Tag Archives: Andrew Marsham

Society for the Medieval Mediterranean 2015 (in Lincoln), parts 2 & 3

[Context: this post was half-written before I ground to a complete halt in hiatus last year. It’s clear that I can’t continue this scale of write-up, but because it was part-done, and because it involves the recently-lamented Simon Barton, I want to do this last one as it was meant to be done. I am, however, combining what would originally have been two posts, because this is an indulgence I can’t go on permitting myself. After this, we can talk about what happens next but I am hoping, hoping that this is the cough of the blogger’s virtual throat being cleared before saying something in a more regular fashion. We’ll see, but I have hopes and reasons to do it and that’s a powerful combination. This post’s still a composite hodge-podge, though, so I’ve added headings to show where its layers separate.]

The Voice of October 2016

This is, as grimly predicted, the busiest term ever in my life so far, and at some point in it I’m moving house! Yay! Before that point, I can at least crunch out a few more posts, though, I hope [Edit: ha!], and the next in the queue is a report on the second day of the conference of the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean, which as you will recall was in Lincoln in mid-July 2015. This post deals with the papers and so on from the 14th July, and then we’ll talk about something completely different before returning for the third and final day. [Edit: no we won’t, it’s all happening here.]

Brayford Campus of the University of Lincoln

The Brayford Campus of Lincoln University, just for context

There were up to five parallel sessions running at all times except during the keynotes in this conference and so there was always plenty to choose from, including plenty of early medieval. As it happens, I underestimated the time it would take me to get from my (rather good) bed and breakfast to the university and so missed the first paper I’d chosen to see, which was a shame but at least, as its presenter told me, it was substantially the paper I’d seen him give in Leeds. Nonetheless, the questions seemed to reach to different things and I was sorry I hadn’t seen this version. The session as it happened, even where I didn’t see, was like this.

Law in the Post-Roman West

  • Graham Barrett, “Legislation and Codification after Rome”
  • Michael Kelly, “Transhistoricality in Early Medieval Hispania: Law as Narrative and Cultural Episteme”
  • Thomas Gobbitt, “Framing the Laws: prologues, epilogues and peritext. The Liber Leges Langobardorum in the Eleventh and Twelfth Century”
  • So as said, I missed Graham pronouncing his wisdom, but it got a better hearing here than it had at the slightly odd session in which it had been aired at Leeds, and his paper dominated discussion, so it’s worth reprising its central point, that law after the end of Empire in the West was probably mostly used in small bits, which were occasionally recombined into codes but used quite differently in the field (or in court). Questions focused on issues of formality of, well, issue, and the audiences for the different sorts of law people were detecting bundled into codes like the Salic Law, and this discussion also included Graham asking what the difference is between a ‘capitulary’ and a ‘novel’, a question that could only matter to a legal historian you’d think but has everything to do with our confused relationship with the Roman Empire, both imitative and successive.

    I didn’t really understand Michael Kelly’s paper, I will confess. It may, from my notes, have been intended to argue that all our sources were constructed by their authors to convey a particular version of the past, not reality, and that our sources therefore are really only sources for their context, the Visigothic Law being no exception and very full of contemporary bias that belies its deliberate impression of antiquity, in which case OK, but phrases like, “transhistoricality must be a purely discursive phenomenon,” meant that I’m not sure.

    Lastly Dr Gobbitt gave us a spirited run-through of the survival of Lombard laws in the eleventh century in the form of a text known as the Liber leges langobardorum [sic], which gathered up the Edict of Rothari and various other bits of genuinely Lombardic legislation along with some laws of Charlemagne and a reasonable salting of historical material (much of it already travelling with Rothari), apparently all for study at or around Pavia in a kind of pre-Bologna legal college. He too emphasised variation: no two of the seven eleventh-century manuscripts gather quite the same materials or lay them out in the same way. This stuff was of interest to a range of people but their purposes were not all the same. Quite what those purposes were was work still to be done but the evidence base seemed well established.

Justice and Judicial Practices in Early Medieval North-Western Iberia (II): punishment and justice in Castile and León

  • Julio Escalona, “Follow the Money? Justice and Authority in the Sanction Clauses of Tenth-Century Castilian Charters”
  • Álvaro Carvajal Castro, “Authority and Liability in Ninth- and Tenth-Century North-Western Iberia: the evidence from the sanction clauses”
  • Igor Santos Salazar, “Rule Through Courts: the settlement of disputes in Castile and Tuscany during the tenth-century”
  • It would probably be hard to pick three Iberian-peninsula scholars who have worked harder to link up with other areas and fields, and especially the English-speaking world, than these three, but because of the occasion they had a substantially Iberian-peninsula audience too and this was probably as close as I shall get to attending a seminar in Spain until I can take a year out to improve my spoken languages or something, which is to say, valuable. Not least, of course, because this was effectively a charters session! Julio’s was illuminating: doing more or less the exercise I had done the previous year with Vic’s charters by going through the clauses in which they lay down what will happen to those who infringe the charter’s provisions, he noted that alongside the threats of excommunication, less common in sales than in donations as I too had found, there are many fines, levied largely in the name of the king. This being tenth-century Castile, however, the king was far away, and the count doesn’t turn up as much as you’d expect and was not clearly a royal delegate for these purposes. Instead, the money seems to have gone to local lords whom we otherwise struggle to identify, those much-vaunted ‘local élites’, domini, whom Julio argued should be the focus of our questions about community formation in these areas rather than the traditional village grouping of the alfoz. This paper had some seriously subversive connotations bubbling up out of those sanction clauses.

    Álvaro had meanwhile done something similar with charters from further west, in Asturias-León, and found a judicial system anchored in the same ideas but based very much on guarantee and surety, whether explicit or implicit; instructions on who was to pay if something went wrong show no particular regularity over whether actor or recipient, or either of their families, was expected to be liable. Instead, we have to assume that these situations were being judged, negotiated and arranged according to how people felt the various options which the traditional legal library gave them were best deployed in each case. Igor, meanwhile, lacking a precisely comparable charter base in Tuscany, looked instead at the actual trials there and in Castile, which was valuable because unlike in Julio’s documents, the counts of Castile rarely appear in actual court cases; instead, again, their roles were delegated down to locals, this presumably being one way in which the counts attached themselves to such communities via the local headmen whose station they thus enhanced.

I am absolutely fine with this, but what was interesting was the comparison with Italy, where Igor saw the same trick being played with a different deck of cards, a working system of public courts becoming less effective in the face of decentralising power and being met with a recentralisation via an overhaul of that system that linked local ‘judges’ to the kingship. There is here a bigger dynamic about what failing states do to regain traction in their localities, I think, and it’s one we could probably do with taking out and showing people. The role of the king was quite different in the two cases, being distant in Asturias and active in Tuscany, but then, the kings in Italy were already a local response to detachment from the bigger system of the Carolingian Empire to which, in its Ottonian form, attachment would soon resume… I think it works! And I’m also not sure I realised this at the time… That may of course have been because I had other things on my mind right then, not just lunch though that did indeed come next, but my own paper, because I was in fact up next, in this august company.

