Tag Archives: Africa

Another Gathering of Byzantinists in Birmingham

My reporting backlog now reaches 30th May 2015, which was a very full day in Birmingham occasioned by the 16th Annual Postgraduate Symposium of the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, with the title Fragmentation: the Eastern Mediterranean in Conflict and Cohesion. I have dithered before about whether I report on what is essentially a postgraduate event, but it’s a postgraduate event with a keynote by an established scholar and people come to it from all over the world, so it’s really as high-level as such things get and the people participating in it are all working at their highest level. So, I shall blog it, but as the backlog is so long and time is so short I shall try to be brief and hope it still does the participants due credit. I should stress, though, that looking through my notes for this, the number of times I have said to myself, “Oh! I met so-and-so then?” or even, “Oh? I ran that? I have no memory of this at all” has been much higher than it really should be for anyone of even my advanced age. I was clearly just getting by at this point in my life on not enough sleep, and while things have come back to me as I write this, we are basically reliant on my notes for what I’m reporting, which may be wrong or inadequate. So if you were there, I invite corrections!

The caravanserai of Kesik Köprü

The caravanserai of Kesik Köprü, in the erstwhile Seljuk Sultanate of Konya

We began with the keynote address, which was by Professor Scott Redford and entitled “84 Mongols Walk into a Caravanserai…”. This promising start was occasioned by a document, signed indeed by eighty-four Mongols, mostly local officials of various grades, at the caravanserai of Yüksekligi, to witness the act of one Nur ad-Din ibn Tayā as he established a church. The document is dated to the Year of the Monkey and has a gloss in Mongol. With this example of how cultures were mixing in the thirteenth century in what is now Western Turkey, Professor Redford then picked out a number of other ways in which we can, if we choose, find links between Greek, Turkish and yes, even Mongol cultures of patronage and power in this area. For example, Nur ad-Din had also built a caravanserai at Kesik Köprü, which is still up as you can see above, on the route between Constantinople and the local Sultanate of Konya, and stands near a bridge which went up at about the same time and only fell down in 1990, but contained an inscription set up by the Sultan of Konya when he was actually in rebellion against his masters in Baghdad, and so closer to the Greeks than the Turks in some ways.

The bridge at Kesik Köprü

The bridge at Kesik Köprü, as it has been restored I think

I was personally less convinced by some of the art-historical links which Professor Redford drew, but the widespread use of a symbol called the ‘elibelinde’, seen below, in Constantinople (and indeed more once it became Istanbul), various locations in the Seljuk sultanates and indeed yet another local caravanserai, did speak loudly of a cultural identity that crossed and blurred political boundaries that were in any case more fluid below the top, state, level than we sometimes remember when doing history in outline. So this was good, and full of much better illustrations than I have been able to use here.

A modern piece of weaving featuring a central row of four elibelinde symbols

A modern piece of weaving featuring a central row of four elibelinde symbols

After this we were down into the postgraduate sessions. I had volunteered to chair one of these, so my choice about what to go to was made for me, but in fact this put me into my first ever contact with two future colleagues so unbeknownst to me it worked well. Also, the papers were interesting. They were these:

  • James Hill, “Missing the Opportune Moment: John V Palaiologos and the spectre of union”
  • Nafsika Vassilopolou, “Royal Marriages of the Palaeologi (1258-1453): appraising a political practice”
  • Maroula Perisanidi, “Should We Abstain? Marital Equality in Byzantine Canon Law”
  • All these papers were about one or other sort of union, really. James was looking at the agreement of Emperor John V to re-reunify the Eastern and Western Christian churches, an agreement that in the end collapsed not just because of its deep unpopularity in the eastern Empire (where it doesn’t even seem to have been made public as a plan) but also and perhaps mainly because the popes simply couldn’t deliver the troops that were John’s asking price, despite their best diplomatic efforts with Genoa and Venice. Ms Vassilopolou’s paper made it seem odder that the eastern emperors had such trouble enjoining union of the Churches on their people, because when it came to marrying off princesses there was pretty much no theological objection which they could not overrule: consanguinity, juvenility, differing religions or sects of Christianity… What is less clear is what most of the eighty-eight political marriages the Palaeologan emperors arranged actually got them: alliance, sometimes, especially with the Mongols who seem to have received the most consistently high-status brides, territory sometimes, but it usually cost a lot in terms of land, money and human capital as well, and Ms Vassilopolou thought that the main motivation was to remain on the international stage as a player, not an extra, which as we know in the UK is a strategy that can make you do some very stupid things. Lastly Maroula went looking for gender equality in Byzantine canon law, hoping to find it at the most fundamental point: who got to choose when to abstain from sex? The trouble here is that most of the law deals with churchmen, who by reason of needing to perform holy office weekly and being supposed to abstain before and after were much more often confronted by this question, so that kind of comes pre-gendered. It was quite surprising to me how much thought the Byzantine canonists had put into this question, but I suppose it did keep coming up (if you’ll forgive the phrase). The paper is now out in print, anyway, so you can read it yourself if you like!1

    Tailpiece of a chrysobull of Emperor Alexios III Megas Komnenos of Trebizond to the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, showing him and his wife Theodora, niece of Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos of Constantinople

