Tag Archives: Anglo-Saxons

Seminary XLIII: double jeopardy for the Anglo-Saxon soul

It seems that neither I or the redoubtable Magistra et Mater can keep up with London seminar blogging, but at least we’re tesselating: she has a post up about the George Garnett paper at the party for Patrick Wormald’s Festschrift on 30th January that I didn’t get to, and it’s worth a read as usual.

Illumination of a demon at the mouth of Hell, from an allegedly Anglo-Saxon manuscript of the Wonders of the East in the British Library

Illumination of a demon at the mouth of Hell, from an allegedly Anglo-Saxon manuscript of the Wonders of the East in the British Library

Meanwhile, I can tell you, as has been much requested though mainly by Theo, about what we think the Anglo-Saxons thought about Purgatory, after Helen Foxhall Forbes, apparently one of a line of academic achievers, presented a paper at the IHR Earlier Middle Ages Seminar entitled, “Gone but not Forgotten: Anglo-Saxon charters, Purgatory and Commemoration of the Dead” on 18th February. I should have met Mrs Forbes before, as we appear to have been sharing a university for three years, but Cambridge doesn’t really work like that and so I’d met her for the first time in London the week before. It became clear then that she was going to have a good deal to say next week, and indeed it was a very sourceful paper we got. She started with a story from Bede about a brother at Wearmouth-Jarrow, who lived “an ignoble life” and refused to reform, but was kept on because he was such a good carpenter. He seems to have had something like a stroke, and while incapacitated saw Hell opening up for him, and recovered just long enough to tell the other brothers he knew he was doomed, and then died again having refused the last rites as pointless. They buried him “in the furthest parts of the monastery”, “no-one dared to offer masses or to sing psalms for him or even to pray for him”, and Bede doesn’t give his name (Historia Ecclesiastica, V.14). The thing is that that of course implies that those things would normally have been done, and Bede has other stories that imply the same thing, the prisoner whose fetters are repeatedly sprung by his priestly brother’s masses for his presumed-freed soul and so on (IV.22).

Ruins of St Paul's Jarrow as they stand today (hidden grave of ungodly carpenter not shown)

Ruins of St Paul's Jarrow as they stand today (hidden grave of ungodly carpenter not shown)

Then come the charters. It is not a lot of news perhaps that Anglo-Saxon charters, like charters in most of Europe, are often made to churches with the rider that the church in question must arrange prayers for the donor’s soul. Sometimes it’s just a grant for the health of one’s soul generally, and my stuff is very usually phrased like that too, “pro remedio animae meae”, but there are a good few cases of more elaborate specifications of Masses and Psalters to be sung and so on. There has occasionally been an attempt to link these with penances, as if one could count up one’s sin and then work it off with enough masses etc., but Mrs Forbes showed fairly convincingly that there was no agreement about the `value’ of a mass in these terms and argued that every such grant must have been extensively negotiated between donor and recipient institution. After all, not every church is Cluny and an onerous prayer obligation, or a specially-installed priest, might take more resources than the bequest allowed if a careful guard wasn’t kept on these things. Mrs Forbes argued, on what is accepted lines for Continental scholars following the work of Barbara Rosenwein and indeed my erstwhile supervisor Matthew Innes, that what really matters is the establishment of a relationship between donor and church, a relationship that may even be more important in life than in death, though people did genuinely want to sort out burial and post-mortem care of the soul too, I’m pretty sure. The relationship is supposed to reach into Heaven too, though, because these donations are phrased as gifts to the saints to whom the churches are dedicated, and this is a genuine idea not just some fancy phrasing; a gift to St-Pierre de Cluny or St Augustine’s Canterbury are supposed to connect you to the saint himself, beyond the veil. This is how we believe the cult of saints worked, after all; as I say, this bit struck me as something that we’ve known for ages but apparently it has not yet really made it through to Anglo-Saxon studies.

The will of the thegn Wulfgar, Sawyer 1533, British Library Cotton Charter viii.16 B

The will of the thegn Wulfgar, Sawyer 1533, British Library Cotton Charter viii.16 B

The mind-bending bit came next, however, because it is much harder to work out what official doctrine on Purgatory was in the Anglo-Saxon Church, in so far as one could have a single ‘official line’ in such an organisation. This is because the theological sources are not interested in it; their topic in that direction, Bede excepted though he has enough to say about it too, is the Last Judgement. But there are a couple of other ‘visions of Hell’, one also in Bede and, er, three others? Mrs Forbes could name them when asked—as she was—but I’ve forgotten. And these have a lake of fire or similar from which souls can hope to escape, though there is also the two Places where they will finally wind up. There is the Last Judgement obviously, but there is also this idea of an intermediate stage, sufferings that can be alleviated in the now, matching with visions of angels and demons fighting for the souls of the departed (an idea which turns up in both Bede and Adomnán’s Vita Columbae, though of course Bede knew a good many people trained in that tradition and had met Adomnán himself). So we have this idea of a double judgement, one at death, which can be eased if it goes the wrong way, but also the Final one which is God’s decision and is beyond human influence. The two of them are for some reason talked about almost separately, and from the theological material you wouldn’t really know anyone considered the first one rather than just the Ultimate one, but all those masses have to be for something, right? What Mrs Forbes was arguing was basically that, that the charters show that lay people and even ordinary churchmen were afraid of Purgatory and would take great steps to be released from it, because it wasn’t the sort of thing about which one could ever be sure.