Medieval Iberia

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Ceremonies of Property Transfer in Carolingian Catalonia: a model of documented transaction”
  • James d’Emilio, “The Formulaic Clauses of Charters: tradition, variation and originality”
  • Laura Cayrol Bernando, “« Hermana del emperador »: (re)constructing the memory of the Infanta Sancha Raimundez (d. 1159)”

The voice of January 2018 now takes up the story…

    Predictably, my own paper in this session is the hardest for me to remember because I wasn’t making notes, but I’ve just re-read it and gosh-darn if it isn’t actually one of my better ones and I should probably send it out. What I was doing was something I’ve stabbed at here already, gathering up all the various testimonies I know from Catalan documents to the phenomenon specialists call reparatio scripturae, the replacement of documents that had been lost, and arguing that there is here evidence that not just churches but lay people went to some effort to get their friends and neighbours to remember not just the existence of charters but their actual textual content, and wondering what those efforts might have looked like. Josep María Salrach has already thrown a sentence or two away on this, but in the words of the late Captain Beefheart, “there’s more.” As I say, I should do something with this. Any suggestions?

    Monastery of San Julián de Samos

    It’s hard to think of images for a lot of these papers, given how much they were about concepts, but Professor D’Emilio’s one was at least partly located here at the monastery of San Julián de Samos, so here’s a picture! By José Antonio Gil Martínez from Vigo, GaliciaFlickr, CC BY 2.0, Link

    As to the other two speakers, James D’Emilio was on similar turf, but much later and in Castile; I was concerned about the apparent use of written formulae in my texts, but he can place some of his, from the Bible and Isidore of Seville. As that implies, his texts usually had grander aspirations and participants than mine, kings and bishops, but it’s still something to watch out for: who says charter formulae have to start in charters? Then Laura Cayrol Bernando looked at a different kind of creation of memory, using the vexed question of just what the infantado that royal heiresses in high medieval Castile held was, to expose quite late medieval processes of sanctification of female royal donors by their commemorating churches that have, basically, created the problems with that question. In the process, however, it showed how some family ties were remembered much longer than others because things like this hung upon them and so had active memorialisers. Because I was facing them, I don’t have much of a record of the questions from this session, and so without further ado I move on, as did we, to the second keynote address of the conference.

Keynote 2

Andrew Marsham, “Rituals of Accession in Early Islam: a comparative perspective”
With us all gathered in the same room again, Simon, may he rest well, introduced Andrew Marsham, who somewhat cautiously introduced his own attempt to imitate Jinty Nelson‘s early work on rituals of royal inauguration.1 Resting explicitly on that, he set out to try and compare her early medieval West to both Byzantium and Islam, using the moments at which a king, emperor or caliph assumed power to expose what people thought was most important about that office. He argued that all three political zones shared the Judæo-Christian inheritance of a conviction that power ultimately came from God, making the ruler in some way the representative of God on earth. In the West, this became a link that was mediated through the Church, by coronation and unction, even to the point where without the cooperation of churchmen kings could not in fact assume power sometimes; the same struggles do occur in Byzantium but the Church was never so clearly separate from the ruler’s control, and in Islam of course there is no Church, no liturgy as such, making other rituals like handclasping and popular acceptance much more significant, though they did operate in other areas too. Dr Marsham argued that what the caliphs lost, or saved themselves from, by not having that apparatus of religion to serve or obstruct them they however compensated for somewhat by also being the heirs of the Sasanian Persian monarchy, from which they could draw the representations of higher and divine power without which their office might have struggled to be free of direct interference from the ‘umma. I make this sound less tentative than I remember it being, but I didn’t think there was much wrong with it; Dr Marsham had been careful in stepping outside his own area and it was a thought-provoking lecture.

The Old Palace Hotel, Lincoln

The Old Palace Hotel, Lincoln

With that complete, we then wandered at varying length to the Old Palace, where a rather splendid dinner was set before us. I can remember thinking at point of registration that the cost of the dinner was fairly high, but the setting alone quickly explained why, and the food didn’t fall short either; looking back, I think that was probably money well spent. There were two sessions the next morning before we all dispersed, with hard choices to make about what to go to, but you’ll quickly see why I chose as I did. First up!

Justice and Judicial Practices in Early Medieval North-Western Iberia

  • Iñaki Martín Viso, “Authority and Justice in the Shaping of Asturleonese Monarchy”
  • Robert Portass, “Levels of Justice in Tenth-Century Northern Spain”
  • Fernando Luis-Corral & María Pérez Rodríguez, “Local Communities and the Uses of Justice in the Kingdom of León”
  • These are, as you can tell, my kind of questions and being asked of my period in a neighbouring area by some of the hot names in the field, so my choice was clear. Iñaki was looking at Asturias in its ninth-century expansion, and observing that while the kings are a big part of that so are counts and other nobles; he saw a difference between them in that the kings were always the highest court of judicial appeal, and managed often to claim overall hegemony in areas of new settlement even if they didn’t orchestrate it, but that even out there there were still areas where the kings held and could grant no lands because a count or a bishop had got there first; he pointed at Astorga and Coimbra for this. The following, and interesting, process, would thus be the one by which the various non-royal officers of justice in these areas were brought to recognise the king as their superior… Rob then brought out the judicial hearings from his pet area of Liébana, and argued that although office-holders like counts were visible in them they were often not the ones holding the court, which could be done by various individuals who had no ‘official’ right we can recognise except that they owned a lot of the local land; the local monastery was only one of these. Categories like ‘public’ and ‘private’ are really no use here, therefore. The paper involved a guy called Bagauda about whom I’ve written here before; I then thought that the obvious explanation of his position was that he owned the land the victims lived on, but Rob says that ain’t necessarily so. I need to read his book!2 And the last paper was a study of the enigmatic figures known as ‘worthy men’, boni homines, in the Iberian Peninsula’s charters, asking whether they were the tools of local communities or the means by which aristocrats asserted power over those communities. They concluded the latter, but without much attention to who the people in question actually were and how their position was manifested, and I felt quietly that if the speaker and his co-author had read, well, me, they’d have a more useful way of approaching this question.3

But the real worth of this session was the discussion, which was lengthy and erudite. I started by raising the point that power in Rob’s area need not have been solely economic, which Rob answered with a reflection about what actually made power here, and whether the ability to coordinate process or the ability to defy it was more ‘powerful’. I don’t think question an answer linked but both were good points if I do say so myself. Igor Santos asked if the fact that the winners write history means that we can’t see the weak in these trials, only the strong, but Iñaki asked if the Church, which is our source of record, must always be the strong party, and here again (as you may know) I agree. There then followed a lengthy tangle over what constituted the ‘public sphere’ in this area in this period, and specifically how the written law fitted into this, which was certainly not everywhere, and whether there was one ‘public sphere’ or many local senses of public practice, both questions raised by Julio Escalona. I suggested, as had Graham Barrett earlier, that law and custom were not necessarily separate either; the written law could be invoked as custom. But especially, because at this point I was still tangling with the questions about how someone powerful on the outside manoeuvered themselves into a local position of power in the frontier zones here at which I wrote at such length here a few years ago, I was interested in who set the limits of public office, and here Iñaki made a useful differentiation between sorts of royal property and rights that got me thinking, which Julio followed with the idea that kings and counts together tended to limit the number of people who could claim comital status. In both cases, it seemed to me (and seems) the crucial operation is to get other people recognising the rights you claim in your office. Afterwards, over coffee, Julio, Rob and I all agreed that this can be seen as convincing people that the public sphere you claim is the same one that they recognise. This is what the Asturian kings, and also the counts of Barcelona, achieved in the ninth and tenth centuries and I still want to know how. Then, onwards to the last session!

