Tag Archives: Æthelred the Unready

Seminar CCXXVII: towards a more relaxed and flexible late Anglo-Saxon monetary system

My mainline posts may be diverging increasingly from my seminar reports in terms of date covered, but you will have to admit that the subject material is fairly coherent as I move onto the next seminar report, because it’s all about money here on A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe for a while. For lo, on 4th February 2015 my old colleague Rory Naismith, now of Kings College London, was presenting to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London, and so of course I was there.

A silver penny of Cnut, struck by Godman at London, in 1025-1036 from the Lenborough hoard, Buckinghamshire, discovered late 2014

A silver penny of King Cnut, struck by Godman at London in 1025-1036, from the Lenborough hoard, Buckinghamshire, discovered late 2014

Rory is, as those who know his work will appreciate, a man who gets stuff done, and accordingly when the Committee of the Medieval European Coinage Project (on which, full disclosure for those that don’t know, I sit) needed someone to write volume 8, which will cover the British Isles from circa 600 to 1066, it was to Rory we turned, and now it is in press, so chalk one more of many up to Rory on that one. At the point of this seminar he had just about submitted that text, and so was able to give us some preliminary conclusions under the title, “Coinage and the Late Anglo-Saxon State”, and having thus elected to focus on the late Anglo-Saxon monetary system he was necessarily led to address the legacy of this man.

Portrait of Michael Dolley

The late Reginald Hugh Michael Dolley

Thankfully this was not quite literal, as Rory informed us that Michael Dolley (for it is he) had produced not just 860 research outputs in his career but 6 children, but nonetheless there is a particular vision of the late Anglo-Saxon monetary system that we owe to Dolley, which has become fixed into a view of what James Campbell called the ‘maximum hypothesis’ of what he also called the Anglo-Saxon state.1 According to Dolley, extensive study of the coinage revealed that from 973, in the reign of King Edgar, a system of sexennial recoinage operated in which the whole kingdom’s money was called in, melted down and reissued in a new type at any of a large number of mints scattered across the country for this purpose. This allowed very tight dating of the sequence of what were, then, necessarily single nationwide issues, and from this really quite elaborate hypotheses have been hatched about how the weights of these coins were managed to encourage people to bring them in at the end of the run despite the cut that moneyers took at recoinage, and many other aspects of fine detail management.2 It’s been thought for quite a long time that this must be too rigid but only now has someone been forced to write a replacement account, and of course here he was talking to us.

Silver penny of Æthelred II struck by Æthelwine at Stamford around 1009, found at Lenborough, Buckinghamshire, late 2014, a mule of the Lamb of God and Last Small Cross types showing their probably-simultaneous manufacture

Silver penny of Æthelred II struck by Æthelwine at Stamford around 1009, also found at Lenborough, a mule of the Lamb of God and Last Small Cross types showing their probably-simultaneous manufacture

So, in the Naismith dispensation, not everything has changed but a good deal has. In the first place, since we have 1300+ finds of coins of this period, we can start to say something about relative frequency of types with some basis, and this shows us that not every type was struck in equal numbers. Some, indeed, especially the Lamb of God issue of Æthelred the Unready as above, were apparently struck in very small numbers—if you find one, be careful with it—and while some hoards have only one type in, others do mix, often containing several types at once, all of which puts serious holes in the idea of consistent and total type-by-type recoinage. Instead, it seems ineluctable that some types were only experimental and ran alongside others, that recoinage was not always total and that people did save up over several reigns even when the coins in their hoards should have been legally useless. In discussion, in fact, I suggested that they were still exchangeable for new coins and so people waited until they had to do so rather than pay the moneyer’s cut several times over, which I think still works. The coinage winds up looking like a much less tightly-regulated fiscal apparatus as Rory sees it, anyway, and acquires an aspect of simple moral broadcasting and the performance of royal power, all of which is very much in keeping with how we now view that kingship in certain other aspects too.3

Silver Agnus Dei penny of Æthelred II struck by Sæwine at Salisbury

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge also has one of Æthelred’s Lamb of God pennies, which has suffered a different set of misfortunes but which is described in the article linked through the image. The coin is Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.1-2009, and it was struck at Salisbury by Sæwine.

This is not necessarily to diminish the power of that kingship, one should say, lest hearts in Oxford start to quail, but rather to change its aims. Starting with James Campbell but picked up by many others, a good deal of work has gone into establishing the late Anglo-Saxon kingdom as unusually closely and effectively administered, and the coinage has been a big part of that because of the kind of micro-management arguments I’ve mentioned, which would require a very modern-looking grasp of fiscal economics to dream up.4 If the kingship’s aims were actually more ideological than fiscal, that doesn’t remove the fact that apparently it could, on a fairly frequent basis, call in almost all of the coinage and replace it, a thing that almost no other medieval state could hope to do or even see any point in. Indeed, one could follow Rory all the way and see the flexibility of this system, minting coins as needed in places that only sprang into life as mints occasionally and meeting demand where the demand mainly was (London, Lincoln, Stamford, York and Winchester struck between half and three-quarters of any given type, Rory had told us), as a strength, indicating a responsive and adaptable system rather than a rigid and dictatorial one. What it begins no longer to look like, however, is a prototype for English modernity, and that is probably good to make clear.


1. Dolley didn’t really compile a monographic statement of his theory, and the closest one can get to a summary of it is probably R. H. M. Dolley and D. Michael Metcalf, “The Reform of the English Coinage under Edgar” in Dolley (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Coins: studies presented to F. M. Stenton on the occasion of his 80th birthday, 17 May 1960 (London 1961), pp. 136-168, though one (and by one I suppose I really mean Rory) has also to take account of updates like Dolley & C. Stewart Lyon, “Additional evidence for the sequence of types early in the reign of Edward the Confessor” in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 39 (1967), pp. 59-61 or Dolley, “Some neglected Scandinavian evidence for the ordering of the early types of Edward the Confessor”, Seaby’s Coin and Medal Bulletin no. 693 (London 1976), pp. 154-158. Probably the best place to find the significant references is in fact shortly to be Rory Naismith, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 8: Britain and Ireland, c. 400-1066 (Cambridge forthcoming)! As for the Campbell theory, the starting point is J. Campbell, “The Late Anglo-Saxon State: a maximum view” in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 87 (London 1994), pp. 39-65, repr. in idem, The Anglo-Saxon State (London 2000), pp. 1-30, along with several other relevant papers, including at pp. 201-225 idem, “Some Agents and Agencies of the Late Anglo-Saxon State” in James C. Holt (ed.), Domesday Studies: Papers read at the Novocentenary Conference of the Royal Historical Society and the Institute of British Geographers, Winchester, 1986 (Woodbridge 1986), pp. 201-218, and one could also point back to Campbell, “Observations on English Government from the Tenth to the Twelfth Century” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th Series Vol. 25 (London 1975), pp. 39-54, repr. in idem, Essays in Anglo-Saxon History (London 1986), pp. 155-170.

2. The extent to which Dolley carried the numismatists of his generation with him is to some extent evident in the number of things about his system that he co-wrote, as witness the cites above, but even in 1976 some disquiet was emerging, evident in Stewart Lyon, “Some Problems in Interpreting Anglo-Saxon Coinage” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 5 (Cambridge 1976), pp. 173-224, while on the other hand people who liked to think in systems were having a ball with it, most memorably for me S. R. H. Jones, “Devaluation and the Balance of Payments in Eleventh-Century England: an exercise in Dark Age economics” in Economic History Review 2nd Series Vol. 45 (London 1991), pp. 594-607, which is really special thinking.

