Seminar CLX: reading backwards into Frankish brooches

I have to start with the now-usual apology for lapse in posting; quite a lot is being required of me right now and mostly there is no time for blogging. In fact, like a proper obsessive compulsive I have a 12-step triage list for getting through the day without any of the spinning plates dropping, in which the blog is only no. 10 and in which on an ordinary day I’m rarely reaching no. 5… but we struggle on. In particular, I struggle on with the first seminar I went to in the Autumn term of 2014, and you can tell I was a bit busy then because that wasn’t till the 15th October. But on that date, Professor Guy Halsall, no less, was giving the David Wilson Lecture at the Institute of Archaeology in University College London, so obviously I was going to go. His title was “The Space Between: the ‘undead’ Roman Empire and the aesthetics of Salin’s Style I’.

A bronze clasp from Gotland

One of Salin’s own illustrations, a bronze clasp from Gotland busy with animal bits. Originally from Berhard Salin, Die altgermanische Tierornametik (Stockholm 1904).

For those that don’t know, Salin was a nineteenth-century archaeologist who worked on the artefacts of the period of the end of the Roman Empire in the West, particularly of the Franks, and he distinguished two styles of carving and ornament among their metalwork, which we still know as Style I and Style II.1 Style I is characterised by intertwined animal-form creatures (zoomorphs, is the rather splendid technical term) and disconnected animal or bird heads, in sometimes quite complex conjunction as you see above. Salin thought, and since he wrote many others have thought, that this was characteristic of the art of the barbarian peoples invading the Roman Empire, and could indeed be used as a proxy for their presence or at least influence.

Silver Style I bracteate with suspension loop

Silver Style I bracteate with suspension loop, a clearer but more abstract example of the style

With this, Guy began by arguing, and arguing that Style I is not, and was never, characteristically Germanic, not least because it only appears in the fifth century, so was obviously being generated within the Empire and could hardly therefore be barbarians’ imported ancestral custom, and still less the shared ancestral custom of a whole range of previously-unconnected groups. With that out of the way, and entirely in keeping with his other writing on the subject, he proceeded to what on earth this style of carving may have meant.

A sixth-century Anglo-Saxon square-headed brooch from Chessell Down, now British Museum 1867,0729.5

A good example case, a sixth-century Anglo-Saxon square-headed brooch from Chessell Down, now British Museum 1867,0729.5, with many significant-looking bearded heads to focus in on as this decoder page on the British Museum blog shows.

It’s not that no-one’s tried doing this, of course: people have seen in this art archetypes of Germanic folk heroes and gods and apotropaic serpents and so on, but as Guy pointed out such information can only be drawn from much later Norse sources, written after Christianization, which is thus in several ways the wrong direction to make these artefacts face; those traditions and that worldview not only come from later than the objects, but might have been partly formed by those objects or objects like them.2 Rather than being anachronistic like this, therefore, Guy opted to be ‘achronic’, and employ the work of the modern theorist Derrida to try and understand how these signifiers did their signifying.3

The Roman general Stilicho portrayed in the dress of a citizen with wife and child, though also with weapons, in Monza Cathedral

The master signifier made manifest, a supposed barbarian—none other than the Roman general Stilicho—portrayed in the dress of a citizen with wife and child, though also with weapons, in Monza Cathedral

The question here seems to me to be a good one, and perhaps it could not have been asked like that without the use of such modern work, but it still seems to me that this is not achronism but witting anachronism. That might not be bad, though, depending on what it gets you. What it got Guy was a development of his argument that Roman identity is idealised as the civil self-governed male, and that from the third century onwards that identity was challenged to the point of destruction by peripheral and destructive identifications, for Guy more or less what being ‘barbarian’ meant, the powerful other whom it became increasingly cool to be like. For Guy this only works because of the core referent, the old Roman identity against which this was expressed, a periphery set against a centre which comes to be the new defining cultural identification.4

Late Roman fourth-century military belt buckle

Late Roman fourth-century military belt buckle, with animal heads confined to its ends

So on this occasion Guy tried to fit Style I into this framework, as an artform in which the periphery takes over, the beasts and interlace erasing the geometric centres common in late Roman ornamental metalwork. He argued that this was a deliberate artistic expression of uncertainty, in which it is no accident that we can’t tell,that contemporaries could not have told, how many animals there actually are on the brooch. It was born ‘out of disturbance’, that disturbance presumably being the breakdown of the Roman West with all its concomitant changes in social and economic organisation and prosperities. The areas worst hit by all this are not where Style I seems to have originated, Guy admitted, but it spread into them very quickly. The signification of the Empire was now uncertain, indeterminate and ‘undead’, in the sense that no-one could be sure it wouldn’t yet rise again, as it had done before.5 And the art that best captured that mood was Style I.

