Tag Archives: Alfred the Great

Dealings with Jerusalem before the eleventh century

A vice that I am prone to is that of poking at other people’s research areas without knowing very much about it, as has often been evidenced here—I won’t link, out of embarrassment. Nonetheless, I can’t help it; if someone is doing something interesting it seems only natural to me to turn it around and over mentally looking for the questions that I would ask if I were doing this thing. This post is about such a question, and I can’t remember exactly what sparked it off; it may have been getting ready to teach Carolingians and picking up on the peculiar ways in which Charlemagne’s empire tried to make itself felt in the Mediterranean, but it is more likely to have been sparked by a conversation with Daniel Reynolds, currently of Birmingham, who is the person whose research area this is and who will doubtless be the one to tell me what’s wrong with this post.1

Medieval map of Jerusalem

Medieval map of Jerusalem, source unclear

Dan is a man who works on a broad swathe of related things but central to many of them is the theme of pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the era before the Crusades. It’s not that there is no work on this, but it is almost all done from the perspective of the pilgrims, and Jerusalem itself, its community and its patriarchal rulers, are not really studied as part of what was going on, or such is the argument.2 And fair enough! I shall leave that to him and await his publications eagerly. But thinking about this left me with a question of my own, which he will in fact probably answer but still has me wondering meanwhile. If you look at the very few times that we know about the actual patriarchs being involved in contact with the West, other than supposedly providing bags of relics to passing pilgrims, until the tenth century at least, it was really distant rulers with whom they engaged; St Martin of Tours, if he counts as a ruler, St Radegund of Poitiers (who was at least royal), Charlemagne and Louis the Pious as Kings of the Franks, and the outlier case, King Alfred the Great of Wessex, and sometimes, though not that often, the popes in Rome. Once the tenth century gets going the number of high-ranking pilgrims becomes such that the picture clouds and in the eleventh century everyone and his wife was going or so it sometime seems, but before that official contact was almost limited to these kings of the Western seaboard, rulers with at best a contested presence on the Mediterranean coast and at worst, none.3 Odd, no?

The Aedicule, inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, containing the tomb that is said to be Jesus's, as it now is

The Aedicule, inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, containing the tomb that is said to be Jesus’s, as it now is. Photo by Jlascarhttps://www.flickr.com/photos/jlascar/10350934835/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34030982

It’s usually clear enough what these rulers got from their contact with the Holy Sepulchre, that being the reinforcement of their position and status by the recognition of Christ’s own shrine and its custodians, although that only had the value it did because so few other people put themselves in a position to claim it. Only Charlemagne could be said to have provided anything very much for the patriarchs and the actual Church of Jerusalem, however, and they had to make some pretty big gestures to get even that, ‘that’ probably being a hostel for Frankish pilgrims and a certain amount of support for refurbishment of the city’s churches.4 Alfred sent alms, at least, but it’s not really clear what more they could give or what the patriarchs wanted from them, apart from recognition themselves I suppose. Was this something they didn’t get much of closer to home?

Medieval image of the Council of Chalcedon, 451

Medieval image of the Council of Chalcedon, 451, source unclear

Well, it doesn’t take long to think of reasons why that might be so. From pretty much the year 451 the Christian Church of the Empire was riven by disputes over the nature of Christ’s incarnation as man, exactly how divine He remained and how far He took on human characteristics. This sounds like a fine point for theologians only but consider, if He was not really human but fully divine, and therefore omnipotent and immortal, the meaning of His sacrifice on the Cross becomes hard to see, whereas if He was entirely human, then it was in some sense not really God who died for us, robbing the sacrifice of much of its significance. It gets right at the heart of Christian belief if you let it.5 A middle way proved hard to find, and for much of the Middle Ages Jerusalem was not on the same path as the imperial capital at Constantinople. Such was the case when the Persians captured the city in 614, and when Emperor Heraclius returned the True Cross to Jerusalem in 630, he didn’t let it stay there long for precisely that reason. Then within a few years the city fell to the armies of Islam, and was in some sense cut off from the Empire; its patriarchs still went to a few councils (perhaps because no-one dared tell Justinian II no) but the emperors in Constantinople were in some sense enemies of the lords of the land in a way that perhaps the Westerners were not.6 But it’s still surprising that we don’t know of more contact across this boundary: the empire was for a while shipping in money for its erstwhile citizens, after all…

Again, this changed in the eleventh century, as the Byzantines muscled back in to some kind of management of the Christian places of the city, which had indeed suffered considerably under Caliph al-Hakim (996-1021),7 but before then can it really be that the Franks looked like a safer, better bet? Or was it perhaps a problem finding interested support any closer to home? Was Jerusalem seen as enemy territory in some way? Or was it just that all the good relics were in Constantinople already and fascination with the actual places was a more Western phenomenon?8 I don’t know the answers to these questions. I probably know a man who does, but for now it seems a sort of fun to indicate what my questions, with me being an outsider to this bit of the field, would be if I started in on it.


1. No way perhaps more peculiar than the apparent Carolingian-period survey of the Holy Land’s churches edited and studied in Michael McCormick, Charlemagne’s Survey of the Holy Land: wealth, personnel, and buildings of a Mediterranean church between antiquity and the Middle Ages, with a critical edition and translation of the original text (Washington DC 2011). As for Dan, some of his work is already available as Peter Darby and Daniel Reynolds, “Reassessing the ‘Jerusalem Pilgrims’: the case of Bede’s De locis sanctis” in Bulletin for the Council for British Research in the Levant Vol. 9 (London 2014), pp. 27-31, DOI: 10.1179/1752726014Z.00000000022.

