Tag Archives: animals

Carrying Things to War in Frankish Gaul

Pausing briefly with the photography, let’s drop back in on my more academic self in the latter part of 2018. One might observe that I seem to have spent much of the summer of 2018 abroad, and certainly, I don’t seem to have stubbed many blog posts, which itself suggests that I was not reading very much. An inspection of my Zotero library suggests that actually, what I was mainly doing was clearing up references for the final push on what became my ‘Outgrowing the Dark Ages’, but still, the trail goes faint in June, July and August and I suspect that I was mainly marking or prepping for next year’s teaching.1 I had also picked up again after a long time away – about twenty years in fact – Martin Aurell’s Les Noces du comte, which was to become its own whole big thing that more may be written of at some point, but at this point I was only restarting that. Two things I definitely did read that summer, however, for quite unrelated projects, were Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands / La Frontera and, quite unlike it in every detail except sharing the English language and a paperback format (and, of course, being excellent), Guy Halsall’s Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West.2 And on getting properly into the latter, I stubbed this post mainly to express surprise and delight at two incidental things I found there.

Cover of Guy Halsall's Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900 (London 2003)

Cover of Guy Halsall’s Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900 (London 2003)

In the template, issued by Charlemagne King of the Franks and his counsellors probably around 793 or 794, for how royal estates should manage their economy and renders, the text we call the Capitulare de Villis, there is so much interesting detail that one can’t take it all in at once.3 I had most recently gone to it looking for what happened to agricultural produce, and so had managed to skip straight over some of the regulations for military provisioning. But of course Guy was looking for the latter, and so he points out quite justly, firstly, that Charlemagne wanted people to send carts to the army from all over the place, which has one contemplating trails of carts wending their way across the various kingdoms towards wherever the muster was each year.4 But, later on, there are further specifications about these carts, namely, that they had not just to be waterproof but be able to float, so that if a river had to be crossed, none of their cargo (which should, for reference, be up to twelve modia of grain) would get wet. Also, each one was to be equipped with a shield, a lance, a javelin and a bow, which as Guy observes is equipment for at least one and maybe two defenders.5 At which rate, these swimmable, hide-covered battle carts stop sounding quite so much like produce wagons and just that bit more like ox-drawn armoured personnel carriers… It had me thinking of some of the odder-looking walker machines in the Star Wars prequel movies, and that storming a Carolingian baggage train might have been a prickly experience, as, presumably, was intended in these laws. Circle the wagons!

LEGO Star Wars AT-TE walker

This is the kind of thing I had in mind, although obviously made of wood rather than LEGO, with wheels rather than legs, oxen and men rather than mini-figs and weapons other than laser cannons, but come on, share my vision can’t you? Also, I should probably say at this point that I am not getting any money from Amazon for using their images like this, I just think they’re least likely to complain about the free advertising…

Now, I might not have noticed the waterproof castles on wheels that Charlemagne apparently wanted everyone to make, but I did at least register that people were supposed to send carts when I had previously read that text; it did not fall upon me as a complete surprise. Not so much the second thing, dealing with a much earlier episode in a civil war around Comminges. There, the would-be king Gundovald had taken refuge from the pursuing forces of his enthroned rival, and alleged brother, Guntram, and Bishop Gregory of Tours, whose Ten Books of Histories tell us all this, writes from the point of view of the pursuers here:

“In their search for Gundovald they came upon camels and horses, still carrying huge loads of gold and silver, which his men had abandoned along the roads because the animals were exhausted.”

I don’t know about you, but the word that really struck me there was camels. I don’t think of camels as being normal beasts of burden around the Garonne area, even in the sixth century. But Gregory gives no further attention to it and rolls onward with the story (which, at the risk of spoilers, ends badly for Gundovald).6

Now, of course I was not the first person to notice this. I found out a month or two later that Bernard Bachrach notes it in his, er, classic, work Merovingian Military Organisation, but he does nothing with it at all.7 Sam Ottewill-Soulsby, no less, studying diplomacy of three centuries later in which some camels were sent to Charlemagne’s grandson Charles the Bald, emphasises the foreign, eastern resonance they would then have had, indicating Charles’s connections to the mysterious world of the caliphs.8 But does this leave us to suppose that, while a camel was an exotic rarity in the Francia of the ninth century, in the sixth the average king just had troops of them in his baggage train and they were an everyday animal for the time and place? I mean, come back Pirenne if so, right? But I think there might be another explanation.9

