Tag Archives: al-Andalus

Things I did not know about coinage in al-Andalus

I owe you all some blog posts! So I hope you don’t mind if they’re mostly about coins, because apparently at the beginning of 2017 I was dealing with coins at pretty much every level. The Roman stuff just discussed was being catalogued while I could still catalogue, but I’d chosen that stuff to catalogue because I needed to know what there was for teaching my late antique survey module. Teaching with coinage on my final-year special subject is harder, because for much of the period of Iberian history it covers there was no, or almost no, coinage being issued in the Latin kingdoms, and I don’t read the Arabic with which I might better understand the Muslim state’s or states’ stuff, and either way the Leeds collection has basically none of it. I did, however, run one class on the economy of al-Andalus, focusing on money and slaves, and for that I wanted to show the students some coins, even if the most they got from it would be that the state had considerable powers of standardisation, that the Islamic standard of coinage was fairly universal and that when the caliphate began it reintroduced gold coinage and that was no coincidence. Those all seemed like worthwhile teaching points…

Gold dinar of Caliph 'Abd al-Raḥmān III al-Nasir struck in al-Andalus in AD 929-930, Tonegawa Collection 6871

Gold dinar of Caliph ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III al-Nasir struck in al-Andalus in AD 929-930, Tonegawa Collection 6871

So I went hunting for a resource to use and remembered the existence of something I had once found, the Tonegawa Collection. If you haven’t met it, this is an increasingly-comprehensive open online and expressly anti-copyright collection of images of and information on coins of al-Andalus; but right now, it was an English-language resource with many pictures and so I leapt at it. Of course, I had actually to look at it first to ensure that this would probably work, and in the course of that I learnt many cool things about Andalusī (i. e. Iberian Muslim) coinage and stubbed this post in which to tell you all of them.

Gold solidus struck in Spania in AD 711-712, Tonegawa Collection 9084

Gold solidus struck in ‘Spania’ in AD 711-712, Tonegawa Collection 9084

Some of these things I knew already, like this one. The Visigothic kingdom that the Muslim forces took over in the Iberian Peninsula in 711 had had a mostly-gold coinage of so-called tremisses, technically one-third of a Roman/Byzantine solidus. Unlike most places where Islam took over a tax system, where it just maintained the existing coinage until the application of a new one had been worked out, here something more studied was done: the new régime struck solidi, which the Visigoths had not for a long time, on the Byzantine weight standard and with halves and thirds like the Byzantines, but of a new design with Latin inscriptions recording the value, country of issue (Hispania) and the Islamic date, and a star on the other side. There were also copper-alloy coins of a less standard kind.1 Conventional wisdom is that this was the application of the system the Muslims had met at Carthage when they took that, but that had been thirty years before, since which time coinage there had been regularised with that of the rest of the Islamic world, and in any case the last solidi from Islamic Carthage were fat globby things quite unlike these in both fabric or design.2

Gold bilingual half-dinar struck in al-Andalus in AD 716-717, Tonegawa Collection 98

Gold bilingual half-dinar struck in al-Andalus in AD 716-717, Tonegawa Collection 98

Next, five years later, came coins closer to Islamic dinar weights, with both Latin and Arabic inscriptions as you see above, and then five years after that regular Islamic dinars, then soon after that gold ceased to be issued and it was only silver dirhams and copper-alloy fulūs till the new Caliphate in 929 (see the first illustration). Whatever was going on here involved some deliberate decisions about how this was going to work and perhaps some early sense that this was going to be a new province of a different kind to the other Islamic possessions. There’s a story from the later Arabic sources that the first delegate governor of al-Andalus, ‘Abd al-Azīz, son of the governor of Ifrīqīyya who had conquered the peninsula, married the widow of the last Visigothic king and started looking as if he would set up as the new one, so that his men murdered him for his pretensions; I wonder if this coinage is showing us the same thing, a potential breakway régime which thought it was too far from Damascus to be stopped and in the end proved to be wrong.3

Silver dirham of Emir Hisham I struck in al-Andalus in AD 802-803, Tonegawa 187x1

Silver dirham of Emir Hisham I struck in al-Andalus in AD 802-803, Tonegawa 187×1

Likewise, it’s interesting to me that throughout the history of the rule of some kind of the first, Umayyad, ruling dynasty of Islam in the peninsula, the mint named on the precious-metal coinage was almost never more specific than the whole province, first Hispania then al-Andalus, as if any minting place was the same given the uniformity of control.4 Given how shaky Umayyad control often was here, that might have been quite an important thing to assert: coinage of Toledo or wherever would have been politically contentious when the city rebelled, as it often did, but while all the coinage was from ‘al-Andalus’, even when the governors or emirs controlled relatively little of that space, at least their money would not make that obvious. It’s frustrating not knowing where they were made, of course, but there was probably a point to it.

Copper-alloy coin of one Ibn Qāsī struck at an uncertain mint and date, Tonegawa Collection 10

Copper-alloy coin of one Ibn Qāsī struck at an uncertain mint and date, Tonegawa Collection 10. The Arabic which identifies the issue apparently more or less renders as ‘Son of Cassius/Qāsī’ and ‘Conquest’, which is fascinating if so, but obviously isn’t all the script on the coin so if anyone feels like decoding the rest for me I would be in their debt and would footnote their assistance in subsequent publication…

Now this much I already knew, largely because of long ago having copy-edited the volume I’ve been citing for it all. But the Tonegawa Collection showed me lots of new things. For example, I dimly knew that Islamic law considers only precious-metal coinage to be the business of the state, so that base-metal small change can effectively be provided privately.5 It could, though, also be provided at intermediate level, such as by city or March governors, and that’s how come the above is a coin of the infamous Banū Qāsī, the frontier warlords about whom at this point I’d only a year before written the first English-language synthesis longer than a paragraph.6 Was that just necessity, at one of the periods when they held the big city of Zaragoza, to keep the markets and tax systems running, or was the chance to issue even base-metal coin part of how they tried to embed themselves into the area before anyone could come along and push them out of it again? I hadn’t realised that the coinage could be a source here, because no-one who works on them mentions it, but now when I finally revise that paper, I can.

Copper-alloy fals overstruck in al-Andalus at an uncertain date on a nummus of Emperor Maximian, Tonegawa Collection IIF

Copper-alloy fals overstruck in al-Andalus at an uncertain date on a nummus of Emperor Maximian, Tonegawa Collection IIF

I could go on for a while, but I’ll keep it to just these two further things. This is a copper-alloy fals, and I can’t tell you anything really about who issued it or when—though if anyone reading can make anything of the legend I would love to know—but I can tell you that it didn’t start this way, as this has been struck straight onto a Roman nummus of Emperor Maximian (285-305, 307-308 and 310). Coins like this have been the seed of a long (friendly) argument between me and Eduardo Manzano Moreno, who has indeed now published his side of the dispute (on which more in a couple of posts). I maintain, backed by now considerable finds evidence, that there were Visigothic base-metal coinages struck in the Peninsula; he maintains that coins like these show that the circulating medium of small change was actually reused or still-used Roman coins.7 I thought that unlikely, but there are, as this demonstrates, coins that make him at least part right. They don’t make me wrong about the Visigothic stuff, though! Nonetheless, what this is is a coin that, even if not continuously, had been in use for at least 429 years when this happened to it, perhaps rather more, and which presumably then went to be used some more before someone helpfully lost it or hoarded it. You can see why I was sceptical, but as it’s true it is, as Neil would have said, pretty heavy, man.

Double-pierced silver dirham of 'Abd al-Rahman III al-Nasir struck in al-Andalus in AD 930–31, Tonegawa Collection 3b

Double-pierced silver dirham of ‘Abd al-Rahman III al-Nasir struck in al-Andalus in AD 930–31, Tonegawa Collection 3b

Lastly, as any of you who have worked closely with me and my numismatic buddies will know, we think piercing of coins is really interesting.8 Apart from anything else, it tells us that despite the presumably-fixed value of the coin in precious metal, it was still worth more for someone to bore some of that metal out of it and hang it on a string or whatever than to maintain that. You can sometimes tell a lot by how a coin is pierced; if it was hung on a string, for example, what face would be the right way up? Which way through was the hole pushed? Does that match? If there are two holes, it was probably going to be stitched to fabric; how does that change our picture? Here, we seem to have both: the damage at the edge seems to be where a single piercing caused the edge to crack off, and then someone put two holes through it more centrally. Or perhaps those things happened the other way round, who knows? So had this coin been crossing some kind of culture divide, was this change of use, or had it just fallen off whatever it was attached to and someone decided to make sure? We can’t answer these questions, of course, at least not normally, but their answers would make up individual object biographies in which the coin interacted with its different and equally individual users, and this coin apparently did more obvious interaction than many.9 I wonder what?

Anyway. That is enough numismatic effusion for now, especially given that the next post will contain more. Imagine how much worse it would be if I could read these things…


1. My guide here is of course Miquel Crusafont, Anna M. Balaguer and Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 6: The Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge 2013), pp. 54-61.

2. See Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 147-148.

3. On the story and its background see Roger Collins, The Arab Conquest of Spain 710–797 (Oxford 1989), pp. 37-38.

4. Crusafont, Balaguer & Grierson, Medieval European Coinage 6, p. 59. The exception is the period 947-961, when the coins of ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III were issued from his palace at Madinat al-Zahra’, outside Córdoba.

5. See Stefan Heidemann, “Numismatics” in Chase F. Robinson (ed.), The New Cambridge History of Islam: Volume 1: The Formation of the Islamic World, Sixth to Eleventh Centuries (Cambridge 2010), pp. 648–663 at pp. 649-651.

6. Jonathan Jarrett, “Heartland and Frontier from the Perspective of the Banū Qasī, 842-907”, unpublished paper presented at the International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 9th July 2015; it does, alas, remain unpublished, but I can also offer you Jonathan Jarrett, “Before the Reconquista: frontier relations in medieval Iberia 718 to 1031” in Javier Muñoz-Basols, Laura Lonsdale and Manuel Delgado (edd.), The Routledge Companion to Iberian Studies (London 2017), pp. 27–40 at pp. 28-29, assuming of course that you cannot access the much more comprehensive Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, La dawla de los Banū Qasī: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus, Estudios Árabes e Islámicos: Monografias 17 (Madrid 2010).