    Tailpiece of a chrysobull of Emperor Alexios III Megas Komnenos of Trebizond to the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, showing him and his wife Theodora, niece of Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos of Constantinople, image public domain via Wikimedia Commons

That took us to lunch, and then after that, the programme tells me, I was dashing back to the Barber Institute to give a coin handling session, “Coins of Byzantium and its Neighbours in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts”. I have literally no memory of this, although I remember correspondence about it, but it’s in the programme and I have a handout from it in my notes, so I guess it happened! I was apparently basically showcasing the Byzantine collection, from beginning to end, or at least, as close to the end as I thought we could get, a solidus of Constantine I to a half-stavraton of John VIII. (I later discovered two coins of Constantine XI in the collection which the Curator for whom I was standing in had acquired but never accessioned; they are there, if you want to see them.)

Silver half-hyperperon of Emperor John VIII struck at Constantinople in 1423-1448, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6492

Silver half-hyperperon of Emperor John VIII struck at Constantinople in 1423-1448, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6492

The route between the two took us via Justinian I’s reforms, Heraclius’s mighty beard, the strange mixture that is Arab-Byzantine money, Komnenian concavity and the various daughter coinages of Byzantium; I picked Trebizond, Venice and Hisn Kayfa, all of which tells you that I was finally beginning to get my head round what this collection had to offer and what, had circumstances been otherwise, I might have done with it. But with the alternative path laid out before me already, it was still really nice to be able to show off some of its shiny and curious components. Then, it was back up the road to where the papers were.

  • Yannis Stamos, “Kazantzakis’s Representations of the Greek Civil War: the divided vision of socio-political fragmentation”
  • Mike Saxby, “Arms in Exile: an analysis of military iconography on coins of the Byzantine successor states”
  • Carl Dixon, “From Armenia to Bulgaria? The Transmission of Heterodoxy in Peter of Sicily’s History of the Paulicians
  • The first of these was the only paper on the programme representing the Centre’s Modern Greek component, a study of two novels by the 1940s Cretan writer Niko Kazantzakis, Christ Recrucified and The Fratricides, arguing, I think, that Kazantzakis was trying to find an ethic that might heal his riven country in the form of a grass-roots socialism well infused with Christian charity, a community religious mutual help ethic; the paper overran and had to be cut short, so what the conclusion was to have been I have no idea. Mike, who was one of the vital sources of institutional memory when I took over at the Barber, went into the messy period after 1204 when Byzantine rulers-in-exile set up in Nicæa, Thessaloniki and Epiros, all of whom struck coin which generally diversified from the fairly standardised Constantinopolitan money of the previous period. Mike noted that although all tried out images of armed rulers and saints to different degrees, Thessaloniki had Saint Demetrius with a sword on more than half of its coin types, which as he said could be down to the six-hundred-year tradition there of the saint as the city’s military protector but could also just be down to the fact that Thessaloniki was most exposed to war, mostly with the Bulgarians who also by now claimed Saint Demetrius as a protecting saint. Several kinds of politics vie for expression in the coins, therefore. Lastly Mr Dixon took us into the history of a disputed text about the dualist Byzantine heretics known as Paulicians.2 The History in question purports to be from the 870s and to be a warning to the Byzantine administration that the group plans to mount a mission to convert, or subvert, the Bulgarians, but this cannot easily be; the situation it foresees had in part come about by the eleventh century, but the themes of the early tenth century, when the movement seems newly to have been observed, place it in Armenia, and it was only moved to the Balkans by Emperor John I in the late 970s. The text is thus very hard to date, and while Mr Dixon didn’t want to rule out that it was just a forgery given how little knowledge it seems to have about the settlement at Tephrike where it is set, he certainly felt that any evidence that it existed and was being used in the early tenth century, as has tended to be assumed from the text’s own claims, needed reexamination. Discussion suggested a few ways this might be done, but none of them were easy, so it’s quite the mission Mr Dixon had ahead of him.

    Anonymous copper stamenon struck in Thessaloniki around 1320, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6534

    Anonymous copper stamenon struck in Thessaloniki around 1320, showing St Demetrios with sceptre and shield, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6534

Then tea and then back into the sessions for the last round of papers, which took me back to the early Middle Ages where, really, my interests are.

  • Anna Kelley, “Rethinking Cotton Use and Cultivation in Late Antique Egypt”
  • Catherine Keane, “More than a Church: the archaeology of the economic reality of Christian structures in the late antique Mediterranean”
  • Maria Vrij, “The Anomaly’s Anomaly: the curious case of gold coin production at Syracuse under Justinian II”
  • Anna laid out for us a peculiar picture of cotton use and cultivation before the seventh century, in which it was far from unknown but for most people hard to get, and found only in certain areas; there was cotton growing on the Red Sea coast in the fourth century, for example, and in the Western Desert over the Nile, but not at points between. The current suggestion of a source seems to be Nubia but even there it’s hard to show cotton being grown for export, rather than just for local use. There’s a network here yet to be pieced together, which is roughly where Anna’s research comes in of course! Ms Keane was at a similarly early stage, and her basic question was about the relocation of economic production in Northern Africa, of oil, wine and so on, out of Roman rural industrialised complexes into cities and then, increasingly, localising out to the then-fairly-new churches. The focus of production seems therefore to be following the focus of public space, which is something that, like cotton, looks like there is more to be found out. although Ms Keane’s paper was full of citations indicating that the process has started.3 Lastly, Maria, my right hand at the Barber at this point and now my replacement there, was asking why, when Emperor Justinian II famously (to readers here at least) put a portrait of Christ on his gold coinage, the mint at Syracuse didn’t follow suit. Syracuse was rarely exactly on the Constantinopolitan model when it came to minting but this seems sufficiently outright a refusal of imperial authority as to need explanation, which might be offered in terms of a Western resistance to images of the divine, and one which was followed after Justinian’s death in all quarters, indeed. The discussion here circled somewhat around who this message might be for, the world of Islam or the coin-using public, and who they might be, all of which, sadly, the coins don’t really tell us.