2. Certainly true of my two default references on the subject, which I use for lack of any others, Sir Steven Runciman, “The Pilgrimages to Palestine before 1095” in Kenneth M. Setton (ed.), A History of the Crusades, volume 1: the first hundred years, ed. Marshall W. Baldwin, 2nd edn. (Madison WI 1969), pp. 68-80, online here, and Aryeh Grabois, “Charlemagne, Rome and Jerusalem” in Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire Vol. 58 (Bruxelles 1980), pp. 792-809, DOI: 10.3406/rbph.1981.3349, but also surprisingly common, if less so overall, in a more recent work I found while setting up this post, Colin Morris, The Sepulchre of Christ and the Medieval West: from the beginning to 1600 (Oxford 2005). The classic work for people in the field seems however to be John Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades, 2nd edn. (Warminster 2002), non vidi, on whose deficiencies see Darby & Reynolds, “Reassessing the ‘Jerusalem Pilgrims'”.

3. I realise that both Charlemagne and Louis the Pious could have reached the Mediterranean pretty much any time they wanted, but still, what with Venice, Benevento, rebellions on the Spanish March and so on they might not have had their choice about where to do so. Lists of these various dignitaries can be found in Runciman, “Pilgrimages to Palestine”, pp. 70-74, and Morris, Sepulchre of Christ, pp. 41-47 & 102-107 as well as, I assume, in Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims.

4. See Grabois, “Charlemagne, Rome and Jerusalem”, and for a more total statement of the possibilities, McCormick, Charlemagne’s Survey of the Holy Land.

5. That is kind of my teaching statement of the issue, which is of course woefully and possibly heretically over-simple. For more detail, try Bernard Hamilton, The Christian World of the Middle Ages (Stroud 2003), pp. 59-99.

6. Morris, Sepulchre of Christ, pp. 90-98.

7. Runciman, “Pilgrimages to Palestine”, pp. 74-77, which notes at p. 77 Byzantine officials levying tolls on pilgrim traffic entering Jerusalem in 1056 despite the city’s continuing government by the Fatimid Caliphate (and notional concession to Charlemagne of two centuries earlier!); cf. Morris, Sepulchre of Christ, pp. 134-146.

8. On that continuing fascination, see as well as Darby & Reynolds, “Reassessing the ‘Jerusalem Pilgrims'”, Robert Hoyland & Sarah Waidler, “Adomnán’s De Locis Sanctis and the Seventh-Century Near East” in English Historical Review Vol. 129 (Oxford 2014), pp. 787-807.

A somewhat unexpected interpretation of Asser

I have one more thing I want to write about spinning out of David Bachrach’s Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, and then he can rest and I will move onto historians of much longer ago. But it is the way that one such historian is used in this book I want to query here. In comments here, even, Professor Bachrach has said, “Alfred the Great imported a Saxon from the duchy of Otto I’s grandfather to serve as a military adviser.” The book gives the full argument behind this somewhat surprising statement, and, well, I struggle with it.

Statue of King Alfred at Wantage

There being no decent pictures even of people’s imaginings of Asser or John the Old Saxon, it’ll just have to be Alfred, as portrayed in this statue which stands at Wantage

The historian in question is Bishop Asser of St David’s and Sherborne, biographer of King Alfred the Great of Wessex (871-899), and at cap. 78 of his Life of King Alfred he tells us of Alfred’s recruitment of various religious men to instruct him and his court in intellectual matters. In particular,

“he summoned John, also a priest and monk, a man of most acute intelligence, immensely learned in all fields of literary endeavour, and extremely ingenious in many other skills.”

This is our alleged military advisor.1 Not seeing it? Well, you don’t know what happened as a result. Firstly, Alfred established a monastery at the marsh island of Athelney, whither he had briefly retreated in 878 when all seemed lost in the face of Viking attacks. Athelney, Asser tells us, is reachable only by a causeway and Alfred put a fortress at the other end of it.2 The excellent commentary of Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge on Asser’s Life identifies that fortress as Lyng but points out that the 878 episode tells us that there already was one at Athelney itself, into which the monastery was presumably inserted.3 Anyway, a fairly multinational group of monks, English, Gaulish and (Asser says) at least one Scandinavian—paganus is the Latin word he uses, paradoxically—was assembled there and this John was placed at their head as abbot.4

Aerial view of the site of Athelney Abbey

Aerial view of the site of Athelney Abbey, I hope

Now, this did not go well. The Gauls, especially, did not like John, and Asser tells us that this resentment grew to the point where they set up two Gaulish slaves (whose presence itself raises questions), armed them and set them to kill Abbot John when he said his customary small-hours prayers in secret. (Obviously not secret enough!) Asser tells us the outcome:

“At midnight John entered the church secretly as usual (so that no one would know) in order to pray, and bowed down on bended knees before the altar; then the two villains attacked him suddenly with drawn swords and wounded him severly. But he, being a man of customary sharp intelligence and (as I have heard about him from several sources) a man with some experience in the martial arts, had he not set his mind on a higher course – rose briskly to meet them as soon as he heard their commotion and before he saw them or was wounded by them. He called out and resisted them as best he could, shouting that they were devils and not men… However, he was wounded before his own men arrived; they had been awakened by the uproar but, having heard the word ‘devils’, were frightened and did not know what to do… before John’s men got there, the villains had fled as quickly as possible to the depths of the nearby marsh leaving the abbot half-dead.”

