Tag Archives: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The first Viking raid on England or Francia

Here’s a little thing that narks me every now and then. This comes up occasionally in teaching, where I can set it straight, occasionally someone is wrong about it on the Internet (which never ends well) but I was quite surprised to find a related version in a certain large book I’m still sporadically making my way through, and that has me worried enough to set out my thinking. The thing in question is a supposed fact, the dates of the first Viking attacks on the kingdoms of Western Europe.

Church of St Mary and the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island, Lindisfarne

Church of St Mary and the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Island, Lindisfarne (from Wikimedia Commons)

[Edit: a very cogent point from Julia Barrow in comments has meant I’ve seriously overhauled this paragraph and the next. Further edit: there has also developed in the comments a very erudite dispute about what exactly Alcuin was thinking when he wrote the letters I mockingly pastiche in what follows, and if that is likely to matter to you you should have a look below.] For England, canonically, it was Northumbria that was first to be attacked, with the sack of the monastery Lindisfarne in 793. Now, OK, let’s be quite clear, Lindisfarne in 793 was not a good place to be. However much the famous letter of Alcuin about it may work it up into eschatological froth, people surely died or were kidnapped and the monastery plundered.1 The only problem is that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that the first Viking attack was in the reign of King Beorhtric of Wessex, which we put from 786 to 802, when a boat hauled up on Portland sands, the king’s reeve Beaduheard went down to tell them, I suppose, the contemporary equivalent of “you can’t park that there” and they killed him. That, I grant you, could still put Lindisfarne first, but the Chronicle‘s compilers (working around 892) explicitly said the Portland attack was “the first ships of the Danish men which sought out the land of the English race”.2 So, at the least, if you want to ignore what the Chronicle says you need to make that argument or one like it before you go and take Alcuin’s words (which have their own moral purpose, as no doubt did the letter that must have been his source) instead.

Schematic stemma of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and related texts

Schematic stemma of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and related texts (from Wikimedia Commons)

Now in fact that argument is not hard to make, because the earliest manuscript, known as A or the Parker Chronicle, of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle doesn’t mention the sack of Lindisfarne. In fact it doesn’t have an annal for 793 at all. Notice of the sack only occurs in three later manuscripts (known as D, E, and F), all of which had, one way or another, incorporated parts of a set of northern annals that we no longer have, except via these manuscripts and the twelfth-century Historia Regum, written at Durham, whose author Simeon also seems to have had them to use.2bis Can it be that the Chronicle‘s compilers didn’t know Lindisfarne had been sacked, a hundred years on? It seems unlikely, so perhaps they were just keen to make sure that the real first attack clearly happened in Wessex, where the Chronicle was being compiled and where King Alfred was fairly keen on getting people on board dealing with the massive threat that Viking attacks had by that time become. In which case, of course, they may have adopted the vague dating for exactly the reason that they were aware that Lindisfarne was attacked first. But there are good reasons to suppose that if they thought that, even so, they were wrong.

Charter of King Offa of Mercia for the Kentish abbey of Lyminge, done at a synod in Kent (Sawyer 123)

Charter of King Offa of Mercia for the Kentish abbey of Lyminge, done at a synod in Kent (Sawyer 123), sadly not the right synod or charter but at least illustrative

You see, there’s a charter of King Offa of the Mercians (and also, he claims in it, now awarded the sceptre of government of the people of Kent by God), that he issued at a synod at Clofesho (which was apparently a vastly important place then and is now unknown) in 792.3 Offa seems to have been in generous mood, or perhaps really urgent to pacify Kent, as the document is a blanket confirmation that all the churches of Kent were to be exempt from various services and dues. There were however some things they still had to pay when necessary. This was a classic Mercian strategy, indeed since the 1970s it’s been thought of as one of the things that made Mercia great, but usually it extended only to providing soldiers on royal demand, repairing fortresses and maintaining bridges.4 On this occasion, however, the first thing these churches still had to stump up for was, “an expedition within Kent against seaborne pagans arriving with fleets, or against the East Saxons if necessity compels”. Now, against this, it must be admitted that the charter as we have it is not an original. It was once preserved at St Augustine’s Canterbury but now survives in two thirteenth-century cartularies in London. So it could be, shall we say, improved, but if so, the bit about attacking Essex would be a very odd thing to add! Mind you, it looks odd in its day’s terms as well, it’d been a while since Essex had a separate political existence, but all the same I’m not inclined to dismiss it straight away. If it’s not some scribe’s over-active imagination, anyway, in 792 Offa was expecting pagan sea-raiders in Kent, which rather suggests that there had already been some. Once again the sources are awkward, but one has to at least explain why one trusts one and distrusts another before stating things as fact. There just aren’t any safe facts here.