    Ancient ruins at the modern city of Sidi Jdidi, Tunisia

    Ancient ruins at the modern city of Sidi Jdidi, Tunisia, one of the sites under discussion in Ms Keane’s paper

The final part of the symposium was a closing address by Professor Redford, who somewhat unconventionally started by asking the organisers why they’d picked this theme. With that answered he pointed out gaps and strengths in the programme and its adherence to the theme but reassured everyone that the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies was still showing a flag for the value of study clusters like it, and the day closed with pretty much everyone much satisfied by how things had gone.


1. M. Perisanidi, “Should we Abstain? Spousal Equality in Twelfth-century Byzantine Canon Law” in Gender and History Vol. 28 (Oxford 2016), pp. 422–443.

2. Again, memory failure; I own this text, at least in translation… You can find it in Janet Hamilton and Bernard Hamilton (edd./transl.), Christian Dualist Heresies in the Byzantine World, c. 650-c. 1450: selected sources (Manchester 1998), pp. 65-91.

3. For example, Anna Leone, Changing Townscapes in North Africa From Late Antiquity to the Arab Conquest (Bari 2007) and Aïcha Ben-Abed-Ben Khader, Michel Fixot, Michel Bonifay & Sylvestre Roucole, Sidi Jdidi I : La basilique sud, Collection de l’École française de Rome 339 (Rome 2004).

Towards a Global Middle Ages I: going global in the first place

The backlog decreases at last; I arrive in September 2014 and am therefore now less than a year behind again. This seems like an achievement! What was I doing in September 2014, you may ask, and the answer seems mainly to be settling into a new job, but also turning a blog post into an article, negotiating carefully with the Abadia de Montserrat over long-desired facsimiles, sending off proofs of imminent publications and reading an old article of Philip Grierson’s about the Brevium Exempla.1 However, in the middle of that time I was also hanging out at the edge of a weekend meeting of a group called the Global Middle Ages Network, and this left me with thoughts that I reckoned worth blogging.

A game of chess, pictured in the Tratado de Ajedrez

One thing at least that did travel between various medieval cultures, the game of chess, pictured for that purpose from the Tratado de Ajedrez by the Oxford Centre for Global history webpages

Global history is of course all the rage right now, as being present at Oxford for the creation of their Centre for Global History had impressed upon me, and that shiny new institution contributes a number of the players to this group. It is as befits its name more widely spread, however, and there are also participants based in London, Newcastle, Sheffield, Warwick, Norwich, Manchester, Leicester, Edinburgh, Reading, Liverpool, Leiden, York and even Cambridge, as well as most relevantly the University of Birmingham, where pretty much all the medievalists seem to be involved and one of whom invited me along. The group’s general aim is to bring the Middle Ages into debates about global history and ensure that years before 1492 don’t get relegated to the sidelines as this new bandwagon gets rolling, but their specific aim at this time was to thrash out the writing of a volume of essays which is due out in 2017. Accordingly, various participants—Catherine Holmes, Naomi Standen, Mark Whittow, Conrad Leyser, Arietta Papaconstantinou, Simon Yarrow, Anne Haour, Ian Forrest, John Watts, Monica White, Jonathan Shepard and Scott Ashley, along with various people brought in to provide feedback and balance, most notably the Oxford modernists Alan Strathern and John Darwin but also such non-contributors as Chris Wickham, Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias, Rebecca Darley and my humble self, as well as others whom my notes no longer decode—convened at Winterbourne House and explained what they thought their chapters would look like and what questions and issues they were confronting. Some had advanced their chapters a lot further than others, and because everything was very clearly subject to at least some change, I don’t think I should try to summarise their presentations here. Instead, I want to try and formulate some of the issues that the two days of discussions made me think about, and set them out so that you too can think about them.