And Asser goes on to assure us in his nasty fashion that the assailants were caught and tortured to death, although it’s not clear that the actual conspirators were ever disciplined.5 Abbot John could apparently handle himself, though, and you could read that passage as indicating that he also had some kind of bodyguard or troop, though perhaps it just refers to monks who had arrived with him, I think. But it is possible to extract even more implication from it, and Professor Bachrach does:

“Thus Asser, in his De rebus gestis Ælfredi, draws attention to the fact that King Alfred (871–899) recruited a Saxon named John to join his court, and eventually established him as an abbot, an office that certainly required much more than a passing acquaintance with ‘book learning’. Of importance in the present context, however, is that Alfred recruited this Saxon because of the man’s knowledge of military affairs.53 Saxony, which at this point had been part of the regnum Francorum for the better part of three generations, clearly not only offered opportunities for advanced study of the military arts, but also had developed some reputation in this regard, if Alfred was advised to seek there for a man who could hold high office in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom.”6

I can’t help but feel there’s some slippage here. Nothing in the texts we have tells us that anyone advised Alfred to look to Saxony or that he picked John because of his knowledge of military affairs, and it’s misleading to imply that it does. Even if he had done so, surely he would have wanted such a man at court instructing future soldiers, not in charge of a miscellaneous group of cloistered religious in one of the most inaccessible parts of the kingdom. And yet there’s a fortress, a man who can handle himself in a fight, retinues and slaves and no shortage of weaponry, it would seem. Perhaps we could be too quick to dismiss a military role for this community. But hang on: there was a footnote…

53 Asser, De rebus gestis Ælfredi, ed. W. H. Stevenson (Oxford, 1959), chs. 94-97, and specifically ch. 97 for the discussion of John’s knowledge of the belicosae artes. See the discussion of this passage by Richard Abels, Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England (London, 1998), 223. It should be noted that Asser does not accord John an exceptional knowledge of the military arts, saying that he was belicosae artis non expers, but I accept the basic thrust of Abels’ implicit argument that Asser did not wish to overemphasize the secular aspects of John’s career in Alfred’s service.”

And now I am confused. [Edit: I completely misunderstood the Latin here first time through. It makes the post a lot simpler but me look a lot more foolish. I’ve tried to leave the evidence behind and still make the post more coherent. Sorry!] We know that John was a trained fighter… because Asser tells us he wasn’t, but is trying to hide [the fact that John was a capable fighter it… by mentioning it at all? That all makes alarm bells ring for me, but also, the Latin as given there is not at all what Keynes and Lapidge give in their translation, quoted above; no hint of inexpertness there. What does it actually say?

Facsimile of the opening page of the lost manuscript of Asser's Life of King Alfred by Francis Wise, 1722

Facsimile of the opening page of the lost manuscript of Asser’s Life of King Alfred by Francis Wise, 1722, image from Wikimedia Commons

Well, we famously have no surviving manuscript of Asser’s Life, as the only one there was was lost in a fire in 1731, but a 1904 edition by W. H. Stevenson is usually agreed to have done the best possible job in reconstructing the text from early editions and the texts of the numerous medieval historians who quoted Asser.7 And of course because we live in the future, that’s in the Internet Archive and so without leaving my seat I can tell you that the best guess we have at the relevant Latin phrases is:

“Sed ille ut solito ac semper acris ingenio et, ut audivimus de eo a quibusdam referentibus, belicosae artis non expers, si in meliora disciplina non studeret, statim et sonitus latronum auderet…”8

I wish we did have the manuscript at this point, because what this shows is that the ambiguity is Asser’s, at least as we have him, not Professor Bachrach’s (or Richard Abels’s). I can’t offer a translation of this that makes any more sense of it than Keynes and Lapidge have. That word “expers” cries out to me for emendation to “inexpers”, not only because that would make it into a sensible litotes but also because otherwise Asser seems to be saying that John would not have been expert in the arts of fighting if he had not chosen a ‘better discipline’, which would imply that his Church career had actually taught him to fight. If his appointments always went this well one could imagine that being true, I suppose! But then I would have expected him to have a weapon handy himself… and I don’t think it can be what Asser meant. I think Keynes and Lapidge are probably as close to the sense as modern English can get and that Asser probably didn’t write what the edition says.

Holy Island and Lindisfarne

Another isolated place run by a religious man with early military training, sort of, Holy Island and Lindisfarne

Of course, if what Asser did mean meant is that John would have been a promising warrior had he not been called to the Church, then that’s little more than is said of St Cuthbert by Bede, and yet we don’t suppose that Cuthbert was made Bishop of Lindisfarne because the King of Northumbria really needed a tactical advisor, even if Lindisfarne was right by the royal seat.9 Such people had warriors where they needed them. Equally, from the other perspective, while Professor Bachrach is surely right that being an abbot involved more than purely literary knowledge, one obvious layman who ran abbeys and was, indeed, well-known to Asser through his works was Einhard, again, Charlemagne’s biographer, and he more or less tells us he was too small and weedy to have been given a military training. Yet he ran three abbeys for Emperor Louis the Pious.10

Einhardbasilika at Seligenstadt

Here is one of them, Seligenstadt, though it’s, er, come on a bit since Einhard’s day. This is, indeed, the Einhardbasilika. CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=246880.

So it is all quite dangerous: even the simplest reading of this source involves fiddling with the text. I still think that none of this gives us evidence that John was actually recruited or served as a military advisor; that isn’t the context in which Asser mentions him, either, and what Asser says about him is surely aimed at explaining his survival of an attack by two armed men when he had no weapon, rather than at gilding John’s secret career as a martial arts instructor (though now I put it like that it does all seem weirdly like the Hong Kong cinema cliché where a group of armed men unwisely attack the bent old sensei and learn the error of their ways forthwith). And yet, even my opposite reading of the source still involves bending it to fit my view. That mainly makes me think it won’t bear this kind of weight, but I do wish we had the manuscript…


1. Asser, Life of King Alfred, transl. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge in eidem (transl.), Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources (London 1983), pp. 65-110, whence all translations of Asser in this post, the quote here being cap. 78 as said.

2. Ibid. cap. 92.

3. Keynes & Lapidge, Alfred the Great, p. 271 n. 229.

4. Asser, Life of King Alfred, capp. 93-97 for this and the story that follows. The Latin I access through William Henry Stevenson (ed.), Asser’s Life of King Alfred, together with the Annals of St Neots erroneously ascribed to Asser, edited with introduction and commentary (Oxford 1904), online here.