There were lots of questions. It is simultaneously the greatest and the scariest thing about the IHR seminars that you can have what could be an encouraging chat or a verbal smack-down from the leading lights of the field, even though you’re only a humble postgrad. But if you have something interesting to say people remember you. In this instance many of the questions were being asked of other questioners because the ideas had got everyone interested, so I think Mrs Forbes will probably be remembered in the seminar’s own notional Liber Vitae with approval.

Why should political unity have been a Church goal, actually?

Obverse of penny of King Edgar

Obverse of penny of King Edgar

I’m aware that medieval posts proper have been few and far between around here just lately, and again I can only say, I’m afraid that this is because I’m busy with big things not small things. However, I have been working my way through my boss’s copy of a recent conference volume, Edgar, King of the English 959-975, ed. Donald Scragg (London 2008), which he has kindly lent me and which therefore jumps the to-read pile so that I can give it back soon. I’ll do a full post about the book when I reach the end of it but till then there’s something I’d like to canvass opinions about.

The idea keeps coming up that Edgar’s apparent imperium of Britain, as epitomised for many by the episode at Chester in 973, after his maybe-second coronation at Bath that year, when six Celtic kings rowed him across the River Dee, is a later fiction or at least an enhancement of a less imperial presentation of the time. It seems to be accepted by all commentators, but especially two,1 that this is a natural thing for the Benedictine reform movement to promote, because they were generally in favour of single monarchical rule of the whole island. So, Frederick Biggs argues that not just the reformers but Bede before them elide uncomfortably over the frequent joint kingships seen in early Anglo-Saxon history, of which he argues Edgar and his brother Eadwig, ruling 955-959, was probably the last. Why? And Julia Crick takes apart the unusual usage of the term ‘Albion’ in many of Edgar’s charters and places it in a reformist context as well.

King Edgar prostrate before Christ, as depicted in the New Minster of Winchester's foundation charter

King Edgar prostrate before Christ, as depicted in the New Minster of Winchester's foundation charter

I may be missing something obvious here, but, why should the reforming Church be pro-monarchy? The usual argument seems to be that God is a single ruler therefore that was the order the Church would wish to see in the world, celestial and worldly hierarchies matched. To me this fails on two levels: firstly because if it were so you, as reform churchman, would then want your king under the pope or an emperor. If you’re willing to defend any less of a political unit than Christendom as a viable independent polity, then you’re not really arguing for analogy with Heaven, surely. Secondly, it jars with so much contemporary ideology, including the reform one that eventually got worked out through the Investiture Controversy, that proper worldly rule is carried out by a king but advised by his bishops, who ultimately hold sanction over him. We see this with Hincmar of Reims, with Jonas of Orléans and probably some of the Fleury guys so influential on the English reform too, though I don’t know that for sure. This proto-Gelasian power-sharing between Church and King is quite unlike the cæsaropapism of which Edgar has been accused by, for example, Eric John.2

Then there’s the power argument. A Church which is a single structure represents a better chance of coming to ultimate power at the top of it, you might argue; a big pond is essential to being a successful big fish. More prosaically, the more lands your king rules the more bishoprics, abbacies or chapels there are for him to hand out. But those churches are always in the power of someone: it doesn’t seem a natural thing to me that one’s odds of promotion are better hanging around Winchester with a lot of other clerics than, for example, hanging around one of the other royal courts of the British Isles of the time hoping to make good from another king. Maybe there are lots of them too and we just have the winners’ writings…

I suppose the third argument is that if you really believe that reform is essential, you can effect this most easily if everywhere is under the power of one ruler that you can influence. But does that really lead you to be uncomfortable with the idea that rule at other times might not have been monarchical and all-British? And what’s Bede’s excuse? He’s quite clear that long periods exist in English history with no overall ruler, and indeed brushed over the preeminence of Æthelbald of Mercia in his own times quite carefully. This isn’t really a point of view they can really have hoped to disappear merely through writing nice things about Edgar at Chester as the Danes threatened. I just don’t buy it. At the very least this is an unchecked assumption about Dunstan’s and Æthelwold’s world-views that I’d like to see based on something more substantial. Perhaps that argument is elsewhere in the book…

1. Frederick M. Biggs, “Edgar’s Path to the Throne” in Donald Scragg (ed.), Edgar, King of the English 959-975: new approaches (London 2008), pp. 124-139, and Julia Crick, “Edgar, Albion and Insular Dominion”, ibid. pp. 158-170.

2. David Parsons (ed.), Tenth-Century Studies: essays in commemoration of the millennium of the Council of Winchester and Regularis Concordiae (London 1975); Eric John, “Orbis Britanniae and the Anglo-Saxon Kings” in idem, Orbis Britanniae and other Studies (Leicester 1966), pp. 1-63. For the Investiture Controversy see Uta-Renate Blumenthal, Der Investiturstreit (Stuttgart 1982), rev. and transl. as The Investiture Crisis, Middle Ages (Philadelphia 1988, repr. 1995).