The Sutton Hoo belt buckle now in the British Museum

I’m not sure if this is technically Style I, but it gets the point about indeterminacy over nicely… It is of course the Sutton Hoo belt buckle now in the British Museum. “Belt buckle” by Michel walOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

I like that this lays such emphasis on uptake of material culture by an audience, rather than requiring it to move with immigrants as per the nineteenth century narrative that likewise refuses to die. Nonetheless, I have reservations. One of these is chronology: it was very recently, for example, that the relative stylistic chronology of lots of Anglo-Saxon metalwork was pushed back by fifty years.6 Even that preserves a stylistic chronology where some of the directional links are assumption. My limited knowledge of the Frankish metalwork suggests to me that there are lots more of those assumed links, many of which Guy has contested. With them uncertain, however, a similar shift backwards of the dating of this stuff would possibly radically change its relationship to other styles of metalwork. I am just not sure that we know well enough what comes before what and whether people necessarily only used one of these styles at once to hang such large arguments about cultural change off them. Then secondly, of course this is an argument Guy has also made from other evidence. With the aid of Derrida he is now able to fit the metalwork into that theory comfortably too, and he might not even have needed the theorist. But it’s not a free reading of the evidence, if that were even possible.

And thirdly, of course, we cannot know what this stuff meant to people, not least because of a lot of it presumably being unconscious: how many people who wear black leather jackets have consciously thought “I want to look like a nineteen-fifties motorcyclist” rather than, “that’s cool?” How many people who wear Ramones t-shirts have actually heard any of the songs? And so on. “What were they thinking?” is one thing to ask; “what did they not realise they were thinking?” is a whole new order of superiority to take over our study subjects… So I am still fairly clear that what Guy was offering was, explicitly in fact, a theory brought from outside to bear upon dead people who can’t be questioned, and whatever it was that they thought about their dress accessories, they weren’t reading Derrida to do it. I don’t know that we can work out what this stuff meant to its users, but if we must try I would rather start with tools that they also had.7

1. The starting point for Salin style is of course Bernhard Salin, Die altgermanische Tierornamentik (Stockholm 1904), but an Anglophone introduction can be found in Günther Haseloff, “Salin’s Style I” in Medieval Archaeology 18 (Leeds 1974), pp. 1-18, online here.

2. An example of the kind of work Guy meant here, I guess, is Lotte Hedeager, “Myth and Art: a passport to political authority in Scandinavia during the Migration Period” in Tania Dickinson & David Griffiths (edd.), The Making of Kingdoms. Papers from the 47th Sachsensymposium, York, September 1996, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 10 (Oxford 1999), pp. 151-156.

3. I don’t know Derrida’s writings, but I guess from this webpage that the key text here is Jacques Derrida, L’écriture et la différence (Paris 1967), in which case I should probably think twice about calling it modern; that’s older than Geertz…

4. See most obviously G. Halsall, “Gender and the End of Empire” in Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies Vol. 34 (Durham NC 2004), pp. 17-40.

5. On this I thoroughly recommend Guy’s Barbarian Migrations and the End of the Roman West 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), which has become part of how I think about this period.

6. John Hines (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: a chronological framework, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 33 (London 2013). the primary text of reference for Merovingian stuff other than the work of Patrick Périn, which has its own problems, seems still to be Edward James, The Merovingian Archaeology of South-West Gaul, British Archaeological Reports (Supplementary Series) 25 (Oxford 1977), 2 vols, so some such reevaluation can’t be too far away! Guy’s Cemeteries and society in Merovingian Gaul: selected studies in history and archaeology, 1992-2009, On the Early Middle Ages 18 (Leiden 2009) starts this work but a systematic review will be necessary for a while yet.

7. I am aware in writing that that Guy posted on social media shortly after the lecture that he thought it was beyond the understanding of most of his audience. I may well have misunderstood it, given both that and that I’m reconstructing from year-old notes, but the text is online should you want to try it yourself, and I’m sure he will correct any misunderstandings too awful to be allowed to stand…


Parting Shots: two Michaels and a Leo

This gallery contains 6 photos.