7. Eduardo Manzano Moreno and Alberto Canto, “The Value of Wealth: Coins and Coinage in Iberian Early Medieval Documents” in †Simon Barton and Robert Portass (edd.), Beyond the Reconquista: New Directions in the History of Medieval Iberia (711-1085) In Honour of Simon Barton, The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World 76 (Leiden 2020), pp. 169–197. In my defence I cite Ruth Pliego, “The Circulation of Copper Coins in the Iberian Peninsula during the Visigothic Period: new approaches” in Journal of Archaeological Numismatics Vol. 5/6 (Madrid 2015), pp. 125–160, for my copy of which I must thank the author.

8. On coin piercing see Rebecca Darley, “Money, Art and Representation: the powerful and pragmatic faces of medieval coinage” in Rory Naismith (ed.), A Cultural History of Money in the Medieval Age, Cultural History of Money 2 (London 2019), pp. 99–124 at pp. 119-121.

9. You probably don’t need a reference for the idea of object biographies but if you want one, here are two, Arjun Appadurai, “Introduction: commodities and the politics of value” in idem (ed.), The Social Life of Things: commodities in cultural perspective (Cambridge 1986), pp. 3-63, and Karin Dannehl, “Object Biographies: from production to consumption” in Karen Harvey (ed.), History and Material Culture: a student’s guide to approaching alternative sources (London 2009), pp. 123–138.

Frontiers Day at the 2016 International Medieval Congress

When, two posts ago, I recounted what still seemed worth recounting of the first three days of the 2016 International Medieval Congress at Leeds, you may have noticed that because of now being employed by the host university, I was involved in a lot more sessions as moderator than in previous years. This is the deal I get as staff, effectively; I can go to the Congress for free, because they can hardly charge me for coming to work, but they expect me to do my bit to keep it running. So my timetable for the Congress is now a lot more preset than you’d ordinarily expect. But on the last day of the 2016 edition, though my timetable was entirely fixed, it was down to me, because that was when the sessions I’d organised for my Rethinking the Medieval Frontier project happened, and since that was my doing and I was in them all it seemed worth giving them their own post.

1510. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, I: Control and Authority in the Iberian Peninsula, 5th–10th Centuries

There are only three regular sessions on the last day of the Congress, and none of them are the slots you’d choose; the first one is early morning after the dance, so attendance is weaker and more woebegone than usual, and by the third, which is after lunch, most people have already set out for home. The second one is better than those, but still thinly populated. I couldn’t have planned for this, except out of bloody-minded certainty that I’d get the hangover slot, which has happened to me at a quarter of my IMCs (I have just counted) and two-thirds of my Kalamazoos, but as it happened I put the most Iberian-focused of my three sessions first, with me in it, and so hangover slot again it was but at least I had there most of the people I actually wanted to hear it. The more-or-less-willing participants and their titles were these:

  • Sam Ottewill-Soulsby, “The Long Frontier: The Ebro Valley from the 5th to the 9th Centuries”
  • Sam started us off with the intelligent argument that the Christian-Muslim frontier on the Ebro valley from the eighth to eleventh centuries has an obvious, religious, dynamic to it but actually the area had been a frontier space for long before that, repeatedly in rebellion against the rest of the Visigothic kingdom when that was going, in rebellion against its own Muslim superiors when Charlemagne first led an army into it, and before long also in rebellion against his son Louis the Pious. There was something about the space that made it a unit that was hard to control from a distance, and Sam saw this as a brake on bigger changes that might want to affect it. I would have liked more on the last bit, but the main point was a sharp one that I have continued to think with.

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Heartland and Frontier from the Perspective of the Banū Qāsī”
  • This paper’s task was firstly to synthesize in English the quite large amount of recent scholarship there has been about the archetypal Muslim frontier warlord family, the Banū Qāsī, which was slightly embarrassing as the man who’d written much of that was in the audience to hear me repeating him back to himself.1 Its point in the session was that the Banū Qāsī, with a position in that same hard-to-control space from which the Umayyad Muslim régime couldn’t easily displace them, so that they could only control it through them, and strong links to the nascent Basque kingdom at Pamplona which made the Banū Qāsī the sole agents of peace on that northern frontier, meant that they could choose where the frontier was—on the northern border of Pamplona when they were working for the régime, and on the south of the Ebro zone when they weren’t, switchable with a simple agreement. Their own frontier status was what made them powerful, and in the end, I argued, while the central régime wisely promoted an alternative family step by step into an alternative option for them, they also displaced the Banū Qāsī by aggressively marking the frontier to their south; once the family were placed outside, they lost their position as brokers for their northern allies and thus any value they could bring southwards.

  • Albert Pratdesaba, “Battlefront Ter-Llobregat: Traces of Carolingian Forward Operating Bases in Catalonia”
  • Lastly in this first session, Albert, whom I’d met on my then-recent trip to l’Esquerda where he was then digging, got us down to the ground of this frontier we were all three discussing, looking for place-names of fortification on the Carolingian edge and matching those that have been dug up to any wider patterns going. At all of l’Esquerda, Roca del Pujol and Savellana they’ve found post-holes that could have supported a wooden guard-tower, such as which they have subsequently attempted to reconstruct at l’Esquerda.2 The initial Carolingian line of defence is now quite closely mappable, if these places are indeed on it, and while there’s a danger of circularity here the more places they dig and find stuff that matches, the less dangerous that guess will get.

The reconstructed watchtower at l'Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Catalunya

The reconstructed watchtower at l’Esquerda, Roda de Ter, Catalunya


Because I was in it I don’t have notes on the discussion, which is sad. My memory is that all went well, but that the audience was definitely larger for the second, late-morning session.

1610. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier II: Defining and Dissolving Borders in the Late Roman and Byzantine Empires

Although my own frontier of reference is indubitably in the Iberian Peninsula, the ones that have arguably generated the most thinking other than those of modern nation-states are those of the Roman Empire.3 When it became clear we had three papers offered, all of which were about how people in the Empire, in its Roman or later, ‘Byzantine’, phases, understood and strove to define its borders, it was obvious that they belonged together. These were they:

  • Thomas Kitchen, “Fatal Permeability: the Roman Frontier in Late Antiquity”
  • Tom, a friend of mine from back in Cambridge, had been coaxed into returning to the academic sphere for this paper and completely justified my certainty that this would be good by laying out for us a subtle thesis in which Roman borders, geopolitical or social both, were usually very clear but meant to be permeable, with legitimate ways for people and ideas to cross them and be accepted on the more Roman side, even if they retained roles and origins from outside. Tom’s argument was that it’s visible in the writings of contemporaries that this permeability exposed the Empire to identities and sources of status alternative to its own hierarchies with which it became less and less able to compete, often embraced on a temporary basis to survive a certain crisis but never again adequately rivalled by what survived of the older Roman patterns. The most emblematic one of those changes is the adoption of kings where an emperor had once ruled, but it wasn’t the only one and might have been one of the last. The writers of our sources still saw the empire around them, as they walked the same streets and did business in the same buildings, but we can see in their works the changes they wanted to ignore. This was one of those papers that set the audience all thinking whether their own teaching versions of this story could exist alongside this one or needed changing; it seemed clear to everyone that he must be at least sort of right. I was very pleased by this outcome.

  • Rebecca Darley, “Trading with the Enemy across the Byzantine-Sasanian Frontier”
  • This paper had grown out of Rebecca’s persistent encounter with an idea that the Persian Empire was deeply invested in controlling and profiting from international trade.4 She went after the best-documented border, that with the Roman/Byzantine Empire, and argued that the sources we have, especially the treaties between the powers reported in Byzantine histories, saw this border as closed and trade across it as a problem, which might feed either of resource or information to a mistrusted enemy. Even the most optimistic communications between the two empires don’t discuss trade as an outcome of their peace, and there isn’t actually any proof that either state took toll at its borders with the other. Highly-placed people whom they could track, like ambassadors, were allowed to do some business on the side, but otherwise they wanted trade happening in certain places under careful watch, if at all. It could always be dispensed with, though: Rebecca pointed to Emperor Justinian I’s blockade of Lazica as an effective sanction on a place that relied on imports, but one which had arisen because of a Persian conquest that was itself possible because of an imperial governor having previously established a monopoly on several of those imports, i. e. excluding the operation of other traders, apparently using state power but to private ends.5 Trade was, in other words, not worth it for the state even where, as here, there was literally a captive market, and so it was done on the side even when the state did it. Rebecca argued that we should see these empires as more or less suspicious of and hostile to commerce, rather than reading modern global capitalism back onto their operations.

  • Alexander Sarantis, “The Lower Danube Frontier Zone, 441-602”
  • On the other side of the same Empire, meanwhile, and touching also on Tom’s paper, came Alex Sarantis, looking at the Byzantine border along, and sometimes across, the Danube. He viewed this border in a way that sat between the two other speakers, being a site of local interaction around fortresses but not moving much across it any distance, though some, and being home to a highly militarised, somewhat less civil, Roman culture that nonetheless still stopped at the actual front-line, with roads and cities behind and decentralised rural settlement before. This border was a space with a hard line at one edge, therefore, and a fuzzy one at the other, and as far as they could do so the Romans aimed to soak up and stop movement, both military and commercial, within the space between those lines rather than letting it escape into the Empire. And this more or less worked! The barbarian groups who arrived there all went west in the end, because the border was closed to them.

Two of the questions I had initially posed to the speakers of these sessions, in a sort of agenda document (which you can read here), were whether their borders of concern were open or closed, and whether people crossed them. The response in the two Byzantine cases here seemed clearly to be, ‘closed, but people crossed anyway even though it was risky, and the state could close them properly for short whiles’, whereas Tom had seen the Roman ones as ‘open, with limits’. Modernity suggests that it’s really hard for a state actually to close a border, but our Byzantine sources here are really thinking in terms of bulk trade, ships full of salt rather than a few chickens from a village on the ‘wrong’ side for grandma’s birthday—as so often, scale is a factor—and I can’t help feeling that if all three were right, the Byzantine Empire might here have learnt from its western progenitor’s errors.6 Anyway, there was clearly more to be got from getting these people talking to each other!