Detail of camel in wall-painting in a bedroom of the Château de Chillon

An actual medieval French camel picture, or very nearly, from the Château de Chillon in Switzerland

The question to ask is, where had this apparently-much-mocked apparently-pretender Gundovald got these vast quantities of precious metal to abandon anyway? And the answer may be in the next chapter of Gregory’s Histories, where in a set-piece of very useful exposition Gregory has Gundovald answer the taunts of his besiegers with a worked-out explanation of his claim to the throne. In the course of this he explains that, after he was driven out the second time (because yes, his career had been unsuccessful for a while), he’d run off to Constantinople and it was there that Guntram Boso (a duke, not a king, no relation to King Guntram, and the real target of Gregory’s rhetoric here) had sought him out to say, more or less, “all the other claimants are dead, come back and get what’s yours”. And Gundovald had then returned, under a safe-conduct which he now, not unreasonably, felt had been broken.10 But to my mind, when the Roman Emperor sends you west to try for your brother’s throne, especially when your brother’s kingdom is one the Romans were fighting in the Alps only twenty years before and which still threatens imperial possessions, he probably sends you with some gear. The Byzantine strategy of paying people to start civil wars with their enemies rather than risk their own forces was not new at this point, and would get much older, but it makes perfect sense here.11 In short, I suspect that much of Gundovald’s pay-chest and, therefore, quite possibly the baggage train that carried it, had come from Constantinople, which at this point still had control of almost all the lands which Caliph Muhammad would in 865. Emperor Justin II, in short, could have laid his hands on some camels (as it were). He could likewise then have sent them west laden with bullion or coin with which, with a bit of luck, this enterprising young Frank would embroil the Frankish kingdom in civil war for a good few years and leave the empire free to handle the increasingly bad situation in the Balkans. Sam is probably right that sending camels had a special valence, even in 585, but it would not then have been connection to the world of Islam, since that had not yet been created, but to the distant, but also quite close-by, Empire in whose erstwhile territory this was all being fought out. Gregory makes Gundovald look ridiculous, and perhaps he was, but by marching with camels and showering people with solidi he was probably supposed to look a good deal more serious and better connected than the Frankish bishop’s character assassination has let him be remembered.

Gold solidus of Emperor Justin II struck at Constantinople in 565-85 CE, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B1131

Perhaps the more powerful tool in Gundovald’s armoury, a gold solidus of Emperor Justin II struck at Constantinople in 565-585 CE, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, B1131

All the same, Gregory apparently did not think his audience would need it explained what a camel was (though to be fair, neither did the annalist in 865). This is not like the single elephant sent to Charlemagne that Sam has also studied, or the occasional lions sent westwards or northwards in diplomacy, which occasioned wonder from most writers dealing with them; a camel was a known thing in this world.12 (And after all, what do we suppose happened to the camels of Gundovald’s baggage train? I doubt they got eaten; too useful! Perhaps there were generations of subsequent Garonne camels. I’m just waiting for the zooarchaeologists to find one now, it’d look ever so global…) We might, as with some other phenomena this blog has looked at, once again need that word we don’t have which means something that was conceptually normal but hardly ever happened. Such a thing, I suggest, was the sixth-century camel in Francia. It’s not by any means all I learnt from Guy’s book; but for the rest, you’ll have to wait for the article…

1. Of course I never miss a chance to reference my own work, and this time it’s Jonathan Jarrett, “Outgrowing the Dark Ages: agrarian productivity in Carolingian Europe re-evaluated” in Agricultural History Review Vol. 67 (Reading 2019), pp. 1–28.

2. Referring to, in sequence, Martin Aurell, Les noces du comte : mariage et pouvoir en Catalogne (785-1213), Histoire ancienne et médiévale 32 (Paris 1995); Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands / la Frontera: the new Mestiza, 4th ed. (San Francisco 2012); and Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbaian West, 450-900 (London 2003).

