Faith and Fortune is back, in Exeter

Masthead of exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine in Byzantine and Islamic Coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 8 November 2013 to 30 November 2014

Masthead of exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine in Byzantine and Islamic Coinage, now on show again, at the Street Gallery, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter

If you remember me mentioning Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage, the rather excellent coin exhibition at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts which preceded my current one, and thought it sounded fun but did not in fact manage to go to it, you may be pleased to know that there is now a second chance! By a happy series of coincidences the fine people in charge of the Street Gallery at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter got to hear about it and decided they would like to host it, and so in April we packed the boards up and sent them down with supporting materials and one of the original curators, Dr Rebecca Darley, in tow to give an introductory lecture. It has been open since 25th May (sorry) and will be until 19th December 2015, so there is plenty of time to go and see it still! I present the exhibition information:

Faith and Fortune is the first exhibition in several years that draws exclusively from the in-house collections of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. The principal chronological focus of the exhibition spans the years A.D. 300-750 but includes later 13th-century Turkmen material. The exhibition has been the focus of a presentation at the British Museum and has received positive reviews from specialists in medieval history, the Middle East and numismatics. It focuses on these particular themes and the current scholarly and research interest in Late Antiquity. The over-arching theme of the exhibition concentrates on the use of Late Antique coinage as a platform for the promotion of the respective political and religious ideals of the Byzantine, Umayyad and Sasanian Empires. This focus serves as a springboard for the exhibition to explore divergent attitudes among Byzantine, Sasanian and early Islamic societies regarding the representation of divine figures or religious subjects. The exhibition is curated by Rebecca Darley (4th-7th century Byzantine and imitation coinage) and Daniel Reynolds (7th-8th century Arab-Byzantine and early Islamic coinage) and the expertise of the Coin Collections Assistants Maria Vrij (7th-9th century Byzantine coinage and iconography) and Ali Miynat (Turkmen coinage).

Display of the exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic Coinage, at the Street Gallery, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter

The display in situ at the Street Gallery

This image was a bit peculiar to receive, because I’ve been there: two of the conferences I’ve been to at Exeter have been held in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies and I clearly remember not being able to afford to buy Richard Hitchcock’s books in that gallery space. Nonetheless, it is a good space for actual displays too! You will observe that there are no display cases, so we were not able to send the actual coins along with the boards; instead they have been replaced with life-size photographic reproductions that get the points across nearly as well. I must also acknowledge the help of Rebecca Darley of the Bilderfahrzeuge Project at the Warburg Institute, University of London, Evelina Kuvykovaite of the University of Warwick and Jane Clark and the team at the Street Gallery for making it all so easy for us collectively to set this up; it was remarkably easy to do, and hopefully worth it for many visitors!


An array of interesting links

I tend to store up interesting links against a day when I have no content to post, but the backlog situation has meant that not only does that never occur any more but that the links themselves get very old. I thought it was about time to clear some out! I had so many that categories seem necessary, even. So let me humbly suggest that you may wish to click to learn more about the following:

    Things from out of the ground

    A Celtic disc brooch looted by Vikings and now in the British Museum

    A Celtic disc brooch looted by Vikings and now in the British Museum, see below

  1. In no particular order, a previously-undiscovered Viking fortress, at Vallø in Denmark, located in mid-2014 by laser imaging and ground-penetrating radar;
  2. I have been known, in my cynical past, to say that the best way to hide an archæological discovery you wish to keep secret is to give it to the British Museum, due to their cataloguing backlog, but I was not wholly serious obviously, whereas this is a bit ridiculous (but has that brooch in it);
  3. further stuff has also been found, as is now de rigeur for all credible archæology in the UK, under a car-park, in Haddenham in Cambridgeshire where they hit what seems to have been a small sixth-century Anglo-Saxon cemetery during development work in February 2014;
  4. some eighth- to -tenth-century bodies found stuffed in a well Entrains-sur-Nohain in Burgundy provoke the writer of that post to several equally hypothetical Carolingian-history explanations
  5. an Iron Age hillfort at Broxmouth in East Lothian, Scotaland (just), has revealed what seems to be evidence of fifth-century BC steel-making;
  6. and there has been an array of hoards discovered that need their own subsection:
    A silver lidded vessel of Carolingian date recovered in a hoard from Dumfries in 2014

    A silver lidded vessel of Carolingian date recovered in a hoard from Dumfries described below

    1. a hoard of Viking silver loot, including what was once a really nice Carolingian lidded ewer or similar, found near Dumfries in south-west Scotland in late 2014;
    2. “one of the largest Roman coin hoards ever discovered in Britain”, 22,000 or so third-century coins found in Devon in November 2013 but only breaking into the news in September last year; I think Georgia Michael told me about this one so hat tip to her;
    3. and although 5,000 coins suddenly seems like not so big a deal, nonetheless, for the Anglo-Saxon period it is; I’m pretty sure this find nearly doubles the amount of King Cnut’s coinage known to exist in the UK, for example, and this one I definitely do owe to Georgia so off that hat comes once again;
    4. Posed photograph of some gold dinars from a hoard found off the coast of Israal

      I would not let someone do this with a gold find even before it had been catalogued, myself, but I am not the Israel Antiquities Authority, in whose care this hoard of Fatimid gold dinars ended up (see left)