Silver denier of Emperor Louis the Pious from Dorestad

Silver denier of Emperor Louis the Pious from Dorestad, hit by the Vikings even more often than Lindisfarne

The same debate can be had about the Continent. On page 587 of that certain large book for example, we are told, “the first Viking raid on Francia, from neighbouring Denmark, was in 834, in the context of Louis [the Pious]’s 833-4 conflict with his sons”.5 Now, I’m not going to say this is wrong, you must realise; I believe that if you stuck the word “documented” in there somewhere it would be cast-iron true, and the actual point, which is about how quickly enemies of a kingdom might capitalise on its political problems, is perfectly valid. But, as with Offa, we may suspect there was more going on already behind the scenes, because in 800 King Charles of the Franks and Lombards, as he still then was, spent some of the earlier part of the year touring “the coastal region adjoining the Gallic ocean; he created a fleet upon this sea because it was infested with pirates at that time [and] organised defences”.6 There’s really only one likely set of pirates out there at this time, and whereas the attack in 834 was a political one, we know that, well, by 802 and likely earlier there were also presumably-independent Danish raiders in the English Channel, see above.

Hraban Maur presenting his Liber de Sancti Crucis to Archbishop Otgar of Mainz, encouraged by Alcuin: Vienna, Codex Vindobonensis 652

Alcuin, being patronising as usual (from Wikimedia Commons)

What we are facing here is that no-one realised this whole Viking thing was going to be the theme of the century when it started. Even Alcuin, who is all “OMG it’s like the sack of Rome all over again, nothing as bad as this has happened in English Christian history, are you really sure you guys weren’t being sinful because you know God does nothing by chance“,7 did not go on to say, “I bet this isn’t the last we see of this; run to Chester-le-Street!” and predict the First Viking Age. The people compiling the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle however, with a century’s bitter hindsight, did know when they came across some note of the Portland attack, in whatever sources they had to build the Chronicle out of, that that was the story of which that attack should be seen as part, and so do we. But that doesn’t mean that whoever had written it down first recognised it as such, and that they knew it was the first such attack; it just means that the Chronicle compilers thought they could make the case that it was. The earlier attacks on Kent that Offa seems to have been providing against, likewise, were not recognised as the beginning of a centuries-long society-changing war; he made no special provision other to than ensure that the regular military response would not get smaller. How could they have known, after all? So the first Viking attacks, in either England or Francia, are almost certainly not recorded, but there is good reason to say that anyone who gives you the canonical dates for them without a crucial word like “known” or “recorded” or similar is, well, probably talking about something else really.


1. Alcuin’s letter is actually two letters, printed in Ernst Dümmler (ed.), Epistolae Ævi Karolini II, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Epistolae) IV (Berlin 1895), Alcuini sive Albini epistolae nos 20 & 21 (pp. 57-59), one of about ten letters he immediately sent to people in England trying to drum up help and support for the beleaguered monastery. No. 20 is translated in full in S. Allott (trans.), Alcuin of York, c. A. D. 732 to 804 (York 1974), pp. 72-73, whence repr. in Paul Edward Dutton (transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures 1, 2nd edn. (Peterborough ON 2004), pp. 123-125, probably in the first edition as well and I expect several other places, but those are the ones I have on the shelf so that’s the reference you get.

2. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle s. a. 787 for 789, here cit. from Michael Swanton (transl./ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1996).

2bis. A brief discussion of the manuscripts can be found ibid., pp. xxi-xxix, and a much more thorough one in D. Whitelock (ed./transl.), English Historical Documents I: c. 500-1042, 2nd edn. (London 1979, repr. 1996), pp. 113-131, but I don’t know as I write how well that now stands up against the latest scholarship.