3. It’s translated and explained at the link given, but if you need a critical edition (and indeed a facsimile , whose odd shape governs that of the whole book), then it’s Carl-Richard Bruhl (ed.), Capitulare de villis: cod. guelf. 254 Helmst. der Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, Dokumente zur deutschen Geschichte in Faksimiles, Reihe 1: Mittelalter 1 (Stuttgart 1971), and for scholarship see recently Darryl Campbell, “The Capitulare de Villis, the Brevium exempla, and the Carolingian court at Aachen” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 243–264.

4. Halsall, Warfare and Society, pp. 149-150 n. 97 citing Capitulare de villis cap. 30, where indeed you can see it yourself.

5. Ibid. but now looking at cap. 64, which is here.

6. Here quoting Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1974), VII.35, though Guy of course cites the Latin (at Warfare and Society, p. 151 n. 111), which you can see here; the relevant Latin word is camellos, which seems hard to misinterpret.

7. Bernard S. Bachrach, Merovingian Military Organization, 481-751 (Minneapolis MI 1972), p. 58.

8. Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, “The Camels of Charles the Bald” in Medieval Encounters Vol. 25 (Vienna 2019), pp. 263–292.

9. I cannot find that I have references to what I’m about to suggest anywhere, so I may have thought of it. However, something scratches in my brain when I try that idea, some sense that I have heard or seen parts of this before, and if I have, it may have been either (perhaps most likely) from talking to Sam Ottewill-Soulsby; possibly, from reading Bernard S. Bachrach, “Animals and Warfare in Early Medieval Europe” in Bachrach, Armies and Politics in the Early Medieval West, Collected Studies 405 (Aldershot 1993), chapter XVII, which I have done but where my notes don’t go into this kind of detail; or, longest shot, from a Kalamazoo paper of really long ago, Benjamin Wheaton, “Reasons for Byzantine Support of Gundovald through 584 C. E.”, 46th International Congress on Medieval Studies, West Michigan University, Kalamazoo, 14th May 2011, which I would tell you otherwise I remembered nothing of but which must have covered this material. If what I go on to say has been accidentally ripped off from any of these, or indeed someone else, I apologise…

10. Gregory, History, VII.36.

11. On the general practice, see Evangelos Chrysos, “Byzantine Diplomacy, A.D. 300–800: means and ends” in Jonathan Shepard & Simon Franklin (edd.), Byzantine Diplomacy: papers from the Twenty-fourth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Cambridge, March 1990 (Aldershot 1992), pp. 23–39, but for the specific context here, even though it doesn’t mention camels, still really good is Walter Goffart, “Rome, Constantinople, and the Barbarians” in American Historical Review Vol. 86 (Washington DC 1981), pp. 275–306, on JSTOR here.

12. On East-West diplomatic gifts of this period, you must expect me naturally to cite Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, “Carolingian Diplomacy with the Islamic World” (Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge University, Cambridge, 2017), or his marginally more accessible idem, “Carolingian Diplomacy”, in Gordon Martel (ed.), Encyclopedia of Diplomacy (Oxford 2018), DOI: 10.1002/9781118885154.dipl0042, so now I have.

A Compensation Coin, then, Two Rooms of Budding Byzantinists

I have been neglecting this blog, I’m sorry. I can only assure you that this is not out of laziness; rare has been the day of 2015 so far in which I have not written a couple of thousand words, but much less of this has been in the kinds of document that will ever have a readership than I would like, and much of that which has been is a long way off getting to that state… In particular, I have about thirty thousand words of a book manuscript (enthusiastic first-draft words, but words), and at the other end of the scale of scale, about four thousand words of exhibition copy of various sorts which were really hard to keep short. The fruits of all of this will be announced in their due season, of course, but just for the moment let me make up for the long silence with a picture of a coin, and then a conference report.

Reverse of a gold solidus of Emperor John I Tzimiskes, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4953

Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4953 (reverse)

This is a gold solidus of Emperor John I Tzimiskes (969-976), and it’s connected to what I’ve been doing at work lately in several ways. In the first place, it is a little way down the slippery slope of decreasing fineness that Byzantine gold coinage descended in the tenth and eleventh centuries; it looks pretty shiny, but all that glitters is not gold… That’s not news exactly, but it’s one of the types we’ve been blasting with x-rays to find out what more its metal can tell us. Secondly, it’s one of the coins that’s going in the next exhibition on the Coin Gallery at the Barber Institute, which is why I happen to have an image of it handy, And, thirdly, because as you can see it shows the Virgin Mary, identified in Greek, ‘theotokos’, motherbearer of God, crowning Emperor John with some help from a Hand of God, it was among the coins that my first research enquiry at the Barber, some time ago now, involved me getting out to scrutinise because of being a depiction of divinity in Byzantium. And with that, you see, we connect to the conference report, because the person who asked me about this coin was also presenting at the conference against which the blog backlog now laps. So!