‘Del tuerto al dretto’: bridging the gap between lawcodes and society in the medieval Mediterranean world

  • Jeffrey Bowman, “Women Administering Justice in the High Middle Ages: a divergence of rule and practice”
  • Rodrigo García-Velasco, “Municipal Law at the Iberian frontier: the evidence of the fueros and cartas de población during the Iberian Reconquista, c. 1050-c.&nbsp:1150″
  • Belen Vicens, “Infançones, franchos, and Wannabees: rethinking status and identity in late medieval Aragón”
  • Here, of course, I had to be because I have learnt a lot from one of the participants, taught another and knew nothing of the third, all good reasons and the more so once combined. Professor Bowman was pointing out an obvious but neglected thing, that though as far as most of the rules on the subject we have from the Middle Ages say that women could not sit in judgement over men, they did nevertheless sometimes do so in the persons of countesses and viscountesses and probably more. Sometimes people argued about this: a legal specialist dealing with Matilda of Canossa wisely decided that her office carried the jurisdiction but in a case involving Ermengarde of Narbonne it went all the way to the king of France, who used it as a way to claim Narbonne as part of the French crown! There was, basically, usually a way to make it work whatever the rules said and fighting it as illegitimate doesn’t usually seem to have worked, which is worth keeping around to think with.

    Cathedral of SS Just & Pastor, Narbonne

    I like this picture of Narbonne Cathedral so much that even this weak excuse will do to use it again. By Benh LIEU SONG (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

    Rodrigo was looking at the various concessions of rights and local jurisdiction by kings that we group as fueros, a term that has come simply to mean ‘laws’ so commonly were these issued, and asking where the balance of power lay between the locals whose rights were here asserted and the kings who apparently granted them. He argued, however, that the texts we have represent a step after the balance had been found and agreed, and that the real processes of power lay in the circumstances that had led to the text’s issue. Again, the question of how to convince a potential subject you and they shared a sphere of power arises, which is of course why I cite Rodrigo’s work sometimes, but there was argument in questions about whether the fueros were somehow a bridge between the two public spheres or just an incentive dangled before the ungoverned by those who would govern them.4 Then the last paper looked at an episode of 1248 in which a number of people claiming free status were reduced to serfdom by royal judgement; the speaker argued that this was an exercise of consolidation of definitions of freedom which had previously been vague, imposing rules which left some people on the wrong side, and that trying to read the rules back from such cases was a mistake. That was why there needed to be a hearing! Well, maybe, but it was a good place to end.

And since thereafter we all said our goodbyes and dispersed, me towards the rather splendid cathedral—possibly the most impressive in the UK, but I sadly without my camera—and then the railway station, it’s where I have to end too, closing an era of far-too-intensive reporting in the hope that you can see why I found it all worthwhile to do. Next post: the new régime!

West front of Lincoln Cathedral

Likewise this one! Lincoln Cathedral’s west front, by Anthony Shreeve public domain via Wikimedia Commons


1. Collected in Janet L. Nelson, Politics and Ritual in Early Medieval Europe (London 1986).

2. It being Robert Portass, The Village World of Early Medieval Northern Spain: local community and the land market, Royal Historical Society Studies in History: New Series (Woodbridge 2017). In fact, two different journals have asked me if I wanted to review this, and I said no, partly because I know Rob too well, partly because I didn’t have time and mainly because I had already got myself a copy when I finally got round to paying my first subscription to the Royal Historical Society, which published it. Of course that still doesn’t mean I’ve read it, but I do intend to!

3. Specifically, if they’d read Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power, Royal Historical Society Studies in History: New Series (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 35-36 & n. 55.

4. The work of Rodrigo’s that I cite is his “Legislation and Resistance: limitations of royal power on the Catalan and Aragonese frontiers, 986–1134”, M.St. dissertation (University of Oxford 2013), which I had the fun of supervising, but I think he would say that his thinking has moved on a bit now and I await the completion of his doctoral thesis keenly! No pressure, Rodrigo…

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Leeds IMC report for 2015, part 1

It’s a bit ridiculous, isn’t it, this backlog, but yet it does reduce, and as a result I am now into the veritable height of the European medievalist’s conference season, the International Medieval Congress at what is now my home base at the University of Leeds. Now, in fact on this first day of the Congress there was a lot of sorting out of that ‘home’ aspect, so I missed the keynote lectures and the first session of papers, but finally arriving during the Monday lunchbreak, I was able to begin the academic day like this:

233. The Early Islamic World, II: Provinces and Frontiers – Syria and the West

  • Corisande Fenwick, “Berbers and Borderlands: frontier society in North Africa”
  • Anna Leone, Marco Nebbia, Ralf Bockmann, Hafed Abdouli, Moftah Haddad and Ahmed Masud, “Changing Landscape in the 8th Century to the 10th Century: the case of the Jebel Nefiya and Tripolitania”
  • Denis Genequand, “Elites in the Countryside: recent research on the Umayyad ‘desert castles’
  • I went to this session partly because of knowing Corisande, partly because of a vague fascination with the Umayyad desert palaces that has occasionally shown itself here and mainly because Corisande had waved the words ‘frontier’ and ‘borderlands’ at us, usually guaranteed to catch my interest. Certainly the area she was looking at challenges our usual ideas of borders, since the vast area of Africa taken over in the Umayyad conquests of the seventh century was so huge as for the presence of the notional occupiers to have to be very sporadic and consequently very concentrated, which leaves a distinct archæological profile marked off by garrison architecture, mosques, a greater range of foodstuffs and, most of all, coins from military pay, and beyond it, really very little presence. For me this paper was problematised by an assumption that Corisande verbalised in questions, that new buildings mean new people; if there were in fact assimilation of local populations into these fortress settlements going on, you could not detect it that way. Still, the extremity of the social division was a point well put.