5. Asser takes too much of a delight in people who don’t do what they’re told getting a bloody come-uppance for me to like his authorial character; compare this episode (Asser, Life of King Alfred, cap. 97 referred to and quoted here) with the bit of cap. 91 about people who should have built fortresses when they were told getting slaughtered by Vikings if you don’t know what I mean.

6. David S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012), p. 113 and n. 53.

7. See Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, pp. 223-227 for an account of the manuscript history and its modern lack.

8. Stevenson, Asser’s Life, Asser cap. 97.

9. Bede, Life of St Cuthbert, ed./transl. Bertram Colgrave in idem (ed./transl.), Two Lives of St Cuthbert: A Life by an Anonymous Monk of Lindisfarne and Bede’s Prose Life. Text, Translation and Notes (Cambridge 1940, repr. New York 1969 and Cambridge 1985), pp. 141-308 at cap. I.

10. For Einhard’s life see David Ganz, “Einhardus peccator” in Patrick Wormald and Janet L. Nelson (edd.), Lay Intellectuals in the Carolingian World (Cambridge 2007), pp. 8-36. On the non-religious duties of an abbot in the Carolingian world, see F. J. Felten, “Herrschaft des Abtes” in Friedrich Prinz (ed.), Herrschaft und Kirche: Beiträge zur Entstehung und Wirkungsweise episkopaler und monastischen Organisationsformen, Monographien zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 33 (Stuttgart 1988), pp. 147-296.

Seminars CXXXIII & CXXXIV: more early medieval edges

Aha! At last I have the information I needed, and so this post that was meant to be ready a fortnight ago can go up. In the words of a man in a dressing gown, “I seem to be having tremendous trouble with my lifestyle”… The last term was the busiest I’ve had, the teaching not the heaviest but it’s been fighting for space with an attempt at a social life and a long long list of job applications, for lo, I am running out of time and many people are hiring. More on that as and when it becomes public, but the main effect has been that I have hardly been at home with a few hours to spare for what feels like weeks, and since this is a necessary condition for getting blog written, you haven’t been seeing much of me. However, the other night I had a dream about taking part in some research seminar with half the In the Medieval Middle crowd, in which we lost five minutes to Jeffrey Cohen and Karl Steel agonising over whether they could still use the word `object’ without defining their terms first, so I suppose that this is some kind of warning from the subconscious about blog blockage and therefore the other day I took advantage of having an hour or so in London before a seminar during which the British Library was unable to serve up their wi-fi Internet registration page for me to register on to write the first half of this post. And I’m glad to be posting it at last as not only is this incredibly late but it also deals with the work of some very interesting people.

Morn Capper and others at work on the Birmingham Museum display of the Staffordshire Hoard

The first time I met the woman on the left, you know, Alice Rio and I wound up agreeing to support her candidacy as pope. True story…

First of these is none other than your humble correspondent’s excellent friend and sympathiser, Dr Morn Capper, now of the University of Leicester but at the time of which I write here of the British Museum and Birmingham Museum. There, indeed, she had been working on an exhibition until very close to the point at which she came to the Institute of Historical Research on 21st March 2012 to address the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar there with a paper called, “Rethinking Thought and Action Under the Mercian Hegemony: responses to Mercian supremacy, 650-850”. Fans of the history of the kingdom of Offa and his dubiously-related pre- and postdecessors will notice that that’s quite a long span of Anglo-Saxon history and the amount Morn tries to fit into her picture is also extremely widely-spread; hers is a holistic take on Anglo-Saxon history for which all sorts of evidence are relevant and have to be understood together. For me, who had heard Morn on some of these subjects before, therefore, this was a chance to get something like a uniting thread joining up the many many conversations we’ve had about particular sites or phenomena, but for others it may have been less immediately clear why all the things Morn was addressing were part of the same question. That question was, more or less, how did the Mercian kings make their rule stick in areas that weren’t Mercia, but since the answer to that could quite properly involve violence and public execution, town planning, East Anglian pottery, regional deployment of royal titles,1 religious patronage, saltpans, post-facto dynastic pacts expressed in genealogies and burial sites, individual negotiations with regional potentates and national manipulation of Church and coinage, all of which were in here somewhere except the saltpans, it’s easy enough to see how it could get busy.2 I think that the real clue to the import of this seminar was the extremely busy discussion afterwards, on which I have nearly as many notes as I do on most presentations, and in which Morn made it clear to all that she could have included a lot more, especially on the archæology; there was a lengthy conversation about marking border crossings with execution cemeteries, for example, which is one way of sending a message: “You are now entering Mercia. BE CAREFUL.” When her thesis can be reduced and streamlined into a book, it won’t just be me thinking I need to read it, I reckon.3

A silver penny of King Offa

As has been remarked before, this was a man whose hairstyles should obviously explained by direct control of the coinage, for amusement value if no more

Now it must be pointed out that the redoutable Magistra also wrote a post on this paper, much closer to the time and with a far better title, and it does an excellent job of codifying the separate parts of the argument. Rather than try and do my own summary, therefore, it seems best to me to mention a few of the stand-out points, such as:

  • that assessing Mercia as a political power is all the more tricky because we never see it static, in our evidence it is always expanding or collapsing so the way it actually worked (or failed to) doesn’t stay the same;
  • that Æthebald of Mercia starts appearing with titles referring to Britain at more or less the same time as the Archbishop of Canterbury stops doing so, and that the latter may be the one that impinged on scribes’ minds more;
  • that Guthlac’s monastery at Crowland was well-positioned to knit together Mercian, Middle Anglian and East Anglian sympathies in the surrounding communities on the Wash and that Æthelbald’s various visits there should probably be seen in this light, that of an appropriate way to approach the élites of these areas, much as respectful treatment of the royal mausoleum at Repton appears to have been such a way in Mercia itself to express consciousness of previous interests;
  • that, of course, the regions all had their own interests in cooperating with Mercian power which had to be taken into account before the kings could carry out any overall royal policy;
  • and that among these must be considered the kings of Essex, who survived as a lineage at least into the ninth century and perhaps even the Viking era, and who were never entirely removed from their seats of power, at least once having conceded Middlesex and London entirely to Mercian interests.