For once I don’t feel the need to apologise for the lapse in posting here: moving house (including buying a house), starting a new job, learning my way around a new university and city, attending many many meetings, doing the … Continue reading


Vicarious Byzantinist travel photos

This gallery contains 5 photos.

Reducing the backlog anothe tiny slice, two days after the seminar described in the previous post I was at the first General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies in Birmingham for autumn 2014. This venerable … Continue reading

Seminar CLIX: difficulties of studying medieval Balkh

The backlog now advances to the autumn term of the academic year just gone, a mere ten months now, and finds me in the Medieval Seminar of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages at Birmingham on 7th October 2014, when one of our resident scholars, Arezou Azad, was presenting with the title, “Balkh Art & Cultural Heritage Project: exploration, maps and Silk Road history from northern Afghanistan”. I should read Arezou’s book, because although Balkh is some way off my usual patch it’s really interesting, a real point where worlds met as the routes across the north of the Himalayas arrived at a junction heading both south to India and west to Persia, a major early Buddhist centre and that not the first or last faith to locate itself there, this also being the place of death of Zoroaster; under medieval Islam, likewise, it was a thriving university town that supplied many of the Caliphate’s leading scholars, and now somehow it’s a place almost no-one in the West has heard of.1 So I was eager to find out what I should already have read in the speaker’s book, which is always one gain of going to seminars, isn’t it?

What better image to borrow than the project website’s masthead, not least because it’s quite impressive…

The project about which Arezou set out to teach us is indeed an ambitious one: there have been eleven people involved both on site and spread across the scholarly globe, as the website says: “a team of experts with specialist knowledge on Afghan archaeology, coins, ceramics, and Persian and Arabic texts”, and more besides given that some of the documents from the area are in Bactrian, a language that really very few people in the world now read (which is frustrating to me, as these documents are obviously charters and I want to know how they compare…). They have aimed to look at settlement patterns, resource use, connections and conversion, fortification (the city walls seem to have been almost gone between the tenth and fifteenth centuries, but there is some suggestion that a new circuit was put up to encircle the whole oasis, a 72 km effort that it would be marvellous actually to prove), administration, religious building and a few other things besides including editions of the few surviving texts from the city. These include the Bactrian charters, which are apparently largely one family’s archive (which is perhaps even more intriguing than a civic one would be), and a fifteenth-century history of the city called the Fada’il-i Balkh, surviving in a Persian translation of its Arabic original and providing biographical notes about seventy generations of city luminaries, including a couple of notable queens and some learned women about whom Arezou has already written.2

Inside a post-Timurid shrine in Balkh, photo by Arezou Azad

Inside a post-Timurid shrine in Balkh, photo by Arezou Azad

All of this is however complicated by the fact that the project is trying to study a place now in Afghanistan, which is not currently perfectly accessible… Balkh is largely clear of warzone but local security is still quite tight, not least because that actually puts it very close to the border with Uzbekistan. That also has the complication that sites in the city’s old territory are now in fact across the border, meaning that they have to have a team member working with old Soviet archæological reports on finds that they can’t get at. The finds that they can get at, meanwhile, are in Kabul, were mostly excavated by French teams in the 1970s and were found in storage of the most dreadful kind, rooms full of uncatalogued potsherds and coins carefully stored in airtight plastic bags with perhaps just a little bit of moisture along with them that consequently provided perfect conditions for thriving populations of mould to grow on them then die in the bag.3 Even once conserved, the original records of these coins’ discovery context has been lost, and the situation is little better for many of the other finds, but what little is known suggests that they are only from two or three areas of the city, so that a great deal remains archæologically blank.

A coin of al-Mubarak (Balkh)

A coin of al-Mubarak, which is to say Balkh, cleaned and conserved; I can’t tell you metal or date but it’s one of the finds!

The team can’t afford to maintain an actual presence in either Balkh or Kabul except for local interns, who have been having to work largely unsupervised and unpaid with what help the Délégation archéologique française en Afghanistan is able to offer. This seems not to have stopped them making great efforts, but it’s obviously not ideal and putting their findings to work is very difficult. Indeed, at the time Arezou was speaking, the whole team had only been able to meet twice since they began the project in late 2011, although there was to be a conference in January 2015, which seems to have been the last time the project website was updated. The publication of those papers is obviously a desideratum, but at the end of Arezou’s paper my hopes for what they may contain were, I have to admit, considerably dampened.4 It seems as if new primary material is going to be very hard to add into any new synthesis, so the best we can hope for may be the refinement and greater accessibility of earlier syntheses. There are some places—and many worse than this, right now—which we just can’t study properly!