    Remains of the Christian church at Henchir al-Faouar in Tunisia

    Ironically, the best images I can find from the sites named in this paper are of the Christian church at Henchir al-Faouar in Tunisia


    Of the other two papers, the former was the more peculiar, as only one of the authors had in fact been advertised on the program and she had been unable to come, so the paper was read by Andrew Marsham and had a title that was also different from that advertised. Nonetheless, it was interesting: the team in question have been carrying out a survey of mosques over much of the old province of Tripolitania in what is now Libya and were now proceeding to join this up to a survey of settlements. Oddly, the mosques are not all at the settlements, which tend to cluster on hilltops in defensively-clustered fashion at distances of 5-7 kilometres from each other, whereas the mosques could often be in the wilds between them. Dating all this is the next problem, since some of the settlements began in the fourth or fifth centuries and some are Ottoman, with pretty much everything in between too, so the changing landscape had yet to become visible but the possibilities were considerable.
    The fortified granary of Qasr Kabaw in the Jebel Nafusa

    Also, the architecture is amazing. This is thirteenth-century, apparently, but I don’t care; it is the fortified granary of Qasr Kabaw in the Jebel Nafusa, about which you can read slightly more here


    Lastly Dr Genequand took an overall survey of the various buildings in Syria that have been classed as Umayyad ‘desert palaces’, although he tried to avoid both of the words ‘palace’ and ‘castle’ because the variety between the 38 such sites is such as to make generalisations like that difficult; they are more normally estate centres, with areas around them irrigated for intensive farming and produce collection facilities in the complex, and while some are luxurious, with their own baths and mosque complex and so on, and some are fortified and a few are both, and they seem to have grown and changed over time, they are still probably more like really big desert villas than either palace or castle, if you have to find a single word at all.
    One of the erstwhile dams at Wadi al-Qanatir, the area around the Umayyad 'palace' of Umm al-Walid, in Jordan

    One of the erstwhile dams at Wadi al-Qanatir, the area around the Umayyad ‘palace’ of Umm al-Walid, in Jordan, image from Museum With no Frontiers

Then tea and a chance to see an old colleague kick up some fuss, as follows.

325. Byzantium in Context, II: Environment, Economy and Power – Crisis and Renewal in the Byzantine World

  • Mark Whittow, “Byzantium and Global History: towards a new determinism?”
  • Adam Izdebski, “The Middle Byzantine Revival from an Environmental Perspective: a return to antique models”
  • Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, “Topography, Ecology and (Byzantine) Power un Early Medieval Eastern Anatolia and Armenia, 750-1000”
  • Myrto Veikou, “A Concerted ‘Discourse’: interplay between environment and human agency in the area of Smyrna (modern Izmir) in the 13th century CE”
  • This session had gathered a much bigger crowd than would fit into the tiny room it had been allocated to, which is a lesson about the revival of interest in Byzantium more generally in medieval studies, I think. Mark, coming very visibly from his involvement with the Global Middle Ages project, accordingly set out a manifesto for a new medieval European history in which the continuing Byzantine Empire was the default comparator, not the weird remnant, a sign of what ‘should’ have happened everywhere. This would, he then further defined, need to include the perspective that in the Middle Bzyantine period prosperity became rural rather than urban, a phenomenon that we also see in other places and which Mark bravely suggested might have something to with climate. The obvious point of reference here was Ronnie Ellenblum’s work, which Mark hoped one might be less deterministic than, but mainly I wonder how once you have scaled up to the level of climate one can make any single place central to a hypothesis, however big it was.1 The other papers tried to make such connections more explicit, nonetheless, Dr Izdebski comparing coin circulation and pollen patterns across central Greece (the only place where adequate survey evidence exists, he said) and determining two very similar-looking phases of expansion in the fourth to sixth centuries and the first half of the second millennium, but the coins and the pollen don’t agree about when the latter was and neither make a great deal of sense next to the supposed climate profile. Dr Preiser-Kapeller, meanwhile, ran us very summarily through the history of Armenia from the seventh to tenth centuries and concluded that while the fragile local ecology would impact the two surviving noble houses’ grip on power in the area after the year 1000, up till that point military conquest by Persians and Arabs was a far better explanation of how the area wound up with only two such houses from fourteen than was anything environmental. The point of Ms Veikou’s paper, lastly, was mainly to put the URL of her project before us, a project that as far that URL now shows had by then already wound up and has produced no further publications since it did. So no points from me for that, I’m afraid.

    The tenth-century church of Akdamar Island, in the salt Lake Van in Armenia

    The tenth-century church of Akdamar Island, in the salt Lake Van in Armenia, from which lake Johannes’s climate evidence was largely coming, and fair enough


    I found the three actual papers in this session a paradoxical combination, and this came out in discussion. All three speakers were attracted by the idea that large-scale survey that factored in changes in the ecological sphere alongside more material evidence of human usage could tell us something, but when approached on what had to admit either that the data was not yet collected (as in Cappadocia, where much is visible but very little dated or interpreted, or that when it had been it had made sense only on a regional basis and not compared well with anywhere else or the global pattern (as at Lake Van or Miletus in Greece). The effect was to leave the audience, and indeed one at least of the speakers, much more sceptical that this was a useful approach than they had been when we all entered the room, as if Ellenblum’s book, like the first Velvet Underground album, has made every one of its readers determined to have a go too and then discover that trying to be less erratic and offhand than Lou Reed somehow doesn’t produce better rock and roll. I suppose the real point for us to work on here is the junction between macro-scale and micro-scale pictures; if at a local level one can entirely escape what is apparently the global trend one has to ask what difference the global trend really made to people, a problem that we have of course been seeing with generating concern about the current global ecological situation since, well, as long as I can remember really.

Presumably there was then food, as my conference program is pretty much marked up with receptions for the evening so there wouldn’t have been time later. Between the food and the wine, however, came one final academic event for the day.

401. Early Medieval Europe Lecture

    Abbey church of Corbie, from Wikimedia Commons

    The modern state of the abbey church of Corbie, from Wikimedia Commons


    The annual Early Medieval Europe lecture was this year given by none other than Professor Mayke de Jong, speaking with the title “Carolingian Cultures of Dialogue and Debate”, so as you might expect I went. Mayke was speaking about a difficult text on which she has been working for a long time, the Epitaphium Arsenii of Paschasius Radbertus. This is an anonymised critique of the policies of the Carolingian Emperor Louis the Pious written in the form of a dialoguic account of the life of one of his relatives, Abbot Wala of Corbie (as he ended his earthly career).2 Just explaining what it is isn’t simple, therefore, but Mayke is one of three people who have recently written about it, all coming into the field (as she explained) with different historiographical demons to slay.3 The particular one she tackled here was the idea that the early Middle Ages was an era in which there was no public sphere and the ancient tradition of ‘speaking truth to power’ died off, in which rulers were influenced not by the voices of the crowd but a closed circle of advisors. Texts like the Epitaphium show that this is not true, at least if Mayke’s right that its much more polemical second book was intended for an audience beyond the monastery at Corbie where it was written. The whole text rests on the idea that it was not just all right but morally necessary to try to correct the emperor about his mistakes, after all, and that this could be done by this kind of literary device. Mayke had other examples of people rewriting events in literary fashion to put their view across, but it now strikes me after teaching it for a term again that another obvious one of these texts is Einhard’s Vita Karoli, because whatever its date and purpose was it’s certainly using praise of Charlemagne in the reign of his successor to do something. The whole lecture was full of wry wit and sharp observations about the way that people’s intellectual traditions have constructed their opinions, and she was quite right that if we as scholars of the early Middle Ages want to get our field away from the old idea of the Dark Ages we need better to understand why people find it useful to put it there.4 But her final point, that the Carolingian religious sphere was a public one that included laymen, shows how far our categories are crumbling as we better understand what authors like Paschasius were doing with their texts.