Poster for a publication workshop of th Global Middle Ages Network held in Birmingham in September 2014

The poster for the workshop

It seemed to me in the wake of this workshop that there was material for three posts here, and the first is on the concept of a global Middle Ages at all and what falls within it. This was something that was very much debated in the workshop, not least because decisions had already had to be made about what could be included with the available expertise. Thus, Europe was most definitely in, because what’s medieval if Europe is not? Byzantium was reasonably covered, Egypt and the middle eastern coast of Africa (though not Ethiopia or the Red Sea) was covered, although not really in the workshop; China is well covered (but Japan is not); and North Africa also gets some attention, as, encouragingly, will Meso-America. Although that therefore has some claim to globality, there was much lament about the lack of coverage of other areas: I have mentioned two that one might have wished for but for which the group just didn’t have the expertise, everyone wondered what was going on in sub-Saharan Africa but the truth is that we just don’t know (though Dr Fernando did point out that we know more than people think, and I wondered about Benin and Mali given that one of the words that kept coming up was ’empire’).2 Arezou Azad, present, made a plea for the importance of Afghanistan and its area, Arabia was generally felt to be somewhat lacking and India was most conspicuous of all by its absence from both plans and discussion, as it seems generally to be from global history projects the more of them I meet; we will hear more on this. But the group has the people it has and the first book is already too advanced to put more into it, so I guess that those who think these omissions serious must hope for a second.

World history time chart for 800 to 1500 from H. G. Wells's An Outline of World History, p. 614

World history time chart for 800-1500, as drawn out in H. G. Wells’s The Outline of History, being a Plain History of Life and Mankind, revised edn. (London 1920), p. 614

The second issue here is what a global history of this period can aim to achieve. You might think that it was somewhat late to be examining such questions but it came up, not because of a lack of reflection on the issue but because different participants continued to favour different answers. I want to muse more on this apropos of something else I went on to read, but essentially the division was between those who wanted to write an actual history, more or less diachronic, of phenomena that occurred worldwide, and those who instead wanted to write comparative thematic history. Since the book was to be multi-author, the former would be very difficult to coordinate, although there was general agreement that current attempts at it consider the Middle Ages a very poor sibling that can be left out of the new inheritance, roughly what this group is looking to change.3 The book structure will be thematic anyway, so this was at best a rearguard action, but it raised the issue of what framework a diachronic global medieval history could address anyway. As the two modernists pointed out, the work that dismisses global connectivity for the Middle Ages is not just uneducated: there is a difference between our period, when oceanic sea travel was basically accidental, and a period when a dip in silver mining in Peru could affect prices in markets in Vienna the month after. Global historians of a later period can write their narrative mainly around trade, war and disease, even if fewer do so than work in terms of ideas, but the connections between the areas of the globe in the period roughly 500-1500 (and that period is an issue in itself, for which the next post must do) were so thin and occasional that they can bear no such causality.4 Although I thought that someone probably could write an interesting book about the years 800-1400 as a period of long-range diasporas, Viking, Arab, Polynesian and perhaps overland migrations in the Americas, in which the world was pre-connected prior to the European ‘Golden Age of Sail’, it would still be hard work to assert that those links changed anything very much back at the points of origin of any of those diasporas, excepting the Vikings.5

Map of recorded voyages of Polynesian travellers in the Pacific Ocean

I realise that there are some problems dating all of this to within the Middle Ages as we count them in the West, and long-term readers will know how controversial the date for human arrival in New Zealand is, but nonetheless, this is quite a big web…

So although the whole concept of global history seems to invoke the idea that everything can be seen as connected, medievalists wishing to join in have to face the fact that this was not how the people they study experienced the world. A few people brought the idea of climate into discussion as a global factor, but one of the things that we should by now appreciate about climate, as Britain just about shakes a summer out of an otherwise dismally wet year for the third or fourth year running while elsewhere deserts spread and seas rise, is that it is locally variable to an almost chaotic degree.6 Anyone saying, “one thing that we can say is that the globe got warmer,” may well be right in aggregate but is missing any kind of relevance to what that would have meant for the globe’s various, and separated, inhabitants. Scale therefore becomes a major issue with this cope, as it always is of course, but here the problem is how to scale down from the global without losing any overall thesis in regional variation.

The map in the Bodleian manuscript of the Geography of al-Idrisi

A genuinely medieval view of the world, the map in the Bodleian manuscript of the Geography of al-Idrisi, deficient in some crucial respects (like continents); image from Wikimedia Commons

The harsh critic might say that this simply shows that the Middle Ages was not a global-scale phenomenon, but naturally the group was not going to just give up and disband because of that possibility, so the other major area of discussion was what could in fact be compared. Mark Whittow wisely argued that no-one can understand anything about such a book without there first being a comparison of sources, which is one place where the massive variation of the world record for the period is actually explanatory, because it explains what it is possible for historians of different areas to expect and to attempt, thus explaining how the different essays in the book would vary. All those essays are being written by teams of authors working on different areas, however, so comparison should be built in from the ground up. This process had already isolated cosmologies, religious structures and beliefs, value systems both economic and non-economic, power structures and the apparatus of social mediation (including things like family, patronage and abstracts like trust), movement of people and networks of communications as things that could be compared across a wide frame, even if they didn’t necessarily (or even necessarily didn’t) join up. As with all comparative history done right, we would learn more by the exposure of any given understanding of things to an alternative.7

Map of world civilisation with historical timeline c. 979

It is all a bit much to cover in its full complexity…

This opens up the paradoxical possibility that even a negative result of the overall enquiry, in which in the end the participants are forced more or less willingly to admit that the ‘global Middle Ages’ is a fiction, could still be a useful contribution, because the essence of such a conclusion would, it now seemed, not be merely, “the set is empty” but rather, “it’s complicated”. Usually that’s a cop-out but here it could have an impact: simply by showing that there is enough that we can point to and compare from the period that our comparisons fail due to the complexity of trans-regional variation would demand a recognition that the set is populated and that stuff was in fact happening all over the world in our period and needs to be included in long-term pictures wherever those pictures depict. The question then becomes: what stuff is happening, and is any of it at all characteristic of a so-called medieval period? And it’s that latter I’ll pick up in the next one of these posts.