Professor Hugh Kennedy in discussion with Dr Mark Whittow at the BACH conference, Oxford 2015

The conference looks as if it may have been fun, though! Here the pictures from it show Professor Hugh Kennedy in discussion with Dr Mark Whittow.

1. That book being A. Azad, Sacred Landscape in Medieval Afghanistan: Revisiting the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh (Oxford 2013).

2. A. Azad, “Female Mystics in Medieval Islam: The Quiet Legacy” in Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient Vol. 56 (Leiden 2013), pp. 53–88, DOI: 10.1163/15685209-12341277. The Bactrian documents have been being published for some years now as Nicholas Sims-Williams (ed.), Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan, Vol I: Legal and Economic Documents (Oxford 2001), idem, Bactrian documents from Northern Afghanistan, Vol. 2: Letters and Buddhist texts (London 2007) and Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan III: Plates (Oxford 2013), which must have been a trial judging by the three different publishers. The Fada’il-i Balkh has been edited before, as Shaykh al-Islām al-Wā’iz & ‘Abd Allāh al-Husaynī (edd.), Fadā’il-i Balkh (Tehran 1350 [1971]), but this is apparently “inadequate” (Azad, Sacred Landscapes, p. 22 n. 2), and a new one by project member by Ali Mir Ansari, which will then be translated by Arezou and Edmund Herzig, apparently as Azad, Ansari & Herzig (transl.), Faḍāʾil-i Balkh (London forthcoming), is in progress still.

3. Kids, a curator’s advice to you: if you have old coins in a sealable plastic receptacle, like a zip-lock bag or something, poke a pinhole in that plastic or you too may face this problem after 35 years…

4. Arezou’s Birmingham webpage does mention as forthcoming something that looks as if it might be that publication, A. Azad, Edmund Herzig & Paul Wordsworth (edd.), Early Islamic Balkh: History, Landscape and Material Culture of a Central Asian City (forthcoming), but that’s the only trace I can find so far.

The making of judges in tenth-century Northern Iberia

In 2009 Wendy Davies, of whom I so often write here, gave the annual lecture in memory of the late Timothy Reuter in Southampton. I could not go, but it was published in 2010 and some time in early 2011, Wendy kindly gave me an offprint, and I’d already downloaded it by then, knowing that I very much needed to read it.1 Somehow, it was not till late 2014 that a combination of interest and shame found me resorting my to-read shelves in such a way as to bring it to the top, though, and then of course I found it really interesting. There’s two things in particular I thought made for blog material, and this is the former of them.

A ruined farm in Soutelo, Braga, currently for sale

A farm in Soutelo, near Braga, like the one with which Wendy’s opening case dealt

Wendy’s aim was to explore what people who went to court in northern Iberia in the ninth and tenth centuries were hoping for: a compromise arrangement that settled all parties’ feelings and healed social rifts, or definitive justice based on rules and a judgement of the true situation? As she explains, scholars of the early Middle Ages have got very used to the idea that almost all justice in them was probably more negotiated than determined, and yet the language of the documents from her area (Northern Iberia from Galicia to Aragón and Navarra) is very much of truth and justice, “veritatem et iustitiam”.2 By way of exploring what is up with this, she worked through what we can say about the people who judged these cases and who let them do so, and then what, as far as we can tell, they thought they were supposed to do. This involves pulling together a sample, of course—one of the reasons I love Wendy’s work is that she is someone who can start a section of a paper with the non-sentence, “Firstly numbers.”—and she has 250 records of disputes with 160 people named as judges (iudices), of whom only 15 or so occur more than once.3 Using that, she determines what we usually find judges doing (“… ordering what happens next, making primary investigations, reviewing evidence, and making decisions”) and then, the point I want to pick up here, notes that it is not just people named as judges who do such things in court:

“While the label iudex was attached to some of the judges… it was not applied to all. The group doing the judges, the group of iudices in the plural, might include, or indeed be entirely composed of, indiviudals who carried the label iudex, but it might also include others…. The apparent inconistencies in this usage are quite easily explained: being called a iudex was a marker of status—the label was applied to such people when, for example, they witnessed uncontested sale transactions; to do the judging you did not need to be a iudex, although you might be; in other words, the label iudex and the act of judging are separable. A iudex (in the singular) was a person of special status and skill—a kind of professional; he must usually have been literate (given the number of cases in which a scribe is termed iudex) and he is likely to have known some law. Doing the judging was something in which other leading men of a locality could participate; hence the common references to iudices in the plural, as the people doing the judging….”4