And so that wound up the first day of the IMC of 2015, and I will alternate the reports on the remaining three with shorter and more discursive content but I will, by my blogger’s pledge, get it done, and then continue onwards!


1. Ellenblum’s work referred to here is R. Ellenblum, The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean: climate change and the decline of the East, 950-1072 (Cambridge 2012), to which at some point I am also going to have to pay attention I suppose. On issues of scale, it always seems worth my citing Julio Escalona, “The Early Middle Ages: a scale-based approach” in idem & Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Scale and Scale Change in the Early Middle Ages: exploring landscape, local society, and the world beyond, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 9-29.

2. It is available in a deprecated but still unique translation for the English-speaker as Allen Cabaniss (trans.), Charlemagne’s Cousins: contemporary lives of Adalard and Wala (Syracuse NY 1967).

3. Referring to M. de Jong, The Penitential State: authority and atonement in the age of Louis the Pious, 814-840 (Cambridge 2010), but also to Courtney M. Booker, Past Convictions: the penance of Louis the Pious and the decline of the Carolingians (Philadelphia PA 2009) and some unnamed work by Steffen Patzold that I don’t know, but which might be (or be referred to in) his “Consensus – Concordia – Unitas: Überlegungen zu einem politisch-religiösen Ideal der Karolingerzeit” in Nikolaus Staubach (ed.), Exemplaris imago: Ideale in Mittelalter und früher Neuzeit, Tradition, Reform, Innovation 15 (Frankfurt 2012), pp. 31-56 (non vidi).

4. Mayke cited, among other things, Ian Wood, The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages (Oxford 2013), and I might add, with my original cautions as linked, Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia PA 2006).

Leeds 2014 Report II: the edges of many different empires

Returning to the backlog on reporting what others think about the Middle Ages finds me now at the second day of the International Medieval Congress 2014, on 8th July 2014, and faced with some hard choices between sessions. In the end, I chose this one because I knew one of the people in it, had reviewed the work of another and Wendy Davies was moderating, and this is what I got.

515. On The Fringes of Empire: local and supra-local identities beyond the Carolingian realm, I

    • Frode Iversen, “Impact of Empires: the Scandinavian fringe AD 200-1300”.
    • Letty Ten Harkel, “On the Edge of Empire: early medieval identities on Walcheren (the Netherlands)”.
    • Margarita Fernández Mier, “Peasant Communities and Distant Elites in Early Medieval Asturias”.

As you can see, the unifying thread here was Carolingian periphery, but this didn’t always make it through. Dr Iversen gave a very rapid run-through of significant bits of the settlement history of Norway, and when he began to speak of how urbanisation fitted to a new structure as if he’d described change, I realised I must have missed something. I also struggled with Dr Fernández’s paper, although the sites she was talking about, rural sites whose material culture might tell us something about the links from elite to peasants in early medieval Asturias, were very interesting-looking, but as it turned out known much more from place-names than anything more material. She drew a picture of competing local identities visible in funerary archæology and developing church sites that would be familiar in Anglo-Saxon England, however, and looked worth chasing in more places. Both of these papers had a tendency to argue for connection between sites that seemed to me from their maps to be a good distance from each other, in the former case up to 50 km, however, and I wasn’t sure that either case had been demonstrated.

Aerial view of Middelburg in Walcheren

Middelburg in Walcheren, one of those cases where it could hardly be clearer where the original settlement was and how the church was inside it[Edit: although I am informed by Dr Ten Harkel herself that the church inside the ring is actually the Nieuwekerk, which being twelfth-century is actually the newest of the three at the settlement. The other two were outside the walls, which is in many ways a more ancient way of arranging things…]

Letty Ten Harkel was also arguing for very local identities in her study area, however, and in particular in what has apparently been seen as a chain of associated ringforts along the Netherlands coast that have been blamed placed either in the reign of Emperor Louis the Pious of the Franks (814-840) from texts or the 890s from radio-carbon. The latter is problematic, because by then the area was split between two kingdoms, but Letty argued that there is such variation in size of and finds at these forts that they actually make more sense read as very local lordship centres, erected independently of each other. If there was outside influence, for Letty it was coming from the reviving bishopric of Echternach, not in the era of its Carolingian foundation but in the twelfth century. For me this paper connected most closely to the theme of the session, but only by disputing it!

Nonetheless, my interest was piqued enough to come back for more once caffeinated, as follows.

615. The Fringes of Empire: local and supra-local identities beyond the Carolingian realm, II

    • Alex Langlands, “Empire and Infrastructure: the case of Wessex in the ninth and tenth centuries”.
    • Iñaki Martín Viso, “Local Communities and Kingship South of the Duero, 9th-11th Centuries”.
    • Álvaro Carvahal Castro, “The Astur-Leonese Power and The Localities: changing collective spaces (9th-10th centuries)”.

This session played a lot closer to my usual interests. Dr Langlands was chasing a word, ‘herepath’, literally ‘army-path’ but using a word for army that usually means raiders’ bands, not the army you serve in, and one would think that a path wide enough to carry an army might in fact be a road anyway, so it’s a funny term. Most of the references are in Anglo-Saxon charters, and while Dr Langlands argued convincingly that these paths appear mainly as links between sites rather than routes as such (though now I write that I am no longer seeing the difference) I wasn’t really sure that we could be sure they were anything to do with either roads, bridges or army-service, all of which had come into the argument.

The track of an ancient herepath near Avebury

Wikimedia Commons believes this to be an actual herepath, near Avebury, and who am I to say different? “Herepath Avebury England” by Chris Heaton. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Professor Martín then took us into the almost-unknown territory of the southern Duero valley in the centuries either side of the year 1000. Somewhere in this period, and with setbacks due to the final, red giant phase of Muslim rule in Córdoba, the kings of Asturias-León acquired a dominant control in this area and most of what we have is to figure it out with is archæology. With it, Professor Martín depicted a process by which the king used military service, and his ability to demand it (or possibly to convince local élites to join in with it) to elbow those élites into a position of obligation to him. He tied this to a particular sort of fortress with square towers and sloping walls that seems to be Andalusi workmanship but in a zone that was never under Andalusi control; I myself thought that that was a very unsafe thing to say, but the general proposition could fit round what I think happens in such zones.