1. P. Grierson, “The Identity of the Unnamed Fiscs in the Brevium exempla ad describendas res ecclesiasticas et fiscales”” in Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire Vol. 18 (Bruxelles 1939), pp. 437-461, DOI: 10.3406/rbph.1939.1300.

2. I sort of felt that Benin should have been on the locals’ minds because the cover of R. E. Bradbury, Benin Studies, ed. Peter Morton-Williams (London 1974), has been displayed on the wall in the School of History and Cultures on the way to the kitchen for who knows how many years, but a more useful cite for the period in question would be Natalie Sandomirsky, “Benin, Empire: origins and growth of city-state” in Keith Shillington (ed.), Encylopedia of African History (London 2013), 3 vols, I, pp. 132-133 and further refs there.

3. The Network web-page includes a reading list, where the most useful works of this type might be Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (Cambridge 1986) or Patricia Crone, Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World (Oxford 1989), but the one that came up in discussion most is not there, that being Jerry H. Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (Oxford 1993). Of course, as the image implies, I reckon one could enjoy starting with H. G. Wells, The Outline of History, being a Plain History of Life and Mankind, revised edn. (London 1920), 2 vols…

4. Indeed, historians of an earlier or at least much longer period already do write in such big-phenomenon terms, if we will accept Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York City 1997), repr. as Guns, Germs, and Steel: a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years (London 1998), as a work of history. At the very least, it demonstrates that the scale can be written within.

5. On them, see Lesley Abrams, “Diaspora and Identity in the Viking Age” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 20 (Oxford 2012), pp. 17-38, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0254.2011.00333.x; it is worth noting that Lesley is herself a member of the Global Middle Ages Network.

6. When I have to cite something for this I tend to cite Michael E. Mann, Zhihua Zhang, Malcolm K. Hughes, Raymond S. Bradley, Sonya K. Miller, Scott Rutherford & Fenbiao Ni, “Proxy-based reconstructions of hemispheric and global surface temperature variations over the past two millennia” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol. 105 (Washington DC 2008), pp. 13252-13257, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0805721105.

7. My guide here is Chris Wickham, “Problems of Comparing Rural Societies in Early Medieval Western Europe” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series Vol. 2 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 221-246, DOI: 10.2307/3679106, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 201-226, and lo, he is also a member of the Network…

Seminar CLI: Spain and Africa’s earliest Romance

Let me make clear straight away, this post is about the Romance languages, not the literary genre. In fact, it is specifically about the birth of Romance in Spain, and with work on that of course comes indelibly associated the name of Professor Roger Wright, and so it will not surprise you to gather that this post is because on 21st November 2012 he was presenting to the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar with the title, “African Invaders and Very Old Spanish”.

This paper was, as Roger admitted straight up, based on published work, and it would only be new to us if we hadn’t read enough of his stuff, but nonetheless, since his thinking has in fact moved on since the works for which he is best known, not least because of dogged opposition from certain quarters, it was new to me and the questions suggested I wasn’t the only one.1 The starting premise, dear to my heart, is that Castilian is weird in Romance terms, having many features that other Romance languages don’t, and the basic question was whether this can be put down to influence from Africa.

Haplogroup Distributons in Iberian, North African, and Sephardic Jewish Populations (Adams et al. 2008)

How does one picture a language? Here is another way, then, in which African influence in Spain has been tracked; click through if you missed that post…

Now, the obvious conduit for African influence on Spain is of course the Muslim conquest, but since here we’re talking about Latin usage, unless one accepts Richard Hitchcock’s argument that much of the Muslim army that mounted the 711-714 campaigns that felled the Visigothic kingdom of Spain would have been Berber and North African recruits who, since they couldn’t yet have really learnt Arabic, must have had only Latin as a lingua franca, we need to look further back, and indeed even if Hitchcock is right the influences could still be older. Augustine of Hippo apparently reports being teased for his provincial Latin, and Isidore of Seville, Visigothic knowledge collector par excellence, reckons there are several peculiar things about the African Latin of his day. Several of these symptoms (betacism, the swapping of ‘b’ and ‘v’, much older than the QWERTY keyboard layout as my documents quickly made clear to me) also appear in the Visigothic slates.2 And, when one considers the respective difficulties of travel across the Pyrenees and across the Straits of Gibraltar, without considering modern state boundaries, obviously that makes sense.