Seminary XXXII: Michael Wood shows us India from England (and vice versa)

The last week of October was pretty much solidly medieval, both in the sense of being “incompatible with Orlando Bloom’s overwhelming dreaminess“, in as much as various personal things chose that time to tank and yr. humble correspondent took a little while to cope and become a functional human being again, hence the long period without posts – but it was also because almost every day of the week had some notable of the medieval field speaking somewhere or other. On the 27th October it was no less a personage than Michael Wood, I mean “television’s Michael Wood” (although television might have been surprised by the twenty-minute conversation he had with someone afterwards about manuscripts of William of Malmesbury) and he was speaking to the UCL Medieval Interdisciplinary Seminar to the title “Cholans and West Saxons: kingship and court culture in tenth-century England and India”.

Cover of Michael Wood's In Search of the Dark Ages

Cover of Michael Wood's In Search of the Dark Ages

Cover of Michael Wood's The Story of India

Cover of Michael Wood's The Story of India

Mr Wood has a lot of interests, but his scholarly work, which is not negligible for all that he calls himself “a lapsed historian”, has focussed mainly on the reign of King Athelstan, and his In Search of the Dark Ages is still one of the more accessible starter books for an introduction to how the history of that period unrolled and has been studied. However, more lately he’s been making programmes about India, and he appears to be getting deep into research into the formation of a Tamil empire in the south of India at about Athelstan’s, or at least Æthelred the Unready’s, time, under Rajaraja (King of Kings) Chola I circa 1010 C. E. So the organiser of the seminar, John Sabapathy, had got him along to try and talk about both together. Unfortunately this ambitious project had had to be limited because of a recent stay in hospital—Mr Wood was still using a crutch to get around the room this night—and so what we got was less prepared than I think he would like to have given us. It did include some new TV footage fresh from the editing room but the sound couldn’t be made to work, so the initial introduction to the Indian milieu didn’t quite gel. Once he got going with the evidence however, he hardly had to construct anything, just to tell us what was there.

Front right of the Brihadeshwara Temple, from Wikimedia Commons

Front right of the Brihadeshwara Temple, from Wikimedia Commons

When Rajaraja pulled together this empire from his capital at Thanjavur, largely at the expense of an older empire ruled by the Pandyans, who were in contact with Augustan Rome and had to deal with the first Christian settlers in India, he put up this little place to focus people’s minds on his new deal. Well, OK, I say little by way of wilful understatement: the Brihadeshwara Temple is over 200 ft high and has been in continuous use since its establishment in the early eleventh century. Furthermore, its lower reaches are covered in inscriptions (of which I can’t find a picture), meaning that the place has almost got more text on it than we have of Anglo-Saxon charters, a comparison Michael was well-placed to make. The records so inscribed include land-grants, royal decrees, succession notices, wills, all the kinds of document we might expect from England at the same time and a few others besides. There’s also a massive pictorial scheme of decoration in sculptures and painting, though the latter is almost all gone. It’s an incredible source just by itself, and then there’s the nearby library. The Sarasvati Mahal library houses, among quite a lot else, some 35,000 manuscripts of this and the following eras, including more of those documents and not a few books, literature and history included, written either on palm-leaves or in very solemn cases on copper plates, which I just loved because unorthodox documentary material is becoming an interest of mine. (Googling for supporting images for this post threw up the fact that the books of the library are being digitised even as we speak, which is all to the good.)

Hindi palm-leaf manuscript

Hindi palm-leaf manuscript

Poems of the sage Sri Tallapaka Annamacharya inscribed on copper plate

Poems of the sage Sri Tallapaka Annamacharya inscribed on copper plate

So there is an incredible source base here and of course much work has been done on it, of which the West by and large knows nothing, as why should it? We can’t actually study the whole world at once. I asked a local expert afterwards, and was told that starting reading on this era is Kallidaikurichi Aiyah Nilakanta Sastri’s A history of South India from prehistoric times to the fall of Vijayanagar (4th edn. Madras 1967). I hope some day to find time to read it. But, given that only half the paper was about India, what did we get from the comparisons? This is where I think Mr Wood would have liked those extra days he spent in hospital back, as he was only able to point out that there were parallels, and then encourage us to guess what they might tell us. But there are some. Consider: a newly-forged empire establishes a monumental centre of cult in a planned town to commemorate its new position. Am I talking about Thanjavur? Or Winchester? The kingship has heavily sacral overtones but actual access to the sacred is governed by a separate élite of learned men whom the king controls, but of which he is not part, and who use their own special written language: the Sanskrit-writing Brahmins or the Latinate Anglo-Saxon Church? (One difference here is that in the Cholan Empire the sacred language is not carried into documentary record as Latin is in England – the inscriptions on the temple are in Tamil.) And further parallels could be drawn between the network of lesser temples in villages and the establishment of the English parish network, and royal appropriation of cults of saints (which South India has too as long as you don’t mind chopping the definition of `saint’ a bit; `venerated holy men’ might be closer, but the structures of cult are not dissimilar).