Entrance to the citadel of Berat, in modern Albania, from Wikimedia Commons

Entrance to the remains of the Byzantine citadel at Berat, in modern Albania, with a thirteenth-century church guarding rather older fortifications. Image by Jason Rogers – originally posted to Flickr as Berat, licensed under CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

1710. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, III: Frankish Frontiers, Internal and External

Then, after lunch, fell the slot that nobody wants, in which nonetheless I had three brave speakers and, actually, more audience than I’d feared, because several of the earlier speakers and some of the audience stayed to hear more. I guess we were doing something right! And the beneficiaries of this were these:

  • Arkady Hodge, “The Idea of Aquitaine in the Early Middle Ages”
  • This was a longue durée study of an edge-space for a great many polities, running from the Phoenicians up to the Carolingians, and arguing that while there was quite possibly some consistent core identity here its edges were defined differently by each successive over-power that ruled it, and that its position on the edges of those powers let it alone to remain unchanged in ways that other more central provinces couldn’t. As is often the case with Arkady’s work, it drew on such a broad frame of reference that I wanted to check half a dozen things I’d never heard about before, but it certainly made comparison easier because of that breadth.

  • Jakub Kabala, “Rewriting the Border in Carolingian and Ottonian Historiography”
  • Kuba, our furthest-flung international guest star this time, arguing that borders are mainly mental constructions upon space, decided to look at the same border, the one of the East Frankish kingdom with Slavic-speaking polities, through two sets of eyes, one that of the Carolingian recorder of the Royal Frankish Annals and the other that of Thietmar of Merseburg.7 The Annals also have the advantage of going through progressive rewrites as they were adopted as the cores of other texts, and Kuba saw the border becoming clearer in each rewrite, a linear division in development. For the Ottonian writers, however, the border is indefinite, with even Germany only coalescing an edge when barbarians throw themselves against it. He thought that this might be because by then Poland, being on the way to Christianization, represented the outer edge in a way that the Carolingians hadn’t had available, but I thought it might be seen as an attempt to claim an open frontier, into which the Ottonians still hoped to expand as the Carolingians increasingly hadn’t.8

  • Niall Ó Súillheabáin, “Building Power on Feudal Frontiers: the Case of Landric of Nevers”
  • Lastly, after these two wide-ranging studies, we ended with a micro-study of an internal frontier, with the Nivernais sitting on the edges of both Burgundy, by the 980s more or less separate from the developing France, and of its old master kingdom in the west, but having also been held in subordination to Aquitaine against both in the recent past. Niall took us through the history of the area’s rulers and their contested loyalties until in the 990s our boy Landric became the first count of actual Nevers, a sort of independence with his own following of locals and a station of enough respect to broker deals between outsiders who thus accepted him as their equal. Nevers managed to become such a space because it could successfully be converted into a buffer everyone around it needed more than they needed the conflict that controlling it would have meant.

The final formal discussion, naturally, spent a while considering whether internal and external frontiers worked the same way, which our sources also seem to be unsure about, but for me mainly emphasised how our sources will tend, naturally enough, to redefine how a border worked according to their particular needs. That is only as much as to say that a critical approach to our texts is needed, and at the end of this session we were well equipped to provide that for each other. Thereafter the session decamped to the bar, where I think the informal discussion was even better. If Catalonia ever starts making whisky it will be because of us, take note…

Futbol Club de Barcelona Scotch Whisky

Still made in Scotland, sorry, doesn’t count

So that was 2016, that was the second year of these sessions and by the end of it we’d had 15 papers on such issues, all quite good. The previous time I attempted anything like that there was a book of the papers out within two years of us finishing; you might ask what’s going on this time. Well, I have had some money for the project, but what I ain’t had is time, and I have also repeatedly had to put work on this aside for higher-profile publications. It is still my intent to get one or two volumes of essays out of Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, not least because some of the people on these panels both deserve and need the exposure, but I’ll have to get external money before that can happen. The rub is that to get that money I’d ideally have some results to show from the project so far… and there, the Catch-22 of modern academia. But, as future posts will occasionally note, the absence of results or even a decent research plan doesn’t preclude people getting quite large grants, so that will have to be the hope for now. Even if I don’t manage to get things up to date here, the project blog on the Leeds website will reflect it quickly when there is any such news to report, and there is more that has already happened that needs reporting here, but as with All That Glitters, something will have to change before I can do with these projects what should be done, i. e. publish them. I continue to work towards that change…


1. That being Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, author of La dawla de los Banū Qasī: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus, Estudios Árabes e Islámicos: Monografías 17 (Madrid 2010).

2. I. Ollich-Castanyer, A. Pratdesaba, M. de Rocafiguera, M. Ocaña, O. Amblàs, M. À. Pujol & D. Serrat, “The Experimental Building of a Wooden Watchtower in the Carolingian Southern Frontier”, Exarc.net, 25th February 2018, online here; for more on the site and area in English see now Imma Ollich-Castanyer, Montserrat Rocafiguera-Espona and Maria Ocaña-Subirana, “The Southern Carolingian Frontier in Marca Hispanica along the River Ter: Roda Civitas and the Archaeological Site of l’Esquerda (Catalonia)” in Neil Christie and Hajnalka Herold (edd.), Fortified Settlements in Early Medieval Europe: defended communities of the 8th-10th centuries (Oxford 2016), pp. 205–217.

3. I’m thinking here especially, as so often, of Edward Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, from the first century A.D. to the third 40th Anniversary edn. (Baltimore MD 2016), opposed by Charles R. Whittaker, Frontiers of the Roman Empire: a social and economic study (Baltimore MD 1994). As you can tell from that, sadly, Luttwak’s work has shown better holding power…

4. This seems more or less to begin with David Whitehouse and Andrew Williamson, “Sasanian Maritime Trade” in Iran Vol. 11 (London 1973), pp. 29–49.

5. The primary source here is Procopius, printed in Procopius, History of the Wars, Books I and II, transl. H. B. Dewing, Loeb Classical Library 61 (London 1914), online here, II.XV.

6. For modern cases, see for example Sahana Ghosh, “Cross-Border Activities in Everyday Life: the Bengal borderland” in Contemporary South Asia Vol. 19 (Abingdon 2011), pp. 49–60, or Margaret E. Dorsey and Miguel Diaz-Barraga, “Beyond Surveillance and Moonscapes: An Alternative Imaginary of the U.S.–Mexico Border Wall” in Visual Anthropology Review Vol. 26 (New York City NY 2010), pp. 128–135.

7. Translations in Bernhard Walter Scholz and Barbara Rogers (edd. & transl.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, Ann Arbor Paperback 186 (Ann Arbor MI 1972), online here, and Thietmar of Merseburg, Ottonian Germany: the chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg, transl. David Warner (Manchester 2001).

8. On such language the best recent thing seems to me to be Juan Carlos Arriaga-Rodríguez, “Tres tesis del concepto frontera en la historiografía” in Gerardo Gurza Lavalle (ed.), Tres miradas a la historia contemporánea (San Juan Mixcoac 2013), pp. 9–47.

An awful lot of numismatists in Sicily, II

So, after that bit of numismatic self-congratulation, let me take you back for the last time to September 2015 and the town of Taormina in Sicily, where I was then one of many gathered for the 15th International Numismatic Congress. You’ve seen some of the local antiquities, heard about the first two-and-a-half days of papers and visited a local castle, now it’s time to return to the thick of the academic fray. But first, a party!

Party in the coutryard of the Palazzo dei Duchi di Santo Stefano, Taormina, Sicily

Party in the coutryard of the Palazzo dei Duchi di Santo Stefano

Indeed, the first thing on our calendar after descending from Castelmola and eating was not an academic session but a party put on by the Medieval European Coinage project, to celebrate its resurgence into activity since the previous INC in the form of the publication of the series’ volume on the Iberian Peninsula and the near-completion of that on Northern Italy (which, much though I often doubted it, has in fact now also emerged, something I should probably announce separately too).1 By now you may well not remember that I am a part of that project still, but I am, so I was there to share in the glory. There were speeches, there was a strictly limited quantity of free wine, but mainly there was a superb setting.

Medieval European Coinage authors by the Cambridge University Press stand at a party in the Palazzo dei Duchi di Santo Stefano, Taormina, Sicily

MEC authors Bill Day Jr and Martin Allen looking very relaxed by the Cambridge University Press stand inside the Palazzo

It was a good way to wrap up the day. The next day was the last day of papers, however, and with certain obligations among them, and so for once I was up and ready right at the beginning. Here’s how it all unrolled. Continue reading

Leeds IMC report for 2015, part 3

A weekend full of reading lists and finishing small things didn’t leave time for blog, but this week I am back on it with the third part of the report from last year’s International Medieval Congress at Leeds. A great deal of this day was connected with the retirement of Professor Ian Wood, the same circumstance which led me to be taking up a post in his absence next year, which left me feeling simultaneously as if it would be tactless of me to be at those sessions and as if it would be rude of me not to. In the end, therefore, I let reverence of the greats and relevance to my interests guide me, and so the day began like this.

1014. The Merovingian Kingdoms: sessions in honour of Ian N. Wood, I

  • Yitzhak Hen, “Introduction”
  • Danuta Shanzer, “Avitus of Vienne: onwards and upwards”
  • Régine Le Jan, “Merovingian Elite in the 7th Century: competitive and cooperative logics”
  • Paul Fouracre, “Town and Country in Merovingian and Early Carolingian Hagiography”
  • Yitzhak Hen, “Response”
  • Beginning of a text of the so-called Law of Gundobad, from Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 130 Blank, fo. 150r

    Beginning of a text of the so-called Law of Gundobad, from Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 130 Blank, fo. 150r

    Professor Shanzer brought to the feast some findings from the work of the ninth-century bishop Agobard of Lyons, who was one of the very few people to use the work of Professor Shanzer’s and Professor Wood’s shared interest, the sixth-century Bishop Avitus of Vienne. Specifically, he uses a dialogue between Avitus and King Gundobad of Burgundy (473-516), a heretic (as Agobard saw it) for his Arian Christianity, and he uses it as part of an argument against the provisions of Burgundian law still being used in court in his day but it obviously existed, and would be fascinating to rediscover.1 Professor Le Jan used Dado of Rouen’s Life of Eligius to show what happened when seventh-century Frankish court politics booted people out to the provinces, where the oppositions often continued under the cladding of Church disputes.2 Eligius, a ‘Roman’, contended with the local Irish monastic Church supported by the Mayor of the Palace, but unlike some he was a good enough middleman to be able to maintain relations with the Mayor anyway, and Professor Le Jan suggested that people like this who could use friendship to bridge political gaps might be the ones to study to understand why the faction-riven Merovingian kingdoms didn’t just disintegrate in the seventh century. Lastly Paul drew attention to what he saw as a shift in the scenes of action in these very politicised Merovingian saints’ lives, in the early ones of which most significant things happen in towns and it’s when bishops leave the towns that they are vulnerable without their loyal flock, like so many mitred Red Riding Hoods except that the woodcutter is the one to watch out for, but in the later ones of which we move to an inhabitation of the landscape, with foundations in the wilderness, driving off of wild beasts (always male) and rural devils (often female), whether in South-West Germany, West Germany or Frisia.3 Christianity moved out to the countryside in the seventh century, if these texts are to be taken as reflective. I might also note that it apparently starts ignoring bishops in favour of monks, and obviously the phenomena are complex; Paul suggested they were the roots of a colonizing culture, but the old one that the Irish penitential exiles change the face of the early medieval Church could still emerge from this unbeaten, I think.4 Lastly, in his response Professor Hen went back to Professor Shanzer’s paper and noted firstly that Avitus doesn’t seem actually to call Gundobad himself an Arian, whether or not Agobard does, and secondly that unlike with most heretics, the Church almost always responded to Arians with debate, not suppression, which might be worth exploring.