    5. and two thousand is hardly trying, but firstly these ones were gold and secondly they were off the coast of Israel, dating to the reigns of the tenth- and eleventh-century Fatimid caliphs Al-Ḥākim and Al-Ẓāhir, and possibly coming from a sunken tax shipment, which I bet has caused a lot more diving since the news came out and which news I owe, once more, to Georgia Michael, who must have got the idea that I like coins or something…

    Things afoot in the research world (including those parts of it that blog)

  7. A new(-ish) project running out of Oxford to map all the various hillforts of the British Isles, presumably including that of Broxmouth above…
  8. … out of which project came the following endeavours from my native land, with lots to read if hillforts are of interest to you;
  9. a thorough and useful set of suggestions about what was wrong with the UK’s Research Excellence Framework exercise, not including its terrible name but with many other good points, from the self-appointed but persuasive Council for the Defence of British Universities (and here I owe a tip of the hat to Professor Naomi Standen);
  10. more light-heartedly, here is a reason for scribal errors that I had never considered, and still rather wish I hadn’t given some of the suggested remedies;
  11. a suggestion from a doctoral researcher at Sheffield that the current male fashion for extreme facial hair has medieval precedents, and plenty of modern ones too (a tip of the hat here to one of the Australian Medievalists);
  12. Things from out of the archive

    Fragments of a mid-seventh-century manuscript of the Qu'ran in the Mingana Collection, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham

    Fragments of a mid-seventh-century manuscript of the Qu’ran in the Mingana Collection, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham, see below

  13. Some extra fragments of illustration from the Catalan comital cartulary known as the Liber Feudorum Maior have been rediscovered!
  14. Following our theme of materials for the study of Anglo-Saxon England feared forever lost to scholarship, you may not necessarily be aware that after much deliberation about what to do with it, Professors Stephen Baxter and John Hudson have published the unfinished second volume of Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law on the Early English Laws website as Patrick Wormald, Papers Preparatory to the Making of English Law, vol. II, for which many people may be very grateful;
  15. the Vatican Library’s digitisation project has a new website and a much more searchable catalogue, though it does admittedly appear to be broken just now;
  16. and, to end with something at least that is very new and exciting, we have a lot of people coming to the Barber Institute just now because they have not read far enough down this story to realise that the very very early Qu’ran manuscript it describes is not yet on display here, but it is still extremely exciting!

Leeds 2014 Report II: the edges of many different empires

Returning to the backlog on reporting what others think about the Middle Ages finds me now at the second day of the International Medieval Congress 2014, on 8th July 2014, and faced with some hard choices between sessions. In the end, I chose this one because I knew one of the people in it, had reviewed the work of another and Wendy Davies was moderating, and this is what I got.

515. On The Fringes of Empire: local and supra-local identities beyond the Carolingian realm, I

  • Frode Iversen, “Impact of Empires: the Scandinavian fringe AD 200-1300″.
  • Letty Ten Harkel, “On the Edge of Empire: early medieval identities on Walcheren (the Netherlands)”.
  • Margarita Fernández Mier, “Peasant Communities and Distant Elites in Early Medieval Asturias”.
  • As you can see, the unifying thread here was Carolingian periphery, but this didn’t always make it through. Dr Iversen gave a very rapid run-through of significant bits of the settlement history of Norway, and when he began to speak of how urbanisation fitted to a new structure as if he’d described change, I realised I must have missed something. I also struggled with Dr Fernández’s paper, although the sites she was talking about, rural sites whose material culture might tell us something about the links from elite to peasants in early medieval Asturias, were very interesting-looking, but as it turned out known much more from place-names than anything more material. She drew a picture of competing local identities visible in funerary archæology and developing church sites that would be familiar in Anglo-Saxon England, however, and looked worth chasing in more places. Both of these papers had a tendency to argue for connection between sites that seemed to me from their maps to be a good distance from each other, in the former case up to 50 km, however, and I wasn’t sure that either case had been demonstrated.

    Aerial view of Middelburg in Walcheren

    Middelburg in Walcheren, one of those cases where it could hardly be clearer where the original settlement was and how the church was inside it…

    Letty Ten Harkel was also arguing for very local identities in her study area, however, and in particular in what has apparently been seen as a chain of associated ringforts along the Netherlands coast that have been blamed placed either in the reign of Emperor Louis the Pious of the Franks (814-840) from texts or the 890s from radio-carbon. The latter is problematic, because by then the area was split between two kingdoms, but Letty argued that there is such variation in size of and finds at these forts that they actually make more sense read as very local lordship centres, erected independently of each other. If there was outside influence, for Letty it was coming from the reviving bishopric of Echternach, not in the era of its Carolingian foundation but in the twelfth century. For me this paper connected most closely to the theme of the session, but only by disputing it!

Nonetheless, my interest was piqued enough to come back for more once caffeinated, as follows.