3. This new perspective seems to be due not least to Patrick Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the twelfth century. Volume 1: legislation and its limits (Oxford 2001), though some influence from the German scholarship focussed on ritual must also be involved, visible for example in Levi Roach, “Public rites and public wrongs: ritual aspects of diplomas in tenth- and eleventh-century England” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 19 (Oxford 2011), pp. 182-203. The Lamb of God coinage is especially useful for emphasising this ideological broadcasting, as it seems to have had no real economic rôle: see Rory Naismith & Simon Keynes, “The Agnus Dei pennies of King Æthelred the Unready” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 40 (Cambridge 2007), pp. 175-223, DOI: 10.1017/S0263675111000093.

4. In which respect it’s interesting to compare the works in n. 1 above with Simon Keynes, “Royal Government and the Written Word in Late Anglo-Saxon England” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 226-257, about which I wrote here a long time ago but now seems more prophetic than I then realised.

Seminar CXCIV: who was afraid of the end in millennial England?

We have already recently mentioned the scholarly debate over whether or not there was a particular fear of the the world associated with the year 1000 in the Middle Ages, and that I was teaching a course on such matters in Birmingham this last spring. Thus, when I gathered that Professor Catherine Cubitt was giving the Royal Historical Society’s Public Lecture on 7th February 2014 with the title “Apocalyptic Thought in England Around the Year 1000”, I made sure I ws there, both because of the theme and because Katy is always interesting. Because of the reading for the course, I was one of the people in the audience who knew a lot of what she was saying, but by no means all and I came away with many new thoughts.

Having written all this and starting the search for links and images, I discover to my delight that the lecture was in fact recorded, so you can watch it uourself and see how fair I'm being! And it's worth the watch, if you like such things, and not just for the Steve Bell cartoon visible in the clip here...

Getting at whether writers, and by this given the sources we mean churchmen, obviously, were really worried about the imminence of the end of time and the Final Judgement is complicated by the fact that it’s a really obvious preaching tool. While Richard Landes and others may be right that for some people, the Final Judgement was a happy promise that although they’d been beaten down on all their lives by over-privileged people on horses living in halls, God would eventually, and perhaps soon, set things right, certainly the sermons we have from this era, a genre in which England is unusually rich, think that their hearers needed to be afraid, because time for repentance and mending their ways might be running out.1 This is fire-and-brimstone preaching at its most immediate, I guess, and it requires a peculiar two-handed approach: the End must be close, close enough that the signs are evident, but also there must still be time to make things better or it’s too late to preach. The result is that the Apocalypse becomes always imminent but never here, and in this respect we could have just the same debate about Pope Gregory I around 600 as we could have about, say, Abbot Æfric of Eynsham around 1000, whose list of events that should be read as showing the end times being in progress went back to the first century!2 If there was genuine worry about these issues, it’s both hard to separate from the utility of the trope for moral reformers (the basic conclusion of my students that term) and possible to find whenever we have the right kind of evidence.

London, British Library, MS Harley 3271, showing the text of the Tribal Hidage and the opening of the Grammar of Æfric of Eynsham

I can’t show you a picture of Æfric, but I can show you an eleventh-century writing of his name in this manuscript, London British Library MS Harley 3271, at the head of his treatise on grammar, weirdly facing a text of the Tribal Hidage

Nonetheless, there is a lot of this stuff, relatively speaking, from tenth- and early-eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon England, and it’s easy enough to see why: the country was beset by Viking attacks it was not managing to resist, the kingship of Æthelred II (978-1016) was increasingly paralysed by poor leadership and treachery, and things were not getting better despite an increasingly desperate moral agenda at court.3 Here again we have the problem that one of the people who was most involved in that agenda, Archbishop Wulfstan II of York, was also very fond of the Apocalyptic message as a preaching tool, seen most clearly in his Sermon of the Wolf to the English, apparently first written after the worst had happened and the king had been driven out but redone several times after that. Since he also helped draft Æthelred’s later laws and perhaps his unusually verbose and ‘penitential’ charters, that the voice of the state has an urgent tone of repentance about it is not surprising.4 The agenda was probably not cynical, either: Æthelred’s charters seem almost to be searching for what he and his people may have done wrong in their different pleas for forgiveness: yes, the imminent Last Judgement, but also various saints he might have offended, the soul of his murdered brother, his mother’s curse… he was apparently a haunted man and whatever Wulfstan’s concerns were, they found a ready audience with the king.5

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.38, otherwise known as Sawyer 876, a charter of Æthelred for the abbey of Abingdon from 993

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.38, otherwise known as Sawyer 876, a charter of Æthelred for the abbey of Abingdon from 993 very full of apologies for the king's earlier mistreatment of the abbey

Nor was it just Wulfstan that used this stuff, either; we’ve mentioned Ælfric and there are various anonymous homilies preserved that also like the Last Days as a trope. Furthermore, for what it may be worth, Wulfstan himself seems to have been concerned about this all his life, in his earliest works before he was part of the government and even still after Æthelred’s succession by Cnut and the consequent end of the Viking menace.6 The End was still coming! Katy’s conclusion was therefore that, even if such thinking and preaching served a moral and reformist agenda and was being used to that end by its propagators, there were still a lot of those, sufficiently many and widely-disseminated (especially in the laws) that people at large would have been much exposed to this rhetoric. (I think now of the rhetoric of the term ‘recession’ and how that is used as a critique of the establishment, too, whatever its empirical truth.)

The <em>Sermo Lupi ad Anglos</em>, Sermon of the Wolf to the English, in its manuscript habitat

The Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, Sermon of the Wolf to the English, in its manuscript habitat (though I’m afraid i don’t know which manuscript)

As the first questioner noted, this did not entirely address the question of whether there was much popular take-up of the idea that End was near, and Katy conceded this, saying that Richard Landes has made this such a difficult question that it couldn’t be addressed in this forum. (My students would generally come to the conclusion that it can’t really be addressed at all.) Jinty Nelson noticed, and I later made sure my students did, that the English rhetoric of the End is quite, well, Insular, in as much as it doesn’t partake of any of the developing Continental and Byzantine traditions about the role of a last emperor in clearing the way for the End, even though (as I pointed out) Æthelred did sometimes use the Greek imperial title basileus in his charters; the sources are Revelation and St Augustine and not very much more.7 Another point I tried to raise (because there’s nothing so dangerous as a man with a little knowledge, I suppose) was around the laws: unlike the various sermons, and charters whose audience was a single court assembly then a monastery thereafter, the laws represent official disseminaton of this rhetoric, or so we assume. (I did privately wonder if Patrick Wormald’s work on the manuscripts allowed us to conclude that actually half of this stuff never left Wulfstan’s office in Worcester and represents only the versions he would have liked to send out.8) Katy replied that she felt that the Apocalyptic rhetoric has to be read into the laws, rather than being there explicitly, and indeed this was what I later found with my students. That was a good course, and the lone group that took it did their best with it; looking back, though, I realise that this lecture must have set a number of the places whither I wound up trying to guide them…


1. I’m leaving aside here the point made by both Landes, often, and Katy here that a long tradition of literature starting with Christ Himself in the Gospels held that the date and time of the End could not be known, and that any attempt to calculate it was to defy Christ. This is true and much reiterated, including by Katy’s sources, but the post is long enough already! Some obvious references at the outset, however, are Richard Landes, Andrew C. Gow and Daniel C. Van Meter (edd.), The Apocalyptic Year 1000: Religious Expectation and Social Change, 950–1050 (Oxford 2003), where Malcolm Godden’s “The millennium, time, and history for the Anglo-Saxons”, pp. 155-180 is most immediately relevant; compare Edwin Wilson Duncan, “Fears of the Apocalypse: The Anglo-Saxons and the Coming of the First Millennium” in Religion and Literature Vol. 31 (Notre Dame 1999), pp. 15–23, a basic introduction to the issues, and Simon Keynes, “Apocalypse Then: England A.D. 1000” in Premyslaw Urbańczyk (ed.), Europe around the Year 1000 (Warsaw 2001), pp. 247–270.