After this, whether from embarrassment or not I don’t know, I reverted to my numismatic background for a session.

1143. Conceptualizing Value in Early Medieval Europe

  • Dagfinn Skre, “To Value and To Trade: two sides of the same coin”
  • Alessia Rovelli, “La monnaie comme mesure de la valeur et moyen d’échange dans l’Italie du haut moyen âge”, with “Summary” by Chris Wickham
  • Rory Naismith, “Pecuniary Profanities? Money, Ritual, and Value in the Early Middle Ages”
  • This was probably something I had to go to anyway, wasn’t it? The value systems that support early medieval coinage are increasingly something I worry about, since it is used so differently to modern money that assumptions are too easily transported. Here were three other people worrying about it too. There is a sort of orthodoxy that money came into being as a means to make trade easier; Dr Skre had lately met the work of David Graeber that questions this and suggests that pre-monetary societies work differently, with exchange structured by obligations, not by value; as soon as you have value as an independent concept, as a quantity that can be owed, a line has been crossed that the introduction of money doesn’t alter.5 I’ve been agnostic about this so far but Dr Skre’s looking at the earliest Norwegian lawcodes for compensation tariffs, measured in coin-terms but obviously untradeable (since you can’t pass on someone’s eye, etc.) had me readier to believe it than I had been before. Dr Rovelli looked at late-eighth-century Italy, where a system based on Lombard gold was rapidly (as far as documents mentioning the things indicate) replaced by a system based on Carolingian silver but where, as she explained, finds of Carolingian coinage are really very rare compared to silver of other periods. Of the finds that there are, only Milan’s and Venice’s coinages seem to have travelled very far but even then there’s not much.6 As Chris Wickham put it in summary, this makes it seem like the Carolingian denier was much more a unit of account than anything people actually used. Rory then followed this up by looking at the question of hoards of coins used as ritual deposits, not just in pagan contexts but specifically as Christian alms in the context of the Forum Hoard which he and others have been investigating.7 Obviously these are not a priori economic uses, and Rory matched this with XRF analysis of the contemporary papal silver, whose content is pretty unvarying and often higher than its contemporaries. There’s no sign that stuff given to the Holy See was being melted down to make more coin, therefore, the spheres were kept separate. I have my reservations about XRF for trace elements even when done really well, to which we’ll return in a few posts’ time, but this had been done well and by this time what Rory was suggesting seemed to make sense anyway.

    Silver denaro of Pope Benedict IV with Emperor Louis the Blind, struck in Rome between 901 and 903, NAC Numismatica SpA auction, 18 December 2010

    Silver denaro of Pope Benedict IV with Emperor Louis the Blind, struck in Rome between 901 and 903, NAC Numismatica SpA auction, 18 December 2010, a very special coin not just because of the price it made but because it is also an early medieval rebus. Can anyone see it?

    There was lots of discussion in this session. To my delight this included an orthodox Marxist (Señor de Carvalho Pachá of the previous day) insisting that value was capitalist and that Marx himself showed that Graeber is wrong, to which Dr Skre replied that in his materials value was created by comparison, not production, and when you’re dealing with compensation for offences against the person, that is a strong position I think. I suggested that precious-metal coin was all too high-value for us to talk about monetisation in any market sense anyway and that it must have all been ‘special’ in some way, to which Dr Skre again reasonably replied that coin is a lot lower-value than the masses of bullion people in his research area sometimes stashed or transacted. Morn Capper argued with Rory about whether the Forum Hoard could really be part of the English annual donation to the Holy See known as Peter’s Pence, since there isn’t that much of it from that point of view, and I don’t think this got settled. I then wound up arguing privately with Morn about the use of bronze coin; as she said, it does sometimes happen in Northern Europe, such as eighth-century Northumbria, but as I said it also happens anywhere Byzantine but, importantly, that doesn’t lead to the non-Byzantine areas in contact with those ones seeing low-value coin as solving a trade problem they’ve always had and adopting it straight away. The utility argument for money actually falls over badly when you place it in the early Middle Ages. This is one of the reasons I now contend for the value of the study of this period; it often breaks other people’s general theories quite badly!

So that was all really useful and left me with much to discuss with people over lunch, but for the rest of the day I was called back to the Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre and the lauding and magnification of Ian Wood. The first of these sessions combined several loyalties, though, and I might have had to go anyway.

1214. Material Culture and Early Medieval History: sessions in honour of Ian N. Wood, III

  • Leslie Brubaker, “The Earliest Images of the Virgin Mary, East and West”
  • Helmut Reimitz, “Between Past and Future: Roman History in the Merovingian Kingdoms”
  • Richard Morris, “Landscape, Archaeology and the Coming of Christianity to Northern England”
  • Alan Thacker, “Response”
  • Leslie, at this point still in my chain of command, detected a difference between the way that the Virgin Mary was depicted in the early Christian world between Rome, where the popes were her biggest champions and between the fifth and eighth centuries settled into depicting her as the Queen of Heaven, in full golden royal attire. Perhaps naturally, in the East the emperors did not do this; Mary appeared enthroned with the Son, yes, but the royal attire stayed firmly on the imperial patrons. Helmut’s paper, despite his title, was more about the use of Roman law in the Merovingian kingdoms, focusing especially on the trial of Bishop Praetextatus by King Chilperic, because Chilperic condemned him according to the canon law of the Roman Church.8 Admittedly, Gregory of Tours claims that the king had added these laws to the canons himself, but the relevant law is in eleven manuscripts of the Theodosian Code and copied into five of the Breviary of Alaric and one of the Salic Law. The Roman past was still in use here, but not always by its self-appointed custodians. Richard Morris, picking up on another strand of Professor Wood’s work, looked at a group of Northumbrian monasteries of which several are only known through archæology, arguing that they were usually on previously-sacred sites but also represent a fair degree of royal initiative to establish Christianity so widely across a landscape so fast.9 The identity of the founders seems to me hard to demonstrate from archæology alone and the group didn’t seem to me to be too unified on a map, but the pagan precursors were well demonstrated. Lastly Alan drew the papers together with the thread of the Empire, one of the papal Marian churches being an imperial foundation in origin and these churches being the inspiration for at least some of the Northumbrian foundations like the (non-royal) Wearmouth-Jarrow. This session also achieved its purpose to an extent in that it provoked Professor Wood to draw further links between the papers, because as Alan had said, his work had enabled the spread of the session and its range of comparison in the first place.

    East wall of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome

    East wall of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome, showing where Leslie’s materials are coming from

Then tea and back to the theatre once more for the papers in this group which, for me at least, had promised the most fun of all.

1314. The Transformation of the Roman World: sessions in honour of Ian N. Wood, IV

  • Ralph Mathisen, “Pacu and his Brother: a Romano-Alamannic family from post-Roman Heidelberg”
  • Chris Wickham, “Information Exchange on the Papal Estates of Sicily, c. 600″
  • Ann Christys, “Was Spain Different in the Eighth Century?”
  • Stuart Airlie, “Response”
  • Detail from a replica of the seventh-century Alemannic scabbard from Gutenstein

    Detail from a replica of the seventh-century Alemannic scabbard from Gutenstein, not showing a great deal of Roman influence but of course also rather later than we’re talking about. Photo by Schristian Bickel – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3078209


    Professor Mathisen focused on a single monument from the Agri Decumates, an area supposedly utterly lost to Roman control thanks to the Alemans in the third-century crisis; the names on the monument seem to show an Aleman with Roman children and invokes Roman gods but does so in a way that no other monument Professor Mathisen knew does, with a double field across which the text runs in continuous lines. I remember this and it looks weird—sadly I can’t find an image [Edit: but Mark H. can, as witness his comment, thankyou!]—but it’s obviously not a rejection of Rome, and there are apparently plenty of other signs of continuity in this area once one accepts that as possible. Conquest obviously wasn’t simple here. Chris then looked at the letters of Pope Gregory I, and I will probably remember nothing from this conference as warmly as his five-minute précis of the kinds of things Gregory was writing to his distant estate managers on Sicily about (“Give me back the onyx vase I lent you”), but the point was the level of micro-management Gregory was attempting by letter, chasing up cases and missed payments, making appointments, policing rent levels and answering pleas from his people against his own officials. It seems difficult to believe that this could have worked, given his removal from actual events, but he obviously thought it could, and this should perhaps make us think about other people whose letters didn’t happen to be preserved because of being pope.10 Ann Christys then reminded us of the awkwardly large gap we have between the conquest of al-Andalus by Muslim forces in 711 and the first texts that talk about it, from the ninth and tenth centuries; the archæology doesn’t show very much break until then either, but the texts are very uninterested in the Spanish past except as it had led to their conquest, even though it was still the environment in which their co-religionists and even they lived.11 Stuart Airlie, in closing, firstly wished that Bede could have done the response instead of him, secondly wondered why we even still try to divide the medieval from the ancient worlds and thirdly pointed out quite how many different agents we have to envisage in the transformation of the session’s title, working perhaps not as disconnectedly as is often imagined but all in their own local contexts and to purposes that cannot have been very much aligned. Whether the detail can ever be resynthesized is an open question but he encouraged everybody to keep working on it anyway. In discussion, it was Chris’s paper that drew the most questions, not least Professor Wood sagely pointing out that for some reason Gregory doesn’t try to manage his estates in Provence the same way, and Chris pointing out to someone else I didn’t know that tax can’t have been be the supporting infrastructure because it wasn’t to Rome that tax went any more. There was certainly a lot to think about now that we had been presented with a mechanic of governance in such detail.