A woodcut depiction of Constantinople from Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

A woodcut depiction of Constantinople from Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Every year since 1999, the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham has held a postgraduate colloquium to showcase its research. In the last few years this has grown somewhat to become an international event; the fifteenth colloquium, on 24th May 2014, had thirty different speakers from fifteen different institutions in seven different countries, organised by necessity into two parallel strands, and I know because I was there. I usually don’t report on postgraduate presentations here, figuring that students are not necessarily fair game for such exposure, but there was such a lot of good stuff said here that I want to give some account at least, so I will give you the running order of the papers I saw and then offer some remarks about the ones I found most thought-provoking. The theme they’d chosen was “Language as Culture in the Eastern Mediterranean (330-2013)”, and you see below how that was reflected in the papers on offer.

    Keynote address

  • Maria Georgopolou, ‘Διγλωσσία: bilingualism as a cultural paradigm’
  • Session 01

  • Zuzana Cernáková, “Language of Fiction: representations of Byzantium in twelfth-century French literature”
  • Kirsty Stewart, “Beast Literature and the Vernacular in Byzantium, 1261-1453”
  • Jeff Brubaker, “The Language of Religious Union: the Greek-Latin Disputatio of 1234″
  • Theofili Kampianaki, “John Zonaras’ Treatment of the Roman Past in his Epitome of Histories
  • Session 03

  • Eileen Rubery, “Making and Meaning in the Frescoes in the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum (600-800 AD)”
  • Katherine Harrison, “From Ancient Lapidaries to Christian Allegories – Textual Sources on Stones and Their Impact upon Gemstone Icons in Byzantium”
  • Sandro Nikolaishvili, “Translation of Byzantine Symbols and Language of Power to Medieval Georgia”
  • Georgia Michael, “The Visual ‘Language of Death’: new interpretations of aspects of idolatry and worship of early Christian funerary art (3rd-4th centuries)”
  • Session 05

  • Panagiotis Sotiropoulos, “Visual Representation in the World of Late Antiquity: religious origins of a gaze attracted by new public and private sights”
  • Miranda Williams, “Language and Propaganda in 6th-Century Africa”
  • Daniel Kelly, “Hagiographic Evidence for Continued Language Diversity in Post-Crises Byzantine State”
  • Lilly Stammler, “One Spiritual Beneficial Tale from the Life of St Andrew the Fool in South Slavonic Translation”

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Seminar CLXI: how to dig up Anglo-Saxon farming

I wrote this offline while WordPress continued not to have visibly done anything that made me prepared to log in, so I feel slightly less bad about the consistent fourteen-month-backlog with my seminar reports than I might do. Slightly. But with that expressed, let’s immediately turn to it in the person of fellow blogger Mark McKerracher, who on 4th February 2013 addressed the Oxford Medieval Archaeology seminar with the title “Mid-Saxon Agriculture Reconsidered”. I got to this one slightly late but I think I got most of it, and very interesting what I got was, also.

Historic field systems visible in the landscape on Burderop Down, Wiltshire

Historic field systems visible in the landscape on Burderop Down, Wiltshire, image used under Crown Copyright

I suppose it is worth first making the case that we really do need to know about farming in the Middle ages: it was the source of almost all wealth and the main activity of the vast majority of the population. If we don’t understand it, we don’t understand what is really the first thing about what the people we study did and cared about and how any of the other stuff they did was possible. Nonetheless, there is much here that we don’t understand, and for England this has actually got worse in the last few generations as archæology has improved, because old models, in which after a near-total reversion to pastoralism in the wake of the Roman withdrawal and the Anglo-Saxon invasions, the heavy plough arrived from the Continent in the ninth century and water-mills shortly after and in general set things up for an Agricultural Revolution that would explain England’s subsequent economic punch, have collapsed as we have found, for example, seventh-century heavy ploughs, eighth-century tidal mills, massive levels of seventh- and eighth-century monetisation compared to the later periods of supposed ‘take-off’ and so forth, and failed to find very much sign of fifth-century agricultural land going out of use in any case.1 Almost all the studies trying to deal with this have been economically-focussed, however, and very often on trade and proto-industry, whereas the base of the economy must have been and remained agricultural.2 So it is arguably in farming that change is most important, but also where it is hardest to actually find.