You will see from this, if combined with Magistra’s write-up which gives you much more of a structure, that if there was a problem with this paper it was to work out whether the main thread or the asides were more important. Having all this stuff thrown into the mix thus gives us some idea of the incredibly complex set of concerns, not just material and political but also symbolic and even ritual, that we seem now to expect early medieval kings to have tried to manage, and done like this it seems like an awful lot; theories like that of Jennifer Davis about Charlemagne, that his reign was so full that it can hardly have been more than a continual reaction to emergent crises, seem more plausible.4 In Morn’s thinking, I think, the Mercian kings were in their various ways trying to make something new and more controlled out of their situations, but the first thing we need to understand, if we’re to understand why their success was so variable and why it has sustained so much scholarship of different views, apart from the simple fact that the sources are few and unclear, is that what they were trying to cope with really wasn’t simple at all.

The memorial column of Khan Omurtag in the Church of 40 Martyrs at Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

The memorial column of Khan Omurtag in the Church of 40 Martyrs at Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Then, the next week in the same building (sadly no longer always guaranteed at the IHR seminars), the 28th March, we had the unusual chance to hear Professor Florin Curta of the University of Florida giving a paper called, “In Line with Omurtag and Alfred: linear frontiers in the ninth century”. This was, in some ways, one of those papers that shouldn’t be necessary but has become so because of trapdooring, as one of the many many things that sensible reputable scholars who just haven’t looked far enough back have argued were only first created in the eleventh or twelfth century, along with the individual, windmills, universities and professional guilds to name but a few, is the linear frontier. Before that, it has seriously been argued, frontiers were zones, because cartography and state apparatuses weren’t yet developed enough to do more, and hadn’t been since Roman times.5 Here, Florin took two examples where this is patently and clearly untrue, from the ninth century: firstly, a frontier set between the Bulgar Khanate and the Byzantine Empire in 816, which he convincingly argued on the basis of the treaty terms must have been forced on the Bulgars by the Byzantines despite recent military trends in the other direction, seeing for example no sense in victorious Bulgars restricting their own trade with the Empire; and the so-called Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum in which King Alfred the Great selflessly agreed a line of jurisdiction between him and the most willing of the Viking leaders who’d fought him in 878 and lost that came nowhere near Alfred’s own kingdom.6 I don’t mean to say that Alfred only got ‘great’ by bargaining away other peoples’ territory, but it certainly helped. Anyway, the precise political details are not the point so much as that when they needed to, all of these leaders could very easily set a line between two territories that needed rules governing who could cross it, why and in what conditions, all of which implies some ability to say when it had been crossed, what in turn requires it to be definable. In the Bulgarian case, too, parts of it have been dug, the most significant portion apparently being the Evkescia Dyke (say my notes, but Google seems convinced no such thing exists, I must have spelt it wrong), so there’s not really a problem here showing that early medieval rulers could set lines when they wanted to, and there’s no wider conceptual problem with this idea really sustainable either because, after all, we have a lot of documents that set land boundaries, they’re called charters…7

Tenth-century manuscript depiction of Bulgars slaughtering Byzantine 'martyrs'

Tenth-century manuscript depiction of Bulgars slaughtering Byzantine ‘martyrs’, in the Menologion of Emperor Basil II, Vatican MS Gr. 1613, here obtained from Wikimedia Commons

This paper, and the reminder that Florin is the editor of the most recent in a very long series of volumes in which medievalists get together and compare their frontiers with people from inside and outside the field, in fact set me off on some powerful reflecting on such questions, as it seems to me that, as I subsequently put it in a status update on Academia.edu, there is no theory on frontiers that the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem doesn’t break. Certainly we need a lot more work, and possibly to stop borrowing other people’s theories intended one way or another to reflect on different aspects of the USA and to start coming up with our own, before medieval frontiers can really be talked about as if we understand, rather than assume, how they worked.8 Not all of them were lines, this is basically self-evident to anyone who’s looked at any marcher zone ever, and that there could be gaps between rival jurisdictions oughtn’t to surprise us either. But to say that early medieval people just couldn’t set and keep marked and working a line on the ground when it suited them is something we can hopefully see an end to thanks to this kind of demonstration.


1. On which before too long you will be able to see Morn D. T. Capper, “Titles and Troubles: conceptions of royal authority in eighth- and ninth-century Mercian charters” in Jonathan Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout forthcoming).

2. The saltpans is sort of the special idea of John Maddicott: see his “London and Droitwich, c. 650-750: trade, industry and the rise of Mercia” in Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 34 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 7-58.

3. Morn D. T. Capper, “Contested Loyalties: Regional and National Identities in the Midland Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, c.700 – c.900″ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sheffield, 2008). I’ve got to acknowledge Morn’s feedback on an early version of this post, as well, as otherwise I might have made some characteristic mistakes by trying to explain her work from months-old notes.

4. I think this particular point of view is still forthcoming – I heard it at the Kalamazoo paper described at the link – but some flavour of her take on the reign can be got from J. Davis, “A Pattern of Power: Charlemagne’s Delegation of Judicial Responsibilities” in eadem & Michel McCormick (edd.), The Long Morning of Medieval Europe: new directions in early medieval studies (Aldershot 2008), pp. 235-246, on which see here.