Now, this was the night of the dance, but as is sadly becoming a tradition I didn’t go; I don’t like the Students Union’s club space in which it is held, or the drink they are willing to supply to help you endure it. I hope I’m not just too old now. I think I reverted instead to an ancient Leeds tradition of drinking beer in the bar with every intent of going along to the dance ‘to look’ until it was late enough that it made no sense to do so. After all, the next day was show-time, as I will report in a couple of posts’ time.


1. The text is his Adversus legem Gundobadi, printed in L. van Acker (ed.), Agobardi Lugdunensis opera omnia Corpus Christianorum Continuatio mediaevalis 52 (Leuven 1981), pp. 19-28 (no. 2). As far as I know there’s no translation yet.

2. Here the text is the Vita Eligii episcopi Noviomagensis, ed. by Wilhelm Levison in Bruno Krusch (ed.), Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici (II), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) IV (Hannover 1902), pp. 663-742, transl. JoAnn McNamara in Paul Halsall (ed.), Internet Medieval Sourcebook, http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/eligius.asp, last modified October 1998 as of 1 September 2016.

3. Paul’s examples were the Passio Praeecti, well-known to him of course and full of buildings, the Lives of the Jura Fathers, with the landscape out to get the exiles, Jonas’s Vita Columbani, where the rustics are the saint’s biggest fans, and the Vita Sturmi, Vita Galli and Gesta Abbati Sancti Wandregisili for clearance and colonisation. You can find these respectively as Bruno Krusch (ed.), “Passio Praeiecti episcopi et martyris Arverni”, in Krusch & Wilhelm Levison (edd.), Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici (III), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) V (Hannover 1910), pp. 225-248, transl. in Paul Fouracre & Richad Gerberding (transl.), Late Merovingian France: history and hagiography 640-720 (Manchester 1996), pp. 254-300; François Martine (ed./transl.), Vita patrum jurensium : Vie des Pères du Jura. Introduction, texte critique, lexique, traduction et notes, Sources chrétiennes 142 (Paris 1968), English in Tim Vivian, Kim Vivian, Jeffrey Burton Russell and Charles Cummings (edd./transl.), The Lives of the Jura Fathers: The Life and Rule of the Holy Fathers Romanus, Lupicinus, and Eugendus, Abbots of the Monasteries in the Jura Mountains, with appendices, Avitus of Vienne, Letter XVIII to Viventiolus, and Eucherius of Lyon, The Passion of the Martyrs of Agaune, Saint Maurice and His Companions, and In Praise of the Desert, Cistercian Studies 178 (Kalamazoo 1999) or as Vivian, Vivian & Russell (transl.), Lives of the Jura Fathers (Collegeville MN 2000); Krusch (ed.), “Vitae Columbani abbatus et discipulorumque eius libri duo auctore Iona” in idem (ed.), Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici (I), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) III (Hannover 1902), pp. 1-156 at pp. 64-108, English in Dana C. Munro (transl.). “Life of St Columban, by the Monk Jonas” in Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History Vol. II no. 7 (Philadelphia PA 1895); Eigil, Vita Sancti Sturmi, in Goegr Heinrich Pertz (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores in folio) II (Hannover 1829), pp. 365-377, transl. C. H. Talbot in idem, The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany (London 1954), pp. 181-204, repr. in Thomas F. X. Noble and Thomas Head (edd.), Soldiers of Christ: saints and saints’ lives from late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages (University Park 1995), pp. 165-188; Maud Joynt (ed./transl.), The Life of St Gall (Burnham-on-Sea 1927); and F. Lohier & Jean Laporte (edd.), Gesta sanctorum patrum Fontanellensis coenobii (Rouen 1931), as far as I know no English version.

4. On which see for example Marie-Thérèse Flanagan, “The contribution of Irish missionaries and scholars to medieval Christianity” in Brendan Bradshaw and Dáire Keogh (edd.), Christianity in Ireland: revisiting the story (Blackrock 2002), pp. 30-43 (non vidi).

5. The book of Graeber’s I was told to read, long ago, is his Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams (New York City 2001), but it seems that his Debt: the first 5000 years (Brooklyn NY 2011) is now the go-to. On this exact subject, though, compare William Ian Miller, Eye for an Eye (Cambridge 2005), pp. 160-179.

6. This kind of detail of circulation can be got from Clemens Maria Haertle, Karolingische Münzfunde aus dem 9. Jahrhundert (Wien 1997), 2 vols.

7. See already R. Naismith, “Peter’s Pence and Before: Numismatic Links between Anglo-Saxon England and Rome” in Francesca Tinti (ed.), England and Rome in the early Middle Ages: pilgrimage, art, and politics (Turnhout 2014), pp. 217-254.

8. Described in Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1968), V.18; I’m sure you can find the Latin yourselves if you are such as need it.

9. Cited, and for good reason, was Ian N. Wood, “Monasteries and the Geography Of Power in the Age of Bede” in Northern History 45 (2008), pp. 11-26.

10. The letters are translated in John Martyn (transl.), The Letters of Gregory the Great, translated with an introduction and notes (Toronto 2004), 2 vols. There’re lots!

11. See now Nicola Clarke, The Muslim Conquest of Iberia: Medieval Arabic Narratives (Abingdon: Routledge 2012).

Leeds IMC report for 2015, part 2

Back to the conference reportage, then, and far from the end of that too; you can probably imagine how much I want to be through this backlog, so I shall launch in and try to be brief… But the second day of the 2015 International Medieval Congress was a good one for me, as the sessions I went to covered pretty much the range of my interests and mostly they had people in I’ll go out of my way to hear talking, too. It unrolled like this.

539. Texts and Politics in the Long 10th Century, I: the Western kingdom

  • Horst Lößlein, “Establishing Rule: Charles the Simple and the cases of Western Francia and Lotharingia”
  • Fraser McNair, “Histories in Diplomas: kings, archbishops, nobles and the disputes over St Servatius’s abbey, Maastricht, 898 and 919”
  • Ed Roberts, “Religious Patronage in the Reign of Louis IV: dynasty, memory and the monasteries of St-Corneille and St-Remi”
  • When I started in on this whole research thing there was approximately one chapter about tenth-century Francia that had been written in my lifetime, so it’s really good to see people interested in working over the difficult evidence of the period and trying to understand how we got from the imperial break-up of 887 to something quite like France, Germany, Italy and Flanders a century later. This is partly the fault of Geoff Koziol, who was invoked in all these papers, but the pieces still need assembly.1 Each of these speakers had a piece, Dr Lößlein looking at the patterns of attendance at King Charles the Simple (899-923)’s courts and noting that although Charles was able to fight and negotiate his way into his secondary kingdom of Lotharingia, his inability to cow Duke Robert of Neustria, his eventual and short-lived successor, meant that there were large areas of his main kingdom of the West Franks where Charles could not actually go.2 Not just Robert’s territories, too, I might have added, but the difference is that he had to work with Robert nonetheless, whereas he could wait for people from south of the Loire to come to him. Fraser, an old friend by now, appealed to my scholarly heart by pointing out that there are narrative sources for the early tenth century in Francia, they’re just in charters, and he showed the different spins that court and Archbishops of Trier put on one particular dispute when thus recounting it. I enjoyed this, but especially for the subtle observation that Charles the Simple’s diplomas stress consensus and participation much more than those of his predecessor in Lotharingia, King Zwentibold. Fraser may get me to revise my opinion of Charles yet. Lastly, Ed, who noted how difficult a relationship Charles’s son, the unlucky but dogged Louis IV, had with the legacy of his father, whose reign had ended in civil war and imprisonment by his magnates, something which Louis at least suffered only briefly. Ed argued that Louis made his own way rather than pursuing a ‘Carolingian’ policy and having now taught his reign, I’d be inclined to agree. Questions here revolved mainly around the Spanish March (I bet you can’t guess who asked that one) and queens, since Louis’s queen Gerberga seems to have been an awful lot of his support thanks to being sister of King Otto I of the Germans.3 All of this, I think, goes to show that the pieces are there, it just needs people to find the work interesting enough to make it so to others.

    Ottonian family tree from the twelfth-century Chronica Sancti Pantaleonis

    A rather wonderful Ottonian family tree from the twelfth-century Chronica Sancti Pantaleonis, image public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Note how Gerberga and her children appear but no mention is made of her unlucky husband…

Then coffee, and then a session about which I had no choice, because I was moderating it, but didn’t need one because it was also really interesting.

641. Re-Formed Coinage, Renewed Meaning: using, imitating, and disposing of Byzantine coins far beyond imperial frontiers

  • Lin Ying, “Byzantine Gold Coins in Chinese Contexts: three approaches”
  • Florent Audy, “Scandinavian Responses to Byzantine Coins”
  • Rebecca Darley, “Valuing Byzantine Gold Coins in Medieval South India”
  • The core question of this session is not hard to spot, I guess: Byzantine coins are found in faraway places where their context as imperial currency could not apply, so what were people doing with them? In China, Professor Ying told us, they were mainly burying them with dead people, and along the Silk Routes and into Sogdia making things that looked like solidi to do that with as well, usually doubly or triply pierced for wearing; there’s very little indication that this was more than a species of jewellery to a population to whom normal coins would have looked very different. In Viking Scandinavia, that was also happening but there is more sign of a discerning user-base: although Byzantine coins are a tiny fraction of the foreign money and bullion that was accumulating in Scandinavia in this period, the gold is never pecked or tested and very often set as jewellery, whereas the silver usually had been pecked but only when it was real coins; there were also imitations of Byzantine miliaresia but except in Finland, these don’t seem to have actually circulated even as bullion. So why make them? As with the Chinese context there is more to do here. Lastly Rebecca provided the Indian context, not unlike the Chinese one in as much as Byzantine coins were apparently commodities here but treated fairly consistently, usually double-pierced above the bust and also imitated but only in gold, not as plated knock-offs; the contexts are almost all lost but use in temple contexts seems a better fit to what there is than anything to do with commerce or ports. That provoked a sharp question in discussion, because while in India the focus is clearly on the imperial portrait, in China it can often be on the reverse, leading someone to wonder if the coins were appreciated as Christian symbols, which Professor Ying thought possible. Certainly, as someone else observed, that would be about all you could see on a coin someone was wearing as jewellery unless you were impolitely close! This all hung together very well and I gather that publication of something deriving from this is in distant prospect; it should be fun.