615. The Fringes of Empire: local and supra-local identities beyond the Carolingian realm, II

  • Alex Langlands, “Empire and Infrastructure: the case of Wessex in the ninth and tenth centuries”.
  • Iñnaki Martín Viso, “Local Communities and Kingship South of the Duero, 9th-11th Centuries”.
  • Álvaro Carvahal Castro, “The Astur-Leonese Power and The Localities: changing collective spaces (9th-10th centuries)”.
  • This session played a lot closer to my usual interests. Dr Langlands was chasing a word, ‘herepath’, literally ‘army-path’ but using a word for army that usually means raiders’ bands, not the army you serve in, and one would think that a path wide enough to carry an army might in fact be a road anyway, so it’s a funny term. Most of the references are in Anglo-Saxon charters, and while Dr Langlands argued convincingly that these paths appear mainly as links between sites rather than routes as such (though now I write that I am no longer seeing the difference) I wasn’t really sure that we could be sure they were anything to do with either roads, bridges or army-service, all of which had come into the argument.

    The track of an ancient herepath near Avebury

    Wikimedia Commons believes this to be an actual herepath, near Avebury, and who am I to say different? “Herepath Avebury England” by Chris Heaton. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

    Professor Martín then took us into the almost-unknown territory of the southern Duero valley in the centuries either side of the year 1000. Somewhere in this period, and with setbacks due to the final, red giant phase of Muslim rule in Córdoba, the kings of Asturias-León acquired a dominant control in this area and most of what we have is to figure it out with is archæology. With it, Professor Martín depicted a process by which the king used military service, and his ability to demand it (or possibly to convince local élites to join in with it) to elbow those élites into a position of obligation to him. He tied this to a particular sort of fortress with square towers and sloping walls that seems to be Andalusi workmanship but in a zone that was never under Andalusi control; I myself thought that that was a very unsafe thing to say, but the general proposition could fit round what I think happens in such zones.

    The Porta dos Cavaleiros in Viseu

    A location of military service in Viseu, one of Dr Mart&iacute’n’s example sites, even if that service would have been a bit later: this is the Porta dos Cavaleiros. “Nt-Viseu-Porta dos Cavaleiros“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

    Lastly Álvaro, whom in this session I realised I had known while we were both at Oxford but never quite fixed his name in my head, looked for those same local élites a bit closer into the Asturo-Leonese core where we have charters to play with, and found them manifest in assemblies, often as small power groups within likewise small communities, the kind of people who make deals for their communities and so on, who must have existed in these zones before our sources, generated by the making of those kinds of links, show them to us.1

    The memorial to the founders of Sant Andreu de Tona on the Turó del Castell de Tona

    The memorial to the founders of Sant Andreu de Tona on the Turó del Castell de Tona, one group of ‘local élites’ we can name

    I’ve gone into some detail with this because these questions, of why people on the edge of polities decide to join in with them, are meat and drink to me and my frontier interests, and as Charles Insley rightly pointed out in discussion, the crucial questions here are ones of agency: who makes anyone in these situations do stuff? All three speakers offered answers, although Professor Martín’s was mostly a judicious refusal to guess where there was no evidence. Only Álvaro seemed to me to have a clear eye on what sort of people these local élites actually were, however, a problem we’ve discussed before, and I offered the answer I even then had in press and alas still do, to wit that we can at least see them in church consecrations, leading their communities.2 Alas, this is a category of evidence that only exists in Catalonia, so Professor Martín remained obdurate, only suggesting that the fueros of the twelfth century indeed suggest some continuities that we can’t, all the same, prove. He’s right, of course!

Anyway, that was all fun and put me back on some Castilian radars I think, but there wasn’t much time to capitalise on it as there was another lunchtime keynote lecture, and again personal and institutional loyalties drove me to attend, as well as the expectation that it would be very interesting, as indeed it was, which I tried not to spoil by noises of eating my packed lunch again. (I’m glad they dropped this arrangement this year.)

699. Keynote Lecture 2014

  • Naomi Standen, “A Forgotten Eurasian Empire: the Liao dynasty, 907-1125″.
  • The Fugong Temple Pagoda, built in 1056 by Emperor Daozong of Liao

    The Fugong Temple Pagoda, built in 1056 by Emperor Daozong of Liao. By Gisling (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

    Naomi introduced what was for many people an unfamiliar area by setting up the familiar dichotomy of civilisation versus nomads, a way of classifying society probably familiar to most people in the West from the work of Ibn Khaldūn but very common in Chinese sources too, especially when the Mongols are at issue. On one side, bureacracy, tax, education, cities, a professional class and so on, on the other personal hierarchy, tribute and plunder, and a life for which warriors trained in the saddle, you know the deal. Naomi then pitched her subject area of the moment, the Liao Empire, as a third way that breaks this dichotomy, using archæology wherever possible to vie with the impression of the Liao given by Chinese writers who were determined to put them, and their cities too, in the nomads box. But they didn’t fit either, Naomi argued: they had a structured élite but it was maintained by family succession, they had a trade network which we can see in ceramics finds along routeways but no sign that the state tapped it, the empire was stable and not expansionist and held to long treaties with inner China, the citizens were called nomads but lived in cities, and people in the empire invested hugely in religious patronage. It also comprised more than two hundred ‘peoples’ as the Chinese geographers counted it but made no legal distinction between them. It had not borrowed all this from central China or been civilised by contact, or so Naomi claimed; it was a different sort of empire. I’m sure that some might contend with this or find it idealistic but the thought experiment of substituting a trinary for one of the binaries with which Western historiography is famously dogged is probably worthwhile even so, and the detail is meanwhile still coming together as the pottery series and the architectural history of the zone get worked out by Naomi’s super project, so we will either way know more before long.