The Lyminge seventh-century plough coulter in situ

The Lyminge seventh-century plough coulter in situ

This, and the relatively early stages of Mr McKerracher’s doctoral work, meant that what we got here was largely a discussion of ways in which this lack of knowledge might be addressed, but that in itself was illuminating. Technology change, for example, would be a thing you’d hope to be able to see archæologically, but so far we just don’t have enough tools to do a chronology with, not least because the vast bulk of them were probably wood or bone; what then do ones that aren’t tell you about what was normal? Buildings are easier, at least mills are; barns, however, which should be good signs of the kind of productivity that necessitated storage, are basically shaped like houses, so unless they happen to have enough grain in their remains that you can reliably distinguish storage from, say, cookery, there’s still a problem. Grain-drying ovens, which do seem to be a Middle Saxon (i. e. late-seventh to ninth centuries) redevelopment, are still hard to date in use, especially in terms of how long they might go on being used, which obviously matters. Since they can be anything from huts to big stone-built affairs (the two of these known, interestingly, being on the probable border between Mercia and East Anglia which left me thinking that they could have roles in military provisioning3) form does not lead us to function as we might wish. There also arises a problem here that crops up still more with the general phenomenon of wool production which some are now seeing as important much earlier than used to be thought, which is: since any large-scale production of any kind in this period must still have effectively been cottage industry, how can you tell it archæologically from ordinary domestic manufacture? What’s an industrial number of loom-weights? Bear in mind that we can’t date loom-weights with any precision in your answer…

Analysis of cereal remains from the Anglo-Saxon site at Lyminge by Mark McKerracher

Analysis of cereal remains from Lyminge by Mr McKerracher himself and shamelessly hotlinked from his blog

Mr McKerracher’s thoughts as to how to deal with this revolved principally around bones and grains. Neither have been well-studied in all but the most recent digs of Anglo-Saxon settlements, but it still looks like the way forward (or even back, where the remains have actually been preserved). An area that was running sheep primarily for wool would slaughter them only late, whereas one where the wool was a nice side benefit of lamb chops would prefer younger meat: that would be reflected in bone preservation.4 Even if quantities of grain preserved (for which to have happened it usually needs to have been in a fire and charred) are hard to do much with, actually identifying grains can show you shifts in favoured crops from wheat to barley or more importantly to things that are probably fodder crops like rye and oats, suggesting a concentration on horses rather than people, or new growing on land where wheat wasn’t happy, suggesting growing demand, and so on. For these possibilities Mr McKerracher had some sites and information that suggested positive results could be expected, and which allowed him to suggest that his work would show a Middle Saxon farming culture in which we can show that the crops that were being grown were changing, that specialised wool production in the Cotswolds was perhaps the main economic concentration of the period (which might do much to help ground the way that the period becomes a contest for dominance between Wessex and Mercia rather than the kingdoms with an eastern seaboard) and that all of this was only to be found on a few big sites, suggesting that it was innovation from above rather than a general shift beneath the élites. It all needed more testing, he emphasised, but nonetheless this could be some very big things grown from tiny seeds here. I look forward to finally catching up with the blog to find out how things are coming up…

1. It seems unfair to target older books for what their authors couldn’t have known; there’s a reasonable round-up of the literature on the take-off of the tenth century (which is to say, more or less a take-off in the preservation of our sources on economic matters) in Christopher Dyer, “Les problèmes de la croissance agricole du haut moyen âge en Angleterre” in La croissance agricole du haut moyen âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran Vol. 10 (Auch 1990), pp. 117-130. I’m sure there must be one in English as well, but remember I don’t actually work on this stuff, that’s the one I’ve read. The most aggressive statement of a case for a revolutionary change is indubitably Richard Hodges, The Anglo-Saxon Achievement: archaeology and the beginnings of English society (London 1989).