2. We found on the course that Bernard McGinn (ed./trans.), Visions of the End: Apocalyptic traditions in the Middle Ages (New York City 1978; 2nd edn. 1998) was an indispensable source of primary material, including if I remember some of Gregory the Great’s writings on this issue, but see on him also Robert Markus, “Living within Sight of the End” in Chris Humphrey & Mark Ormrod (edd.), Time in the Medieval World (Woodbridge 2001), pp. 23–34. For Ælfric a good starting point is Pauline Stafford, “Church and Society in the Age of Ælfric” in Paul E. Szarmach & B. F. Huppé (edd.), The Old English Homily and Its Backgrounds (Albany 1978), pp. 11–42.

3. Here the most obvious thing to cite is none other than Catherine Cubitt, “The politics of remorse: penance and royal piety in the reign of Æthelred the Unready” in Historical Research Vol. 85 (London 2012), pp. 179-192, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2281.2011.00571.x.

4. I discover now in searching for stuff to support this post that there is now plotted Andrew Rabin (ed./transl.), The Political Writings of Archbishop Wulfstan of York (Manchester forthcoming), which looks very useful.

5. Here, meanwhile, the obvious cites are now Levi Roach, “Public Rites and Public Wrongs: Ritual Aspects of Diplomas in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century England” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 19 (Oxford 2011), pp. 182–203 and idem, “Penitential Discourse in the Diplomas of King Aethelred ‘the Unready'” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History Vol. 64 (Cambridge 2013), pp. 258–276, and in case that doesn’t seem coincidental enough, I should mention that the lecture was preceded by a recitation of new fellows of the Society, of whom Levi was one! So the world remains tightly bound, unlike, as Wulfstan was fond of emphasising, Satan (see William Prideaux-Collins, “‘Satan’s bonds are extremely loose’: apocalyptic expectation in Anglo-Saxon England during the millennial era” in Landes, Gow & Van Meter, Apocalyptic Year 1000, pp. 289-310.

6. See Patrick Wormald, “Archbishop Wulfstan and the holiness of society” in David A. E. Pelteret (ed.), Anglo-Saxon History: basic readings (New York City 1999), pp. 191-224, repr. in Wormald, Legal Culture in the Early Medieval West (London 1999), pp. 225-251; Joyce Tally Lionarons, “Napier Homily L: Wulfstan’s eschatology at the close of his career” in Matthew Townend (ed.), Wulfstan, Archbishop of York: the Proceedings of the Second Alcuin Conference, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 10 (Turnhout 2004), pp. 413–428.

7. For the wider scene the most neutral introduction is probably Simon MacLean, “Apocalypse and Revolution: Europe around the Year 1000” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2007), pp. 86–106; for the Byzantine tradition, try Paul Julius Alexander, The Byzantine Apocalyptic Tradition (Los Angeles 1985), perhaps updated with Paul Magdalino, “The Year 1000 in Byzantium” in idem (ed.), Byzantium in the Year 1000 (Leiden 2003), pp. 233–270. Æthelred had the title basileus used for him in a full forty-three of his charters, which you can make the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England list for you here; it is often basileus of Britain or even of Albion, too, which makes me wonder if it wasn’t a reaction to the Kings of the Scots’ increasing use of the title of King of Alba.

8. Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the twelfth century, 1. Legislation and its limits (Oxford 2003); see also idem, “Archbishop Wulfstan, eleventh-century state-builder” in Townend, Wulfstan, pp. 9-27.

Régime failure and the mutation documentaire under Æthelred the Unready

To stay with charters for a moment, which I’m sure surprises you hardly at all, at Oxford the biggest survey courses are arranged so that British stuff is done in the winter term (‘Michaelmas’) and European in the spring (‘Hilary’). My post here is mainly concerned with the British, though I teach more widely, obviously, and this has meant a pleasant chance to reimmerse myself in the Anglo-Saxon scholarship that was, seriously, my first academic love.1 And last term this took the shape of me finally working all the way through Dorothy Whitelock’s incomparable source reader, English Historical Documents Vol. I.2 There is loads one could say about this volume, how careful its choices are, how everything chosen has something to tell you, how many things in it have been forgotten, and how little I could persuade the students to use it, but I wanted especially to focus on the charters of King Æthelred II, the Unready, who ruled England (and, if you believe some of his charters, the neighbouring kingdoms) from 978 till 1013, and then again 1014-1016. (I’m going to presume you know roughly how his reign went but if you don’t here’s a handy summary.)

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.38, otherwise known as Sawyer 876, a charter of Æthelred for the abbey of Abingdon from 993

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.38, otherwise known as Sawyer 876, a charter of Æthelred for the abbey of Abingdon from 993; click through to Simon Keynes's site for more images and his notes about why this one is odd

It’s actually quite hard to find many charters in translation. This is a problem I’ve met when being asked questions at interview such as the common one, “How do you incorporate your research into your teaching?” or, worse, “How would you construct a course based on your research?” because the honest answer to the latter is, “unless your students can all be made to study medieval Latin intensively beforehand, I’m afraid I can’t”. I do have some other answers, of course, and they’re not even untrue, but the fact that my primary materials are off-limits to most students is a real problem.3 Now, thanks to Whitelock and also to one Agnes Jane Robertson, England is actually unusually well-served with translated charters, but the problem is that while I learn most from a charter sample that is dense and focussed on a single area, the English corpus is usually anything but. One of the few periods where that’s close to not being true is the reign of Æthelred, which has given rise to a lot of interesting work on his reign using the charters.4 There’s a fair few of them, 117 in fact, and of these Whitelock gave eight, as well as four more that feature the king. This is obviously extremely selective, and the question of this post is how much of a mess does that make of the way one sees the king and his times?

Thirteenth-century portrait of Æthelred the Unready from the Abingdon Chronicle

Abingdon remembered their patron kindly enough to paint this picture of him c. 1220 in the Abingdon Chronicle, here scrounged from Wikimedia Commons

Let me be clear: there is no denying that Æthelred’s times were pretty bad. A king who is thrown out of his kingdom and then returns, allegedly on a promise to ‘rule better than he had done before’,5 has not had a trouble-free time, but the question has ever been: was he to blame, or is being put on the throne as a teenager in questionable circumstances and then beset by vast Viking armies and irremovable but treacherous magnates something that no ruler could have triumphed through? Perhaps, as 1066 and All That had it of King John’s similar successes, “even his useless character cannot alone explain”. Well, reading the charters that Whitelock chose and her eruditely condemnatory commentary leaves one in little doubt of where she stood. We have, respectively:

  1. Sawyer 882, in which Æthelred allows land to be given to Bishop Æscwig of Dorchester in order to compensate him for having ransomed Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury from the Vikings; a sign of the times, or of a lack of royal response?
  2. Sawyer 883, in which Æthelred intervenes to confirm some property to a sheriff who had accepted it from the family of a convicted felon so that that felon could be buried in consecrated ground, the king allowing this property to go to the sheriff and not the victims “because of the great love he has for him”.
  3. Sawyer 886, in which Æthelred, basileus grants land that had been forfeited to him after the exile of its owner for theft.
  4. Sawyer 877, in which Æthelred, ‘King of the English and Governor of the Orbit of Britain’, grants land in Kent to his mother that had eventually been forfeited after having been wrongfully seized by a man who was persistently summoned to court and wouldn’t go; after he died, but not before, enforcers were sent, and his widow and son, who had managed to add to the estate, killed 16 of them, effective action presumably being taken only after that.
  5. Sawyer 939, in which Æthelred confirms that he will allow the will of one Æthelric Bocking to stand, on the plea of and payment by his widow, despite the fact that he was accused, if not convicted, of complicity in a plot to welcome the King of Denmark into England, for which his lands were declared forfeit at his death.
  6. Sawyer 937, in which Æthelred grants various lands, including some forfeited from one of his ealdormen who’d stolen it from a widow, to the monastery of Abingdon, to make up for lands that had been granted to them by King Edgar but which Æthelred and his brother, King Edward the Martyr, had taken back as their own portion of the royal lands.
  7. Sawyer 905, a grant of land in Canterbury by Æthelred to a follower of his of the same name which Whitelock included because of it mentioning things about the town street layout.
  8. Sawyer 1536, the will of Ealdorman Wulfric Spott.
  9. Sawyer 1488, the will of Archbishop Ælfric of Canterbury (not the guy who was ransomed).
  10. Sawyer 909, best of the lot, in which Æthelred grants a substantial whack of lands, some of which I regularly cycle through as is made clear from the bounds, to St Frideswide’s Oxford, which needed them because when Æthelred previously ordered all the Danes in England “killed by a most just examination” [sic in the Latin; Whitelock assumed error and translated ‘execution’], those living in Oxford had taken refuge in the church, whereupon the loyal townsfolk had loyally burnt it with Danes inside (though it would seem from more recent archaeology that at least some of them got out, a little way).6

At the end of all this it’s very hard not to see Æthelred’s reign as corrupt, ineffective, favouritist and violent, and also weirdly ready to confess blame, on the last of which quite a lot has recently been done.7 But is this fair? It’s just 8 out of 117 charters, and is therefore obvious cherry-picking. One might say, well, all very well, but you can’t just explain away treasonous pacts with foreign kings and men condemned for them without a hearing, functionaries forgiven for taking bribes because of ‘great love’, villainous land-thieves who die with justice unexercised or expropriations of churches, even if all but the last of those should more properly be listed in the singular. If this were a working régime, which of course Whitelock was sure it was not, these things wouldn’t have happened, right?

Obverse of silver penny of Æthelred the Unready from the London mint, 997x1003, by the moneyer Eadpole

A slightly more contemporary, if perhaps somewhat idealised, portrait of Æthelred, struck in London between 997 and 1003 by the moneyer Eadpole

Well, the thing is it’s hard to tell because of a phenomenon that Dominique Barthélemy called the ‘mutation documentaire’.8 This is the idea that we see change when new things turn up in our documents, but what’s really happened is just that the documents are newly recording stuff their writers ignored before. This is a classic possible case, because if you look back at that, how much of our information by which we condemn Æthelred is coming from his scribes’ careful explanation of where the land came from? Really quite a lot, and the rest is coming from the explanations of why the grants were made. Now, if you look back in Whitelock at least, that kind of detail is extremely hard to find in charters from before Æthelred’s reign, there’s a new verbosity to these documents that means suddenly we have this information where we hardly ever do from before. (I will freely confess that I don’t know the early charter corpus at all well, but the new ‘verbose style’ is something one can easily find referenced.9) So, for example, in 804 when Kings Cœnwulf of Mercia and Cuthred of Kent together granted land to the Abbess of Lyminge ‘to serve as a refuge’, we would probably quite like to know what for as evidence for Viking attacks this early anywhere other than Northern coastal monasteries is a bit circumstantial, as of course we know.10 Were their enemies maybe more local? Is some less perilous sense of refuge meant, even? Æthelred’s scribes would probably have told us; Cœnwulf was less concerned about open government. And that’s a case where we even know what question we’d like to ask: motivations and histories of simple donations are just not available a lot of the time prior to the tenth century. You know? Maybe most Anglo-Saxon kings had favourites, couldn’t chase down violent local landowners, took bribes, dispossessed churches, slaughtered people to make a point and so on, and we just don’t see them doing it. Put in those terms, it seems less unlikely, doesn’t it?

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.22, a charter of Æthelred the Unready for one Clofig, 1001

British Library MS Cotton Augustus ii.22, a. k. a. Sawyer 898, a charter of Æthelred the Unready for one Clofig, 1001

Now, I can’t myself get over the feeling that Æthelred’s charters exhibit a weird kind of desperation and paranoia, maybe even in this very wish to make it all clear, that bespeak something very wrong with the court,11 not least because I’ve heard people such as our esteemed occasional commentator Levi Roach telling me they do.12 Also, I do notice something in this corpus that seems genuinely comparable with the earlier material, which is the peculiarly static nature of Æthelred’s court, almost the same guys almost every time with minimum variation over time except that presumably caused by death and succession. This is a time of crisis, and you’d expect the king’s most trusted men to be out all over the place doing his bidding, but as it only Ealdorman Byrhtnoth seems to be intermittent and we know what happens to him. The rest of the in-crowd stay right next to the king. That doesn’t seem too political healthy to me, and it’s not easy to see much like it in, for example, the charters of King Offa of Mercia included by Whitelock, where a steady group nonetheless comes and goes.13 Now again, that’s cherry-picking by using only the EHD texts, but this wasn’t what Whitelock picked them for. All the same: it may not be accurate. Can we ever be? Who knows, but cases like this make it worth considering.


1. The first thing I studied as an undergraduate was Anglo-Saxon England, and the last piece of undergraduate work I did was a dissertation entitled, “Whose Was Authority in Anglo-Saxon London?” And now I teach it. Funny old world really!

2. D. Whitelock (transl.), English Historical Documents Vol. I: c. 500-1042 (London 1955; 2nd edn. 1979, repr. 1996). All my references here are to the second edition.

3. There are two groups of translated charter material actually published that I know of, apart from the English ones in Whitelock and in A. J. Robertson (transl.), Anglo-Saxon Charters (Cambridge 1939, 2nd edn. 1956): I have been told but have not checked that there are a good number of papyri translated in Allan Chester Johnson & Louis C. West, Byzantine Egypt: economic studies (Princeton 1949), though this handy list doesn’t give that but does give A. C. Johnson, Roman Egypt, An Economic Survey of Ancient Rome 2 (Baltimore 1936), which may be correct. In the West, as far as I know, there is only Theodore Evergates (transl.), Feudal Society in Medieval France: documents from the county of Champagne, Middle Ages Series (Philadelphia 1993); please tell me I’m wrong about that…

4. Almost all of this starts from Simon Keynes, The diplomas of King Æthelred “The Unready” (978-1016): a study in their use as historical evidence (Cambridge 1980), which is still the lodestone.

5. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle put it in the annal for 1014 in the ‘A’ manuscript, but it’s important to be aware that the section of the ‘A’ manuscript covering Æthelred’s reign was apparently only written up at the end, so that the author was already clear that it had gone wrong as he wrote the early portions; see Cecily Clark, “The narrative mode of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle before the Conquest” in Peter Clemoes & Kathleen Hughes (edd.), England Before the Conquest: studies in primary sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock (Cambridge 1970), pp. 215-235.

6. The mysterious ‘Sawyer’ here, by the way, for those not used to this bit of the field, is a memorable list generated in the 1960s and now kept updated online, Peter Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Charters: an annotated list and bibliography (London 1968), 2nd edn. by Susan Kelly and Rebecca Rushforth and digitised by Sean Miller, all among others, online as The Electronic Sawyer here. The convention with Anglo-Saxon charters is thus to refer to them by Sawyer number even once edited elsewhere, or just as S887, etc.