Thus refreshed both physically and mentally, I headed some of the way back west.

719. Were the Umayyad Caliphates Empires? I

  • Andrew Marsham, “In What Respects Was the Umayyad Empire an Empire?”
  • Harry Munt, “The Umayyad Imperial Rationale and Hijazi Cities”.
  • Hannah-Lena Hagemann, “Rulers and Rebels: Kharijite Islamic resistance to Umayyad authority in early Islamic historiography”.
  • This was an interesting and tightly-focused session, even if again about the category of ’empire’ as much as the actual materials of the presenter’s study. Dr Marsham invoked the work of Michael Mann (which I should know better3) and used its categories to argue that the early Islamic caliphate, with its emphasis on dynastic succession, its religious qualities attached to state office, its structured hierarchy of that office and its tax system, was as much an empire as the late Roman one it replaced, which given the inheritance perhaps shouldn’t be surprising but still often is. The other two papers focused on opposition to the Umayyad Caliphs, but from two different sources, in the case of Dr Munt from the cities in the Hijaz area of modern Saudi Arabia and most notably Medina, whose ruling class never aimed at separation from the state but frequently rebelled to achieve better inclusion in it. In the case of Dr Hagemann, however, the rebellion came from the Kharijites, a sect of early Islam who declared, according largely to their opponents, that there were no legitimate successors to the Prophet and therefore rejected all attempts at command in his name; she pointed out that even some of those enemies still used them, in pleasingly Roman style, as a foil for criticism of the Umayyad reégime where those writers felt it had gone so far wrong as almost to justify the reaction of the supposed ‘heretics’. It all gelled very nicely and in discussion I witnessed, for the only time I can remember, someone successfully defend their point against a question about the economy from Hugh Kennedy, no small achievement.

This was all grand, therefore, but I sorely needed caffeine by now, and hunting in the bookfair, always dangerous, found myself deep in conversation with Julio Escalona about the need to get Castilian and Catalan scholars around the same table. Thus it was that I was late for the next session, nothing to do with books honest…

812. Empire and the Law

  • Vicky Melechson, “From Piety to the Death Penalty: new capital crimes in the Carolingian Empire”.
  • Graham Barrett, “Legislation and its Afterlife in Early Medieval Europe”.
  • Sharon Fischlowitz, “Laws of an Empire: after the Romans, what were the leges barbarorum?”
  • So I was late for the start of Ms Melechson’s paper but caught her point quickly, it being that while the Romans really only imposed the death penalty for crimes against the emperor, and the various barbarian laws attempted to divert people from vengeance for murder to compensation payments, nonetheless the influence of the Old Testament in the way the Carolingian kings presented themselves made capital punishment an appropriately Biblical step for increasingly many things. There are arguments one could have with several parts of that but the basic argument seemed well-founded. I got rather less out of Dr Fischlowitz’s paper, which was given largely from the perspective of teaching modern law using the ‘barbarian’ laws as examples. It sounded as if she was having great fun doing it but the paper nonetheless really only told us what she found the most striking bits of late Roman and Frankish law.

    Breviarium Alarici [Bréviaire d'Alaric].

    The opening of the Theodosian Code in the Breviary of Alaric, ironically one of its principal manuscript sources, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Latin 4404, fo. 14v, from Gallica

    But it was all worthwhile for Graham’s paper, which was him absolutely on form: he was arguing that although we know and read late Roman and early medieval law as codes, big books of more or less organised and collected legislation, it could almost never have been used like that, especially not the huge late Roman codices. It was also hardly ever issued like that: the late Roman codes explicitly compile decisions, largely reactive rather than proactive, fragmented and disparate, from centuries apart by many different emperors, the Visigothic Law does some of the same work and citations like this also appear in the Salic and Burgundian laws. What this means is that capitulary legislation like that of the Carolingians would actually have the primary form of law, and the codes we think of as definitive only its secondary collection, which could have very little to do with law as it would have been used, as dockets and loose gatherings of relevant edicts, rescripts and proclamations. This was one of those papers that seemed to make everything very obvious which before had not been, and I hope as with almost all of Graham’s work that we get to see it in print before very long. It provoked a lot of discussion, also, with Paul Hyams wisely pointing out that law that got written relates only to the problems that couldn’t be solved more locally, and is therefore always outstanding. There was also some discussion about law that gets made as part of a treaty process, to which Dr Fischlowitz offered the Lex Romana Burgundionum, intended to regulate the relations of the Romans of what is now Burgundy to the newly-arrived military group after whom it got named, and I proffered the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, after which, probably wisely, the moderator drew the session quickly to a close.

Again I can’t remember how the evening went, but the day had been pretty full and this post is certainly full enough, so I shall leave it here for now and pick up after a couple of smaller posts that don’t take me days to write. I’m sure you’re already looking forward to it…

1. On such groups see now Robert Portass, “Rethinking the ‘small worlds’ of tenth-century Galicia” in Studia Historica: Historia Medieval Vol. 31 (Salamanca 2013), pp. 83-103, online here.