2. Especially Hodges, Anglo-Saxon Achievement, or his “Society, Power and the First English Revolution” in Il Secolo di Ferro: mito e realtà del secolo X, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 38 (Spoleto 1991), pp. 125-157, repr. in Hodges, Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-Reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London 2006), pp. 163-175.

3. Here I’m obviously influenced by Morn D. T. Capper, “Contested Loyalties: Regional and National Identities in the Midland Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, c.700 – c.900″ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sheffield, 2008).

4. Two good early examples of how this kind of work can underpin historical conclusions are Leslie Alcock, Dinas Powys: an Iron Age, Dark Age and Early Medieval Settlement in Glamorgan (Cardiff 1963), reprised and updated in his Economy, Society and Warfare among the Britons and Saxons (Cardiff 1987), pp. 5-150 where the animal bones are discussed pp. 67-82, and Jennifer Bourdillon, “Countryside and town: the animal resources of Saxon Southampton” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 177-195.

Cambridge to Siena and back part two: the actual conference

The Università per Stranieri in Siena is just opposite the station, a little way out of town proper. This had the rather strange advantage that I could walk in with my bags and register, more or less straight off the train. I almost immediately ran into Eileen Joy too, which added to the feeling that I’d walked into a weird parallel-universe version of the Academy. The New Chaucer Society are to be congratulated on the quality of their freebies and the friendliness of the staff, and also on the quality of the nibbles and the coffee, though the latter did keep running out. It being, you know, a university in Italy, I don’t believe they can have been unprepared for how much Italian coffee conferring academics can drink, I think it was just parsimony somewhere which was a pity. Otherwise, though, initial impressions good.

Università per Stranieri

Università per Stranieri, Siena

Unfortunately I now tried to be clever. I decided that I didn’t really stand to get much out of the keynote, but that I could use that time finding my hotel, getting a much-needed shower and then popping back down for sessions that looked more likely to interest me. Sounds cunning doesn’t it? But friends, it is hot in Italy around midday in July. By the time I found the hotel, with only one wrong turn but a long one, caused by a road with both its ends on the same roundabout (see reflections on Siena’s geography elsewhere for context to this sort of confusion), I was very much more in need of a shower than I had been. And I was too early for check-in, which opened at the same time as the sessions I wished to return to, so they wouldn’t let me in. The guy on the desk could have been less helpful, but only by refusing to speak English. So I had to climb back down the hill in the full afternoon sun, with all the same bags I’d schlepped up there. And of course I’d had really very little sleep, so this came hard and I sweated the more. I arrived back at the conference with white bands across my shirt where the bag straps had rubbed my sweat dry and very much less than presentable. So bad did I look and feel that I dived into the loos to try and sponge down a bit, both me and the evil-smelling shirt, and found that of the two men’s loos one had a working dryer and one had working taps, if by working you mean they ran for two seconds if you held your hands just right beneath them. It was not easy to look like a scholar or indeed smell like one in these circumstances. I later discovered in fact that more or less everyone was feeling like this, because the room containing the keynote had had no functioning air conditioning, but I still think I looked more obviously freaky than most because of the sweat-stains, which I could only partially wash out with the resources to hand, so I spent most of the day shamefacedly keeping safe distances from people and trying not to stink, which probably didn’t help me make friends.1 As you may imagine, my good impression of the Università per Stranieri’s facilities had now sunk rather.

Università per Stranieri

All very fine till the air conditioning fails

But, I was indubitably at at least part of the 17th Biennial Congress of the New Chaucer Society, on the 17th July 2010, my notes tell me so. So, the papers!

45. Animal Theories and Methodologies

I chose this one because it looked like the best opportunity I’d ever get to collect a set of legends, Bruce Holsinger and Carolyn Dinshaw being names I’ve seen in many a place, spoken with awe or envy often, but until now names only. So this was something of an education.