7. Levi Roach, “Public Rites and Public Wrongs: Ritual Aspects of Diplomas in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century England” in Early Medieval Europe 19 (Oxford 2011), pp. 182–203; Charles Insley, “Rhetoric and Ritual in Late Anglo-Saxon Charters” in Paul Barnwell and Marco Mostert (edd.), Medieval Legal Process: Physical, Spoken and Written Performance in the Middle Ages, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 22 (Brepols 2011), pages not available at time of writing (is it actually out at last?); Catherine Cubitt, “The politics of remorse: penance and royal piety in the reign of Æthelred the Unready” in Historical Research Vol. 61 (London forthcoming), 14 pp., DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2281.2011.00571.x; Levi Roach, “Penitential Discourse in the Diplomas of King Æthelred ‘the Unready’” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History (Cambridge forthcoming). I saw versions of all these papers at conferences some years ago which is how I know to mention them; I’m trusting that the contents of the ones I can’t check haven’t changed too much.

8. Originally in his La société dans le comté de Vendôme de l’an mil au XVIe siècle (Paris 1993), I believe, but the argument is now more accessible for the Anglolexic via his The Serf, the Knight and the Historian, transl. Graham Robert Edwards (Cornell 2009).

9. Keynes, Diplomas, pp. 115-120; Insley, “Rhetoric”.

10. Sawyer 160.

11. What was wrong with the tenor and discourse of Æthelred’s court of course might be answered by the cynics with one word: “Wulfstan”, the Bishop of Worcester and then Archbishop of York in Æthelred’s later years. The fact that one man, with a very rhetorical fire-and-brimstone view of English society, wrote or controlled the writing of a huge swathe of the material we have from the court is obviously a problem: see, not least, Dorothy Whitelock, “Wulfstan’s authorship of Cnut’s laws” in English Historical Review Vol. 70 (London 1955), pp. 72–78, but also Patrick Wormald, “Archbishop Wulfstan: eleventh-century state-builder” in Matthew Townend (ed.), Wulfstan, Archbishop of York: the Proceedings of the Second Alcuin Conference (Turnhout 2004), pp. 9-27.

12. Roach, “Public Rites” and “Penitential Discourse”.

There then followed a period of seminar fail: notes of what might have been

As the second week of term dawned here I organisationally ploughed into the dirt somewhat, and started missing things I’d wanted to go to. The first lecture was probably an active factor here, but I was very much struggling to work out a daily routine that would let me actually get incidental things done as well as routine ones, and to be honest I still am. It’s not much of a post to say what I missed, but I just want to take stock, avoid any expectations of particular seminar reports and beg for notes or guest entries from anyone who made them, I guess.

Dedication stone of Lyminge Abbey

Dedication stone of Lyminge Abbey

I did not make it to Gabor Thomas presenting at the Medieval Archaeology Seminar here on 18th October, which was a pity as Gabor is a man who can make strap-ends interesting so to hear what he’d do with material like, “Recent excavations at Lyminge: settlement, community and conversion in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Kent”. If anyone made it to this and would be able to spare a few short words, that would be great, though the project website is a start at least. I did have quite a good reason for not making it to this, though, and we’ll come to that next post.

Gold aureus of Emperor Commodus in the Government Museum, Chennai (Madras)

Gold aureus of Emperor Commodus in the Government Museum, Chennai (Madras)

Likewise, I did not make it down to hear my erstwhile quasi-colleague and friend, I think, yes! friend, Rebecca Day presenting to the Royal Numismatic Society on the 19th October, because I was lecturing the next day, but she has been kind enough to send me a text of her paper, “Late Roman and Byzantine gold coins in the Madras Government Museum – fashion, imitation and the economics of religious devotion”, and I can tell you that it includes, by way of passing reference or deeper exploration, Roman obsession with Indian food, early medieval Indian faking of Roman gold coins (some of which were then exported to China!), 6th-century Tamil poetry and 9th-century Byzantine flat-earthism, which is I reckon a reasonable amount of bang for the aureus. I can say more about this if you would like, and if she doesn’t mind, but I hope and assume that it will be published.

Obverse of a silver penny of King Æthelred the Unready

Obverse of a silver penny of King Æthelred the Unready

Then the next day I didn’t make it to London again, this time for Professor Simon Keynes, presenting the David Wilson Lecture for the Joint Institute of Archaeology and British Museum Medieval Archaeology seminar and the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages seminar, on “The Archaeology of Æthelred the Unready”, and although I have been hoping notes might appear on the Cambridge ASNC Department’s blog, as yet no such luck. I actually saw Professor Keynes a few days later at a meeting of the Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles/Medieval European Coinage committee, on which I now have the honour to serve (which means it’s my fault once more, though it’s not my fault the webpage hasn’t been updated any more…), and he said there was no text, as such, and that may be why. Still, again, I’d welcome comments from anyone who was there and feels able to offer them.

1548 woodcut of John Wyclif

1548 woodcut of John Wyclif, the original Lollard

Between Professor Keynes and Dr Thomas that was two of the more relevant things to what I’m teaching that I might have gone to, and I didn’t, so it was ironic that the next thing I did make it to was Alexander Russell presenting at the Medieval History seminar here on 25th October, to the title, “England’s Involvement with the General Councils of the Church, 1409-1449”, which was I think not something I myself can use, though there were lots of interested questions from others and it was certainly interesting of itself. I’ve expressed uncertainty about whether I should cover these here already, however, and I think that I won’t this one, as it’s far enough out of my period that I feel under-qualified and also I don’t think the speaker would expect or necessarily welcome it. But I was at least reminded that I should really know more about Lollards if I’m going to go round doing things like this.1

So, I offer those mainly as points of discussion. Blogging will resume with the standard ridiculous self-promotion and then with a pedagogical question for those of you in the USA, and finally a proper IHR seminar report such as is expected by the readers of what I have now heard called “your improving blog”, and readers, he meant it transitively. I am not sure this post will have improved you much but, if not, better luck soon!


1. If you feel an urge to say something like O HAI CEILING LORD CAN HAZ FREE WULL PLZ at this point, at least provide the accompanying macro. (And if you have no idea what I mean, you may as well start with the big one

Leeds 2010 report I

Since I’ve already been to one other conference that I’m already opining about on other people’s blogs, and since I there plugged all heck out of this blog (not that this seems to have brought any great slough of visitors) it’s probably time I wrote something about Leeds. This year’s was a good Leeds despite the weather; I’ve said before now that bad weather can ruin Leeds because everyone is crammed inside small overheated rooms and can’t find each other, but although it bucketed down for much of the conference I didn’t find that to be the case this year. I had the impression that there were fewer people there than usual, in fact, although there were as many sessions as far as I can tell so I guess it was non-presenters who decided they couldn’t spare the money this year. Fair enough I suppose, but those who were there had a good time I think.

1. Keynote Lectures 2010

Gerald of Wales's Map of the Atlantic Sea

Gerald of Wales's Map of the Atlantic Sea, c. 1200

The theme of this year’s Leeds was travel and exploration, and I did as usual and basically entirely avoided the theme except for the keynote lectures. These were also about the only point when I didn’t have timetable clashes, too; for some reason the early medieval sessions were unusually conflictual this year, which I think may also reflect that there were an awful lot of them. Anyway. The keynotes were both good, and the first of them was Patrick Gautier-Dalché speaking to the title “Maps, Travel and Exploration in the Middle Ages”. What he was addressing here was the fact that to us, often, a medieval map looks worse than useless, used as we are to measurable scales and Mercator’s Projection. In fact, he argued, although maps were largely representational rather than scientific in the Middle Ages, they were far from useless. Some might be just for looking at, in the old picture worth a thousand words scenario, because a map, even a distorted one, is still a very good way of encoding geographical information.1 Then, they could even be useful for actually getting to places, if you approached them in the right way. The Map of the Atlantic Sea by Gerald of Wales above, M. Gautier-Dalché claimed though if the image above really is it I see no sign of this, is marked up with not just the pilgrimage routes through Western Europe, but the distances between their various stopping points. As long as you could find someone to put you on the road to the next destination, therefore, you would still be able to use the map to budget your provisions and journey time and maybe carry some very basic local information. In cases where precision navigation was a bit more essential, to wit at sea, maps perhaps served as aides-mémoire more than literal graphical information; a reminder of what a certain coastline looked like when you approached it, what the hills round the port are like, and so on. Not much use for doing it first time, but perhaps quite useful for doing it first time in say, ten years. The last example was maps’ use in judicial cases; unlikely, you might think, but apparently Columbus’s maps were produced in court in 1535 to prove that he had actually discovered, and indeed drawn, the coasts of South America. So a map might be a teaching tool, a contemplative resource, a planning aid, a piece of judicial proof, and was above all an interpretation, but Mercator has perhaps spoiled us to their possibilities.