2. Few better statements of this line of thought are available for Spain than Álvaro’s own “Superar la frontera: mecanismos de integración territorial entre el Cea y el Pisuerga en el siglo X” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 42 (Madrid 2012), pp. 601-628, DOI: 10.3989/aem.2012.42.2.08, but I hope soon to be adding to it in “Engaging Élites: Counts, Capital and Frontier Communities in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries, in Catalonia and Elsewhere” in Networks and Neighbours Vol. 2 (Leeds forthcoming for 2014), pp. 202-230, preprint online here.

3. Presumably most obviously M. Mann, The Sources of Social Power Volume 1: a History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760 (Cambridge 1986)? I wonder if this will supply something I found myself in want of in a dissertation supervision a few weeks ago, too, a cite for the conceptual differentiation of ‘intensive’ and ‘extensive’ lordship. If anyone reading happens to have one handy, however, I’d be glad of it!


Byzantium before Byzantium

This gallery contains 4 photos.

I’m pleased to say that since about May my team and I at the Barber have been making steady progress in getting at least some of our coins onto the Internet, and this is another post to tell you about … Continue reading

A problem of concavity

Now that I am returned from all my conferences, I have a few very frantic months left as a numismatist before I demit that noble calling so as to return to medieval history of more traditional sorts. In fact, of course, I will not be leaving the coins completely behind me: almost the first thing I will be doing in my new rôle is to give a guest lecture back at the Barber Institute, as part of my own exhibition there, and then I’ll be going to the International Numismatic Congress in Taormina, and I should just be back from that in time to start teaching the aftermath of the end of Roman rule in the West. And in fact, even then, I shall have enough publication projects in hand what with All That Glitters and a couple of other things to do with the Barber’s collections that it may take a while for anyone to notice that coins are not, in fact, what I work on… In that spirit, therefore, here is something like an informal presentation of the problem my paper at Taormina will be addressing, which I do mainly so as to have a first go at posing the problem in text. Basically, my question is: why did Byzantine coins turn concave?

A tray full of pale gold and billon coins of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5704-B5735

A tray full of pale gold and billon coins of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, all concave, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5704-B5735

It is perfectly reasonable for your first reaction to this question to be “What?”, don’t worry. But this is a thing that happened: from the 1050s onwards, more or less the reign of Michael IV (1034-1041), Byzantine precious metal coinage began to be manufactured with a slight dish-shape that became more and more pronounced, and then spread to the lesser metals too. It also went badly downhill in metal quality, and by the reign of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118) the situation was so bad that despite the massive calls on his empire’s much-reduced resources he reset the coinage in the only way one really can in an international precious-metal economy, by accepting the degradation of the existing coins, reclassifying them and introducing a new, 80%-gold denomination, the hyperperon at the top of the tree.1 The old supposedly-gold nomismata became either electrum (gold-silver alloy) or billon (lightly-silvered copper) ‘trachies’, and this meant that the small change was also now concave, though there was also a flat bronze tetarteron that was used especially in what is now Greece.2 Anyway, I digress. The real question is, why adopt the dished design anyway?

A billon trachy of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1092-1118, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5558

A billon trachy of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1092-1118, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5558

One thing, and really one thing only is sure about this, which is that it was not an easy thing to do. In the first place, the designs on the dies with which the blank coins were struck were carved in such a way as to keep the design correctly proportioned: it looks straight even though it’s bent, something that becomes very evident when you try to photograph them in such a way that they face you but are still clearly concave. Scanning is better for this because the fall of light emphasises shadow, but with adequate lighting the concavity is quite often visually undetectable in conventional photography. So that was cunning artistry, and not least because the dies themselves, we are fairly sure, were made curved, rather than deforming flat coins by striking them.3 In fact, it seems likely that the flat blanks were first struck with blank dies to curve them, and then the resulting curved blanks were struck with two obverse dies, one for each side of the coin’s design, to ensure a good impression all over the coin’s surface.4 This means that the manufacturers were readier to triple the production process complexity than to make dies that fitted each other snugly, apparently, but we can mainly take from this: there must have been a point to all this, but what?

Electrum nomisma histamenon of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1081-1092, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5224

Electrum nomisma histamenon of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1081-1092, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5224

None of the existing ideas seem very satisfactory. They are, roughly:

  1. it made the coins stronger, preventing them snapping;
  2. it made the metal quality of the coins more evident, reassuring people that they were good;
  3. it made the coins stackable in a way that the relatively high-relief flat ones were not;
  4. it brought coins whose low standard had made them much bigger than the older solidi with which they were notionally interchangeable, because gold is denser than anything it might be replaced with, back down to a more acceptable width;
  5. it made the coins better to play tiddly-winks with.5

Now, don’t worry if you’re already laughing at this; I think it is fair to say that thinking about this problem has not been the highest achievement of numismatics as a discipline. But if you’re not quite seeing the problems here, let me set them out for you.

  1. The concavity may make the coins harder to bend, but it makes them far more prone to cracking, because the edges come out so thin, as you see below. And once a coin is cracked, it’s actually in much more danger of snapping; we take a lot of care not to drop these things, in case that fault line should just complete on impact. Yet the practice was maintained for long after that would have been apparent. So, no.
  2. Electrum aspron trachy of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1143-1180, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5702

    Electrum aspron trachy of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1143-1180, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5702, nothing a bit of solder wouldn’t fix! (I jest.)

