Tag Archives: animals

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.