Subsequent additions to the Africa of the Roman Empire would have been unlikely to have dented this African Latin, argued Roger: the Vandals, by the time they hit Africa at least and probably from much further back, are unlikely to have been a linguistic unity and their only common language must also have been various versions of Latin; they would have relied on Latin to deal with the locals, anyway.3 The Byzantine reconquest of Africa from the Vandals would also have had the administrative need to work in Latin as indeed it still partly did even at Constantinople; and the Visigoths meanwhile connected Spain and Africa by their grasp on what is now Ceuta (and still part of Spain, often forgotten except by Morocco). Berber languages, hardly an addition but arguably stronger after the loss of Africa as a Roman province, nonetheless seem significant only inland in this period. There is, in any case, no sign of any Berber influence on Spanish (and only one word in Portuguese) and no mention of Berbers (as opposed to the much vaguer Mauri, Moors) in the texts that describe the Muslim conquest such as the Chronicle of 754, which also doesn’t mention interpreters, Roger pointed out.

Section of handout from Roger Wright, &quo;African Invaders and Very Old Spanish&quo;

Professor Wright’s handout where it gives examples of African symptoms in Latin shared by Castilian

Nonetheless, although reconstructing African Latin’s distinctive characteristics is hard, it does seem hard to find them in Spanish Latin before 711. Isidore, as we say, sees a difference; Paul Alvarus of Córdoba, writing c. 860, does not. Betacism is rare before the seventh century, much more common later. Weirdly, and significantly, Arabic in Andalusia, the most heavily-settled area of course, also shows this symptom. Similar things can be said of the distinction between long and short vowels, the African difficulty Augustine describes: Roger pointed at Castilian ‘montes’ and ‘fuentes’, mountains and springs, from Latin ‘montes’ and ‘fontes’ respectively, to show this lack of distinction in action, and another symptom is the lack of a simple past tense in Castilian, where the past can only be formed by using the verb ‘to have’ an a participle. This doesn’t occur in Catalonia in the period of my documents, and modern Catalan retains as does French a preterite, even if neither are usually used in speech; I noticed the compound tense with excitement in the Beaulieu cartulary towards the close of the ninth century just the other day; but this was already settling in in Africa before the conquest, apparently, and now survives in Castilian. And there were a number of other cases of phonetic, syntactic and vocabulary resemblance that cumulatively seemed hard to argue with, though if you’d like to try I give the relevant section of Roger’s excellent handout as a scan above.

Thus, although the gap between say, 600 and 840, is still hard to fill in terms of linguistic development, in Spain it seems reasonably clear that the 711 invasion is one of the branches, with the consequent implication that its armies and settlers were many of them Latin-speaking. The further implications of that had, as I say, already been somewhat explored by Richard Hitchcock in 2007, but as far as I know Professor Hitchcock has never published that, and though what I’ve said here is as far as Roger went it’s still plenty to think about…


1. The obvious works of Roger’s to refer to are his Late Latin and Early Romance in Spain and Carolingian France (Liverpool 1982) or R. Wright (ed.), Latin and the Romance Languages in the Early Middle Ages (London 1991), but by now he might prefer that we checked his A Sociophilological Study of Late Latin (Turnhout 2003) or specifically on this question R. Wright, “Late and Vulgar Latin in Muslim Spain: the African Connection” in Frédérique Biville, Marie-Karine Lhommé & Daniel Vallat (edd.), Latin vulgaire, latin tardif IX : Actes du IXe Colloque International sur le Latin Vulgaire et Tardif, Lyon, 2 – 6 septembre 2009, Collection de la Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée : Série linguistique et philologique 8 (Lyon 2012), pp. 35-54. For opposition, I suppose one would look most obviously to Michel Banniard, Viva voce : communication érite et communication orale du IVe aui IXe siècle en Occident latin (Paris 2002) but more anciently Rosamond McKitterick, “Latin and Romance: an historian’s perspective” in Wright, Latin and the Romance Languages, pp. 130-145 or Michael Richter, The Oral Tradition in the Early Middle Ages (Turnhout 1994).

2. For an edition of the slates, aimed at just this question, see Isabel Velázquez Soriano, Las pizarras visigodas: entre el latín y su disgregación. La lengua hablada en Hispania, siglos VI-VII (Madrid 2004). I observed in questions, largely on the basis of this post at Magistra et Mater I admit, that this also happens in Lombard Italy, to which Roger’s response was to suggest bad spelling and to observe that almost everything that can happen to Latin happens in Italy. Well, OK, but…

3. Here Roger cited Jonathan Conant, Staying Roman: conquest and identity in Africa and the Mediterranean, 439-700 (Cambridge 2012) and Yitzhak Hen, Roman Barbarians: the royal court and culture in the early medieval West (Basingstoke 2007), neither of which I’ve read but both of which, and perhaps especially teh former of which I had no knowledge before this, I really should.

Seminars CXIII & CXIV: Vandals and burning houses

Okay, the marking is done, the exam scripts handed back, and I have a bunch of posts mostly written up, just wanting images and links. But on the other hand I also have a load of freshly-transcribed charter data, an upcoming fortnight of very welcome and distracting house guests and then Leeds (I am going, but for once not presenting), and possibly I should think about finishing some work, you know. So those posts can wait till time is shorter and in the meantime I shall make a gesture towards reducing my ridiculous backlog with reporting on seminars, by telling you about two papers I saw back in January, to wit, Philipp von Rummel presenting on “The Search for the Vandals on the North African Kingdom” to the Late Roman Seminar in Oxford on the 19th January and Maureen Mellor presenting on “The Archaeology of Stuff: scorched interiors” to the Medieval Archaeology Seminar on the 23rd.