3. Now best ed. in Susan Kelly (ed.), The Charters of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, and Minster-in-Thanet, Anglo-Saxon Charters 4 (Oxford 1995), no. 15, but of course also available via Sean Miller’s ASCharters.net here, whence the Latin: “nisi expeditione intra Cantiam contra paganos marinos cum classis migrantibus uel in australes Saxones si necessitas cogit“. I would, of course, like to cite it from the supposed replacement for that site at King’s College London but as usual it’s down so I can’t. Plus ça change.

4. Discussed classically in Nicholas Brooks, “The Development of Military Obligations in Eighth- and Ninth-Century England” in Peter Clemoes & Kathleen Hughes (edd.), England before the Conquest: Studies in Primary Sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock (Cambridge 1971), pp. 69–84, back when CUP still printed Festschriften, repr. in Brooks, Communities and Warfare 700–1400 (London 2000), pp. 32-47 and in David Pelteret (ed.), Anglo-Saxon History: Basic Readings (New York City 2000), pp. 83-105.

5. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 (Oxford 2005), p. 587.

6. Royal Frankish Annals s. a. 800, printed in Friedrich Kurze (ed.), Annales regni francorum inde ab a. 741 usque ad a. 829. Qui dicuntur Annales laurissenses maiores et Einhardi, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) VI (Hannover 1895); here cit. from P. D. King (transl.), Charlemagne: translated sources (Lancaster 1987), p. 92.

7. I paraphrase, obviously; this is not Alcuin’s style really. I realise he was a famous teacher and a moralist and theologian of the first order and so forth, and yes, at the same time as questioning his old acquaintances’ morality he was also trying to kick an international (or at least interregnal) relief effort into action, but I can’t help feeling that Alcuin was not very much fun, you know? I would have been in Theodulf’s camp, or more likely waiting for Walahfrid and Eriugena to arrive.

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.

Kalamazoo and Back, II: ritual, chronicles and arm-wrestling

Resuming the Kalamazoo blogging, then, as mentioned before, there was no kettle, and before that in reverse order, there had been geese, an electrical storm and a small hours arrival in a room which we will not discuss further. Result, really not much sleep, and there was no kettle. Therefore to become at all coherent for the day I had to negotiate the canteen uncaffeinated, and no sooner had I uncertainly done so than a voice I didn’t know hailed me by name. This turned out to be Michael who writes the Heptarchy Herald, and he was not like I’d imagined him at all (though if I had stopped and thought back over one of his comments, I might have had a better idea). He amiably put up with me while I diluted the blood in my caffeine-stream enough to talk with joined-up words, and then we headed off to sessions.

Session 4. Carolingian Studies: Secular Culture I

(Also covered by the Medieval History Geek here.)

  • Obviously, having travelled thousands of miles to a strange country filled with people I’d never met, the first thing I did was go to hear an old friend. But Christina Pössel is always thought-provoking. Here, her paper, “Was there such a thing as Carolingian secular ritual: comparing oranges and apples in order to learn something about fruit”, was aimed at tackling the problem in ritual studies (which she tends to prove are still interesting) that circulate round the fact that rituals are usually directed at the supernatural, which pretty much excludes them from secularity. She wound up arguing that non-supernatural rituals did exist, and that several may be in the Salic Law; she also, more controversially, suggested that they might be almost as new as the writing of the code, as they give a large rôle to kings despite supposedly harking from an era when there supposedly weren’t kings in the same way. In particular, a ritual for breaking your kin ties and their rights to inherit your property makes the fisc your heir, which could hardly be the case before there was a fisc… Her general pitch was that these were ways of generating a memorable spectacle that no-one could later easily deny knowledge of, and that makes sense to me and fits with some work of Jinty Nelson’s (which Christina namechecked) about the Franks getting children to witness transactions so that their memory, which should be beaten into them if necessary, would persist in subsequent decades.1
  • Paul Kershaw then presented a paper about a particular one of the poems of Theodulf of Orléans, in fact just a few lines of it (also singled out by Paul Dutton in his reader of such things2) in which Theodulf mocks an oversize courtier by the name of Wibod (and Curt Emanuel has posted Paul’s translation if you’re curious). Paul’s paper, “Membrosus heros: Theodulf, Wibod, and Carolingian categories of secular identity”, went deep into questions of physical versus intellectual and how far our sources let us see the rough side of the court culture, but also put some much-needed context to Wibod himself. This was a paper where the questions actually wound up considerably altering the slant of the presentation, as Paul had left me with the familiar impression that Theodulf was basically being malicious from a safe distance whereas several questioners seemed to think that the joke wouldn’t work unless Theodulf and Wibod were already old sparring partners and Wibod understood the jibe, which lets Wibod a lot further into the court culture than we might otherwise have thought.
  • Lastly in the session, Professor Lynda Coon presented a paper called “Lay Bodies” in which she described the kind of access the lay population had to the imaginary monastery laid out in the St Gall Plan, which was not just extremely schematised (as is everything else in that plan, and some of schemed in much older lists as I had recently been discovering3) but also complete with built-in hierarchy, one side of the church for nobles and friends and one for the plebs4), although still only a sixth of the whole floor plan with lay access at all. This, interestingly, didn’t apply in the crypt where monks and pilgrims might mingle almost ineluctably. Lots to think about with boundaries of secular and religious space here, especially since the scheme of saints’ chapels got more and more male and monastic the further into the church you would have gone if it existed (that last being the fundamental problem with this source of course: I helped by suggesting that recent archæological work at San Vincenzo al Volturno suggests that that site might have been built a lot closer to the ideal than was St Gall).