The frontispiece of King Edgar's charter to the New Minster at Winchester, showing his offering of the charter itself to Christ in majesty, from Wikimedia Commons

The frontispiece of King Edgar's charter to the New Minster at Winchester, showing his offering of the charter itself to Christ in majesty, from Wikimedia Commons

Of course persuasive parallels are often less significant when one looks at other places and times that don’t do things the same way, and I don’t think we were getting here at any universals of new kingship and state formation or anything, but the idea of using one place as a model for the other and what that might tells us was quite intoxicating, especially given the amazing monumental continuity and spectacle that one had to play with. That’s one piece of Anglo-Saxon society it’s too easy to forget just because it’s been stomped all over with new building, but though the Brihadeshwara Temple is rather a special case, consider if you want how our reaction to it now might be like that of Wessex yeomen coming to Winchester for the first time and seeing the palace and minsters dominating the regimented and invulnerable-looking town… Not perhaps quite like this, but the game is the same I think, don’t you?

Another part of the Brihadeswara Temple, from Wikimedia Commons

Another part of the Brihadeswara Temple, from Wikimedia Commons

Seminary XXIX: the construction of power in Anglo-Saxon England as per Ann Williams

Well, as promised the Earlier Middle Ages seminars have renewed at the IHR, there were even students there on the 1st October, and there was also Ann Williams talking about her new book, which is called The World Before Domesday: The English Aristocracy 871-1066. Ann is of course a scholar renowned in her field, but I’m not quite sure where she is based now; the author bio at her publisher’s says that she is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of East Anglia, and this may well be true but their webpages don’t reflect it if so. On the other hand, they also boast the employment of Catherine Armstrong who is by now a sort of famous for having got a job, increasingly difficult in itself, and one which is somewhere else. So not much help there. Anyway, her talk was entitled “Before Domesday: earls, ceorls, thegns and lords”. This is apparently a version of the book’s title that her publishers wouldn’t wear, but it wouldn’t have done justice to the book to judge from its contents, which go right down the social scale to local networks of notables, what scholars in other countries would call boni homines or scabini and so on. This talk, on the other hand, stuck closer to the mark that the title set.

Reenactors play a thegn and attendant setting off to war

Reenactors play a thegn and attendant setting off to war

What Ann was talking about was the difficulties in getting real social information out of not very many sources, a quantity of which are legal, and therefore troublesome as possibly idealistic and archaic, and some of which were written by Archbishop Wulfstan and thus troublesome in a different bunch of ways to do with rhetoric, theatrical presentation and good old fashioned fictiveness.1 There are more words for Anglo-Saxon rank in Old English than in Latin,2 but almost all the sources are in Latin so working out whether, when some source talks about ministri, for example, they mean actual servants or the kind of middling noble on the horse above who does only honourable service, is tricky; and when they say rustici, do they mean people who farm the land or people who live off others’ labour and trade, both of whom might be wrapped up in the Old English word ceorl, or do they just mean the peasantry at large in polemical and pejorative style as would certainly be the case in later sources… ?3 It’s tricky, and Ann spent a while making sure we knew that before she started venturing suggestions.

The most interesting things that she said were in the realm of change. The fact that things changed of course problematise the sources, especially Wulfstan who all-out tells us that he was living in a time of change and that it was for the worse. One of the changes of his time, however, might be that Æthelred the Unready was spending, and getting his nobles to spend much more on military equipment so that a fyrd essentially armed with spears and shields might be able to get helmets, swords and mailcoats and thus face the Danes a bit better… And if so, seeing as some definitions of thegnly status rest it on the sort of gear they could bring to war, was this in effect to promote them socially? It seems unlikely, but that just means that our tools for getting at status are too blunt, and quite possibly that we’re trying to make distinctions that the Anglo-Saxons themselves found tricky.

A London museum display of Anglo-Saxon wargear

A London museum display of Anglo-Saxon wargear

Another issue was the question of people who had status but lost it. At the end of the Anglo-Saxon period of course we suddenly have a vast swathe of evidence in the form of the double snapshot of Domesday Book, and this seems to show a lot of people of thegnly status who didn’t however have enough land to fulfil the sort of quotas that some sources prefer to the wargear measurement. Ann suggested that these were the people who’d fallen on to the sort of hard times Wulfstan mentions and were clinging onto legal status long after its supporting wealth had gone; on the other hand, John Gillingham suggested that perhaps instead, what with thegnly status being so deeply concerned with service to a lord, that they were new servitors on their way up, and of course there’s no way to rule it out. A similarly sharp point in the questions was made by Susan Reynolds, who first observed that the important line in divisions of status is always the one just below oneself, and that for us as historians the effect is similar because we draw the division most clearly wherever the sources exist in enough bulk to let us see some of what’s going on. For us, of course, that’s basically the royal level, and just below, so the division we think most important is between the nobles who served the king and everybody else; but if you lived in a village near Hartlepool or whatever, where the king didn’t go, smaller-scale ways of grading people would have been a lot more important, and often this would come down not to how much land or gear you had, or even who your father had been, but more importantly whom you now served and how important they were. Which is all very well, but how was their status defined… ?