    Billon aspron trachy of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1143-1180, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5758

    Billon aspron trachy of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1143-1180, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5758, probably beyond the soldering iron…

  3. The metal quality certainly is more evident, because of those same thin edges, but in that case it would be quite important to maintain that quality. Yet the concave coins went through just the same nosedive of purity again once reformed, and you’d think that even if making them flat again would have been some kind of admission of failure, at least it would have been unclear how badly you’d failed, whereas with the concave coins there’s no hope of concealment.
  4. They just don’t stack, seriously. The manufacture was not regular enough to guarantee anything but the most basic fit. And why on earth would this have been a desirable thing here, when even cultures that use money in strung-together multiples like Chinese cash are still flat? A much better way to do this would have been to cut the designs in lower relief, or just cut them deeper than the surrounding border, so that that became the point of contact between any two coin faces. I find this one actually a silly explanation, sorry.
  5. This seems to me to presuppose a point beyond which coins were just thought too big to use, one which is only obvious if you accept that this practice shows that the Byzantine Empire had passed it. But it had used bigger coins than this before and done nothing similar. So I see no reason to accept this kind of supposed cultural universal, but even if you do, one could have achieved the same result just by making the coins thicker, which would also make them stronger. It would make them harder to strike, in terms of force, but less fragile in manufacture, easier to cut dies for and anyway, brute force was not something any pre-modern state really lacked a supply of.6
  6. In so far as I’m going to take this seriously at all, why would you start with the gold for something that would ordinarily, surely, be played with low-value coins? And why on earth would the emperor care anyway? Still more why would any subsequent emperor not repeal this in the next reform?

So, we don’t have a good explanation. In Taormina I will try to propose one that is at least less bad, and that focuses more on the manufacturing process and its changed characteristics. I have a lot to read still, and I don’t want to give away my unique selling point as yet, although I’ve tried it in the classroom a few times by now, so for now I’ll go no further, but I hope I’ve at least intrigued you with the question! And if you have answers you’d like to offer, I promise due credit if I wind up using yours alongside mine in the paper…

1. On the circumstances leading to this reform see most easily Alex Nobes, “The economic and monetary policy of the Byzantine Empire under Alexios I Komnenos” in Rosetta Vol. 11 (Birmingham 2012), pp. 56-71, online here, but you might wish to compare Michael Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985), pp. 513-517 and Alan Harvey, “Financial crisis and the rural economy” in Margaret Mullett & Dion C. Smythe (edd.), Alexios I Komnenos. Papers on the Second Belfast Byzantine International Colloquium, 14-16 April 1989, Belfast Byzantine Texts and Translations 4.1 (Belfast 1996), pp. 167-184.

2. For the actual coins, the best guide is indubitably Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 211-228, esp. pp. 223-228.

3. Simon Bendall & 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.

4. David Sellwood, “The Production of Flans for Byzantine Trachy Issues” in D. M. Metcalf & Andrew Oddy (edd.), Metallurgy in Numismatics, Royal Numismatic Society Special Publication 13 (London 1980), pp. 174-175.

5. Strength: as well as the article linked, Cécile Morrisson, “La concavité des monnaies byzantines” in Bulletin de le Société française de numismatique Vol. 30 no. 6 (Paris 1975), pp. 786-788, criticising the work of Hendy cited below, for which reason no doubt Hendy not unjustly responded in Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, p. 510 n. 313, “Neither explanation [that of Grierson mentioned below or Morrisson’s] is totally satisfactory by itself, as neither takes full account of the curious inconsistency of its early usage”, and indeed I could show you flat nomismata contemporaneous with the earliest concave ones right here where I write. Indicator of metal quality: Michael F. Hendy, Coinage and Money in the Byzantine Empire 1081-1261, Dumbarton Oaks Studies XII (Washington DC 1969), p. 6; Alfred R. Bellinger & Philip Grierson (edd.), Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection. Volume Three: Leo III to Nicephorus III 717–1081, by Philip Grierson, Part I: Leo III to Michael III (717–867) (Washington DC 1973), pp. 5-7, to which cf. Morrisson, “Concavité des monnaies byzantines”, p. 787, accepted by Grierson, Byzantine Coins, pp. 197-198. I don’t yet have cites for the stacking or tiddly-winks theories, alas; they are much repeated but never with attribution. For the idea that the flans were now too big and had to be reined in, see Franz Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Basil II to Eudocia 976-1067: corpus from Anastasius II to John I 713-976 with addenda; structure of the issues 976-1067; the concave/convex histamena; contribution to the iconographic and monetary history, ed. Italo Vecchia, transl. H. Thomas Hofmänner (Lancaster PA 2014), pp. 103-124 esp. pp. 122-124.