This intrigues me a great deal. As long-term readers will know there are plenty of judges in my evidence, and I am particularly grateful to one or two of them for the amount of detail they would cheerfully go into in explaining the cases they oversaw, but many of the others are complete obscurities, never seen in judgement or only once.5 These latter are trouble for some of the laudatory things that have been said about judges in early medieval Catalonia, who are famous for having been literate, educated, clerical and publicly-appointed disinterested judicial practitioners guided primarily by the written law.6 Jeffrey Bowman, among others, has exposed how carefree they could be about how to use that written law, and I’ve blogged an example here, but the idea that they were educated and publicly appointed has never really been challenged.7 Bowman’s work is especially interesting here because he sees a difference between the educated comital judges of Barcelona and the rather more homespun and independent judges of very southern France, and I have suggested that this is a distinction made over space which should actually be made over time, because plenty of the latter seem to me to exist in Catalonia too.8

London, British Library, MS Royal 6.E.vii,  f. 345 detail, showing a fourteenth-century judge

Judges are never depicted in this period and area as far as I know, and i certainly can’t find one from in-area and in-period. On the other hand, this fourteenth-century depiction from James le Palmer’s Omne Bonum does also illustrate the word iudex, of which this is the historiated initial… It’s from London, British Library, MS Royal 6.E.vii, fo. 345r.

One way to advance this is to ask who appointed judges. In Catalonia it’s almost always assumed to have been the count, but there is really no evidence of this that I know of. Judges appear with the count, receive gifts from the count, hand out judgement in courts over which he presides, and some of the more outstanding ones do this for several counts.9 It’s not even only the educated ones; Borrell II of Barcelona had a castellan called Guifré who was also a iudex, although we have no records of him actually judging, and that is at least a recognition of his title by the count.10 Still, we don’t have anyone who helpfully calls themselves iudex comitis or comitalis and the actual process of nomination is not recorded. Now, Wendy does have some answers to this question, not least because she does have royal judges, iudices regis.11 But that’s the top of the pile, and the bottom is different. The chunk I’ve quoted above goes on as follows:

“… in [a case previously discussed], the additional three judges were selected from the assembled court to probe the witness evidence. Very occasionally there are references to choosing the judges from assembled boni homines, that is ‘worthies’, although that is rare (and the texts do not specify who made the choice).”12

This is practically being made a judge for the day, isn’t it? And it’s a mile away from the idea of such persons as carefully trained and professionally active, even if those chosen would probably have had a lot of relevant knowledge. If we have such cases in Catalonia, I don’t know about them as yet. But the problem is not that we have a different pattern attested there, but that we have no pattern; we have judges with no origin, beyond the fact that we can see that some of the more educated ones were members of the Barcelona chapter.13 Given this absence of evidence, the kind of variety that Wendy attests is as plausible as anything else, and then what does that do to the idea of Catalan justice as a model of early medieval statecraft? Well, she has an answer to that too:

“What is interesting, given that the state was undeveloped, is that there was a public system, from east to west, north to south, which had recognised procedures, experts, written law, officers, scales of penalty, counts with potestas (in these contexts, legitimate capacity to hold a court). There was a strong sense of the public, although differently conceptualised from either ancient or modern notions.”14

It is that difference in conceptualisation I am still struggling with here, I think. But as so often, it is easier if one compares, and Wendy has made that much easier.

1. W. Davies, “Judges and Judging: truth and justice in northern Iberia on the eve of the millennium”, The Reuter Lecture 2009, in Journal of Medieval History Vol. 36 (Amsterdam 2010), pp. 193-203, DOI: 10.1016/j.jmedhist.2010.07.001.

2. Ibid. pp. 194-195, citing inter alia Warren C. Brown and Piotr Górecki (edd.), Conflict in Medieval Europe: changing perspectives on society and culture (Aldershot 2003) and various studies now reprinted in Stephen D. White, Feuding and Peace-Making in Eleventh-Century France, Variorum Collected Studies 817 (London 2005); the quote is from a León charter of 952 printed in Ernesto Sáez (ed.), Colección documental de la Catedral de León (775–1230), I (775–952), Fuentes y estudios de historia leonesa 41 (León 1987), doc. no. 256, which it turns out I have cited here before.