  • Bruce Holsinger, “Membrane Æsthetics”. This was a cunning conceit, which Professor Holsinger set up with the idea of extracting DNA from manuscript parchment. We know this can be done, of course, albeit not yet with useful results, and he mentioned most of the projects doing it (though not Michael Drout‘s, to which I took the liberty of alerting him afterwards). Then he set about describing one that he was purportedly involved in but had had to abort when it transpired that, as he revealed in deadpan Hammer horror style, “the parchment… is human!”
    Christ in Majesty in the Codex Amiatinus

    Christ in Majesty from the Codex Amiatinus, ink and dyes on sheepskin

    This was of course a spoof, but the idea was presumably to get us reflecting on the sheer amount of death involved in medieval manuscript culture. Yes, it probably took 500 sheep to make the Codex Amiatinus (I pulled that figure out of the air, but of that order I believe), we take this too easily—500 sheep man, that’s how many families’ entire herds? How many individual throats cut and bled out? More than the monks could eat, we can be fairly sure. Yes, OK, we do forget this too easily. (Though it bothers us far more than the people of the time, presumably.) And of course the idea was—I supposed, he merely said, “was I doing that?” when it was suggested—to reinstil the appropriate horror to the source material.

    Skulls in the burial pit at Ridgeway, Dorset

    Skulls of dead Vikings unearthed at the Ridgeway, Dorset

    Now, this bothered me, but it took me a while to work out why, fully. My notes indicate some frustration: I find “[cf. eating]” signalling my recognition that this is in some ways just the vegetarianism debate again: in what ways and for what purpose is it acceptable for humans to kill animals? But more annoyingly yet, it finally came to me, look, there are actually a whole bunch of people out there whose subject material is actually human remains, they’re called archæologists. And they, especially in Prof. Holsinger’s country of employment what with NAGPRA, face these dilemmas that he had jokingly raised, for real all the time and it’s not funny. So I thought in the end that by trying to make animal work more serious he wound up diminishing those who work on the human in a direct way, and thus opening questions he hadn’t really given any space to at the cost of the point he actually seemed to be making.

    Can it be a bad paper that makes one think so, you might ask? And should I really be annoyed, therefore? Am I actually failing to demote the human from its state of privilege and thus fundamentally out of step with the session’s ethic? Or was he just floating something about which taste and interdisciplinarity might both have counselled wider frames of reference? I leave that to you to decide.

  • Sara Schotland, “Talking Bird/Gentle Heart: bonding between women and across species in the Squire’s Tale“, argued that the bird in the Squire’s Tale that consoles the heroine needs to be read as dually female and animal, and not together; it’s almost Christological. She also suggested that Chaucer here let women express themselves through painting, thus giving them access to authorship. This is tangled stuff for someone like me still wrangling with intentionality and authorship, so I’ll move on.
  • Petrarch's preserved cat

    Petrarch's allegd cat

    Sarah Stanbury, “Derrida’s Cat”, working off Derrida and setting out of how the category of animal is one that has historically licensed and still licenses genocide (though see of course the vegetarianism debate referenced above) and yet seems to end, in this respect, at the doorstep over which the pet may cross, and then took this into the Miller’s Tale where a cat is allowed to pass into the scholar’s otherwise private space thus enabling the narrative. Sadly, the third and only surviving, physically at least, cat mentioned, Petrarch’s, is likely to be a fake. I liked this paper, it was both sparklingly clever and had a point that even one so non-literary as me could grasp.
  • Lastly, Carolyn Dinshaw, “It’s Not Easy Being Green”, scoring easy points with the audience with the title alone, then went deep into the iconography of the Green Man, a figure who turns up repeatedly in medieval church architecture and appears to have subcutaneous foliage. My notes may be simplest:

    This flouts boundary between human and plant, organism and environment, deconstructing whole world by dissolving absolute separation of our categories: “nothing exists independently”. Subcutaneous foliage! Under-things under things… A horror of interdependency betrays our incompleteness and provokes fright/fight reaction. We should stop being part of something bigger and work on intimacy, which is queer and terrible.

    She has the gift for this stuff, does Professor Dinshaw and it was easy to see why she’s become so legendary.

    Green Man at Llangwm Church, Monmouthshire

    Green Man at Llangwm Church, Monmouthshire; loads more linked through

  • So that was a good one to end with, and there were lots of questions, not least from Karl Steel and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, about animals and materiality respectively, and Mary Kate Hurley suggesting that animals’ wishes (like the cat that wants to go out) ought to lead us to question our self-determination. Mary, blog more will you? Cheers. (These people get mentioned because I knew them by name; there were other fine questions asked too, especially about parchment production by people who knew their stuff, but I can’t name them alas.) All lively and clever, anyway, even if far out of any field where I could say who was saying new things and who wasn’t. Sadly, I didn’t quit there.