Then there was lunch, by which point I had located the estimable Another Damned Medievalist, or rather she me, and so I was able to let her take over my social calendar for the day, which was just as well given my disorientation. Over lunch we spotted and accosted Mary Kate Hurley and she of the Rebel Letter, one of whom I knew was charming and about the other of whom I was proved right to suspect similarly, and I avoided the book exhibit until more rational. After that, it was back to Carolingia!

Session 59. Carolingian Studies: Secular Culture II

(This one also covered by the Medieval History Geek here.)

  • The second of these sessions was led off by Jennifer Davis, whom I turned out to remember from her time in Cambridge unbeknownst to me, and she was talking to the title “The Court of Charlemagne: lay aspects in the aula renovata“. Here again we met the problem of largely ecclesiastical sources for a project, the Carolingian court, that was also or even more meant to involve the lay population, and she negotiated those problems to suggest especially that the assignment of persons to tasks was probably done by their particular skills and connections more than by any office or rank they might hold, and also that quite a lot of Charlemagne’s reign was spent reacting to crises so that a fully-developed and implemented policy is probably too much to expect anyway. Obvious, you may think, but often someone first needs to say these things before they seem that way.
  • Cullen Chandler is of course my officially-appointed nemesis or arch-rival or something, though this has been a lot more difficult to maintain since we were actually introduced and got on OK. He was presenting to the title, “Königsnähe and Rebellion in the Ninth Century”, and suggested that the long string of rebellions on the Spanish march by Frankish marquises could not be seen as a struggle for Königsnähe but as a means of forcing the king to open negotiations around which power might be rearranged in this or other areas. I wasn’t really aware that people had seen it the former way, because as usual my perspectives are formed from the local scholarship where sometimes a more global perspective would be useful. The Catalan historiography isn’t interested so much in vindicating the marquises, since out of their forfeitures comes the success of the local dynasty, but it is pretty clear that Barcelona is not somewhere one runs to to get people’s attention, but because it’s a long way away and damned difficult to reduce.5 It’s not at Barcelona that Charles the Bald finally catches Bernard of Septimania, after all, but his notional home capital of Toulouse… But anyone else who is pointing out that interesting things happen in this area that affect the rest of Carolingian history is fundamentally OK with me and that was certainly happening here. There is more I could say about a particular theme of Cullen’s and one or two other papers, too, but I’ll come back to that separately.
  • The Roman walls and medieval towers of Barcelona

  • Lastly, and heroically defeating transport difficulties to be there at all, came Helmut Reimitz, speaking on “Ethnicity, Identity, and Difference: the future for lay people in the Carolingian Empire”. There were some very interesting takes from the social sciences on what constitutes an identity deployed here: the most cynical, but also useful, was one from a chap called Hall to the effect that identity is a cover story to assert continuity during an episode of change,6 but Helmut pointed out that over time this cover story also changes, noting it especially in the fact that when Charles the Bald gets a kingdom of Alemannia in the fateful divisio of 829, it’s not an Alemannia with any historical or ethnic basis, but one with which, nonetheless, Walahfrid Strabo goes on strongly to identify. Interesting stuff, and Helmut pulled it out to an Empire-wide successful formulation of the Frankish identity as Christianity-plus-membership-of-the-Frankish-polity, wherever its constitutents had come from. I think it might be interesting, in a full version of this paper, to look at some areas where this identity doesn’t triumph, for example, northern Italy or, indeed, the Spanish March though there things are a lot more complex. But I would say that wouldn’t I? This was a good paper and that’s what matters.