An ancient stitch-and-glue boat hull on display in a restaurant in Zadar, Croatia

An ancient stitch-and-glue boat hull on display in a restaurant in Zadar, Croatia

The second keynote was given by Dionysius Agius, and was entitled, “‘In these Seas Horrors beyond Count Befell [Us]: travel in medieval Islam”. This was less of an argument and more of a tour of the evidence for medieval Islamic travel, which was fine by me as I know very little of it beyond the names of Ibn Battuta and al-Mas’Udi, and it was also accompanied with some fabulous, and indeed very presentist pictures, illustrating continuities of construction technique, goods trafficked, routes and so on, not least the stitched boats of which an older example is shown above. He talked us through the trade routes, both overland and overseas, without leaving much time for detail on any of them, just telling us a good story or two, and you know, this too is a skill, especially for a keynote on a specialised theme before a general audience. I did sort of know, for example, that the ends of trade routes across desert zones (and indeed the middle of them) tend to shift according to where the nomads who run the entry-points to them have currently got their shops set up, but it was as well to be reminded in the same few minutes as having the seasonal cycle of the currents of the Indian Ocean explained, there being a large part of the year when it’s far easier to go one way than the other, which is then reversed for another equally large part. After all, some people were plotting to get goods all the way along both routes. The other thing that I technically knew but which was well linked up here was that, at the period when Islamic ships were breaking out into the Indian Ocean (and indeed further) they were far from the only ships sailing it; indeed, as Professor Agius pointed out, they were sufficiently outsized and outnumbered by Indian and Chinese vessels that sometimes those groups were induced to provide warship escorts to keep away fleets of cannibal pirates (or so the travel narratives earnestly tell us, anyway). Whether the stories of Sindbad the Sailor really have a medieval context may, as we have said here before, be doubted, but Professor Agius happily brought them in anyway to illustrate the sort of stories that were probably told. So, not afraid to indulge in anachronism, and perhaps even Orientalism, but not to a bad purpose I thought and an entertaining lecture to attend.

105. Texts and Identities, I: Merovingian Queens – Narratives and Politics

Fifteenth-century illuminatiion of Queen Clothilde offering prayers to St Martin

Fifteenth-century illumination of Queen Clothilde offering prayers to St Martin

This was where the clashes started. I probably wanted, in retrospect, to go to 104. Popular Politics and Resistance in East and West but I hadn’t fully absorbed what I’d be missing (Robert Moore insisting there was no popular heresy that counts in early medieval Europe, Andrew Marsham saying what were apparently really interesting things about rebellion against the Umayyads and Bernard Gowers, whom I already needed to meet, talking about peasants, which I am very sorry I missed but may at least be able to get a copy of) until I’d run into one of the speakers from 105 and assured her I’d be at her paper. A man of my word, therefore, I was there for the following:

  • Julia Hofmann, “Betrayal or Portrayal? The Depiction of Fredegund and Clovis in Gregory of Tours’ Decem Libri Historiarum V. 39-49″. I mainly attended this so as to have seen Julia Hofmann and Julie Hofmann in the same room, in fact. Here the argument was that whereas Gregory of Tours was usually hopelessly partial in his depictions of Merovingian court politics, which is an obvious problem for working out whether he can be trusted to tells us about them, in this particular bloody and skulduggerous episode of family in-fighting he appears to have loathed both protagonists about equally, which suggests that it may even be a fair depiction. I’m not convinced we’d think the same if it were Liutprand of Cremona, myself, though I do understand the great emotional need not to write off so much of our evidence for the sixth century as Gregory represents.
  • Erin T. Dailey, “Merovingian Polygamy”, a title that drew me in but disappointed rather as it largely concluded that there probably wasn’t really any Merovingian polygamy per se, and did so largely by refusing to nuance the category of concubine, which as a couple of people pointed out to me afterwards needs doing because sometimes concubines’ children become kings. So, while marriage may be an important distinction (and valuable security for the wife, as long as the mother-in-law wasn’t Brunhild) it isn’t a total one, and the fact that there’s only ever one queen at a time doesn’t remove the need to ask how far queens are different. Only twenty minutes, I know, but he was pressed on the matter in questions and didn’t get much further with it.
  • Linda Dohmen, “The Adulterous Queen in Early Frankish Historiography”. Full disclosure requires that I admit that I’ve known Linda for ages and it was her I’d promised to come and see, but I thought this genuinely was a good paper, carefully balanced between spice and analysis. It also did something useful by balancing Gregory of Tours out with other sources covering the same era, in their equally biased ways, the Liber Historiae Francorum and ‘Fredegar’.2 What stories like the classic one about King Chilperic, coming home early to Queen Fredegund fresh out of the bath, catching her unawares with a slap on the rear and she telling off the lover she assumed it was rather than the husband it actually was, illustrate, other than in some ways there’s not much difference between a sixth-century court and a twentieth-century soap opera in terms of plot, is that a lot of people were prepared to get into risky situations for a chance to get with the queen, and not, we presume, simply because Merovingian kings selected irresistible brides Balthild not withstanding,3 but because it was a position of power; queens could bring legitimacy to a pretender or an arriviste, could be grounds for launching a coup or mounting a rebellion and could, also, be vital tokens of continuity when those events were unrolling for other reasons. Here as often happens we need a way to express this sort of position of power often occupied by women in the Middle Ages, power which is not the same as agency, which they often didn’t enjoy (Fredegund as with so much else an exception here), being unfortunate prizes to be contested between men who certainly did, but still incredible focuses of… what? One almost wants to use ancient anthropological terms like tabu, did I not know that modern-day anthropologists of my acquaintance (and indeed modern-day feminists) would probably kick me in the constructs for it. But the word ‘power’ doesn’t really get there, and it’s very hard to discuss without accepting the sources’ language of objectification. So yes, this one is still making me think.