    Double-pierced Byzantine solidus of Emperor Justin II, found in a tomb at Guyuan

    Double-pierced solidus of Justin II, found in a tomb at Guyuan; click through to an article on Lin Ying’s in which further context and some comparator finds are presented

That got me to lunch, and then it was off to a different bit of my interests! I do begin to understand how someone like me must be almost impossible to schedule for…

733. The Early Islamic World, VI: Iberia

  • Nicola Clarke, “Law, Families, and the Frontier in Umayyad Iberia”
  • Mateusz Wilk, “Power, Law, and Ideology in Umayyad Spain”
  • Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “Conquest and Settlement: what al-Andalus can tell us about the Arab expansion at the time of the Umayyad Caliphate”
  • I will pretty much always go to hear Eduardo Manzano speak, but here there were obviously other things to interest me too. Dr Clarke dug into the agendas of the Arabic sources for the conquest of al-Andalus, all significantly posterior to events and for the most part more interested in trying to settle questions of how the caliph should behave to his lieutenants when they exceed his authority, and indeed who should have been caliph at all and why (for example, being able to restrain those same lieutenants), the result of which is that it’s quite hard to say how far either Caliph al-Walīd or the lieutenant in question, Mūsā ibn Nusayr, were in any real control of events. Dr Wilk, on the other hand, saw in them an attempt to picture Muslim Spain as a new and better Umayyad Syria, but with shifts once the Malikite school of law took hold there in the ninth or tenth centuries (and with no useful ninth-century sources, which is hard to say). This provoked surprising amounts of argument; commentators proved very invested in the importance of Malikism in al-Andalus either as a mark of Arabian connection or as the ineluctable result of fugitives from Arabia turning up there, and it would perhaps have been more fun to set these people arguing with each other than with Dr Wilk. Lastly Professor Manzano pointed out some odd things about the Muslim conquest of Spain, not least that it was accomplished largely by Berber auxiliaries whose acculturation to Islam took place largely in the peninsula, not before getting there, and that by moving a large salaried army into the peninsula and keeping it that way rather than settling it, at least at first, the new rulers committed themselves to importing a whole fiscal system, including gold coin for tax and copper coin for pay, where nothing like it had existed for a long time, which more or less required the cooperation of Christian worthies to make it work. This got Professor Manzano and me into an argument about the survival of the Visigothic taxation system and how far that involved copper, an argument that Ann Christys had to stop but in which I would now graciously concede that we were both wrong, which I’m sure would amuse him.4

    Copper-alloy fals of the unlocated al-Andalus mint

    A coin on the importance of which we could agree, a copper-alloy fals of the unlocated al-Andalus mint, struck in somewhen during the eighth or ninth centuries I guess, Jean Elsen & ses Fils,
    Auction 120, 15 March 2014, lot 1594

Revitalised by dispute, I imagine I needed tea less than usual at the end of this session, but with the last session of the day still to come I certainly did still need it.

814. Networks and Neighbours, IV: tracing aristocratic networks in three early medieval kingdoms

I was here partly because the title involved some of my keywords and partly out of a loyalty to a related journal that was at that stage (this is a story for another time) still supposedly about to publish me, but also because Roger Collins was supposed to be moderating and that, unfortunately, proved not to be so. The running order was this:

  • Paulo Henrique de Carvalho Pachá, “Searching for the Visigothic State: monarchy and aristocracy in the Visigothic kingdom of Toledo”
  • Karen Torres da Rosa, “Merovingian Testaments and Power Relations in the Transference of Goods”
  • Renato Rodrigues Da Silva, “Northumbrian Aristocracy through Archaeological Evidence: coins and coinage”
  • Señor de Carvalho engaged directly with the work of Luis García Moreno, arguing that rather than an eternal opposition between kings and nobles in Visigothic Spain we should see a periodic rebuilding of consensus between these and other elements of the state which could break down in a variety of ways, not just that defining cleavage, since the monarchy was obviously unable to operate without any aristocratic support at all and the aristocracy was frequently divided.5 This made sense to me and the only thing that surprised was the age of the scholarship being engaged, surely written before the speaker was born. Discussion here was very constitutional, and made my normal ‘realpolitikal’ take on such power dealings feel very out of place. Miss da Rosa’s work was at too early a stage for it to be fair for me to comment on it here, though, and Señor Rodrigues’s paper, about the early Northumbrian silver coinage as a tool of aristocratic power, I thought rested on some pretty unprovable assumptions about moneyers; there were many ideas here that needed better links to the evidence. I’m afraid that at the end of this, incipient local loyalties not withstanding, I was minded not to come to another Networks and Neighbours IMC session.

    Obverse of a silver penny of King Aldfrith of Northumbria (685-704), Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1980-2007

    Obverse of a silver penny of King Aldfrith of Northumbria (685-704), Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1980-2007

    Reverse of silver penny of King Aldfrith of Northumbria (685-704), Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.1980-2007

    Reverse of the same coin. I think the triple-tailed wolf probably militates against this being an attempt to churchify the coinage, myself…

Looking back over this as I write it up, it strikes me suddenly how generalised the use of coin evidence is becoming in the fields of history I follow. Granted, one of these sessions was explicitly about it, but coins were part of one speaker’s evidence in two of the other sessions as well, which as you see makes hunting down suitable illustrations much easier for me! It’s nice to think, though, that the numismatic gospel might be getting out there. Anyway. What I did with the evening, I cannot now recall; I fervently hope that it was spent drinking with friends and colleagues, and certainly on one night of the conference I went hunting curry houses with two of the Birmingham posse; perhaps that was this evening? But in any case, it is another day recounted. Next one in two posts’ time!


1. My point of reference would have been Rosamond McKitterick, The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, 751-987 (Harlow 1987), pp. 305-339, but now as I say there is also Geoffrey Koziol, The Politics of Memory and Identity in Carolingian Royal Diplomas: the West Frankish kingdom (840–987) (Turnhout 2012), and we’re still reacting.

2. On this I cannot resist citing Koziol, “Is Robert I in Hell? The Diploma for Saint-Denis and the Mind of a Rebel King (Jan. 25, 923)” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 14 (Oxford 2006), pp. 233-267, which is fun.

3. On Gerberga, see Simon MacLean, “Reform, Queenship and the End of the World in Tenth-Century France: Adso’s ‘Letter on the Origin and Time of the Antichrist'” in Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire Vol. 86 (Bruxelles 2008), pp. 645-675, DOI: 10.3406/rbph.2008.7582.

4. I’m wrong because I hadn’t realised quite how early the Visigothic copper coinage we know about was, and it almost certainly wasn’t still running by 711; he’s wrong because it existed at all, dammit. See Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, “The Copper Coinage of the Visigoths of Spain” in Mário Gomes Marques and D. Michael Metcalf (edd.), Problems of Medieval Coinage in the Iberian Area: a Symposium held by the Sociedade Numismática Scalabitana and the Instituto de Sintra on 4-8 October, 1988 (Santarém 1988), pp. 35-70, but now also Crusafont, Jaume Benages, Jaume Noguera Guillén, Eduard Ble Gimeno, Pau Valdés Matias, Tomi Cartes, Xavier Sicart & Joan Enric Vila, “La sèrie de plata de la monarquia visigoda” in Acta numismàtica Vol. 45 (2014), pp. 71-80, which changes the picture quite a lot!

5. That work being Luís Agustín García Moreno, Historia de España visigoda (Madrid 1989), to which one might for example compare Javier Arce Martínez, “The Visigoths in Spain: old and new historical problems” in Walter Pohl & Veronika Wieser (edd.), Der frühmittelalterliche Staat – europäische Perspektiven, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 16 (Wien 2009), pp. 31-42.

Lost in translation III: transmission of sources for China and Aragón

I have mentioned recently that at something like this time last year I was for the first time teaching early medieval China to a number of unsuspecting first-years at Birmingham. We were approaching the topic via a primary set-text, which was the Records of the Western Regions by the Buddhist pilgrim traveller Xuanzang, active in the early seventh century.1 The setting and circumstance of the text is fascinating: driven by political circumstances into which the text does not go, although a later biographer of its author does, our man Xuanzang headed east from the T’ang Empire, determined to reach India and bathe in the metaphorical springs of pure untranslated (and thus textually correct) Buddhism.2 What now looks like the simplest route, south-westwards through what is now (again) Burma, did not make sense to him (and anyone who’s read war memoirs from Burma may be inclined to agree—even without people trying to stop you, something of which he probably wasn’t entirely free, the environment and its various predatory and parasitical lifeforms might manage it3) and instead he went the long way round, across the northern foothills of the Himalayas and then down through what are now Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Map of the travels of the seventh-century Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang

A handy map by someone else; I’m out to make a point, but if you are just interested by the story, click through this for a more balanced view…

The text we have records each leg of the journey, often making it clear that what we easily call the Silk Routes were sometimes no kinds of route at all; once the only hints they have that they’re on the right general lines are the dry skeletons by the wayside, and avalanche or hostile weather caused, our writer explains, by malevolent dragons, offended by red clothes (among other things), is a perpetual danger in the early stages of the journey.4 Once beyond the routes southwards up into Tibet, however, there were more cities and communities and things calm somewhat; the fact that our fugitive must by then have been beyond the reach of the Chinese government may also have helped…

A fourteenth-century Japanese depiction of seventh-century Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang

A fourteenth-century Japanese depiction of our featured pilgrim, apparently: “Xuanzang w“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

At this point the text becomes considerably less dramatic and, depending on your perspective, either more or less interesting. For each little city-state it gives the distance and direction from the previous one, some idea of its population size, what its system of government is, what family its native language is from and a sort of statistical count of the state of Buddhism there in terms of how many monasteries and stupas there are there, how many are active, how many people serve them, and whether any particular stories adhere either to the city or the shrines.5 And then we move on. It’s a kind of religious Domesday of the western Silk Routes, or perhaps more like the supposed Carolingian survey of the Holy Land.6 So the interest level depends on whether you like having that kind of data recorded in something like a steady format or whether that bores you. You can guess that my students and I divided pretty neatly on this! But we did get quite a lot out of other issues, largely using the matrix for text analysis that was published on Dead Voles a long time ago, but also hitting at one big issue that is the actual subject of this post, which is that this whole text is not what Xuanzang wrote.

The Chahabil stupa in Nepal

I’m not sure this is one of the stupas Xuanzang saw, partly because my notes on the text aren’t good enough but also because it seems to have been many times rebuilt since its alleged third-century BC origins, but it’s much too cool not to include; it is the Chahabil stupa in Nepal. “Chabahil.stupa” by User:China_CrisisOwn work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons.