3. Davies, “Judges and Judging”, pp. 195-201, quote on p. 199.

4. Quotes ibid., pp. 201 and 200 respectively, punctuation as in the original.

5. See Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 42, 133, 139 & 152, inter alia.

6. The classic statement of this maximum case is Roger Collins, “‘Sicut lex Gothorum continet’: law and charters in ninth- and tenth-century León and Catalonia” in English Historical Review Vol. 100 (London 1985), pp. 489-512, repr. in idem, Law, Culture and Regionalism in Early Medieval Spain, Variorum Collected Studies 356 (Aldershot 1992), V, to which add his “Literacy and the Laity in Early Medieval Spain” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 109-133, repr. in Collins, Law, Culture and Regionalism, XVI; more nuanced, but still fundamentally affirmative, is Josep María Salrach, Justícia i poder en Catalunya abans de l’any mil, Referències 55 (Vic 2013), pp. 143-178, which does very much the same job as Wendy does in “Judges and Judging” but with different starting questions.

7. Jeffrey A. Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000 (Ithaca 2004), pp. 33-55.

8. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, p. 133; I go into more detail in the next book, now under work and about which I shall blog ‘ere long honest.

9. Guifré Ausonensis, despite his byname, seems to turn up first of all judging for Count-Marquis Oliba Cabreta of Cerdanya, and only to move into Borrell II of Barcelona’s territory (mainly Osona and Urgell) later in his career. I give some references for him ibid.

10. Ibid., pp. 152 & 153.

11. Davies, “Judges and Judging”, pp. 199-200.

12. Ibid. p. 201.

13. See Josep M. Font i Rius, “L’escola jurídica de Barcelona” in Jesús Alturo i Perucho, Joan Bellès, Font, Yolanda García & Anscari Mundó (edd.), Liber iudicum popularis. Ordenat pel jutge Bonsom de Barcelona, Textos jurídics catalans 23 (Barcelona 2003), pp. 67-100.

14. Davies, “Judges and Judging”, p. 202.

Towards a Global Middle Ages III and final: bits and pieces from around the world

I’ve put in two quite heavy posts now about thoughts arising from the meeting of the Global Middle Ages Network I was invited to in September last year, and although they have not exhausted those thoughts they have used up all the big ones, so this last one collects the small stuff. Consequently it’s a bit less structured than the others and I will use headings to gather it up, but hopefully there’s something in it for most readers.

The Rôle of Cities

Cities were one of the things that those assembled thought would be most obviously comparable across a wide area, because most areas of the world had cities in the Middle Ages. But this set off my erstwhile Insular early medievalist’s alarm bells somewhat, because there’s a substantial debate in Anglo-Saxonist circles about when we can start talking about England having had towns, let alone cities, and in Ireland agreement is pretty universal that, unless big monasteries and their dependent settlements count, towns arrived only with the Vikings.1 This has led to some fairly theorised wrangling about how to define a town, with words like Kriterienbundel (a bundle of criteria) flying around it, and I’ve written about this here before. This was not a debate that we seemed to be having here and I wondered why not.

The ghost town of Craco, Italy

In the thirteenth century this place had a bishop, a lord and a university, and yet I cannot help thinking it is not necessarily what we all meant by the word city… It is the ghost town of Craco, in Italy. “Craco0001” by No machine readable author provided. Idéfix~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims).. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

It’s not that no-one asked what a city might actually be, not least because I did. The answer that Alan Strathern came up with, a settlement that can’t feed itself, presumably meaning by the agriculture or hunting of its own inhabitants, is actually a pretty good one in basic economic terms, but could again easily encompass a big monastery or an army camp while maybe not including, for example, fifth-century London as we currently envisage it, so I see some problems still.2 There’s also an important difference between a settlement that can’t feed itself and one that could, but is structured so as not to have to; some quite small places running on tribute were not necessarily doing so out of economic necessity, but because it was how they demonstrated and enacted importance. This kind of blur is why we need multiple criteria, but the western Kriterienbundel, which classically includes defences, planned streets, a market, a mint, legal autonomy, a rôle as a central place, population density, economic diversification, plot-type settlement, social stratification, religious organisation and political centrality, might not all make sense in, say, northern China.3 So I leave that there to wonder about, as I think it still needs it.

Map of Anglo-Saxon London in the seventh century

So, OK, we have defences and religious centrality, but probably not political centrality and while we do have economic diversification it’s not in the same place as the defences… I think I’ll leave this to them. Map borrowed from the Musem of London blog, linked through.