Silver coin of Carthage in the name of King Gelimer, 530x534

Silver 50-denarius coin of Carthage in the name of King Gelimer, 530×534, from Wikimedia Commons. Barbarians I tell you! Denominations of 50 denarii? It’s just not Roman!

Dr von Rummel was asking a simple but important question, which was basically, how much difference did the historically-attested ‘migration’ of the Vandal armies from Spain into Africa in the early fifth century make to the archæology there? Is there a rupture, or continuity? This is not, of course, a simple question because it has been usual to assume that we can recognise barbarians in the archaeology, whereas firstly material culture is portable which means anyone can wear or use it, depending on how the fashions of the day are running, and secondly the fifth-century Roman military and a fifth-century group that identified as barbarians but who’d spent most of a king’s lifetime travelling through the Roman empire and some of that time doing military service for it might well look pretty similar, if not actually be the same.1 And in fact the archæology of the supposed Vandal homelands obstinately refuses to provide anything much one could use as a marker by way of distinctive material culture, because they were already looking pretty similar back there too. So, until very recently, contended Dr von Rummel, archæology of these areas was looking at burials for ‘Europeans’, ‘Germans’ or some other form of alien, and being surprised how little evident they seem to be, focussing on types of fibula that are not foreign so much as new and can also be found in Rome of the period, and so forth. But we know the Vandals came so there must be something, right? I mean, Victor of Vita talks about habitus barbarus and Victor was an honourable man. But no: we get slow change in military culture and no destruction layers.2 Archæologically you’d not know it happened. The towns were in decline in the Vandal period but they were before as well, so that’s actually continuity. And these factors only get worse when one asks the question that’s not about reprehensible but memorably-painted supposed Germans and says, “what about the local ‘barbarians’?” because the same arguments apply to Moorish populations in the archæology, except without the variety, even though their leaders’ names are inscribed in major towns.3 Even the mausolea that now arose were not so much new as really old-fashioned (and with good precursors, see below). And these are of course the populations among whom the Tablettes Albertini were written and that written Latin was continuing alongside a vibrant set of local languages and that, too, was nothing new.

The tomb of the Numidian king Juba and his Queen Cleopatra Selene, Kur-er-Rumia, near Algiers

The local `Moorish’ heritage: the tomb of the Numidian king Juba and his Queen Cleopatra Selene, Kur-er-Rumia, near Algiers, from Wikimedia Commons

It’s not, however, that there’s no crisis or no collapse. The economy shrank considerably over the fifth century, and that does show up in the archæology. Roman state patronage had stopped and the new masters had an alternative organisation to support in the form of the Arian church. The market for products seems to have gone local, the land market’s prices to have shrunk, and the North Sahara zone may be drying out, making previously habitable areas marginal. But it’s hard to blame the Vandals for that! The end of Roman state patronage, of course, is probably a fairer cop, but since what that probably meant was that the area was getting a better return on its exports (and imports of Eastern Roman pottery actually go up during the Vandal period at the coast at least, or so we were told), the effects of it are not actually simply and obviously destructive.4 Instead, Dr von Rummel argued, what was happening if anything is that Rome ceased to be the best alternative and what has been really going on, old habits and practices, returned to view with the ceasing of the Roman cultural bombardment.5 And the Vandals just didn’t matter in any social way. Poor Vandals.

Pottery crucible for metalworking from the Saxon village at Faccombe Netherton, now in the British Museum

Pottery crucible for metalworking from the Saxon village at Faccombe Netherton, now in the British Museum

By contrast with the Vandals, ironically, Dr Mellor was talking about places where destruction was much more obvious, because in the course of a much larger project about domestic interiors of the Anglo-Saxon period, a tricky thing to reconstruct as you may imagine, she has repeatedly come up against houses that were burnt. This was probably pretty common – interior hearths, thatched roofs, straw mattresses, you can see the problems – but of course it can preserve a building in a ‘Pompeii moment‘, even if it was then flattened and built over; at least the warped and scorched stuff under the collapsed roof and so on stays where it was in the house, thus giving some kind of sense of what ‘lived’ where. This is handy because a lot of the time objects one finds in Anglo-Saxon domestic buildings, of which we do know the locations of a good few, and of which some have yielded a lot of small finds,6 are not where they were used, whether because they’ve been swept to the edges of the floor having broken or been lost, or because they were deliberately put in foundations or elsewhere as special deposits. That could obviously make a fantastic amount of difference to how we should interpret the objects: waste or treasure? Functional or token? And even when something is broken, it might tell us a lot about how it had been used if we were able to say how it had broken… And this work of distinction has not really been done and interpreting objects could really be an awful lot more complicated than it usually is. So now Dr Mellor is in progress with this work, but the task is immense and maddening, so I don’t know how long it may be before we hear more, which is a pity because, whether I’ve made this clear or not, this was a really interesting paper. One often says that archæology gets you back to how ordinary people lived but this kind of work gets a lot closer to taking you into their houses and watching them cook, eat and generally do things with stuff than, some.