So there is still a lot to do here, and it may not be possible to do all that we need, but from the sound of it Ann’s new book is going to be an excellent way to shed preconceptions, get yourself thoroughly dug in to the evidence and to start working out what you think, and what with the difficulty of reaching conclusions it may well be the last word for a while yet.

1. On why laws are difficult, I believe it’s now de rigueur to cite Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law Vol. I (Oxford 2003), unless you intend to disagree with him in which case it’s much easier to cite his “Lex scripta and verbum regis: legislation and Germanic kingship, from Euric to Cnut” in Peter Sawyer & Ian N. Wood (edd.), Early Medieval Kingship (Leeds 1977), pp. 105-138. On why Wulfstan is tricky, good heavens, where to start? The blogging world is full of Wulfstan, new research is happening all the time. I expect various persons will be along shortly with suggestions, but how about Dorothy Whitelock, “Archbishop Wulfstan, homilist and statesman” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 4th series Vol. 24 (London 1942), pp. 25-45, repr. in Richard W. Southern (ed.), Essays in Medieval History: selected from the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society on its centenary (London 1968), pp. 42-60, and in Whitelock, History, Law and Literature in 10th-11th century England, Variorium Collected Studies (London 1981), XI, for the basics? Yes, I’m behind the times: educate me! I see from the Regesta Imperii OPAC that there was a conference volume on him published in 2004: Matthew Townend (ed.), Wulfstan, Archbishop of York. The proceedings of the Second Alcuin Conference, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 10 (Turnhout 2004). Some of the paper titles look pretty good. Particular points to Andy Orchard for “Re-editing Wulfstan: where’s the point?”

2. The best thing I ever read about this was Alan Thacker, “Some Terms for Noblemen in Anglo-Saxon England, c. 650-900″ in David Brown, James Campbell & Sonia Chadwick Hawkes (eds), Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History Vol. 2, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 92 (Oxford 1981), pp. 201-237. I rather expect Ann’s book to be the thing I cite for this once I’ve read it though.

3. On that sort of treatment of the peasantry, you can see Paul Freedman, “Cowardice, Heroism and the Legendary Origins of Catalonia” in Past and Present no. 121 (Oxford 1988), pp. 3-28. Freedman has actually addressed this theme more widely, but as far as I know only in French (he’s unusual for a US academic, or indeed a UK one, for how much of his publication is languages other than English): the paper I mean is “Sainteté et sauvagerie: deux images du paysan au moyen âge”, transl. F. Marin in Annales: économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 47 (Paris 1992), pp. 539-560.

From mallus to mall via Patrick Wormald

There comes a time, I suppose, in the study of anyone who works on early England, when you come up against the writings of the late lamented Patrick Wormald, and find him disagreeing with you. Then, as I remember from meeting him, it is wise to take careful stock of what you know, because the odds are pretty good that it’s not as much as he did.

Depiction of King Ethelbert of Kent presenting his law to his subjects, by Lee Lawrie, on the South Façade of the Nebraska State Capitol

I have just been reading his paper in Davies & Fouracre’s Property and Power, and in it he discusses at length the 1086 claim of the bishopric of Worcester, in the person of the other Bishop Wulfstan, to hold the triple hundred of Oswaldslow and all the revenues from justice that are collected there. It has been argued, and was indeed being argued right then by Wulfstan, you see, that this is an ancient immunity that implies that the Anglo-Saxon kings were, like the Carolingians, giving away their rights to powerful supporters. Patrick proves to my satisfaction that these are recent claims, not supported by the evidence except that which Wulfstan had confected or arranged, and that as far as can be told Anglo-Saxon royal officials could always carry out justice in lords’ territories, at least as far as the rules were concerned.

The problem is, for me, that at the edges this seems like rules-lawyering. Patrick says:

… there may be a relationship between socage [the right to summon someone to your court for their crimes] and the lord’s jurisdiction over what would later be called his ‘manorial’ court. But ‘manorial’ jurisdiction is no more to be confused with franchisal rights than is ‘seigneurial’ with ‘feudal’ lordship.

And at that point my personal alarm bells go off because I think there is every possibility of confusion between seigneurial lordship and feudal lordship. The difference he’s hanging this on is that a seigneurial lord, or someone owning a manor, has judicial rights over the inhabitants because he owns them outright; a ‘feudal’ lord or someone with a franchise is taking judicial profits that correctly belong to the state, with varying degrees of legitimacy. I see the difference in theory, but I would find it very hard to draw it in practice, and I wonder how much it mattered.