Anthropologists of resort

Here just a short note that there was, in some ways surprisingly little resort to anthropological models in this meeting but when the anthropologists did come in it tended to be the same one. I am of the opinion that while we can almost always profit from talking to anthropologists and then taking their models home to try on, a meeting and project with as broad a comparative framework as this one might need the outside help least of all; there are already an immense number of models flying about, surely, or ought to be. This is in fact more or the less the state I want to get my frontiers network to (had you considered offering a paper, by the way?), where we actually make our own theory. But until this group gets itself there, one name seems likely to recur, and that name was David Graeber. I have not read Graeber, though he is one of my anthropologist of resort‘s own anthropologists of resort and I know that I need to, and I see that he works on concepts that should indeed be comparable between societies, here mainly economic value, but I will need to read him before I can stop worrying about how well work based on him will encompass societies that didn’t use money and in which honour was something you could put a price on in law (which was supposed to be paid in money they didn’t have).4 I suppose this misgiving only exposes my ignorance and I ought to just knuckle down and get one of his books out of a library when I have long-term access to one again next month.5

Models of Trust

Some of the most interesting conversations in the meeting for me were about whether trust might be a concept around which one could organise a global comparison of medieval-period societies. It’s hard to dig further into this without basically summarising Ian Forrest‘s presentation, but he made the excellent point that as long as we are looking at contact over distances, trust was crucial because so little of what people knew of each other could be checked or verified.6 There was much debate about, firstly, whether this was a medieval issue or a more general one and whether that made a difference to its potential for the project, which Ian thought was best answered in terms of scale, often my favourite terms as you know, and secondly how trust could have been tested in such milieux, whether religion secured it and how foreigners could access that or whether kinship might work better (and how they accessed that.7 Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias told us of work that broke trust relationships down into horizontal ones, as between brothers, and hierarchical ones, as between boss and subordinate, and that in some ways the most interesting points of comparison might be between things that wouldn’t fit that scheme, and that struck me as really clever but also murderously abstruse to try and carry out, especially (as Ian had up-front admitted) in areas where the evidence was largely archæological.8 Lots to think about here but less clear as yet how to test it all…

And, types of network

There was also some interesting talk around the idea of networks. Jonathan Shepard had diaarmingly admitted that he was trying to continue working on empires by seeing them as large top-down networks, but was quickly led into the alternatives, because if a network is not top-down, no-one is in overall control of its structure, which will instead presumably develop as needed and possible and die off where non-functional. There were also in-between states to be considered such as diasporas, where the initial distribution is very much directed from above but its effects and low-level distribution is basically uncontrolled, or the slave trade, where the initial gathering of points of linkage is very localised but subsequent transmission takes place through a highly-structured network which is, nonetheless, not always there because, as Rebecca Darley pointed out, the early Middle Ages at least has to deal with the idea of trading places that occupied only intermittently.9 These were all interesting ways to think about intermittency and duration in almost any area. How were such intermittent networks accessed? If people rarely went somewhere, how did anyone know where to go? I imagined, for example, Norse settlers in Newfoundland sometimes, in very hard winters, trying to find the Dorset people to trade with (as some people think they did, even if perhaps in better circumstances), and going to places they supposed they might be and hoping to coincide. Does that still count? And if so, did it have much effect? In some ways you could dismiss it as occasional and not how that society usually worked (or indeed as entirely hypothetical) but if it ever did, they must have been pretty profound experiences for those taking part…

Wool recovered from a Dorset site in Baffin Island that has been argued to be a Viking import to the area

Wool recovered from a Dorset site in Baffin Island that has been argued to be a Viking import to the area

That’s about enough, anyway, but it goes to show that despite some of my big-order doubts about the viability of this group’s concept, attempting the work at all involves enough productive thinking about difficult cases of comparison and contact that we can all profit from their attempt even if it doesn’t achieve its main goal, and that might be quite enough to count it as a success!

1. My go-to for this is still Martin Biddle, “Towns” in David Wilson (ed.), The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England (London 1976), pp. 99-150, and for Ireland Charles Doherty, “The monastic town in early medieval Ireland” in Howard B. Clarke and A. Simms (edd.), The comparative history of urban origins in non-Roman Europe: Ireland, Wales, Denmark, Germany, Poland and Russia from the 9th to the 13th century, British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 255 (Oxford 1985), 2 vols, II, pp. 45-75; both are old but make the point.

2. I haven’t read this, but a quick search makes look like the obvious thing on this Howard B. Clarke, “Kingdom, emporium and town: the impact of Viking Dublin” in History Studies Vol. 2 (Limerick 2000), pp. 13-24.