209. Between a Rock and a Hard Place: reassessing politics and culture in the 10th century

Decorated initial showing Pope Gregory VII excommunicating King Henry IV of Germany

Decorated initial showing Pope Gregory VII excommunicating King Henry IV of Germany

My colleague Rory Naismith and I have been at the same conferences several times now, and at Kalamazoo we were somehow scheduled against each other, which has happened before too. This not being the case this time, I told Rory I would go to his session (221. The Anglo-Saxons and Rome, II: routes, coins and manuscripts) and then gathered that one of its speakers had pulled out and that this one was on in the same time-slot… I think I’ve still seen more of his papers than he has of mine but he definitely has the moral high ground for now. However, I struggled to find the session I was going to instead and so arrived in a terribly full room slightly after the beginning of…

  • Theo Riches, “Once Upon an Iron Age: telling the story of the long 10th century between Carolingians and ecclesiastical reform”. Some day I hope Theo will write a follow-up to Tim Reuter’s contribution to the feudal transformation debate; I’ve heard Theo discuss this and his Germanist’s perspectives are really interesting.4 However, he keeps letting some excuse about that not being his actual subject get in the way, and so this was not that paper but instead a likewise interesting one about bishops and ritual. He was picking up on a recent piece of Steffen Patzold‘s about the use of ritual in Ottonian court society, as propounded by Gerd Althoff, which makes the very useful distinction between the rules of the game and manœuvres in the game, and the need to be aware which the evidence is showing us.5 This fits well with my objections to some of the French school of dispute scholarship that emphasies competing norms; sometimes, I like to point out, people are actually abnormal, and this was implicit in Theo’s discussion.6 Theo also wanted us to remember the audience, and that it is not necessarily passive; these rituals may be worked out beforehand, but they are pointless unless they are seen, which means that they are also open to interpretation. Patzold sees a change in bishops’ rôles in these contexts in the 820s, from potestas to ministerium, moving from being in charge of their own subjects to the whole of God’s people, with a consequent distancing from politics in detail. Theo suggested seeing this as move from being a player of the ‘game’ to being an umpire, and that the 820s are the point when episcopal lordship starts to become qualitatively different. This was music to my ears as my very first Leeds paper suggested that bishops in my area were lay lords plus, with extra means of recourse and a few corresponding restrictions, but essentially doing the same things;7 Theo’s take here, and Steffen’s behind it, may give me the means to nuance this. I also really liked Theo’s statement in questions that “Canossa breaks deditio, you can’t use it any more” (deditio being a ritual of simulated self-abasement to demand forgiveness from a ruler for disobeying him). This is one of many ways in which the contest between King Henry IV of Germany and Pope Gregory VII overdrives medieval politics, he’s right, things do break in that contest, and arguably not least the Holy Roman Empire…
  • Steven Robbie, “The Duchy of Alemannia in the Early Tenth Century: an ethnic community?” followed Theo, which is hard enough to do, but Theo speaks quite loudly and Steven speaks quite softly; also, it was after lunch and the room was hot and stuffy. I fear Steven may have lost some of the attention of his audience for what was quite a subtle take on the question of the Stamme, the core ‘ethnic’ territories that are supposed to underlie German duchies in a certain old-fashioned sort of historiography. Steven illustrated that this won’t work for Alemannia, which is reconstructed pretty much as needed in the political circumstances of each age and only maps to later Swabia in fairly transient ways. When all of Alemans, Thuringians and Swabians are supposed to be the same ancestral community, you realise that ethnogenesis is a game that many can play.
  • Simon Williams, “Playing to the Gallery: reinterpreting Liudprand of Cremona’s Antapadosis in its contemporary context”, did indeed play to the gallery in as much while I may some day hear a Liutprand paper in which the speaker does not tell the story everyone’s favourite Italian scandalmonger reports about Queen Guilla hiding a valuable belt where only a woman could, this was not it (and neither, of course, is my report of it). However, he did do some interesting stuff pointing out how quickly Liutprand’s work circulated, well within his lifetime too, so even if he was initially writing for a small audience that wasn’t what he revised for. Simon in fact suggested that the target audience was Bishop Abraham of Freising and perhaps Bishop Dietrich of Metz as well as Bishop Rather of Verona, and that we underestimate Liutprand if we see him as a marginal player. Liutprand writing about you, in other words, was something like being mentioned in Tatler; probably unpleasant and trivial but unfortunately read by people whose good opinion of you may be important some day…

Coffee break next but I find it combines badly with adrenalin, so I didn’t, because next was nothing less than my paper!

301. Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Caliph, King, or Grandfather: strategies of legitimization on the Spanish March in the reign of Lothar III” is actually one of my better pieces of work, I think, and compares three contemporary Catalan counts’ reactions to what I’m now arguing is a resurgent Carolingian royal self-assertion by King Lothar III. This is kind of part two of my Haskins paper from 2008 and I hope to have them both in process soon so I’ll say no more here unless people are curious enough to ask.
Grant of King Æthelred II to Abingdon Abbey, 993 (Sawyer 876)

Grant of King Æthelred II to Abingdon Abbey, 993 (Sawyer 876)

  • Levi Roach, “The Voice of Æthelred?” explored the group of lengthy royal charters of King Æthelred the Unready in which he apologises for the misdeeds of his youth and makes compensation gifts. Levi was arguing that the imagery employed here is sufficiently consistent, across several archives and many scribes, that these documents must represent an actual statement of sorts by the king, even if he probably didn’t choose the actual written phrasing. Charles Insley, who gave a not dissimilar paper a few years ago,8 was generous enough not to point this out in questions, but Levi rallied to what I think is actually new ground in reaction to a question from Steven Robbie about how long it can possibly take to be sorry; these documents after all span most of a decade. Levi’s response was that the only way it all makes sense is a rather paranoid policy of penitence till the bad stuff stops happening, which after these charters stopped was shifted onto the whole kingdom under the influence of Archbishop Wulfstan; in other words, this court’s response to crisis is to escalate repentance until the handles come off and it all goes to Hell… Which, even if it’s overstated, gives one to wonder how neutral a perspective on things anyone at Æthelred’s court could possibly have maintained… What price groupthink? and so on.
  • David Woodman, “The Rewriting of the Anglo-Saxon Past: a Middle English Rhyming Charter of King Æthelstan and the Beverley Cartulary (BL, MS Additional 61901) in context”, lastly, dealt with a rather lovely piece of Middle English fabrication in which Beverley Minster tried to claim foundation by the selfsame rex totius Britanniae in the fourteenth century. The result looks and reads nothing like an Anglo-Saxon charter, and nor does much of the stuff it’s put into a beautiful cartulary with, but it still won them several cases. David set out exactly who the enemies were in this case, and explained the success of the claim not in terms of the cluelessness of the panel judging but of opposition between the abbey, Archbishop Neville of York and Richard, Second of That Name, Kynge, but one was still left with echoes of the story in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where the eponymous publication’s lawyers successfully argue that beauty is truth so the prettier story is automatically true, as one would like rather like Æthelstan to have been one of those congenial souls

Now. I want to talk to you, Internet, about the Problems and Possibilities strand and what’s happening with it, but this is long enough already. I’ll do it in a separate post later on. Instead let it be noted that I managed to miss two separate receptions where free wine was available, somehow, mainly to get lightly drunk with such fine upstanding members of the Internet as Another Damned Medievalist and Ealuscerwen, in the same place but not with Gesta, which seems to be the usual way of things, and a few people who have real names, and I went to bed merry and exhausted.


1. Something that all of us who were in Siena and now also commenting at In The Medieval Middle seem to be agreeing on; a conceptual map of that city might be a lot more use than a strictly geographical one.

2. Pronounced, as I once heard Roger Collins say in a paper he was giving on the author in question, “with the inverted commas silent, like the P in Psmith”.

3. In fact, it surprises me that in a session about Merovingian queens not only did Balthild only get a passing mention, but her supposed seal was completely omitted. It’s got to be part of any discussion about how queenship is visualised, hasn’t it, especially since if it is what is claimed, it’s actually a source generated by or at least for the queen. I begin to wonder if there’s a perhaps a case for asking medieval historians to ask themselves, “is there a good reason your paper is entirely text-based?” And I am not just saying this because it’s lewd, I am saying this because I think we were already dancing near the lewd and it would have been a way to let it in without risking sounding as if one actually wanted to talk about sex.

4. Referring to T. Reuter, “Debate: the ‘Feudal Revolution’. III” in Past and Present no. 155 (Oxford 1997), pp. 177-195.

5. Referring here to Gerd Althoff, Spielregeln der Politik im Mittelalter: Kommunikation in Frieden und Fehde (Darmstadt 1997) and S. Patzold, Konflikte im Kloster. Studien zu Auseinandersetzungen in monastischen Gemeinschaften des ottonisch-salischen Reichs, Historische Studien 463 (Husum 2000).