This is true at several levels, and they’re mostly self-evident which is why it is strange that I found it so often ignored in the scholarship we were using (which is, admittedly, basically either about Buddhism in China or the Silk Routes and therefore data-mining, but even in data-mining the context matters).6 To work back from the very first step: obviously, we were not reading this in Chinese but in a nineteenth-century English translation, which led to complications in two directions, firstly things that the translator Samuel Beal didn’t think needed translation (such as units for distance—a li seems to be about one-sixth of a mile, I worked out); and secondly things that he did, but which it might have been useful to be able to check (like, for example, ‘king’ or ‘stupa’—always the same word, or was he smoothing out what could have been significant variation?). Secondly, we are dealing here with a write-up of his travels that Xuanzang apparently wrote up in 646 on the request of the T’ang Emperor Taizong, but it was edited by his disciple Bianji and opens with a prologue by one Zhang Yue, declaring to Taizong how worthy Xuanzang is as a source of information, so it had been through one and maybe two careful if friendly editors before it got to the ruler (and of course, we don’t know whether it was then censored before being allowed out into circulation).7

Illustration by Yen Li-Pen of Emperor Taizong granting an audience to Ludongzan the ambassador of Tibet in 641

Here he is again, Emperor Taizong giving an audience to Ludongzan the ambassador of Tibet in 641. Yen Li-pen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

What this means is that editing and selection may have been going on at many stages: between approval by the emperor’s court and the creation of any of the actual manuscripts (leaving aside their own individual copying histories), before presentation to the emperor by Bianji and by Xuanzang as he compiled a final text of his notes from twenty years before, when he had apparently been fleeing Taizong’s officers; no wonder that the text as we have it says nothing deep about his reasons for travelling! We therefore don’t know whether Xuanzang’s notes and memories, and his interests, went beyond this methodical cataloguing of Buddhist survival, although in his doing of that an apocalyptic framework of overall decline does become sufficiently apparent that I believe that was one of the things on his mind, the imminent Destruction of the Law.8 But thirdly and perhaps most importantly, Bianji also tells us that Xuanzang had translated this text. From what? I presume that, since he was a Buddhist pilgrim travelling internationally, he was probably actually writing in Sanskrit, but in that case there’s another set of difficulties at that end of the writing process too! So it really is a very long and tangly set of steps from what a much younger Xuangzang had seen on his travels to what we have, as follows:

  1. from what he saw to what he, a foreigner, understood of it;
  2. from what he understood to what he thought worth writing down, probably in Sanskrit;
  3. from his earlier records, reviewed twenty years later, to what he could still read, understand or remember, and thought worth presenting to the Emperor;
  4. from that selection to what could be clearly expressed in Chinese, perhaps only a thin filter but there;
  5. from what Xuanzang then sent or had left to Bianji to what Bianji thought could be usefully presented to the emperor;
  6. from what Bianji then sent to Zhang Yue;
  7. what went to Emperor Taizong after Zhang Yue had seen it;
  8. what was considered worthy of keeping on official record thereafter;
  9. and then an uncountable number of steps from that archetype to the manuscripts we now have, followed by, for me
  10. the final filter of Beal’s translation.

Enough to slow us down before drawing hasty conclusions!

Map of the Upper March of Muslim Spain as laid out in the Ornament of Records of al-'Udrī

Map of the Upper March of Muslim Spain as laid out in the Ornament of Records of al-‘Udrī

Now, all of this struck particular chords with me because I had met something very much like it in my actual research quite shortly before as I finally got to grips with one of the principal Arabic sources for my corner of Europe, the Tarsi al-ajbar wa-tanwi al-atar wa-l-bustan, or Ornament of Records of Abu al-Abbas Ahmad ibn ‘Umar al-‘Udrī, an eleventh-century geographer and scholar of Almeria.

There are fewer issues here, but some obvious ones immediately recur: firstly, I don’t read Arabic, so was accessing this through a Castilian translation of the parts of the text that referred to the March of Zaragoza, exactly what I needed but not much of a clue either to al-‘Udrī’s technical terminology or to his larger purpose in assembling the text as a whole.9 There is in fact no full manuscript of this text and until 1965 it was unknown even in the parts we have except where quoted by other historians; the manuscript we do have, now in Egypt, has been claimed as an autograph second edition of the initial version of the text but is apparently incomplete even so, and details are hard to get, for me, because the edition of that fragment is in Arabic, and none of the Castilian authors who have used it say much about the manuscript preservation.10 Also, of course, it’s derivative; sometimes the author tells us he’s quoting the earlier work of Ahmad al-Rāzī, and sometimes it’s other authors, not always flagged as quotes. He probably does add more of his own but given the state of preservation of any of these texts it’s hard to be sure!

The Monasterio de San Benito de Talavera

One part of the Upper March that al-‘Udrī might have recognised, albeit with horror, the tenth-century castle at Talavera de la Reina with the later monastery of San Benito built pretty thorougly onto it. By Dixflips (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

More importantly, however, there seems to be with this as with Xuanzang a further step away from our original that is so immediate and obvious that none of the historiography stops to consider it. I’m conscious that here I can only work from Fernando de la Granja’s translation, and he himself was working from a photocopy of the manuscript made for him by its editor long before that edition had come out, none of this perfect for textual transmission, but the very first words of the translated text as de la Granja gives it are: “Dijo Ahmad ibn ‘Umar: …”, “Ahmad ibn ‘Umar said: …” In other words, unless our author talks about himself in the third person and the past, what we have here is already a report, a write-up and possibly even a summary of what al-‘Udri actually wrote; if that manuscript is (or was) an autograph, it was not al-‘Udri’s autograph but that of someone working with his text. In which case, what we have is surely only a selection, quite possibly added to by our anonymous editor working with who knows what other material and potentially using al-‘Udri’s name to add to the plausibility of what might be quite a different work with a very different agenda. We’ve no way of knowing, other than maybe lexical analysis of this text against other known works of his. But no-one’s done that, or even raised the issue, as far as I have yet found.11 I certainly can’t do anything about it myself, but I need to use this text so I do wish that someone else already had! I feel as if I shouldn’t need to be trying to lead scholarship through the same elementary hoops of text transmission that I was setting before my first-year students last year… Am I missing something out there, does anyone know?


1. Xuanzang, Da Tang Xiyu Ki, transl. Samuel Beal as Si-yu-ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, translated from the Chinese of Hiuen Tsiang (A.D. 629) (London 1884), 2 vols, online here and here, last modified 20th December 2011 as of 8th November 2014.

2. The biography is Hiuli, Da Tang Ci’en si sanzang fashi zhuan, which doesn’t seem to be in English translation but is summarised by various secondary works, including most obviously Sally Hovey Wriggins, The Silk Road journey with Xuanzang, 2nd edn. (Boulder PA 2004), on whose and others perspectives see now Max Deeg, ‘”Show Me the Land Where the Buddha Dwelled”: Xuanzang’s “Record of the Western Regions” (Xiyu ji): A Misunderstood Text?’ in China Report Vol. 48 (Los Angeles 2012), pp. 89-113, DOI: 10.1177/000944551104800205. On the Silk Routes more generally there are a wealth of books and I would cautiously recommend Valerie Hanson, The Silk Road: a new history (Oxford 2012) as the most scholarly I’ve met, while still reserving the right to be sceptical about the whole concept, even more so after reading Xuanzang indeed!

3. I get my perspective here from the excellent if grim George MacDonald Fraser, Quartered Safe Out Here: A Recollection of the War in Burma (London 1993).

4. Xuanzang, Xiyu Ki, transl. Beal, I, pp. 25 for hostile weather caused by dragons & 32 for the bones in the waste.

5. For example, a short one, the place that is now Aksu (ibid., I p. 24):

“The kingdom of Poh-luh-kia is about 600 li from east to west, and 300 li or so from north to south. The chief town is 5 or 6 li in circuit. With regard to the soil, climate, character of the people, the customs, and laws of [literary] composition, these are the same as in the country of K’iu-chi. The [spoken] language differs however a little. It produces a fine sort of cotton and hair-cloth, which are highly valued by bordering countries. There are some ten sanghârâmas here; the number of priests and followers is about one thousand. These follow the teaching of the ‘Little Vehicle,’ and belong to the school of the Sarvâstivâdas (Shwo-yih-tsai-yu-po).”

6. The former well-known to you I guess, the latter most recently treated in Michael McCormick, Charlemagne’s Survey of the Holy Land: wealth, personnel, and buildings of a Mediterranean Church between Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Washington DC 2011).

6bis. Examples I actually read of this: Stanley Weinstein, “Imperial patronage in the formation of T’ang Buddhism”, in Arthur F. Wright & Denis Twitchett (edd.), Perspectives on the T’ang (New Haven 1973), pp. 265-306; Erik Zürcher, “Buddhism and education in T’ang times” in W. Theodore de Bary & John W. Chaffee (edd.), Neo-Confucian education: the formative stage (Berkeley 1989), pp. 19-56; and of course, Jerry Bentley, Old World Encounters: cross-cultural contacts and exchanges in pre-modern times (Oxford 1993), pp. 29-66.

7. See n. 2 above.

8. E. g. Xuanzang, Xiyu Ki, transl. Beale, I, p. 53:

“Sanakavâsa was the disciple of Ananda. In a former existence he had given the priests garments made of the Sanaka plant, on the conclusion of the rainy season. By the force of this meritorious action during 500 successive births he wore only this (kind of) garment, and at his last birth he was born with it. As his body increased so his robe grew larger, until the time when he was converted by Ananda and left his home (i. e., became an ascetic). Then his robe changed into a religious garment; and when he was fully ordained it again changed into a Sanghâti, composed of nine pieces. When he was about to arrive at Nirvana he entered into the condition of Samâdhi, bordering on complete extinction, and by the force of his vow in attaining wisdom (he arrived at the knowledge) that this kashâya garment would last till the bequeathed law (testament) of Sâkya (was established), and after the destruction of this law then his garment also would perish. At the present time it is a little fading, for faith also is small at this time!”

9. Fernando de la Granja (transl.), “La marca superior en la obra de al-‘Udrī” in Estudios de la Edad Media de la Corona de Aragón Vol. 8 (Zaragoza 1967), pp. 447-545, online here.

10. My limited detail here comes from the equally limited detail of Luis Molina García, “Los dos versiones de la Geografía de al-‘Udrī” in al-Qantara Vol. 3 (Madrid 1982), pp. 249-260 at p. 250.

11. Molina, ibid., certainly cites the text as if it’s actually al-‘Udrī’s words throughout, using just the same phrase as does de la Granja’s translation for it!