The Porta dos Cavaleiros in Viseu

A location of military service in Viseu, one of Dr Martín’s example sites, even if that service would have been a bit later: this is the Porta dos Cavaleiros. “Nt-Viseu-Porta dos Cavaleiros“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Lastly Álvaro, whom in this session I realised I had known while we were both at Oxford but never quite fixed his name in my head, looked for those same local élites a bit closer into the Asturo-Leonese core where we have charters to play with, and found them manifest in assemblies, often as small power groups within likewise small communities, the kind of people who make deals for their communities and so on, who must have existed in these zones before our sources, generated by the making of those kinds of links, show them to us.1

The memorial to the founders of Sant Andreu de Tona on the Turó del Castell de Tona

The memorial to the founders of Sant Andreu de Tona on the Turó del Castell de Tona, one group of ‘local élites’ we can name

I’ve gone into some detail with this because these questions, of why people on the edge of polities decide to join in with them, are meat and drink to me and my frontier interests, and as Charles Insley rightly pointed out in discussion, the crucial questions here are ones of agency: who makes anyone in these situations do stuff? All three speakers offered answers, although Professor Martín’s was mostly a judicious refusal to guess where there was no evidence. Only Álvaro seemed to me to have a clear eye on what sort of people these local élites actually were, however, a problem we’ve discussed before, and I offered the answer I even then had in press and alas still do, to wit that we can at least see them in church consecrations, leading their communities.2 Alas, this is a category of evidence that only exists in Catalonia, so Professor Martín remained obdurate, only suggesting that the fueros of the twelfth century indeed suggest some continuities that we can’t, all the same, prove. He’s right, of course!

Anyway, that was all fun and put me back on some Castilian radars I think, but there wasn’t much time to capitalise on it as there was another lunchtime keynote lecture, and again personal and institutional loyalties drove me to attend, as well as the expectation that it would be very interesting, as indeed it was, which I tried not to spoil by noises of eating my packed lunch again. (I’m glad they dropped this arrangement this year.)

699. Keynote Lecture 2014

    • Naomi Standen, “A Forgotten Eurasian Empire: the Liao dynasty, 907-1125”.
The Fugong Temple Pagoda, built in 1056 by Emperor Daozong of Liao

The Fugong Temple Pagoda, built in 1056 by Emperor Daozong of Liao. By Gisling (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

      Naomi introduced what was for many people an unfamiliar area by setting up the familiar dichotomy of civilisation versus nomads, a way of classifying society probably familiar to most people in the West from

the work of Ibn Khaldūn

      but very common in Chinese sources too, especially when the Mongols are at issue. On one side, bureaucracy, tax, education, cities, a professional class and so on, on the other personal hierarchy, tribute and plunder, and a life for which warriors trained in the saddle, you know the deal. Naomi then pitched her subject area of the moment,

the Liao Empire

      , as a third way that breaks this dichotomy, using archæology wherever possible to vie with the impression of the Liao given by Chinese writers who were determined to put them, and their cities too, in the nomads box. But they didn’t fit either, Naomi argued: they had a structured élite but it was maintained by family succession, they had a trade network which we can see in ceramics finds along routeways but no sign that the state tapped it, the empire was stable and not expansionist and held to long treaties with inner China, the citizens were called nomads but lived in cities, and people in the empire invested hugely in religious patronage. It also comprised more than two hundred ‘peoples’ as the Chinese geographers counted it but made no legal distinction between them. It had not borrowed all this from central China or been civilised by contact, or so Naomi claimed; it was a different sort of empire. I’m sure that some might contend with this or find it idealistic but the thought experiment of substituting a trinary for one of the binaries with which

Western historiography is famously dogged

      is probably worthwhile even so, and the detail is meanwhile still coming together as the pottery series and the architectural history of the zone get worked out by

Naomi’s super project

    , so we will either way know more before long.

Thus refreshed both physically and mentally, I headed some of the way back west.

719. Were the Umayyad Caliphates Empires? I

    • Andrew Marsham, “In What Respects Was the Umayyad Empire an Empire?”
    • Harry Munt, “The Umayyad Imperial Rationale and Hijazi Cities”.
    • Hannah-Lena Hagemann, “Rulers and Rebels: Kharijite Islamic resistance to Umayyad authority in early Islamic historiography”.

This was an interesting and tightly-focused session, even if again about the category of ’empire’ as much as the actual materials of the presenter’s study. Dr Marsham invoked the work of Michael Mann (which I should know better3) and used its categories to argue that the early Islamic caliphate, with its emphasis on dynastic succession, its religious qualities attached to state office, its structured hierarchy of that office and its tax system, was as much an empire as the late Roman one it replaced, which given the inheritance perhaps shouldn’t be surprising but still often is. The other two papers focused on opposition to the Umayyad Caliphs, but from two different sources, in the case of Dr Munt from the cities in the Hijaz area of modern Saudi Arabia and most notably Medina, whose ruling class never aimed at separation from the state but frequently rebelled to achieve better inclusion in it. In the case of Dr Hagemann, however, the rebellion came from the Kharijites, a sect of early Islam who declared, according largely to their opponents, that there were no legitimate successors to the Prophet and therefore rejected all attempts at command in his name; she pointed out that even some of those enemies still used them, in pleasingly Roman style, as a foil for criticism of the Umayyad régime where those writers felt it had gone so far wrong as almost to justify the reaction of the supposed ‘heretics’. It all gelled very nicely and in discussion I witnessed, for the only time I can remember, someone successfully defend their point against a question about the economy from Hugh Kennedy, no small achievement.

This was all grand, therefore, but I sorely needed caffeine by now, and hunting in the bookfair, always dangerous, found myself deep in conversation with Julio Escalona about the need to get Castilian and Catalan scholars around the same table. Thus it was that I was late for the next session, nothing to do with books honest…

812. Empire and the Law

    • Vicky Melechson, “From Piety to the Death Penalty: new capital crimes in the Carolingian Empire”.
    • Graham Barrett, “Legislation and its Afterlife in Early Medieval Europe”.
    • Sharon Fischlowitz, “Laws of an Empire: after the Romans, what were the leges barbarorum?”

So I was late for the start of Ms Melechson’s paper but caught her point quickly, it being that while the Romans really only imposed the death penalty for crimes against the emperor, and the various barbarian laws attempted to divert people from vengeance for murder to compensation payments, nonetheless the influence of the Old Testament in the way the Carolingian kings presented themselves made capital punishment an appropriately Biblical step for increasingly many things. There are arguments one could have with several parts of that but the basic argument seemed well-founded. I got rather less out of Dr Fischlowitz’s paper, which was given largely from the perspective of teaching modern law using the ‘barbarian’ laws as examples. It sounded as if she was having great fun doing it but the paper nonetheless really only told us what she found the most striking bits of late Roman and Frankish law.

Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Latin 4404, fo. 2v

The opening of the text of a manuscript of the Breviary of Alaric, one of the earliest ‘barbarian’ collections of Roman law (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Latin 4404, fo. 2v)

But it was all worthwhile for Graham’s paper, which was him absolutely on form: he was arguing that although we know and read late Roman and early medieval law as codes, big books of more or less organised and collected legislation, it could almost never have been used like that, especially not the huge late Roman codices. It was also hardly ever issued like that: the late Roman codes explicitly compile decisions, largely reactive rather than proactive, fragmented and disparate, from centuries apart by many different emperors, the Visigothic Law does some of the same work and citations like this also appear in the Salic and Burgundian laws. What this means is that capitulary legislation like that of the Carolingians would actually have been the primary form of law, and the codes we think of as definitive only its secondary collection, which could have very little to do with law as it would have been used, as dockets and loose gatherings of relevant edicts, rescripts and proclamations. This was one of those papers that seemed to make everything very obvious which before had not been, and I hope as with almost all of Graham’s work that we get to see it in print before very long. It provoked a lot of discussion, also, with Paul Hyams wisely pointing out that law that got written relates only to the problems that couldn’t be solved more locally, and is therefore always outstanding. There was also some discussion about law that gets made as part of a treaty process, to which Dr Fischlowitz offered the Lex Romana Burgundionum, intended to regulate the relations of the Romans of what is now Burgundy to the newly-arrived military group after whom it got named, and I proffered the Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, after which, probably wisely, the moderator drew the session quickly to a close.

Again I can’t remember how the evening went, but the day had been pretty full and this post is certainly full enough, so I shall leave it here for now and pick up after a couple of smaller posts that don’t take me days to write. I’m sure you’re already looking forward to it…


1. On such groups see now Robert Portass, “Rethinking the ‘small worlds’ of tenth-century Galicia” in Studia Historica: Historia Medieval Vol. 31 (Salamanca 2013), pp. 83-103, online here.

2. Few better statements of this line of thought are available for Spain than Álvaro’s own “Superar la frontera: mecanismos de integración territorial entre el Cea y el Pisuerga en el siglo X” in Anuario de Estudios Medievales Vol. 42 (Madrid 2012), pp. 601-628, DOI: 10.3989/aem.2012.42.2.08, but I hope soon to be adding to it in “Engaging Élites: Counts, Capital and Frontier Communities in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries, in Catalonia and Elsewhere” in Networks and Neighbours Vol. 2 (Leeds forthcoming for 2014), pp. 202-230, preprint online here.

3. Presumably most obviously M. Mann, The Sources of Social Power Volume 1: a History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760 (Cambridge 1986)? I wonder if this will supply something I found myself in want of in a dissertation supervision a few weeks ago, too, a cite for the conceptual differentiation of ‘intensive’ and ‘extensive’ lordship. If anyone reading happens to have one handy, however, I’d be glad of it!

Seminar ketchup: CXVII-CXXI

If I mean to get this blog back up to some reasonable frequency of posting and currency, I have obviously got to do something about the massive backlog of seminars I want or intended to report on, so it’s time for drastic measures. For a start, I’m not even going to cover Rosanna Sornicola‘s presentation, “What the Legal Documents of the Early Middle Ages Can Tell Us About Language: the case of 9th- and 10th-century charters from Southern Italy” at the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminar on 25th January, not because it wasn’t interesting but because the indomitable Magistra covered it long ago and the only thing I really wanted to add to her write-up was my side of an argument I had with the speaker afterwards about when ipse starts to serve as a definite article in late Latin, and nobody needs that here, right? (I mean, if you do, ask in comments, but I’m guessing not.) Gorgeous pictures of Naples and a comprehensive handout, though, all respect to the speaker.

Developing towards a Viking Christianity

Birka Smycken

Silver crosses from graves at Birka, from Wikimedia Commons

That then lets me skip forward to the next day when, back in Oxford, Ildar Garipzanov gave the first of two Oliver Smithies Lectures in Balliol College, this one entitled “Christian Identities, Social Status, and Gender in Viking-Age Scandinavia”. This was required of him by a six-month fellowship he had at the college care of a bequest by that same O. Smithies, and which he was using to advance his part in a bigger project entitled, ‘The “Forging” of Christian Identity in the Northern Periphery (c. 820-1200)’. This project, which has already published a couple of essay volumes,1 is seeking to retell the story of the conversion of the Scandinavian regions to Christianity from the point of view of the converted, rather than the more traditional missionary perspective.2 Ildar’s reprise of it contained the worthwhile starting point that medieval Christianity was to a great degree both a social identity and a religious one: one was a member of a Christian population in a way that a pagan religious identity did not involve with paganism, because of Christianity’s articulated hierarchy that joined its members up. Their research, apparently, is tending to confirm an idea that one of the many social theorists mentioned in this paper had noted, that Christianity spread fastest where religious plurality was possible, as thus to profess Christianity allowed one to enhance various existing aspects of one’s identity (so as to get preferential taxation in Eastern markets, for example) without eradicating others. In those circumstances, why not add some Christian ideas and jewellery or whatever to one’s basic presentation? But this becoming a full Christianization was a much slower process. This helps us understand ‘mixed’-religion graves like some of those found at Birka (or these which I’ve just found about thanks to A Stitch In Time, cheers Katrin!) without thinking that the deceased or those burying them must have just got something wrong; rather, they were about showing off riches and ‘Christian’ material culture was one of the fashionable labels in that society. And when churches came to be put up where these burials, among others, were made, it was likely more because that’s where the power was than because that’s where the ‘Christians’ were buried. This was all very interesting stuff, and the theory put to good effect, but I should have begged a bibliography from Ildar because I’d never heard of any of what he cited…

Failures to extend authority in early Islam

Umayyad Caliph 'Abd al-Malik: 'Caliphal Image solidus' or Standing Caliph solidus struck from 74-77 AH. Based on Byzantine numismatic traditions

Obverse of an Umayyad dinar of Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik, showing the Caliph standing with sword, from Wikimedia Commons

Then, on the 31st January and the 2nd February Oxford got two papers by the same man, Andrew Marsham, the first entitled, “God’s Caliph: authority in the Umayyad Caliphate”, which he presented to the Late Antique and Byzantine Seminar, and the second, “Public Execution with Fire in Late Antiquity and Early Islam”, given to the Late Roman Seminar. The former of these was a study of the Islamic ruler’s title ‘Khalifat Allāh’, successor of God, rather than the now-more-conventional succesor of the Prophet. This title seems to appear in usage in 743 and run until the ninth century in various contexts before becoming theologically inadmissible. Dr Marsham explored the possibility of late Antique roots for it, a kind of contesting of importance with the Byzantine emperors or even simply part of an ideological struggle with the ‘community of the faithful’ over whether the Caliph was subject to law or not, but if that’s what it was, initially at least he appears to have lost. The latter was a similar sort of enquiry in a way, trying to work out if there might be effective late Antique precedents for the unusual and controversial occasions in early Islamic history in which people are judicially killed with fire. The interesting suggestion was involved here that these executions were failed rituals, in which someone in power decided that this case merited messing round with some old precedents now tinged with the echo of Hellfire, but which was always felt by the wider community to be too awful to become established. Both of these papers were interesting but I don’t have the kind of background that could evaluate Dr Marsham’s rather tentative conclusions so I just plug some of his work and move on.3