3. Biddle, “Towns”, pp. 99-100; the idea is older, though, perhaps as old as Edith Ennen, Frühgeschichte der europäischen Stadt (Bonn 1953).

4. See Elina Screen, “Anglo-Saxon law and numismatics: a reassessment in the light of Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law” in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 77 (London 2007), pp. 150-172.

5. Presumably his Debt: the first 5,000 years (Bew York City 2011), but I’ll take recommendations…

6. For this I always think of Ernst Pitz, “Erschleichung und Anfechtung von Herrscher- und Papsturkunden vom 4. bis 10. Jahrhundert” in Fälschungen im Mittelalter. Internationaler Kongreß der Monumenta Germaniae Historica, München, 16.-19. September 1986, Schriften der Monumenta Germaniae Historica 33 (Hannover 1988), 5 vols, III, pp. 69-113, because of the stories in it about popes who just have no idea what is going on in many farflung places when people come from there to get it changed.

7. Some of these points came from Chris Wickham, who prefaced them with the name of Jessica Goldberg, whose most relevant work would seem to be Institutions and geographies of trade in the medieval Mediterranean: the business world of the Maghribi traders (Cambridge 2012).

8. I didn’t catch the reference here. My notes contain the word ‘Salura’, but I can’t tell if this is a cite or a place or what, sorry!

9. Professor Shepard’s examples were here coming largely from his (and others’) Dirhams for Slaves project, about which I have several reservations, but I can’t find that it’s as yet published anything, so I can’t tell you where to find the opportunity to think differently, sorry!

Name in Print XV

[This post originally went up in September 2014, when it was stuck to the front page, and now that I have reached that point in my backlog it’s time to unstick it and let it go free into the flow. You may also like to be reminded that I wrote something that might interest you… or you may not, in which case stay tuned for new content about global history some time fairly soon.]

Cover of Antonella Ambrosio, Sébastien Barret & Georg Vogeler (edd.), Digital Diplomatics 2011: the computer as a tool for the diplomatist?

Cover of Antonella Ambrosio, Sébastien Barret & Georg Vogeler (edd.), Digital Diplomatics 2011: the computer as a tool for the diplomatist?

Second of the 2014 outputs now! In 2011, as you may remember, I went to a conference in Naples about digital study of charter material. It’s been a long time coming but the proceedings of that conference are now published, in the Beihefte of the Archiv für Diplomatik, and my paper is in there, the last in the volume indeed. It’s called “Poor Tools to Think With: the human space in digital diplomatics” and it’s about database techniques that try not to over-determine structure. Let me put that another way by exemplifying with a paragraph. Taking a data search from the Casserres material as an example, I write:

“I think that, where I have been prepared to deduce here, the deductions are all reasonable, but of course they are not certain. This is not a failing of the database, however; it is an accurate result. There is not enough information to make those judgements, and the data returned from the query accurately reflects that. This design is set up to require the human user to make the final decision, or not. This subset is small enough that I can, even without a computer, establish accurately that we cannot tell which of these [homonymous people] are the same on a logical basis, and I ought not, therefore, to entertain data schemas that would make me do so. We do not, in fact, have to make technical solutions for these problems, because the historian can do as much with the information presented this way as he or she can with it anchored to look-up tables and so on.”

This is coming out of the problem of building a structured database whose purpose is to allow one to identify people without having to identify them to build the database. If this sounds like a problem you too have faced, or expect to, I may have something to say to you! It’s probably as close to a publication of ‘my’ database method as there will be, and on a first read-through possibly actually free of typos, which I have never before managed. I humbly put it before you all.

Grim statistics: this was written in September 2011, revised and submitted in November 2011 and revised after editor’s comments in March 2012 and then again in April 2013. Proofs arrived in December 2013 and it’s taken 9 months to come to press, not what I expect from the Archiv which, last time I dealt with it, went through the whole submission process in that time. From first submission to press would thus be 2 years 11 months, rather below even my long average. But, fortunately indeed for a technical paper, my methods are so low-tech that they remain useful I think…

Full citation: J. Jarrett, “Poor tools to think with. The human space in digital diplomatics” in Antonella Ambrosio, Sébastien Barret & Georg Vogeler (edd.), Digital Diplomatics 2011: the computer as a tool for the diplomatist?, Archiv für Diplomatik Beihefte 14 (Köln 2014), pp. 291-302.