Session 129. Accessing the Medieval in Nottingham II

  • Refreshed by further coffee, I now struck out, because there was developing a danger here that I do what can be done at Leeds with the Texts and Identities sessions and listen to nothing outside my own field of study; there was enough Carolingiana all conference that I thought breaking out would be a good plan. Instead, I went to a session some way off in an incredibly huge lecture theatre that I didn’t then realise I’d be presenting in two days later, where sadly Dayanna Knight was no longer going to talk about “Cultural Contact in the Norse North Atlantic AD 800-1500”, which I’d thought might hit some of this blog’s less common interests, but John Quanrud was still there and presenting on what I thought was a title full of potential, “Annals, Scribes and Kings: revisiting the origins of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”, and which did not disappoint, either. His pitch was basically that there has been quite a lot of work on the possibility of precursor texts to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as supposedly assembled somewhere near King Alfred c. 892, by Janet Bately and Frank Stenton especially, but that they were all working in different directions.7 Quanrud’s paper brought them all into line, or at least a number of them, and demonstrated that there is a particular point around 878 when all of the models seem to emphasise a discontinuity in the texts. He proposed that the solution to this was that there were two precursor texts, an annalistic compilation from which most of the bald annals come and a dynastic propaganda text covering the sons of Egbert, 825-878 basically, which he supposed was done for circulation when Alfred was on his uppers in the marshes that autumn and which may have helped motivate support for the king against the Danes. I was less convinced by the stylistic arguments that these two were distinct than I was by the argument that this was the best way to resolve the apparent oddities of focus by region and person that the earlier work was picking up on. But whether you credit it or not, it just goes to show that there is no such thing as a worked-out source…
  • Follow that, you may think, but Malte Ringer did a reasonable job with, “Heathendom in the Laws of Medieval Norway”, which took a very sober and careful view of what the Old Norse laws actually say about paganism, wisely refused to entertain any of the extreme interpretations that have been placed on this material, and separated a number of different senses of the word ‘heathen’ in them that don’t want to be confused for each other, ‘unbaptised’, ‘idolatrous’, ‘inclusive of anyone who might not be Christian’, ‘unchristian’ in the sense of needing to be excluded from Christian society by reason of ill conduct, and ‘foreign non-Christian’. It sounds like a dry paper but it wasn’t; maybe I just have a high tolerance for social philology or maybe it was just that Malte is a good speaker who prizes accuracy enough to be interesting about it; I thought the latter, myself.
  • I would have liked the third paper too, but these two were worth coming across the site for.

Of course there were more papers in the evening, but at that point I let society overwhelm me. First there were wine hours (and was it perhaps then that I met Michelle of Heavenfield? I did this at some point that day) and secondly there was an excellent early medievalists’ dinner arranged consummately by Deborah Deliyannis. I didn’t perhaps meet as many new people as I should have but I got to introduce separate sets of friends to each other and talk Tom Waits and that’s a definite success as far as I’m concerned. Then there was, after a while of getting there, entry into the élite circles of the blogosphere in as much as there was an after-party for the launch of the book of Geoffrey Chaucer’s blog. This has been reported elsewhere, of course, with claims of arm-wrestling and generally decadent comportment, but who are you going to believe on a matter of fact over interpretation, me or Jeffrey Cohen? Don’t answer that… Instead, let me merely say that In the Medieval Middle stock a mean beer fridge, that Eileen Joy has some impressively strong students, [edit: that it was delightful at this point to meet Adrienne Odasso of Lost in Transcription, whose fame had reached me long before and who was quite frightened to discover this—she should have been in this post from the beginning, I apologise—] and that just because I’ve met Brantley Bryant doesn’t mean I have to stop referring to the Chaucer blogger as Chaucer does it? It was fun. Thankyou guys.