5. This historiography is described with more respect than perhaps it deserves in Nora Berend, “Medievalists and the notion of the frontier” in The Medieval History Journal Vol. 2 (Los Angeles 1999), pp. 55-72.

6. On the former one can see little else in English but F. Curta, Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 500-1250 (Cambridge 2006), pp. 154-159. On the latter, I like David N. Dumville, “The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum” in his Wessex and England from Alfred to Edgar: six essays on political, ecclesiastical and cultural revival (Woodbridge 1992), pp. 1-27.

7. In England, at least, the person who has made this evidence most their own is indubitably Della Hooke, whose “Early medieval estate and settlement patterns: the documentary evidence” in Michael Aston, David Austin & Christopher Dyer (edd.), The Rural Settlements of Medieval England. Studies dedicated to Maurice Beresford and John Hurst (Oxford 1989), pp. 9-30 might be the best introduction to her methods.

8. I could list a lot of conference volumes on this theme but let’s pick just three, Daniel Power & Naomi Standen (edd.), Frontiers in Question: Eurasian borderlands 700-1700 (Basingstoke 1999), David Abulafia & Nora Berend (edd.), Medieval frontiers: concepts and practices (Aldershot 2002) and of course Florin Curta (ed.), Borders, barriers, and ethnogenesis: frontiers in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Turnhout 2005).

Deintellectualising King Alfred

The largest of my responsibilities in this job I have (for which some day there will be institutional web evidence) is coordinating the lecture series that serves the British early medieval survey course, British History I (300-1087). Partly out of wanting to hear what the students were getting, and partly out of wanting to be sure they ran all right, I attended all but one of these lectures in the term just gone, which means that I’ve heard some very notable people lecturing on their best subjects, which is almost always good. And of course, since these are not my best subjects, it’s not just the students who have been learning things…

The Alfred Jewel, believed to be the topper for a wooden bookmark

The Alfred Jewel, believed to be the topper for a wooden bookmark whose inscription proclaims, "Alfred had me made"

King Alfred, as George Molyneaux told ‘my’ students, has been blamed for an awful lot that can’t really be substantiated, single-handedly defeating the Vikings (his son and daughter deserve quite a lot of credit too), building towns all over England and shiring it (again, more credit due to his successors) and founding the royal navy (actually just ordered some new ships that in the end didn’t work out), but one thing for which he does stand out in the scholarship is his interest in matters intellectual, which is supposed to have extended to getting translated a set of ‘certain books that are the most needful for men to know’, which were, as it’s usually counted, the first fifty Psalms, the Pastoral Care of Gregory the Great (where this preface is to be found), the Soliloquies of St Augustine, On the Consolation of Philosophy by Bœthius, Orosius’s Seven Books of Histories against the Pagans and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Asser, Alfred’s biographer, mentions Alfred as having worked with a team of scholars to translate Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, and somewhere out there this court probably produced the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle too; it’s all fairly impressive.1 But, George warned the students, an article by Malcolm Godden has recently called all this into question. “Your tutors probably haven’t read this article yet,” he added, “so if you use it in an essay you’ll need to explain it, not just reference it”, which was a little close to the bone perhaps but, I have to admit for myself, true. George however wins prizes for being conspicuously clever, and is better-informed than almost anyone. So I patched my lack of knowledge in this respect at least, and have now seen what the argument is.2

Basically, Godden puts the evidence that all supposedly relates to this supposed phenomenon together and finds it seriously inconsistent. Asser mentions none of the rest of the works, only the Dialogues, and since Asser stopped writing a scant six years before the king’s death in 899, that really doesn’t leave a lot of time for a man who’d only recently learnt Latin to do all the rest, especially given the Viking army in the country between 892 and 896. Some might say, of course, that Asser is a forgery in which case ‘his’ estimate of the king’s Latinity isn’t to be taken literally, but the years don’t get much longer even then due to other factors. The prefaces to the other works refer to their other versions in ways that show that they are posterior to the translation dates and there is a severe shortage of known scholars writing in the West Saxon dialect in which most of these texts (and the Chronicle) now exist (as opposed to the Mercian one that colours the Dialogues). Several of the works also offer frank criticisms of bad kingship that seem implausible coming out of a court project. It all makes the traditional picture hard to sustain. You’ll have to assess it yourself—the paper seems to be online for free through FindArticles though who knows how long that will last?—but I think at least the Consolation of Philosophy and the Soliloquies probably have to be accepted as later translations identified as Alfred’s to bring them attention. Godden concludes that Alfred didn’t actually translate any of these texts, and it’s possibly easier to agree with him than to say why one shouldn’t.

A heavily-glossed page of the earliest manuscript of the Alfredian English translation of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms Hatton 20

A heavily-glossed page of the earliest manuscript of the Alfredian English translation of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms Hatton 20 but here reproduced from Wikimedia Commons

This is not completely to demolish the idea of Alfred’s court as a centre of intellectual renewal and the headquarters of a battle for the incipient nation’s mind, however: Asser, if we accept him, testifies to the Dialogues (and to Alfred’s own interest in them even if the others in the team did the actual word-work); we can still securely date the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle‘s compilation to 892; and the Pastoral Care is preserved early enough that it too must be from Alfred’s reign.3 So something was going on, even if the king wasn’t himself penning them. Given the which, does this actually matter very much?