The ‘Three Orders’ in China, if China it were

Then the next week, on the 6th February, I made sure to come to the Medieval History Seminar because Naomi Standen was speaking. I know little to nothing about China but some of what I have read on it has been by Professor Standen and besides, I wanted to know what on earth a paper with a title like “Politics, Piety and Pots: shared repertoires across Continental Asia in the 7th to 12th centuries” would actually be.4 Really interesting, was the answer: fed up with divisions and mappings of medieval China that attempt to plot political groupings, ethnic divisions (most especially Han Chinese, very hard to define historically), agriculture and religious populations, all of which break down in various ways when examined closely, Professor Standen had elected to try and take a horizontal approach (and you know how I love that) and analyse this supposed unit socially. Taking a defined geographical expanse in which the climate was roughly similar, and thus leaving aside the far south-east, she started with leadership, differentiating a chieftain-style leadership of fictive ‘peoples’ from the more official one found in towns where society was multi-functional enough that influence could be had in other ways, but stressing that in the right places and at the right times officials could run tribes or chieftains towns and that some nomad groups notionally within the Empire had no leaders at all. Polities thus being dismissed as too structurally flexible to constitute differentiable zones, she moved onto religion, plotting a McCormick-like network of Buddhist contacts and travellers which though connected was not uniform and stretched as far as India and Japan and survived imperial collapses more or less safely.5

Map of China under the Liao dynasty

A traditional perspective

The political structuration being too granular and the religious one too variously-shaded and extensive, she lastly tried to look at the peasantry by means of ceramics, and although this suffers from the fact that the ceramic sequence is so poorly-studied here that there’s no real chronology of the stuff between 200 and 1200, that is also because a remarkably uniform grey ware was in use right across her ‘Continental zone’, and while other ceramic styles of higher quality came and went in certain areas, especially where the Silk Road reached, this at least did look like a kind of cultural unity, albeit one in which the ruling élites were very probably completely uninterested. Of course, that unity was not we think of as China or any ethnic group’s supposed territory, but the point of this paper was roughly to assert that nothing was, and it was really well done. (And yet of course the idea of a China was incredibly powerful throughout the period and beyond: Chris Wickham described it as a “continuity of potential disintegration” in questions, which struck me as being just right at the time.) But what I mainly loved about this paper, I admit, apart from being so well led into a field about which I know so little, was seeing the Three Orders in another context, because, as I pointed out to Professor Standen afterwards, that was what her three categories of analysis were, Those Who Fight, Those Who Pray and Those Who Work. She said she hadn’t done this consciously but it’s one of several things lately that have made me wonder why it is medieval historians don’t export theory rather than import it. This was a tenth-century set of categories doing useful analytical work still, was this; Adalbero of Laon would have been proud…

And finally women in men’s clothing

Lastly in this batch, on the 7th February I had the chance to hear Judith Bennett speak to the Europe in the Later Middle Ages Seminar, and I did so, partly because of the numerous people who’ve told me I could learn from her, but also because her title was “Early, Erotic, and Alien: cross-dressing in late medieval London”. This was work that Professor Bennett had done with one Shannon McSheffrey, of whom I’m afraid I know no more than this web-page offers, and it analysed 13 cases of persons brought before the courts in London between 1450 and 1547 for offences that included dressing in the clothes of the opposite gender. Only one of these was a man, and only two of the women appear to have actually been trying to pass as men, so the question opens up straight away, what was going on and was it a particular thing that can be described as a unity? This involved some foreign comparisons – for some reason Florence recorded a lot more of this than most places, albeit in the fourteenth century – but it also meant excluding things like saintly women trying to escape their biological sex and, well, ‘man up’, and also the kind of inversion beloved of festivals and so on. Aside from one fascinating case of two women who shared a bed, one of whom dressed male (because they felt one of them had to?), most of the cases that went before court appeared to be have aimed to titillate or disturb men, being displays at parties or in brothels and so on, and so some erotic charge was presumably involved,6 in which case it might fall into a rather wider category of queer dressing, cross-class, cross-profession, cross-age (maidens as matrons or vice versa). Another common factor, however, was that many of the women were foreigners, and this raised questions of whether being rootless or indeed without protection might allow or compel such reinvention of one’s presentation. For the London judiciary, all these cases were sexual misconduct, but Professor Bennett showed the range of possibilities that might lie behind such choices, from fear right the way through to fun (and not necessarily the fun of others only). From an early medievalist’s point of view it’s frustrating to discover that even when we’re dealing with sources that come as close as it’s reasonable to expect to actually being interviews with the people concerned, we still have to guess what was in their heads, of course, but there was more to this paper than just entertainment. As Andrew Marsham had also argued about executions by fire, these very unusual occurrences can be used to show up what was thought to be usual in better relief, and the odd thing here was that the courts saw a pattern where we, with much scantier and less detailed evidence than they had, can’t.


1. Those being Garipzanov (ed.), Historical Narratives and Christian Identity on a European Periphery: Early History Writing in Northern, East-Central, and Eastern Europe (c.1070–1200) (Turnhout 2011) and Ildar Garipzanov & Oleksiy Tolochko (edd.), Early Christianity on the Way from the Varangians to the Greeks: Christian Identities, Social Networks (Kyiv 2011).

2. I had to choose that phrase very carefully. If his ghost will forgive the association with it, I suppose the traditional perspective would ultimately be that of Adam of Bremen in his History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, transl. of choice being that of Francis J. Tschan (New York City 1959, repr. with intro. and notes by Timothy Reuter 2002).

3. Such as A. Marsham, Rituals of Islamic Monarchy: accession and succession in the first Muslim empire (Edinburgh 2009) and specifically for his second topic, “Public Execution in the Umayyad Period: early Islamic punitive practice and its late Antique context” in Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies Vol. 11 (Edinburgh 2011), pp. 101-136.

4. What I’ve read is Naomi Standen, “(Re)Constructing the Frontiers of Tenth-Century North China” in Daniel Power & Standen (edd.), Frontiers in Question: Eurasian borderlands, 700-1700 (London 1999), pp. 55-79, but what I probably should read had I but world enough and time is Standen, Unbounded Loyalty: frontier crossings in Liao China (Honolulu 2007) or eadem, “The Five Dynasties” in Denis Twitchett & Paul Jakov Smith (edd.), The Cambridge history of China, Volume 5, Part 1: The Sung dynasty and its precursors, 907-1279 (Cambridge 2009), pp. 38-132.

5. Referring to Michael McCormick, The Origins of the European Economy (Cambridge 2001).

6. I wanted to include here a salacious example, but I notice at the last minute that Professor Bennett’s hand-out has a request not to cite or quote it without permission and I haven’t thought to get same, so you’ll have to do without it, sorry.