Quote of this day of the conference, a toss-up between the following:

  1. “Of course! Literature is left-handed!” (Eileen Joy)
  2. “A corner of tenth-century whoop-ass!” (Brantley Bryant)

I invite judgements in comments! Of course, some might have said that I needed an early night. I think I did say this, in fact, but it was obviously wrong.


1. I think this is Janet L. Nelson, “Gender, Memory and Social Power. Elisabeth van Houts, Memory and Gender in Medieval Europe 900-1200 (Macmillan, London, 1999). Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses: women and power in Byzantium AD 527-1204 (Routledge, London, 1999)” in Pauline Stafford and A. B. Muller-Bakker (edd.), Gendering the Middle Ages, Gender and History Vol. 12 Pt. 3 (Oxford 2000), pp. 531-771; repr. separatim (Oxford 2001), pp. 722-734.

2. Paul Edward Dutton (ed./transl.), Carolingian Civilization: a reader, Readings in Medieval Civilization and Cultures 1, 2nd edn. (Peterborough ON 2004), p. 106.

3. I need to mail this to Professor Coon, in fact, and ‘this’ is: Wolfgang Metz, Das karolingische Reichsgut: eine verfassungs- und verwaltungsgeschichtliche Untersuchung (Berlin 1960), pp. 26-45, which is ostensibly about the Brevium exempla but also uses the St Gall Plan as one of the texts that he shows were using late antique plant lists to source their supposedly contemporary lists of crops and garden patches.

4. I remember being very surprised when I first discovered this word was singular. Now I surprise other people with the fact.

5. For this reason I still think the best and clearest account of the politics in southern France during the second half of the ninth century that I know comes from Josep María Salrach i Marés, El Procés de Formació Nacional de Catalunya (segles VIII-IX). 1: El Domini Carolingi, Llibres a l’Abast 136 (Barcelona 1978), pp. 91-127, because he places the rebel magnates in both their regional and central contexts rather than just the latter.

6. Apparently Stuart Hall, “Ethnicity: identity and difference” in Radical America Vol. 23 (Somerville 1989), pp. 9-20.

7. Quanrud’s excellent handout allows me to list these as especially: Janet M. Bately, “The Compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 60 B.C. to A.D. 890: vocabulary as evidence” in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 64 (London 1978), pp. 93-129; R. Hogdkin, A History of the Anglo-Saxons (Oxford 1935); and Frank Merry Stenton, “The South-Western Element in the Old English Chronicle” in A. G. Little & F. M. Powicke (edd.), Essays in Medieval History presented to T. F. Tout (Manchester 1925), pp. 15-24, repr. in Stenton, Preparatory to Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Doris Stenton (Oxford 1970), pp. 106-115.

Seminary XXXIX: how many times did William the Conqueror survey England?

Seminars at the Institute of Historical Research have resumed as heralded here earlier, and the Earlier Middle Ages one started a week late on Wednesday 21 January for reasons I haven’t gleaned, with Sally Harvey speaking to the title, “Domesday Book: an inquest of sheriffs?”

Great Domesday, at the National Archives

Great Domesday, at the National Archives

There is such a wealth and weight of scholarship on Domesday Book that several of the audience confessed themselves unable to keep up with it, in fact John Gillingham said that one of the luxuries he’d permitted himself on retirement was to stop trying. That said, we still don’t fully understand what the thing was actually for, and whether it could have fulfilled that purpose or not. Its partial coverage (however massive the successful coverage was), its inconsistent recording standards and its wealth of information seem to fit no single purpose, and any combination of purposes badly. There is more information there than one would want for a tax register, or a land register, or a simple inventory of England even, and yet many dues not recorded, much land omitted, and so on. At the moment, therefore, I think the consensus is that it didn’t really work, so intuiting its purpose from the actual result is probably impossible. Work is however getting somewhere by working on the process of its manufacture and compilation, and this is where Professor Harvey came in.