The principal reason that it matters to me is that the example of Alfred as historian-king has often been used as a parallel to an almost-contemporary one, King Alfonso III of Asturias, who has been claimed as author of the Chronicle that bears his name.4 Alfonso clearly also had the court full of scholars, and also a far better library, but the same arguments of how busy warrior kings surely were have been raised against the idea.5 What may have made Alfred slightly more plausible is that he was aiming for work in the vernacular, which is at first take easier to imagine for us who have to learn to write Latin specially, but in Alfred’s day of course literacy would have been Latin first and vernacular second, and in any case translating into English from (extremely sophisticated) Latin requires a mastery of both tongues so that doesn’t help.6 For everyone other than the Hispanists, however, the importance is that these works are some of the principal evidence for Alfred as architect of an idea of English political unity, for which some of these texts seem well-suited, most obviously Orosius and Bede. The Pastoral Care seems more like a text for governors, which fits with other things that Asser says about encouraging a literate nobility, and might fit into other views of the court but what I think of as the ‘Angelcynn’ hypothesis is at least partly supported on these texts being part of a bigger Alfredian plan.7 Now we have to consider that, possibly, we can’t show Alfred had any such plan after all. Worried, evidently, that the lid on the coffin of this thesis wasn’t yet firmly fixed in place, George last year added a piece of his own (I now discover) looking specifically at the Old English Bede, and pointing out that much of the one-people-one-country stuff that Bede’s original contains (among other more plural takes on the island’s Anglo-Saxon population) is omitted from the Old English version, which seems instead to concentrate on the stories to encourage good behaviour at the expense of the history and national framework.8 This seems to make it part of the how-to-behave school of texts such as the Dialogues, Pastoral Care and Consolation now seem, as opposed to a bigger project of nationality-building. Fair enough! I don’t mind rethinking Alfred to this extent; he’s still always going to be remarkable in terms of quantity and quality of information (at least as long as we can maintain our faith in Asser).

[Edit: image changed to match caption!]

Page from the Parker ('A') manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, now in the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

Page from the Parker ('A') manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, now in the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

The only thing that still bugs me, and about which I must ask George when next I see him, is that somewhere out there someone around that court was still building the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and while its agenda may well be more West Saxon (as the most successful and surviving of a number of accepted and equally-old royal dynasties it cheerfully mentions9) than pan-English, it’s definitely a bit more than a self-help text. While we still have someone (and who, for heavens’ sake?) doing that, the size and scope of the political picture at Alfred’s court can’t be too completely underestimated, I think.


1. This is all set out most accessibly in Simon Keynes & Michael Lapidge (transl.), Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources (London 1983), pp. 25-35 where the Pastoral Care, the Consolation of Philosophy, the Soliloquies and the first fifty Psalms are reckoned Alfred’s own work on the basis of stylistic similarities to the Pastoral Care‘s text.

2. Malcolm Godden, “Did King Alfred Write Anything?” in Medium Ævum Vol. 76 (Oxford 2007), pp. 1-23, on which all this paragraph is based.

3. Ibid., p. 15.

4. Edited and translated into Castilian in J. Gil Fernández (ed.), J. L. Moralejo (transl.) & J. I. Ruiz de la Peña, Crónicas Asturianas: Crónica de Alfonso III (Rotense y «A Sebastián»), Crónica Albeldense (y «Profética») (Oviedo 1985) and French in Yves Bonnaz (ed./transl.), Chroniques Asturiennes (fin IXe siècle). Avec édition critique, traduction et commentaire (Paris 1987). There is an English translation, in Kenneth Baxter Wolf (transl.), Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain, Translated Texts for Historians (Liverpool 1990, 2nd edn. 1999 without visible changes) but I hesitate to recommend it as it freely selects between the two quite different versions of the Chronicle according to an agenda I think belongs to only one of them. The most strident assertion of royal authorship inevitably came from Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, in his “Alfonso III y el particularismo castellano” in Cuadernos de Historia de España Vol. 13 (Buenos Aires 1950), pp. 19-100 at pp. 90-100, that section, “Apéndice 2”, repr. with addenda as “Otra vez sobre la crónica de Alfonso III” in idem, Investigaciones sobre Historiografía Hispana Medieval (siglos VIII al XII) (Buenos Aires 1979), pp. 97-108.

5. Compare Bonnaz, Chroniques, pp. LIII-LVII with J. I. Ruiz de la Peña, “La cultura en la corte ovetense del siglo IX” in Gil et al., Crónicas Asturianas, pp. 11-42 at pp. 38-41.

6. For more on this theme see Susan E Kelly, “Anglo-Saxon Lay Society and the Written Word” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 36-62.

7. Named after Sarah Foot, “The Making of Angelcynn: English Identity before the Norman Conquest” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th series Vol. 9 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 25-49 but most eminently espoused in Patrick Wormald, “Engla Lond: the making of an allegiance” in Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 7 (Oxford 1994), pp. 1-24, repr. in idem, Legal Culture in the Early Medieval West: law as text, image and experience (Oxford 2003), pp. 359-382.

8. George Molyneaux, “The Old English Bede: English Ideology or Christian Instruction?” in English Historical Review Vol. 124 (Oxford 2009), pp. 1289-1323.

9. The fact that it arguably manages the equally-old bit by bodging the landing of the West Saxon royal ancestors Cerdic and Cynric back about fifty years to me reinforces this idea that the editors were involved in a competition that took in more than just Wessex, though as discussed here before the material they were using may not have served that purpose in its original form. For the fifty-year bump see Barbara Yorke, “The Jutes of Hampshire and Wight and the Origins of Wessex” in Stephen Bassett (ed.), Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London 1986), pp. 84-96.

Coin for Eileen Joy

Substantive content will follow: I have three more Leeds posts to write and several pieces of important personal academic news. But until I have time to write all that, Eileen, I sawcatalogued this and thought of you.