6. This last point, though obvious, I had to have pointed out to me by Dr Rebecca Darley.

Leeds 2014 Report I

Crowds of medievalists at the 2014 International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds

IMC 2014 in session

I very much hope this is the last time this happens, but I find myself again reaching a Leeds International Medieval Congress in my write-up backlog only after the next one has already happened. Looking back at the 2014 one, too, I find that I remember remarkably little of it; for many of the papers I have notes on, I would have sworn to you I had never seen the presenter. I think this must be me and how distracted I was by various things back then. It could also be that we drove up the night before straight from the closing moments of The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours conference just recounted and that I was already a bit hazy from too much learning. Whatever it is, though, it means I’m very reliant on my notes and that may also make this briefer than usual; I can but hope. But let’s charge in. On Monday 7th July, once up, I seem to have ignored the first keynote lecture, I think largely so as to get in at the second-hand bookfair, and then dived in properly as follows:

121. Coining and Sealing Empire in the Middle Ages

  • Guido M. Berndt, “The Face of the Emperor and the Face of the King: numismatic evidence from Vandal North Africa and Ostrogothic Italy”.
  • Susan Solway, “The ‘Currency’ of Rome: coining empire in the Middle Ages”.
  • Florence Codine, “The Emperor’s New Hair: imitation and innovation in coin portraits in the post-Roman West, 5th-9th centuries”.
  • I do remember this session, however. You can see how it should have played to my interests somewhat, but in fact I went in sceptical because one of the papers looked very much as if it was along the line of an exhibition proposal I’d just pitched at interview (so it didn’t seem a novel idea to me) and another looked like an unknowing repeat of one of the best papers I ever saw given, so, there was a high bar.1 I am also leery generally of sessions where the moderator speaks, as was the case here, and of art-historical approaches to early medieval coinage (which is very far from naturalistic in its portraiture and so speculative at best to get real visual information from).2 Given all this, my expectations were probably always going to be low.

    Bronze 21-nummi of King Hilderic of the Vandals, Carthage, 523-30, Barber Institute of Fine Arts VV066

    Obverse of a bronze 21-nummi coin of King Hilderic of the Vandals, struck at Carthage in 523-30, Barber Institute of Fine Arts VV066. You can see how important it was to the die-engraver and moneyer that it look just right…

    It would be cruel to say that the session easily met those expectations, then, because I was probably the wrong audience: I knew most of what Dr Berndt’s paper had to say about what the Vandals and Ostrogoths minted (and would indeed be exhibiting some of it early the next year, as seen above), for example. Professor Solway, who overran by ten minutes, was arguing that the post-Roman world retained the imperial portrait on its coins and used Roman coins with it on in jewellery as a symbol of authority, and this may well be true but if so we need to think a lot harder about how that symbol was understood: it was obviously not necessary for it to show a current emperor, for example, nor an identifiable one, nor even show him the right way up. Neither was it necessary to do so at all: some early Anglo-Saxon pennies do carry something like an imperial bust, but others do not while a third group stylise it into mad hair and nothing else. Yet they all seem to have been exchangeable. It’s not simple, and some change over time from direct imitation to stylised representation to redesign and individuation would have made this canter from Julius Cæsar to Frederick II a bit more sensitive. Mme Codine’s paper meanwhile was very conscious of the limitations of the evidence, which ineluctably undermined its very tentative suggestions that the famous long hair of tthe Merovingian Kings of the Franks was represented on some of their coins. We don’t really understand who issued Merovingian coins, so this was always going to be a hard sell. Versions of the other two papers here are, however, already in press in a book edited by Professor Solway, so you don’t have to take my mean words for it, you can see how unfair I’m being for yourself, at least if your institution can afford Brepols.

Things rapidly looked up, however, even if it was somewhat of a rush to get food and make it to:

198. Keynote Lecture 2014

    This year, the IMC had split its keynotes up and this meant that I spent the early part of this one trying to eat crisps unobtrusively, but it was worth it for:

  • Hugh Kennedy, “The End of Islamic Late Antiquity: change and decay in the 10th-century Middle East”.
  • Hugh’s lecture was in two parts, in the first of which he made the case that the early Islamic state could be seen as a late antique one, with a civil service, a classicising historiography, a tax system running in coin and many other features, although not including any tax on trade. The second part then noted that most of this broke down in the tenth century, with a shift to paid soldiery tying up the state’s resources at a point when, in processes unfolding over decades and perhaps imperceptible at a lived timescale, it became less and less profitable to develop and maintain agricultural land in the caliphate’s rich heartlands and more and more profitable to be in the civil service, leading to a steadily more massive drop in base agricultural production, without which of course everything else suffers. Strapped for vital cash, and massively overspent, the caliphs farmed out more and more of their tax collection, thus losing more and more direct control over their territories. Hugh pointed out that any parallels with so-called feudalisation in the West would have to deal with the fact that Islamic justice remained public, not ‘seigneurial’, because it was a religious affair; there are many ways for an empire to decentralise and fragment, I think we can agree!3

214. Empire, Power, and Identity in Roman, Vandal, Byzantine, and Islamic North Africa, II

  • Uta Heil, “Fulgentius and Thrasamund”.
  • Christian Barthel, “At Empire’s Edge: ruling Libya in the late 5th and early 6th century”.
  • Because one of the presenters in this session hadn’t made it, the two papers were run separately with their own questions. Dr Heil introduced us to Bishop Fulgentius of Ruspe, a bishop who was exiled from Africa to Sardinia by the Vandal king Thrasamund. This was not a simple bouncing-out of an irrefragable Catholic by an Arian ruler, however, because there was apparently quite the written interchange between them, not the least of which is a dialogue, purportedly between king and bishop, in which the bishop explains the wrongs of a theological position the king was adumbrating, apparently not Arianism but Monophysitism. Fulgentius was apparently able to write books and books of theology while in Sardinia, teach, receive visitors and so on and the impression one gets is that the king had found a way to keep a high-powered theologian on call without his being able to intervene much in African politics, which were highly religious. I am guessing that a very large pension was presumably part of this deal… Meanwhile Herr Barthel wanted us to know about three inscriptions of Emperor Anastasius from what is now Libya. These show considerable military reorganisation, setting up wage-scales for the staff, prison administration and boundary policing, all quite detailed measures that show a government clearly still in operation, which is all the more striking because almost all we know otherwise is the names of obscure probably-Berber groups against whom these defences were now necessary, from the work of Synesius of Cyrene, which was a general harangue to let Constantinople know how bad the situation had got. That and the three copies of these inscriptions are almost the only sources we have for the whole area for most of a century, and it mainly made me think on what slender threads even this much therefore hangs.

