmatic, when there was a policy at work that means lots of the laws connect up, and some are just the business of that particular assembly as it fell out.2 The ones that actually were issued in assembly, however—which by no means everything that’s ever been called a capitulary was—present a paradox, which is where this paper started: these are, as far as we can tell, legislation that was actually given out from royal assemblies, but the texts we have of them are all private copies, often slightly varying, with no clear sign that there was actually an ‘official’ text of the rulings anywhere. What kind of law is it that generates so much text but doesn’t actually stick to its own letter?

Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, MS Cod Guelf 130 Blank, fo. 35v

The end of the capitularies and the beginning of the laws, in a Carolingian legal collection now preserved as Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, MS Cod Guelf 130 Blank (fo. 35v)

There have, hitherto, been two fairly broad ways out of this particular difficulty and one newer, narrower one. The older one of the broad two is simply to assume that the Carolingians were way more ambitious in their legislation than was actually practical, that the ideals of the state outstripped its actual capacity.3 This seems necessarily to suppose that the Carolingians themselves didn’t know how well their own state worked, and while communications and knowledge networks were surely imperfect, then as now or more so, scholars have been less and less happy over time to assume in this way that we know better than our subjects did. The alternative broad way, therefore, associated forever with the name of Patrick Wormald, is to argue that the kings knew perfectly well that what they legislated probably wouldn’t actually happen but the point was to behave in a royal or imperial fashion by issuing law, by being seen to know what the good of the kingdom was and how it should be achieved, and in general to create the impression that royal government was doing what it should and living up to expectations. In this view legislation was primarily performative, and the number of texts we have of Carolingian legislation just indicate that the performance was well received.4

Drawing by L. Bethmann of a portrait of a Lombard king issuing law in the Codex Cavensis, c. 1005

Drawing by L. Bethmann of a portrait of a Lombard king issuing law in the Codex Cavensis, c. 1005; click through for a link to the full-size original drawing in context at the dMGH

In the last decade or so, however, law has become part of the material for a developing school of thought that says that although the Carolingians proclaimed a rhetoric of reform and correction and standardised a lot of texts, including those of the big traditional lawcodes that helped to define many of the identities within the Frankish Empire, uniformity may not have been the goal, as opposed to uniform participation, within which a certain amount of variety was not only tolerable, but maybe even necessary so as to be able to test different possible solutions to problems.5 By this reckoning the point of the capitularies was not to get everyone dancing to the same tunes, but to make it clear that the band was playing and they should listen. This was roughly where Professor Davis located her argument, but she did so only after touring us through a number of difficulties with any of the three solutions so far argued, based on a really good study of the manuscript evidence. For instance:

  • Charlemagne’s later capitularies repeatedly stress that everyone should know and even discuss what was in the laws, but there was still apparently no standard text or content for any collection of them; his son Louis the Pious had one made, but he did not.6
  • Apparently there were written copies in circulation, as well as the reports of the messengers who carried them, because some of the capitularies instruct their recipients to make copies of them upon receipt—so why don’t we have many copies that match? We have some, but few.
  • If you actually did have access to all the capitularies of the reign, they’d contradict each other quite a lot on some issues, so what were people supposed to learn?

Professor Davis’s overall suggestion was that, while details were sometimes important to know—and one particular capitulary was so keen on that that it required that a copy be made of itself and then signed by all present, and it’s possible we still have one copy of a lawcode – not a capitulary – that shows this happening, as you can see below—what the king was really after was a general knowledge of ‘the law’, writ broadly, in all its contradictory possibilities, whether canon law, Biblical law, ‘Frankish’ or other ‘ethnic’ law or the capitularies; as long as the royal right to be authoritative was recognised, and people did this work to discuss and know the law because the king required it, the fact that this might create the crazily-paved pattern of slightly different selections, determinations and versions of ‘the law’ all across the empire might not matter; people using it would still be doing right at royal behest.

The opening of the Law of the Ribuarian Franks in München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS Clm. 4115, fo. 1r, apparently signed in quite a variety of hands

I think this does help us squeeze through that narrow gap of conformity-not-uniformity while still recognising that these texts appear to require specific behaviour of their audience, but the contradictions from our point of view don’t entirely go away with this answer, and there was some pushback in discussion from well, me and Susan Reynolds, and I don’t like to consider myself the awkward squad but—no, that’s probably a lie actually; I kind of do. Anyway; Susan thought that it was more likely that the texts existed to provide governmentalised sanction of what people were already doing, so reflect steady practice rather than royal direction of change, to which Professor Davis reasonably argued that some of the texts are explicit about innovating, which would seem to lose some of the benefit of confirming custom if that’s what you were doing; and I argued from there that the centre sometimes aimed to change ‘custom’ by contradicting the big lawcodes which it itself had compiled, so clearly had a programme of sorts, and wondered whether there were limits on the variation the centre would allow. To this Professor Davis argued that considerable autonomy of interpretation would have been allowed to those making legal judgements, especially counts and judges, but that they were expected to be making those judgements on the basis of knowing this aggregate of usable law. I am sort of OK with that, as it is very much how law was being applied in tenth-century Catalonia, as we’ve seen. But that was another century, and besides the law was the Goths’, so I wouldn’t like to be sure that this is Catalonia being Carolingian; maybe we have something more broadly Wormaldian about what early medieval law was for here… In his absence, I guess we’ll figure it out by ourselves eventually! But this was a step along the way, I thought.


1. Jennifer R. Davis, Charlemagne’s Practice of Empire (Cambridge 2015).

2. A recent discussion with the kind of nuance I’m trying to imitate here is Christina Pössel, “Authors and Recipients of Carolingian Capitularies, 779–829” in Richard Corradini, Rob Meens, Pössel and Philip Shaw (edd.), Texts and Identities in the Early Middle Ages, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 12 (Wien 2006), pp. 253–274.

3. I think of this as being the domain of François-Louis Ganshof, in particular his “The Last Period of Charlemagne’s Reign: A Study in Decomposition”, in idem, The Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy: Studies in Carolingian History, transl. Janet Sondheimer (London 1971), pp. 240–255, online here, but more specifically on this issue Ganshof, Was waren die Kapitularien? (Darmstadt 1961).

4. Patrick Wormald, “Lex Scripta and Verbum Regis: legislation and Germanic kingship, from Euric to Cnut” in P. H. Sawyer and I. N. Wood (edd.), Early Medieval Kingship (Leeds 1977), pp. 105–138, repr. in Patrick Wormald, Legal Culture in the Early Medieval West: Law as Text, Image, and Experience (London 1999), pp. 1–44. The issue must also be covered in his The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the Twelfth Century, Volume I: Legislation and Its Limits (Oxford 1999), but I don’t have easy access to a copy just now to check.

5. As well as Pössel, “Authors and Recipients”, see Carine van Rhijn, “Manuscripts for Local Priests and the Carolingian Reforms” in Steffen Patzold & van Rhijn (edd.), Men in the Middle: Local Priests in Early Medieval Europe, Ergänzungsband der Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde 93 (Berlin 2016), pp. 177–198.

6. That being the Collection of Ansegis, of which one copy is shown above, on which see Stuart Airlie, “‘For it is written in the law’: Ansegis and the writing of Carolingian royal authority” in Stephen Baxter, Catherine E. Karkov, Janet L. Nelson and David Pelteret (edd.), Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald (Farnham 2009), pp. 219–235.