Reverse of Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.1.265-1990, from the Christopher Blunt collection

As to what it actually is, well, it’s interesting in itself as it’s a Saint Edmund penny from Viking East Anglia, by a moneyer by the name of Martin (I’m afraid), and the obverse actually commemorates the East Anglian king that the Vikings had brutally executed only a few decades previously. This is one of the successes of Alfred the Great and his men, or possibly a testimony to the small number of actual settlers in the First Viking Age if you’re Peter Sawyer (and if you are, wow, I love your work); it really didn’t take very long not just for the dead king to become a saint but for that saint, and therefore obviously Christianity, to be endorsed by the kingdom or region’s most widespread token of officialdom, which is the coinage obviously. (Things were very different on the coins of York, where Alfred did not reach and where swords and things that may or may not be Torshammers share two sides of a flan with the name of St Peter, uneasily.)

So it’s an object with a historical point, but on this occasion I just transcribed the legend and thought, “Right. I know who this image is for.” Happy unbirthday!

Name in print II lights pixels

For a while now I’ve been lamenting how slowly stuff that I’ve actually written, finished and sent off takes to appear. I’m happy now to say that Larry Swain and the rest of the team at The Heroic Age have won the race to be my next imprimatur, or whatever the online equivalent be, since their new Issue 12, which Larry announces with relief and glee here, among other places, has a piece by me in it entitled, “Digitizing Numismatics: getting the Fitzwilliam Museum’s coins to the world-wide web“, which is basically a short paper explaining what my job is and why you, as medievalists, should care about what I do. If you know nothing about numismatics and are bewildered every time I mention a coin’s obverse, hopefully this will explain matters for you. And there are many shiny pictures, including of Alfred’s monogram and Nero’s chins.

There’s loads of other interesting stuff in there too, which I’ve hardly yet had time to read. It’s not without amusement that I find myself sharing a journal issue with Cullen Chandler, as some will appreciate, but his review of scholarship on the Carolingian regions, while obviously limited in spread by the works he was reviewing, is a remarkable attempt to summarise a whole field in a webpage. (And I’m not just saying that because he cites me.) The other articles all look good too, but you hopefully won’t blame me if I emphasise the one that concerns me most :-) So yes: I have something more out, and you can read it right now if you like. So do, er, nine other people, and the Heroic Age now steps one volume closer to one that I’ve promised to orchestrate, so I need to get onto marshalling some contributors! Happily, Leeds is just round the corner… argh &c. See you in a bit…

Seminary XXXVII: small pieces of metal from the ninth century

Alice Rio’s fabulous programme for the Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminar continued to unfold on the 25th November when Jinty Nelson, no less, came up to talk to us to the title “Bits and Pieces: why historians should think about small metal objects from the ninth century”. Jinty is as I’ve said before always an engaging speaker, her papers perforated with tiny sidetracks that seem like digressions but that function as hooks to help you remember what she was talking about afterwards. A different result of this is, though, that there’s so much gravy in any given paper that it’s hard to just talk about the meat if, like me, you’re trying to report it…

Bark of a palm tree

Bark of a palm tree

Broadly speaking this was a second instalment in one of Jinty’s recent themes, that historians and archaeologists not only can learn a lot from each other but absolutely need to, this kind of being the case studies to support her anecdotal introduction to the theme of last year. So she started with the annal for 858 from the Annals of St-Bertin, which of course she translated years ago but only really saw this time round.1 Prudentius of Troyes, still writing it at this point, recorded a year full of terrible and unnatural events, and among them is a tree washing up from the sea whose trunk was covered not in proper bark but in triangular protrusions, which he likened to the decorations that men and horses have on their wargear. I know what it brought to my mind, to wit something like the picture above, but what this brings to the mind of those learned in objects is apparently strap-ends, and I suppose I see what they mean.

Trewhiddle-style strap-ends found in Shropshire, online courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Service

Trewhiddle-style strap-ends found in Shropshire, online courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Service

Now these are treasure, and so Jinty took us through some of the social meanings of treasure in the early medieval world, and highlit power, of course. Then from there to coins, especially the portrait coinage of Charlemagne, which I touched on here some time ago, and the messages it sends to have your likeness sent about the realm. This had more mileage in it than some discussions of this I’ve seen, because of considering whether people really looked at the coins (and could read them)—without looking, UK people, what’re the queen’s titles on a British coin now, eh?—and also whether they could be effective without also being economically functional. This garnered some discussion afterwards, though because my boss was lecturing in London the same day Jinty had quit there for Cambridge, of course, I kind of had to be the numismatist in the room, which isn’t something I enjoy too much because I fear type-casting in a sphere where I’m really not very expert.

The Alfred Jewel, shamelessly purloined from Scribal Terror

The Alfred Jewel, shamelessly purloined from Scribal Terror

The last example of metalwork and power was another famous one, the Alfred Jewel, which is now believed to have been the head from an æstel, a book-pointer; you’d have had a stalk of some sort marking your position on the page and your hand over the jewel, like, as Jinty said, a computer mouse. But did you know we’ve now got several of these things, three found quite recently? None as grand as this one, but one from the Lofoten Islands of all places. Or, given the one visitor to Alfred’s court whom we know went there, maybe not so strange… But this little clutch of things shows how eloquent some of these non-speaking objects can get: they are intimately associated with the written word and are probably gifts of a king trying to get his officials to read more; they may even be associated with office, which might explain why they don’t seem to occur in wills (this was the neatest answer to an awkward question I’ve ever seen anyone give in a seminar). Every time you pick one up that message is implicit in it, and if you were given one by the king, then anyone who sees it knows you’re one of a new kind of élite with a special badge. This was an aspect of the political policies of Alfred the Great where Jinty confessed herself indebted to David Pratt, not least because he was there,2 but it all fitted very nicely into the theme: messages in the metalwork, for those with ears to hear.


1. Janet L. Nelson (transl.), The Annals of St-Bertin, Manchester Medieval Sources (Manchester 1991).

2. David Pratt, The Political Thought of Alfred the Great, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th series no. 67 (Cambridge 2007), pp. 189-192.