51. Latin and its Rivals, 2: Chronicles in the Age of Chaucer

I chose this because it looked like the most hardcore historical thing on offer and I figured it would be nice to get back to an area where I could evaluate a bit more rather than being dazzled by big smiles, human and non-human warmth and bait-and-switch rhetoric. I was quite wrong.

  • George B. Stow, “The Author of the Continuation of the Eulogium Historiarum
  • Sylvia Federico Bates, “Walsingham’s Dictys in Chaucer’s Troilyus and Crisede
  • Andrew Prescott, “Thomas Walsingham and the Peasant’s Revolt”
  • James G. Clark, “The Audience of the Monastic Chronicler in late Medieval England”
  • Neither Bates nor Prescott had actually been able to get there, and their papers were therefore read for them. Not a good start, but actually those were the better two, short (despite not being in control of the text) and punchy; I enjoyed the Prescott paper so much that I wound up fruitlessly engaging the guy who’d given it about it afterwards, to little avail as of course it wasn’t his work. Stow overran by ten minutes and I personally tuned out when he revealed that he was summarising a paper in EHR.2 And Clark, I don’t know how much he overran by because I was the second person to walk out, I gather he went on right till the end of the session and nobody stopped him. It wasn’t uninteresting, even, being as he was suggesting that chronicles were actually getting out of their houses and being read, for example, at universities, but some of the audience might have liked to discuss at least a bit…

Anyway, there it was. Realising that I still wouldn’t be able to get to the hotel I made another slightly more successful attempt to wash and brush up and dry out—I must have been doing something right as I was told I resembled Johnny Depp by a lady I shan’t name and shame; before I had the beard I only ever got compared to Hugh Grant—and headed for dinner. Dinner, at a place called the Enoteca Italiana, was gorgeous, I mean sumptuous, I could see immediately why the conference fee had been so high and suddenly I didn’t mind. They served excellent wine and rather good food (albeit with almost no vegetables…) to a gathering of maybe a hundred and twenty people without let or hindrance and we all left very merry. Also, I found myself accidentally sitting at the same table as Derek Pearsall, for one, someone I knew vaguely from London with whom I turned out to have a lot in common for two, and last but not least Dr Virago, who is awesome (as indeed I had been told, but it’s always nice to find one’s friends are right). A wander through the streets afterwards with various of the party and some less recordable discussion was a welcome tonic too, and when I did, eventually, get into my room at the hotel, and shower at LAST, I was able to sleep sound and satisfied.

I have no notes on what happened the next morning, which is hardly surprising because it was US (as in, we have seen the enemy and he is…)

60. Blogging, Virtual Communities, and Medieval Studies

  • Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Blogging Past, Present and Askew
  • Carl S. Pyrdum III, who is ‘kind of a big deal’, “Blogging on the Margins: Got Medieval, Medieval Blogging, and Mainstream Readership”
  • Stephanie Trigg, “How do you find the time? Work, pleasure, time and blogging”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “An Englishman’s blog is his castle: names, freedom and control in medievalist blogging”
  • David Lawton, “Response”
  • I thought we were pretty awesome personally, as were our various learned commentators, blogarific and otherwise, but it’s weird how little any of us have blogged about it. My paper’s here, with the Powerpoint presentation here, for what it’s worth; I don’t see myself doing anything further with it, but I should warn you that it’s nothing like as humane as Jeffrey’s or as deep as Stephanie’s, and features 100% fewer robot Chaucers than Carl’s. Mainly what we learn from this panel, I think, is that it’s a very bad idea to let me near the controls of a computer with a live Internet connection that’s hooked up to a projector. The urge to improvise illustrations for other people’s remarks is very very strong.

Now after that I went to find lunch with Eileen Joy and Karl and Mary and a range of other people less blogular but equally good company, and it was nice, and then thanks to Eileen’s great kindness in letting me drop stuff in their flat for a short while, I was able to actually do some touristing. And that will come post after next, but first, I am long overdue with a range of important newses and they will come next.

1. But would embracing the stench have helped more, that’s the question isn’t it. I like to think mine was the path of a gentleman.

2. “The Continuation of the Eulogium Historiarum: Some Revisionist Perspectives” in English Historical Review Vol. 119 (Oxford 2004), pp. 667-681, if that’s of interest.