The Carolingian Frontier I: points south

[Edit: a correction has reached me from one of the organisers of this conference, so please note alterations in the first paragraph. Otherwise, this stands as it did when first posted in June 2015.]

Last July was a rather busy conference season, possibly even busier than this one is, and the first one of it was that one I plugged here long ago (obviously), The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours, which was held at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge from the 4th to the 6th of July. This was organised principally (maybe entirely?) by three postgraduates, and given this—in fact, even not given it— it was a success of a great order as far as I was concerned. I guess that they had some help in securing[Edit:] They secured some really big-hitting speakers, without assistance too, but there were also plenty of new voices, not just from Cambridge, as well as, you know, me, wherever I fit onto that continuum. Aside from one failure of the college staff to realise that during a paper was not when to set up the refreshments noisily in the same room, I don’t recall anything going wrong and lots went right, including some of the most avid dicussion I remember at any conference. So, firstly, my congratulations to the organisers, and now I’ll move onto what people were actually saying!

Cover of the programme of the conference "The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours", 4th-6th July 2014, Cambridge

Cover of the conference programme

The conference ran from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning (which just about allowed people time to move on to the Leeds International Medieval Congress; we went direct from one to the other with one of the organisers in the back of the car…), with Saturday the only full day. The Friday thus had a sort of micro-unity, which was enhanced by the fact that all four papers were on the Mediterranean edges of the Frankish empire. We arrived late, for reasons I no longer recall, however, so I didn’t get all of the first one, a pity as it provoked a great many questions. What I can report broke down like this.

  1. Lorenzo Bondioli, “A Carolingian frontier? Louis II, Basil I and the Muslims of Bari”.
  2. What I got here was focused on the southern Italian city of Bari, which fell to Muslim forces in 841 and then became a distant target of the campaigns of Emperor Louis II, great-grandson of Charlemagne, for whom beating up on Muslims made an excellent way of justifying pushing the Christian cities between him and the Muslims into his control. There were also Byzantine claims to the area, but both empires could derive importance from squashing the same Muslims so there was a short-lived cooperation in 869, which broke down acrimoniously. Eventually Louis captured Bari with Slav aid instead, in 871.1 He then died in 875, however, leaving it more or less ready for the Byzantines to move in as protection. Signor Bondioli was arguing, I think, that the anti-Muslim campaigning was initially a cover for more local ambitions but became the basic requirement of an imperial claim to power in the area, which both sides could benefit from even as they were beholden to it.

  3. José Miguel Rosselló Esteve & Isabel Busquets Porcel, “The Balearic Islands and the Carolingian Empire: an unknown relationship”
  4. As the title implies, this was a paper with less evidence to put to work. It used to be thought that Byzantine control in the Balearic islands ended in the mid-eighth century, and that the Muslims then took over rather later, but we now have reason to believe (seals, mainly) that an observable flight of settlement from the coast to hilltop fortifications was actually done under the auspices of imperial authority. By 799, however, Christians there were soliciting aid against the Muslims from Charlemagne and Carolingian naval forces began to get involved very soon afterwards. What we don’t as yet have is anything archæological to indicate Carolingian presence on the island, rather than control from outside, the islands’ once-three bishoprics all being replaced by mainland Girona for example. (There is a bigger problem here about identifying a Carolingian archæological signature at all, something I have seen elsewhere in Catalonia.) This fits with the ease that the Muslims retook the islands in 849. It seems rather as if this was a place that wanted to be Carolingian but got nothing from the concession, so, did it count as frontier or not? Come to that, did Bari?

This was but one of many themes that came up in the very busy discussion after this session. Oddly, the answers diverged somewhat: the actual urban centre, Bari, had its Muslim presence reduced by Signor Bondiolo’s comments to a sporadic or vestigial mercenary force, making it essentially just a town with a purely local context except when larger polities gave it more, whereas Drs Rosselló and Busquets were anxious to stress the less populous Balearics’ involvement in their wider political world and the articulation of the fortified environment by such powers, even though they were doing this based on only one of the castles on the islands, because it’s the only one (of three on Mallorca itself) that’s been dug. I don’t have a clear record of which one this was, but I think it must have been the Castell del Rei at Pollença, which as far as I can discover is not the one that produced the seals, which came up at Santueri. You can probably argue that if any fort is producing Byzantine seals so far out it bespeaks a wider involvement, but one could still wish for more evidence; the site could have just been coordinating or gathering revenue via the one local official who still wrote to Constantinople, for example.2 We can see more Byzantine involvement in the Balearics in the archæology and more Carolingian in the texts, and I suppose it’s partly a choice of which to emphasise, but in Bari the same arguments from silence led to very different places. As ever, one model won’t do for such variant areas but it does make one wonder what models people start with when they look at them.

The Castell del Rei at Pollença, Mallorca

The Castell del Rei, a serious enough looking refuge! By Grugerio (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Once the moderators had managed to quell things enough to get some tea down us and we had managed to get some air and were all back in the conference room, we got another suitably border-crossing pairing.

  1. Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “The Carolingians and al-Andalus: an overview”
  2. This was nothing so superficial as an overview but in fact a very trenchant analysis, and my notes on it are full of marginal asterisks of emphasis. Professor Manzano pointed out that the area between the Frankish empire and Muslim Spain was articulated by cities, with local rulers who were at first emplaced or suppressed by a centralising Muslim government whose tax systems and garrisons are evident (he argued) through coins and seals, and which the Carolingians just attacked, without further plans, until the Andalusi government collapsed into civil war in the 740s, when Mayor-then-King Pepin III started to get the idea of actual takeover and to incentivise the local élites to come over to his side. Thereafter the contest was for the loyalty of the city lords, and what happened there is that what had been an incomer Muslim élite was displaced by Islamicised locals using either one of the big states on their borders as a hand up into power. Except in the relatively small area of what is now Catalonia that was held by the Carolingians after 830, the resulting power interests were then able more or less to ignore those powers for a long time thereafter.3 This all made a lot of sense to me, and it would probably work in other areas too.

  3. Sam Ottewille-Soulsby, “‘The Path of Loyalty’: Charlemagne and his Muslim allies in Spain”
  4. Sam, one of the organisers, thus had the unenviable task of following one of the masters of the field, but he did so capably by focusing down onto a few particular cases of the kind of interaction Professor Manzano had been discussing, in which lords of cities like Huesca, Pamplona, Barcelona and so on moved between Córdoba and wherever Charlemagne was holding court as each grew more or less able to exert influence in the area, usually gravitating to the stronger but backing away as soon as that meant concessions. In 799, particularly, never mind the famous 778 campaign, Charlemagne had the alliance of the King of Asturias, Barcelona notionally under his lordship, Huesca sending him its keys, Pamplona having freshly thrown out its Muslim governor and a claimant to the Andalusi Emirate hanging round his court… and when Carolingian forces turned up at Pamplona they couldn’t take it and the whole position fell apart. As my notes suggest I thought then too, this is that idea I had long ago of Königsfern; for many a lord in a quasi-independent position, kings and the like are useful resorts but you want them to stay at a distance! This is how the kind of status that Professor Manzano had been drawing out was maintained under pressure, and it is in a way understandable why the two superpowers severally resorted to force to remove such unreliable allies and replace them with still more local ones who actually needed their help to get into power. But we only have to look at the Banū Qāsī to see how that could turn out…

The Catedral de Santa Maria la Real de Pamplona

The Catedral de Santa Maria la Real de Pamplona, not Carolingian-period itself but in a location that would almost certainly have been in use when Charlemagne arrived, and that’s as close as we’re going to get I fear! Image licensed from the Centro Vasco de Arquitectura under Creative Commons.

Questions here were also busy. I asked about the language of such deal-making; of course we don’t know, but I think it is worth asking whether these Arabicized élites spoke a language that Charlemagne’s court could understand, because I think it helps determine whether they seem like the Other or not. Rebecca Darley raised scepticims about the conclusions Professor Manzano was drawing from the coin evidence, and once he’d explained himself I was sceptical too, I’m afraid; much rested on the non-existence of Visgothic copper coinage, which is a given in some parts of the scholarly literature even though it’s been disproved at least three times.4 The seals are still fun, though. And the last question, from someone I didn’t know, was perhaps the most important if again unanswerable. Sam had mentioned that the Carolingian sources refer to some people as custodes Hispanici limitis, ‘guards of the Spanish frontier’. What were they guarding? Lines of defence, points of entry, tax districts? We just don’t know how this government defined the places where they ran out, but by now this gathering seemed a pretty good one in which to start thinking about it!5


This post was again constructed with the aid of Kava Kava, Maui, which turns out to have been a good purchase.

1. I’m lifting the background detail so far from R. J. H. Jenkins (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii: a Commentary (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 2012), pp. 101-106, because it’s what is to hand and I missed the bit where Dr Bondioli doubtless explained it all… I may therefore be slightly out of date.

2. Drs Rosselló and Busquets referenced the Taktika of Emperor Leo VI (now available as George T. Dennis (ed./transl.), The Taktika of Leo VI, Dumbarton Oaks Texts 12 (Washington DC 2010)) by way of explaining what Byzantine policy with regard to fortresses would have been, and OK, but what I’ve just described would fit perfectly well into Leo’s son’s De Administrando Imperii (available as Constantine Porpyhrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii, ed. Gyula Moravcsik & transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, 2nd edn. (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 1967 and as Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 Washington DC 1993)), for all that that’s later, so I think this is also plausibly sourced.

3. All of this reminds that I still badly need to read Eduardo Manzano Moreno, Conquistadores, emires y califas: los Omeyas y la formación de al-Andalus (Barcelona 2006), as it’ll obviously be great.

4. In Xavier Barral i Altet, La circulation des monnaies suèves et visigothiques : contribution à l’histoire économique du royaume visigot, Beihefte der Francia 4 (München 1976); Philip Grierson & Mark Blackburn, Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 1: the Early Middle Ages (5th–10th centuries) (Cambridge 1986) and Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, Sistema monetario visigodo: cobre y oro (Barcelona 1994).

5. We actually have a much better idea of such matters for al-Andalus, largely thanks to Professor Manzano; see his La Frontera de al-Andalus en época de los Omeyas, Biblioteca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991) and “Christian-Muslim Frontier in al-Andalus: idea and reality” in Dionisius Agius & Richard Hitchcock (edd.), Arab Influence upon Medieval Europe (Reading IL 1994), pp. 83-96.