Consider this parallel, if you want. In one imaginary state, for whatever reason, the government caves into a powerful business lobby and sticks administrative charges or whatever up so high that small shops can no longer make money, and the supermarkets and malls become the only outlets for goods. In another, instead, the supermarket owners merely take advantage of their greater capital and ability to buy stuff wholesale that the small shops can’t, and strangle them with market share; the government legislates to protect small business, but ineffectively and the shops all fold. People in the UK are arguing which of these things, if either, is happening to small shops at the moment, but the result is the same; the shops die off, the supermarkets cluster round the edges of town, everything functioning in town centres is part of a much bigger company and it all gets a bit Reaper Man. Similarly: if a medieval lord can draw people to his ability to give justice, I don’t know if it matters whether the state has commissioned him to give it or if their own courts continue alongside looking more and more useless. This latter is what seems to happen in Catalonia; it’s been argued that the former happened in France. Patrick would have argued, I guess, that neither happened in England, and I accept that. But neither can be assumed, and I don’t find the labels very helpful because they probably weren’t in use at the time and anyone who did perceive them would have had an interest in calling it one way or the other. I guess I need to track his thinking a bit more deeply and read The Making of English Law. It may just be that I’ve misunderstood, in which case feel free to suggest modifications…

The paper in question is Patrick Wormald, “Lordship and Justice in the Early English Kingdom: Oswaldslow revisited” in Wendy Davies & Paul Fouracre (edd.), Property and Power in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 1995), pp. 114-136, with quote at p. 130. For the decline of courts in Catalonia see Jeffrey Bowman, Shifting Landmarks: property, proof, and dispute in Catalonia around the year 1000 (Ithaca 2004) and for France, I guess, Jean-Pierre Poly & Eric Bournazel, The Feudal Transformation, transl. Caroline Higgit (New York 1983).

Guardian good, Guardian bad

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. This seems to be especially true if you’re a journalist. If I encounter a newspaper at all, it tends to be The Guardian, because my housemate gets it. I myself would not, partly because I get my news online anyway, and mainly because of the sheer wash of redundant paper it involves; I mean, we read about a twentieth of what comes through the door, and the rest just goes straight into the recycling. It gives me tree conscience. Anyway. The Guardian give a lot of space to their writers. Sometimes, as we have seen, this results in in-depth supplements that give fair balance on a wide range of aspects of something. And sometimes it results in utter under-researched tosh.

Romantic representation of King Alfred and his Witan

A few days ago, in the wake of the London mayoral election, they put this on the front page, an article about the outgoing mayor having turned up at the office to see how the new one was doing. This, I grant you is odd, and it shows something of the complexity of the new mayor’s public persona that although his usual outward image is bumbling and stupid, when asked what they’d talked about he reportedly answered, “The Anglo-Saxon Witenagemot”.

Now I suspect that the new mayor is better-educated than the reporting journalist, Patrick Barkham, who goes on to explain for the clueless reader that this was, “a reference to the tribal assembly of wise men who kept the king in check before the Norman conquest,” and adds, “Weak rulers were dependent on the Witenagemot.”

Now I was going to fulminate at very great length about this, but I don’t even have to, because better attempts exist already to make the Anglo-Saxon king’s council, which may not even have had a formal existence, let alone have been the check on tyranny that Barkham’s education seems to have foisted upon him fresh from the nineteenth century, relevant to US politics than he has made of making it relevant to UK ones. Witness this fine article… Now if only we could get Mr Barkham to read it, and, ideally, to stop writing.

Seminary XXV: why your Anglo-Saxon settlement maps need some rethinking

Archaeologist at Work, by Mary Chester-Kadwell and copyright to her

I have once before here mentioned my, well, friend is fair I think, Mary Chester-Kadwell, of whose research I am something of a fan. She works on archaeological landscapes in Anglo-Saxon East Anglia, but her approach is very technology-intensive and gets us a bit further than Myres’s distribution maps, and more towards what the context of our archaeological material is and how that explains some of what we find. This is in many ways the basic groundwork of archaeological interpretation, much like the basic `consider the author’ level of textual analysis, but it’s much harder to do in archaeology because you need so much context. Mary’s work draws on vast piles of records in archaeological archives and also, importantly, the ever-increasing body of metal-detector finds. Now there are arguments about the regulation, or lack of it, in British law about metal-detecting, and it is unquestionable that much more is found than is reported, but all the same the extra evidence we have because of this loose policy is undeniable. And on May Day Mary was at the McDonald Institute in Cambridge speaking to the Graduate Archaeological Seminar to the title: “The landscape of early Anglo-Saxon Norfolk: cemeteries, settlements and metal-detected finds”.

Mary is one of a number of scholars looking at approaches like this that involve a fairly serious reevaluation of our evidence. She is currently working on various forms of publication of her work, so rather than tell you what’s in it I’ll just give a few examples of the sorts of concerns she raises and therefore why I think her stuff is important. Her mapping is very dense: whereas many earlier interpretations of Anglo-Saxon settlement patterns tended to correlate only a few factors, settlement location against river access, against Bronze Age or Roman sites, against soil types, and so on, Mary is bravely trying to get all these things and more into play at once, and it is educational. In particular she was showing that we could, with such techniques, try and test some of the common assumptions about Anglo-Saxon settlement in the area, such as (i) that it’s usually riverside, (ii) that cemeteries often overlook significant places or routes, (iii) that the Anglo-Saxons favoured light well-drained soils because of not having the heavy plough, and (iv) that cemeteries are often placed near previous funerary monuments like barrows. Rather than just mapping the two things against each other and going, “Ta-dah! match!”, however, Mary computes baselines for a average distribution of, say, distances from rivers that are possible in Norfolk, and then applies the Kolmogorov-Smirnoff test to see how significant the data’s deviation from that expectation is. And in fact, in that instance, she finds that there is a stronger-than-expected tendency for settlement sites to be within 100 m of a river, for inhumation cemeteries to be about 200 m of a river, and cremation ones about 300 m from one, but that these are only trends and are easily countered with examples that form the tail of the distribution curves. So in that instance our understanding needs to be more complex. And this is the next step we have to be taking with evidence like this to start understanding what was really happening on the ground.