Then caffeine and back to the fray for the final session of the day, in which my loyalties were happily combined in the form of the venerable Texts and Identities strand and speakers I knew from other contexts, as follows.

327. Texts and Identities, III: Italy between Eastern and Western Empire in the early Middle Ages

  • Caroline Goodson, “St Petronilla, Rome: cultural allegiances and family alliances”
  • Clemens Gantner, “Removing the Holy Pope Martin from the Church of the Saviour: uses of the arrest and trial of Pope Martin I in Roman sources from the 7th to 9th centuries”
  • Helmut Reimitz, “The Challenge of Rome for Carolingian Politics of Identity in the 8th Century”
  • This session had been much mutilated, but in a good way for me: both Caroline and Helmut were replacing absent speakers, whom I didn’t know, and so I now had a much better idea of what would be on offer and went in with confidence. Caroline told us about the papal use of the cult of St Petronilla, who at her earliest site of cult was held to be a fourth-century venerable lady, rather than a saint, but when moved by Pope Stephen II to her own church became, somehow, St Peter’s own daughter, martyred in the second century. The cult has usually been studied because King Pippin III of Francia linked his daughter Gisela to it by his patronage, but Caroline argued that if the aim of this was to bring the Franks into Rome in some visible way, the audience of this was nonetheless the Romans, and so the emphasis on Peter was probably what the popes were after, with the Frankish involvement a very secondary issue. Clemens looked at the history of Pope Martin I, which as I had learnt earlier that year involved appointment from outside, in 649, by a Byzantine administration which became so dissatisfied with the results that they arrested him and exiled him to Cherson. You can imagine that this is an episode that could be told very politically, as Rome generally detached from Byzantine in subsequent centuries, but the politics change a lot in each version: the issue is usually the wrongness of eastern doctrine, against which Martin boldly stood, but exactly which doctrinal controversy it was and how much the real issue was whether Constantinople could still take tax from Rome vary a lot from retelling to retelling. Lastly Helmut looked at how the relationship of the Frankish kings with the papacy is reported in various eighth-century Frankish sources, and concluded that here too things could change very fast, as the Franks’ own project did: he saw a shift from papal legitimisation of the new Frankish kingship through the Franks’ suitability for imperial power, to be conveyed by the pope, to the popes mainly being a way to bring the Franks into contact with the Lombards thus demonstrating how superior the Frankish people, and not just their kings, were. In conclusion: texts were political, very much the standard message of Texts and Identities but always worth showing afresh. Questions showed that the least understood source here in this light is the papal biographical compilation called the Liber Pontificalis, The Book of Pontiffs as the translator has it, of which there survive several versions, often differing in small additions that could as easily represent non-papal points of view.4 I know that lots of people have worked on the Liber just lately and I haven’t read it yet, but one feels that it can’t yet be enough…

And thus, anyway, closed the first day, and I seem to recall that we went to dinner in the refectory and decided not to do that again, and then I expect the bar called, but this at least gets you through the academic content. There’ve been hardly any coins this post, have there? I’ll have to fix that, stay tuned…

1. And that paper is now in print as Jonathan Arnoldd, “Theoderic’s Invincible Mustache” in Journal of Late Antiquity Vol. 6 (Baltimore 2013), pp. 152-183, DOI: 10.1353/jla.2013.0007.

2. That said, Anna Gannon, The Iconography of Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage: Sixth to Eighth Centuries (Oxford 2003) is a good go at such work because it is interested primarily in symbolism and doesn’t look for literal representation.

3. For example, long long ago, at my Ph. D. upgrade meeting no less, Professor Mark Mazower pointed out to me that the Ottoman Empire could be compared, which was (he did not say this bit, which may be stupid) already more or less feudalised and which fragmented when it tried to modernise instead!

4. Printed in Louis Duchesne (ed.), Liber Pontificalis : Texte, introduction et commentaire (Paris 1886–1892), 2 vols, online here and here, and translated in Raymond Davis (transl.), The Book of Pontiffs (Liber Pontificalis to AD 715), Translated Texts for Historians 6 (Liverpool 1989), idem (transl.), The Lives of the Eighth-Century Popes (Liber Pontificalis), Translated Texts for Historians 13 (Liverpool 1992) and idem (transl.), The Lives of the Ninth-Century Popes (Liber Pontificalis), Translated Texts for Historians 20 (Liverpool 1995).


Images in metal of the alleged image-smashers

This gallery contains 5 photos.

Not everything whose recataloguing I have overseen at the Barber Institute has been Byzantine—I invite those with interests in the Roman period to examine our coins of the reigns of Tiberius I (14-37) and Gaius (37-41) if you like, which … Continue reading