I don’t want to try and explain the whole process of compilation, because I’m not up with that research either and anything I say will probably be outdated and wrong (David Roffe’s pages linked in the sidebar will give you a far better grounding than I can). So I will give you first the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle version of events, and then explain how Professor Harvey was differing from it and what it might imply if she be right. The Chronicle, first. Only the E manuscript, also known as the Peterborough Chronicle, covers this (the only other late-runner, D, coughing out in 1079 except for one misplaced entry), and it says:

… the king had great thought and very deep conversation with his council about this land, how it was occupied, or with which men. Then he sent his men all over England into every shire and had them ascertain how many hundreds of hides there were in the shire, or what land and livestock the king himself had in the land, or what dues he ought to have in twelve months from the shire. Also he had it recorded how much land his archbishops had, and the diocesan bishops, and his abbots and earls, and – though I tell it at too great length – what or how much each man had who was occupying land here n England, in land or in livestock, and how much money it was worth. He had it investigated so narrowly that there was not one single hide, not one yard of land, not even (it is shameful to tell – but it seemed no shame to him to do it) one ox, not one cow, not one pig was left out, that was not set down to the record, And all the records were brought to him afterwards.

The Chronicler pretty clearly remembered the commissioners’ visit, or knew someone who did, and from that we can tell that they felt that Peterborough abbey (or Medeshamstede, as it then was) had been pretty thoroughly hung out to dry, and they seem to have heard similar complaints from elsewhere. But that only tells what they knew, of course, and we know that in fact large areas were not covered, most obviously London (which would have been impossible, given how much of it must have been small plots belonging to someone whose principal holdings were in other places). Professor Harvey was emphasising, albeit with considerable pauses to check her place in her notes and so on that made this paper something of an endurance test for the audience, that the towns generally were quite poorly covered, however, and that quite a lot of their returns are less inventories than records of exemptions that would be covered elsewhere because of belonging to various important tenants-in-chief. In these exemptions, she argued, it becomes clear that the sheriffs were reporting to the king or to the commissioners. Once, once only, a sheriff’s report is copied up in such a way that his first-person record is preserved, but Professor Harvey thought that mostly such things were beyond recovery (I did ask, because that sounded marvellous). She also found many lesser cases where sheriffs clearly had difficulties accounting for the dues that had once been paid and now weren’t, and generally reading these records closely reveals land-grabbing and corruption on a huge scale, although as many people pointed out, it had after all been a Conquest…

Anyway, the sheriffs seem to have been deeply involved in the recording, and Professor Harvey suggested (to general agreement) that in fact a preliminary return was probably made by the sheriffs, at least for the royal lands—who else could do it, after all?—and maybe for others too, and then checked by the commissioners, all of whom were operating outside their home areas like early Carolingian missi (if Wendy Hoofnagle is reading, her ears may now be pricking up…).

Everyone's favourite corrupt Anglo-Norman sheriff

Everyone's favourite corrupt Anglo-Norman sheriff

Why do we think they were checked? Because Dr Harvey also however found protests against sheriffs, complaints and stories of abuse and theft, that were allowed to remain in the finished Domesday, or we wouldn’t know. And of course we know that commissioners were appointed and sent out, and we can identify some of them, even if the Peterborough experience may not have been typical. And sometimes the sheriffs were able to put their side, and sometimes their victims got to put theirs, and whether anything was done about it is hard to say: there is some evidence of sheriffs being removed or pursued for compensation for misdeeds before Domesday, but after it gets very confused because of William I’s death and an almost immediate coup against William II that confuses motives for removal from office. All the same, what I can’t help but call ‘tormented voices‘ singing out through Domesday Book really struck me as an idea.

One thing that came out in questions was that coup, in fact. The resentment that Peterborough felt about the survey is pretty clear. Also pretty clear is that most of England was covered by it in varying degrees, with people apparently being encouraged to check on each other, rat on their officials, and generally mess things up for sheriffs all of whom would presumably have had their friends among the big aristocracy, who would be watching their own backs even as William made them check on other peoples’ favoured sheriffs… It was observed that the 1088 coup is very hard to get hold of because there seem to be so many sides; perhaps it was less Rufus and more Domesday that set them all against the power and each other. How close did William the Conqueror get to destroying the kingdom of England with a survey, at that rate? Worth pondering…


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is quoted here from Michael Swanton’s translation, M. Swanton (transl.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1996, repr. 1997), s. a. 1085 E.