6. See, if you should really want to, my review of Stephen D. White, Feuding and Peacemaking in Eleventh-Century France, Variorum Collected Studies 817 (Aldershot 2005) in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 15 (Oxford 2006), pp. 124-125.

7. J. Jarrett, “Sales, Swindles and Sanctions: Bishop Sal·la of Urgell and the counts of Catalonia”, paper presented in session ‘Telling Laymen What to Do’, International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 21 July 2005, available to you as J. Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of London 2005), pp. 289-313, online here.

8. His webpages mention a chapter, “Rhetoric and Ritual in Late Anglo-Saxon Charters” in P. Barnwell and M. Mostert (edd.), Medieval Legal Process: Physical, Spoken and Written Performance in the Middle Ages, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 19 (Brepols 2009), which will probably be worth consulting on this if it’s actually out; a rapid web-search reveals publication dates of 2008, 2009 and ‘in preparation 2008-2009’, but the publishers seem less sanguine. In fact, damn, I need that book even though I heard half the papers…

Seminary XLVI: Agatha Christie and Edward the Martyr

The last Earlier Middle Ages seminar of term at the Institute of Historical Research saw a rare event, viz. a visit from a Cambridge academic, something which doesn’t happen as often as it perhaps should. (If you wanted to know about one of the earlier ones that I missed, by the way, Magistra has very thoughtfully blogged on Laurent Feller’s paper of a few weeks before.) This time the academic in question was none other than Professor Simon Keynes, and he was speaking to the title “The Cult of Edward the Martyr in the Reign of King Æthelred ‘the Unready'”. Since there are few people more learned about Æthelred than Simon, and several of those who could compete were there, it was an unusually full gathering, and the questions afterwards were very lively.

Simon’s talk essentially centred on one question, but it’s one question that hangs off a far bigger one, which is, what happened to Edward the Martyr? It may be simplest to go from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to demonstrate the issue:

This year was King Edward slain, at eventide, at Corfe-gate, on the fifteenth day before the calends of April. And he was buried at Wareham without any royal honour. No worse deed than this was ever done by the English nation since they first sought the land of Britain. Men murdered him but God has magnified him. He was in life an earthly king – he is now after death a heavenly saint. Him would not his earthly relatives avenge – but his heavenly father has avenged him amply. The earthly homicides would wipe out his memory from the earth – but the avenger above has spread his memory abroad in heaven and in earth. Those, Who would not before bow to his living body, now bow on their knees to His dead bones. Now we may conclude, that the wisdom of men, and their meditations, and their counsels, are as nought against the appointment of God. In this same year succeeded Ethelred Etheling, his brother, to the government; and he was afterwards very readily, and with great joy to the counsellors of England, consecrated king at Kingston.

You can immediately see that even this, which is based on the Northern Recension and may well therefore be informed by the later views of Archbishop Wulfstan of York, was written some time after the fact, and this is basically the problem. The A manuscript only says: “Her wearð Eadweard cyning ofslegen. On þis ylcan feng Æðelred æðeling his broðor to rice”, ‘here was King Edward slain. In this same [year] came his brother Prince Æthelred to the throne’. It seems that after Edward’s death there was general confusion. There was nearly a year’s delay between that event and the inventio of his body and the burial that is here talked of; his body was subsequently translated to Shrewsbury and then moved again later on inside the cathedral, so that he has three feasts. It is also not clear from the documents and records, such as they be, whether Æthelred was consecrated before or after the body was found, and this makes a big difference for Simon’s question, which was: who was driving the cult? Was it, as has been said, a cult of opposition to Æthelred that fatally undermined his consensus as the Danes came (the traditional Stentonian view)? Was it powered mainly by Shaftesbury wanting a royal saint and managing to spread this to several other cult centres? Was it in fact driven by the king and his counsellors doing a Louis-the-Pious-type more-atonement-than-thou act to promote the idea of holy royalty? Or some other answer? At which point, it becomes quite important whether the quite young Æthelred delayed his consecration until his late half-brother was properly buried, or steamed ahead despite that not having happened.1

The parish church of St Mary, Cholsey, mostly twelfth-century as stands but with some Anglo-Saxon fabric

The parish church of St Mary, Cholsey, mostly twelfth-century as stands but with some Anglo-Saxon fabric

Simon’s answer to the question was basically `look to the king’, whose efforts at foundation and expiation were so considerable, and the early date for Edward’s death and therefore his inventio, meaning that Æthelred was indeed not consecrated till after that, so plausible, at least as Simon argued it though others have disagreed.2 An interesting sidelight is that alluded to in the title, that one of the places Æthelred founded, apparently in expiation of his failure to track down the murderers, who were never brought to book, was the abbey of Cholsey, where Agatha Christie now happens to be buried. Almost as if she were there, it became clear that in questions that, as we the audience were basically convinced by Simon’s argument except in minor details, we were now much more interested in the whodunnit. Later sources blame Æthelred’s mother for arranging Edward’s death so that her own son might succeed before Edward had offspring, but this was apparently not something anyone would say close to Æthelred, and the later writer of the Northern Recension of the Chronicle, as you see above, seems to think the death a failing of the English people as a whole.

Head of St Edward the Martyr from a reredos at Shaftesbury Cathedral

Head of St Edward the Martyr from a reredos at Shaftesbury Cathedral

From this Simon took the lesson that the cult might have been being promoted as part of the whole salvific effort to stave off the Danes, along with the various fasts and penances prescribed by the king and, of course, by Wulfstan, who is omnipresent in the sources for eleventh-century English government, what can make them rather hard to read clearly…3 We still wanted to know the missing bits however: how on earth could a ruling king have been murdered in such a way that his body was lost for a year? Was it really his body that was found or would any have done? (Apparently when the Shaftesbury tomb was last opened Carbon-14 dates were taken from the body which at least covered the right period, but all that means is that if there was a deception it was contemporary… ) Who benefitted from the murder? Who benefitted from the delay in consecration? Who was in charge meanwhile? (Simon put Ealdorman Æfhere, Archbishop Dunstan and a few others up for this in uneasy collaboration.) There is room for a great many conspiracy stories here, of course, but in the end I thought that, though life is often not so simple as this, Occam’s Razor suggested that, really, Edward did meet with some unpleasant incident at unknown hands, brigands or disinherited men of low intellect and realism or whatever, and the body was honestly lost, and no-one at court even knew for sure that the king was dead, which is why they don’t crown Æthelred. Then a body is found, whether it’s Edward’s I don’t know though it could be, and government is able to resume, but for a while they just don’t know what’s happened or what is safe to do without causing civil war. Anything else seems to me to make it very hard to explain the subsequent actions of not just the king and his penitence, but his courtiers and family; nobody seems to do what you’d expect if it was known who was to blame… So Agatha Christie probably rested well that night, given that a whole room of academics were discussing a real murder mystery that she now lies right next to some of the evidence for!


1. Best place to get the background, including the dramatis personae of royal family and court, is Pauline Stafford’s Unification and Conquest: A Political and Social History of England in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries (Oxford 1978), unless (what is quite possible) work that I haven’t yet read like Ann Williams’s Aethelred the Unready: the ill-counselled king (London 2003) gets into the messy personal side so well.

2. Mainly David Dumville, “The death of King Edward the Martyr – 18 March, 979?” in Anglo-Saxon Vol. 1 (Aberdeen 2007), pp. 269-284, to which paper Simon’s might be seen as an extended rebuttal really.

3. I still need to read Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the twelfth century volume I: legislation and its limits (Oxford 2001), in which I’m told our source base for English law is more or less grown through by Wulfstan, like ivy that’s all that’s holding together a ruinous building…