1. As you know by now I guess, my text of resort for these matters is Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), and here esp. pp. 101-110, but you may justly suppose that others would disagree and chief among them would be, I imagine, not yet having made time to read it, Peter Heather, Empire and Barbarians: the fall of Rome and the birth of Europe (Oxford 2010). I don’t see exactly how one argues with Professor Halsall on this but I’ve heard Professor Heather do it anyway.

2. Dr von Rummel did, in justice, admit that this is easier to say since one of the few places the sources are insistent was destroyed, the theatre at Carthage, was excavated but the findings never published and then it was reconstructed over the diggings so that there’s no prospect of checking again. But even then, we have seen in our lifetimes, have we not, that the destruction of an iconic and highly-visible building in a busy city does not in fact equate to the end of that city’s urban existence…

3. Halsall, Barbarian Migrations, pp. 405-411, is illuminating about these supposed barbarians who didn’t migrate.

4. The economic effects of the Vandals now owning one end of the old grain supply route to Rome are teased out and placed in context in Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), pp. 635-644.

5. Something like this argument has also been made about the ‘return to the hills’ in sub-Roman Britain, of course, a native culture resurgent, but there the circumstances are rather different because of the scale of social collapse. Africa kept most of its cities and continued to ship in wine, use Latin and worship Christ, and the situation is just a bit different…

6. Here again, however, work is stifled by the amount of these sites which have never been published, like the many boxes of small finds from a post-late-seventh- but pre-mid-eleventh-century mill at Old Windsor, never catalogued because of the increasing difficulty and then death of the excavator, Brian Hope-Taylor, only one of several examples that featured in the earlier part of this paper.

Seminar XC: Normans? in Africa?

Still another Oxford seminar here, and one that I could maybe skip over because it has already been blogged by the estimable Gesta, but which I don’t want to let slip by because it was really cool. Alex Metcalfe, who has come at medieval studies via the unusual route of study in law (I think!) and in Arabic, is one of the very few people currently in field who are interested in getting Western and Eastern sources to answer the same questions at the same time, and this led him to be at the Oxford Medieval History Seminar on 21st February 2011 presenting to the title, “The Norman Conquest (and Loss) of Africa”.

Ruins at Mahdiyya, Tunisia

Ruins at Mahdiyya, Tunisia

It may be news to you—it was to me— that the Normans had any conquests in Africa, but in fact the link between their Sicilian territories and the Muslim province of Ifriqiyya (very roughly modern Tunisia) long predated the Norman presence in Italy, that being whence Sicily was conquered by the Muslims, and so once the Fatimid Caliphate moved out of Ifriqiyya to Cairo in 960 the area was left slightly open, the ruling families on either side of the very short distance between Tunisa and Sicily having fallen out of alliance and so forth. The other background, said Alex, was persistent crop failure in Ifriqiyya leading to an economic dependence on Sicilian grain and a shift to pastoralism, wrecking the Zirid rulers’ tax-base and leaving their cities in trouble. All of the which left the area looking like low-hanging fruit for the Norman kingdom of Roger II (1101-54). And who doesn’t want a doorway onto the Saharan gold trade, after all? In 1142 things got sufficiently bad in Ifriqiyya that the Zirid Amir Hassan signed himself over to Roger as a vassal and so the Norman troops went in to ‘secure the régime’. Alex drew a difference between the situation in Sicily where local élites had largely been left in place by the Normans and this one, where local leaders were reinvested with their properties as Norman fiefs, making their situation now very different. The Normans also charged for the renewal of documents (though the documents that survive had frequently not actually been update, just endorsed) and installed Genoese and Pisan merchants. Because of this sort of thing, and because of the rising presence of the Almohads as an alternative to these Christian overlords, the area was not quiet under Norman rule, and in 1156 a whole bunch of revolts broke out, coinciding with similar ones back in Sicily, and the Normans lost everything but the citadel of Mahdiyya, wrought reprisals on the population there who called the Almohads in and that was about it. One of the aftermaths may have been the beginning of the breakdown of the fabled convivencia and toleration of the Norman Sicilian kingdom, with new measures being taken to subjugate the Muslim population who were presumably now seen as a security risk. Or those attitudes may already have been hardening, but this little-known tale is certainly part of the large story, while it also caused Ifriqiyya to slip beyond the notional frontier and Sicily to drop back to a fairly marginal status on the edge of Europe, even though the distance between the zones remains so tiny.

Map of the Central Mediterranean in the Middle Ages, by Alex Metcalf

Alex's map of the Central Mediterranean; do not adjust your screen

Chris Wickham asked why Alex thought the Normans had not managed to hold this area, where local structures of society had surely been ruined to the point where resistance to the Norman conquest ought to have been harder than the resistance that there largely isn’t in Sicily. Alex put this down to the new presence of the Almohads not giving the Normans time to bed down, and to their neglect to pursue the kind of wealth creation they had nurtured in Sicily (however much that had been for their own ends). Palermo remained centre of this new province, rather than giving it back something to hold on to, so the population had no real incentive to hold off from joining the brave new Almohad world, not least because their jurists were somewhat divided over whether one should even remain living under Christian rule if alternatives existed. In Sicily the Normans managed to combine offers of advantage, overwhelming force and tolerance to good effect, and in Ifriqiyya none of these remained available for very long. All very interesting and the questions of policy failures versus circumstances remain to be worked over a bit more yet, I think.