Saham Toney Terrets illustration

This sort of caution also allows one to start really facing the biases of the evidence. Example one: in archaeological digs of cemeteries, the metalwork that comes up is about as much iron as copper alloy. Metal detectorists don’t search for iron, though, so almost all of what they come up with is copper or precious metal, which means that sites only found by them look very different and perhaps shouldn’t. Example two: a very large proportion of Anglo-Saxon sites in the area are associated, or at least noticeably near, a Roman-period site. But there are shedloads more Roman sites known than Anglo-Saxon ones so that probably isn’t significant; it would be odder if they were not so associated just on probability. Example three: it is certainly true that a great proportion of Anglo-Saxon sites excavated have been on light well-drained soil. It is also however true that a vast proportion of all sites dug have been on such soil too, and there are plenty, if fewer, sites known from clay areas too. So we have to ask if really, that correlation isn’t more to do with where is easy to dig than where the Anglo-Saxons actually liked to live. Example four: there is a strong correlation between Anglo-Saxon mortuary sites that have been excavated and older barrows or barrow-like formations. But this correlation doesn’t exist with metal-detected finds, which suggests that the archaeologists are digging especially where there are barrows (as you’d expect), that the detectorists are avoiding such sites (which, since they’re not flat, I could understand) or both (which is probably the truth of it).

It all sounds terribly revisionist and destructive when I put it like that, I suppose, but firstly there is the usual argument for revisionism in such contexts, that it stops us saying things that are basically just plain wrong, and secondly there is the much more powerful argument that by trying to understand the complexity of the societies we’re looking at in all its horribly messy glory, using the sort of dense mapping techniques and data collection that Mary has done, we are likely to get further than we ever could by over-simplifying out most of the information. This way, I reckon, lies progress of a sort we previously couldn’t have made.

Advertisement for my collaborators’ learning

I observe that at the Heroic Age blog, the programme for the upcoming MANCASS conference can now be viewed in its full glory, which is, for Anglo-Saxonists at least, reasonable to considerable. I mention it merely because you may, if you’ve been reading really closely, or are actually one of the participants, remember that two of the speakers, Allan Scott McKinley and Martin Ryan, are my collaborators in making Leeds sessions about how to use charters happen. Alex Burghart is another colleague of a sort, and his stuff is always interesting, and of course with both of Professors Higham and Brooks speaking there will be entertainment and erudition aplenty. I may well have to trot along myself, but even if I don’t, it’ll be worth attending I should think. Wednesday 26 March, so still time to register…

Seminary XII: Earls of Mercia (but no naked horsewomen)

Customised version of Lady Godiva’s ride through Coventry

The IHR Earlier Middle Ages seminar for the 21st of November actually took place in the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, which turned out to be just as well as we’d have overflowed the normal room. This was mainly because, as one of ‘the locals’ was speaking, several of his pupils joined us, but it was certainly an interesting paper. It was, in point of fact, Dr Stephen Baxter of King’s College London come to tell us about his new book, The Earls of Mercia: Lordship and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England (and ignore what that link says, it is published, I’ve seen a copy). His paper was thus of the same title, and dealt with the family of Leofwine (and therefore Leofric and therefore Lady Godiva, who only got a mention to say that she wouldn’t get a mention, but as with the Beowulf entry, we like the search terms anyway). I won’t try and do what he did and summarise the book; I’d wind up summarising his summary and it would do little good, but there were two or three quite particular points that I thought were worth dragging aside in the style of a hunting-hound dragging a bone away from the feasting table and gnawing at.

The first of these was his insistence, on what seemed to be a sound basis, that the lands that were held by the various earls or ealdorman of Anglo-Saxon England were largely granted to them by the king, and remained sufficiently under royal control that they could easily be revoked when as frequently happened earls were moved around or removed from office. His best example was of Earl Eadwine, when he’s appointed to Northumbria after the exile of Tostig; Stephen pointed out that he has land in many parts of the earldom, despite the family having no useful background there at all and him hardly having time to buy very much; this, he argued, must be coming from the king. This is a bit of a maximum government idea really, and although no-one studying the high Middle Ages would think this odd for a king to be able to do, to anyone used to the early Middle Ages on the Continent it seems almost impossible. This is the era of the supposed feudal transformation! If you’ve got a castle you’re independent! If you’re miles away from the king, tough luck to him! and so on. But here, if Stephen’s right and these aren’t just family holdings that intermingle so much as to be dangerous, which seems less and less likely the more you realise how quickly earldoms are flipped from family to family in Edward the Confessor’s reign, the royal officials who actually keep these estates running and producing care enough about the king that they don’t, for example, take it for their own castle, form a pact with the local lord to respect his claims before anyone else’s in exchange for protection and so on. Despite the numerous advantages there must be of being a lord’s man in this troubled period, and despite all the work Robin Fleming’s done elucidating the nature and number of the people who did make choices like that, in these areas it’s still a better deal being the king’s local man. Well, we really need to know more about how the kings managed that and where it came from. If more work along those lines comes from reaction to Stephen’s book much good will have come of it. One initial reflection of mine is that this would be one reason exactly to keep the earldoms flying round places, to stop anyone getting a toe-hold. If you can hand them enough revenue to work with anyway, you don’t lose too much by not letting them wear into the job, maybe…

He also made something of the idea that the lords, denied local anchorage through their lay lordship, made some attempts to fix themselves in local power structures through the patronage of the Church. The Church would remember for longer, and also could revoke its benefices less easily… He had some very good examples of what it might cost a cathedral or monastery to have a ‘patron’ of this sort, in terms of grants in trust to their ‘great friend’ whom they could not ignore. This sort of tactic obviously had to be confined to core areas, though, and it seems to me that this implies some better basis in those areas to start with. At this point, of course, I need to read the book before pontificating :-)

Alan Thacker however also wanted to know what made these ealdormanly families worthy of the rank, but as Stephen pointed out, entirely new earls are made, and function, so it keeps coming back to the maximum state again. Just leaves me champing at the bit and wanting to know how, how, how, and why not elsewhere.

Misuse of medieval evidence

Denis Judd’s The Lion and the Tiger

I have a much larger post than this brewing, but for the moment just let me vent a little spleen. In recent months I’ve been making determined efforts to get through my new books pile, if only so that it makes sense to actually use the Blackwells/Early Medieval Europe prize I won in 2005 on books I will then get round to reading while they’re still fresh… And this has led me to something I got as a conference gift in, er, let’s just say a number of years ago, which is Denis Judd’s The Lion and the Tiger: the Rise and Fall of the British Raj (Oxford 2004). Now in many ways this book has not lived up to my hopes, as by the time I now read it I’ve learnt the relevant history in about three times the depth from Wikipedia whilst putting the Lester Watson Medal Collection on the web.

But, you may say, Wikipedia is transient and unreliable and badly-sourced, whereas this professorial work must be properly referenced and unimpeachably accurate, no? Well, er. He only references primary material, but quite a lot of that is culled from secondary works. Pressure from the publishers (OUP…) perhaps. But one cite in particular had me checking up, and it hasn’t reassured me of Professor Judd’s accuracy. It goes like this:

The first mention of an Englishman setting foot in India is over 1,000 years earlier [than Independence in 1947], and can be found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one of the earliest records of the history of the English. According to this source, King Alfred the Great sent a certain Sighelm on a pilgrimage to India in AD 883. Sighelm apparently brought back ‘many strange and precious unions [pearls] and costly spices’.

And he cites Thorpe’s 1861 translation, as used by a 1920 Clarendon Press history of the earliest British contacts with India. Well, as you can imagine I was wondering why I’d never noticed that, as I’m not exactly a stranger to the ASC. But it seems that Thorpe’s translation is not the only one that gives this reading, Giles’s influential one being another. So I fished my copy of Swanton off the shelf, and dug it out.1

Now note first of all that this annal does not come from the ‘A’ manuscript, the so-called Parker Chronicle, which is the closest to a genuine Alfredian-period text that we have, which is odd. It is however in all of B, C, D, E and F (if you don’t know the Chronicle well you may find Tony Jebson’s Introduction useful) so it would seem to hark back from that period when there was only one Chronicle, which was at least close to Alfred’s court. So what gives? I’ll tell you what gives. Here’s Swanton’s translation:

“… and the same year Sigehelm and Athelstan took to Rome – and also to St Thomas and St Bartholomew in India – the alms which King Alfred had vowed to send there when they besieged the raiding-army at London…”

Odd, but apparently incontrovertible, and who knew that there were Christian shrines in India in the ninth century? Alfred, apparently, and one wonders how. It does seem that there were Christian settlers there, in Kerala, after 345, if not earlier, and their claimed Apostle was indeed Thomas, even if this is probably because a person of that name led the 345 immigration, so it just about adds up. But wait. The word that D, E and F all use is Indea. But these are the later manuscripts. The word that B & C use is Iudea, which I think you’ll agree makes a bit more sense as somewhere to promise alms if you’re in desperate straits before a Viking army. Oh dear, oh dear. One medieval transcription error, ‘n’ for ‘u’, and now it’s Gospel to backdate the British Empire by eight hundred years…

So basically one could wish that Judd had checked rather than accept that a 150-year-old translation was still current, and I wonder whether Wikipedia isn’t the better answer after all; I know I learnt more from it. Oh well. This is why they need us, isn’t it?

1. M. J. Swanton (ed./transl.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1996).