Tag Archives: Ann Williams

I left my heart phone charger in St Andrews (3 of 3)

The second evening of the St Andrews conference I’ve been reporting, Monasteries and Secular Authorities in the pre-Millennial Medieval World, held the conference dinner, which was really rather good (though we paid separately for it), and then the next day was the last. I packed at some speed before the papers started, and as a result, it subsequently became clear, left my phone charger plugged into a wall—bet you were beginning to wonder about that—though I didn’t notice this till the battery actually ran out on the last day of Leeds, by which time it was a little late to do much about it.

A high medieval chrysobull awarded to one of the monasteries of Mt Athos

A high medieval chrysobull awarded to one of the monasteries of Mt Athos

Anyway, the third day was only a half day and in that half, Ann Williams discussed the alleged predatoriness of Earl Godwine upon the late Anglo-Saxon Church and found the evidence somewhat thin—apparently she plans to rehabilitate Archbishop Stigand next—and Rosemary Morris took us though the considerable intricacies of the tax evasion, or avoidance—when you can get the Byzantine Emperor to sign off your tax reduction, much to the annoyance of his own officials who are trying to enforce payment, the legality of your tactics are fairly moot—practised by the monasteries of Mt Athos in the eleventh century. She challenged the Western diplomatists to come up with anything as impressive as the chrysobull of Alexios Comenos; give me time… Then in the second and last session Matthew Zimmern told us about Stavelot-Malmédy, a house which developed a split personality to match its dual site in the ninth century, for reasons that once more could be apportioned on the one side to royal interests and on the other to those of the familia of Columbanus.

The modern Kremsmünster Abbey viewed from the North-East, from Wikimedia Commons

The modern Kremsmünster Abbey viewed from the North-East, from Wikimedia Commons

The conference and that session were closed out, saving the summary, by Leanne Good who was presenting on the foundation of the Bavarian (now Austrian) monastery of Kremsmunster. It only occurred to me some time after I’d left the town that although I’d been talking to her avidly about the edition of the place’s charters, which I met through Lay Archives, she may have been confused as I had jumbled it in my head with that of Kaufungen, which is a rather different place. Sorry, Leanne! Anyway, because Kremsmunster was a frontier foundation on a border with ill-defined territories owing notional loyalty to a non-Christian polity there were lots of things that leapt out at me from this paper that sounded like my area; granted, her non-Christians were Slavs and Avars and mine were, well, if only I knew but in some cases at least Muslim, but there are parallels. Not least, Tassilo of Bavaria was doing this exercise partly so as to pitch himself as a mission leader and Christian ruler in the face of Carolingian pressure on his independence; the situation isn’t quite the same with Guifré the Hairy, who is basically free of such pressure, but the parallel still gave me some added perspective on what Guifré may have been trying to do with his monastic foundations.

It also involved some interesting speculation on the audience for the foundation document, presumably the court, which in turn raised questions about what kind of pressures Tassilo was trying to deal with among his own nobility. It is as we were later to hear in Leeds; sometimes, the strange things that people do tell you most about them. Of all the papers we heard this was the one I most wanted a copy of, for my own purposes, and I must in fact mail and beg one. Warren Brown summed up, reminding us how much we’d heard about how the sources themselves interfere in the history they record, but also reminding us that so do our own interpretations. Should we really be surprised when we hear of cleric-kings, of family monasteries or monasteries with no monks, or is it just our modern perspectives messing up our expectations? And of course, though we had seen monasteries several times as political tools here we had also seen powerful communities asserting their own agendas, and ideally our pictures of how monasteries and secular powers interacted in the early Middle Ages would always remember that both parties to the interaction had some input.

Ruins of St Andrews Cathedral, borrowed from the Gypsy Scholar, who in turn borrowed it from Wikipedia

Ruins of St Andrews Cathedral, borrowed from the Gypsy Scholar, who in turn borrowed it from Wikipedia

All of this, anyway, will go some way to explaining why I got so much out of this conference. I ordinarily avoid themed conferences, partly because one of the things conferences do for me is tell me about stuff that I otherwise had no idea about, but I think that this one genuinely pushed all participants to think new things about their material and its possibilities, so I shall reconsider this policy now. I also got to meet a number of people of importance for my own work and, I hope, several new friends, and any excuse to go to St Andrews is a good one. So I came down on the train quite cheerful (though if Roy Flechner is reading, I should like to say once more: that bus would have got us there in plenty of time). As soon as I was back near a computer, however, I had to send literally twenty different e-mails as upshots or in preparation for the next conference, as a result of which my home and so on hardly saw any of me before I was off again, with the blog running on automatic and a suitcase with room for spare books as I headed for Leeds. The blog of that will follow in due course, but first, some light historiographical reflection… (Stay posted.)

P. S. Also, Sarah Tatum would like me to encourage you all to submit your work to the European Review of History, which is apparently short of medieval material at the moment. And, you know, there are worse places to be seen…

I left my heart phone charger in St Andrews (1 of 3)

Right! I’m really back now. And I used up all my buffer while I was away so had to actually write stuff. To help me with this, the world broke my catch-up lie-in with two early morning doorbells, the second of which woke me from a dream about how I’d forgotten to get up in time and had lost the whole day and not fed the child yet (the child gets his own breakfast quite happily but my subconscious is not satisfied with dull facts), and this left me deeply confused about what time it actually was. I could wish I’d been feeling cleverer when I wrote this, because there are agendas to be considered in the reportage. Quite apart from the basic complications of saying things about others in public, one person I’ve met wanted not to be reported without seeing it first, which is quite understandable but not my usual practice, and it will be difficult to write anything at all without endangering other bloggers’ anonymities. So if any of the below is incoherent all that’s why. Anyway. I think I have about eight posts I have to write. This is the first, and is about a conference I went to in St Andrews. Before I got very far trying to write this up short it became clear that it wouldn’t stay that way, so instead of one Leviathan this is the first of three posts, one for each day with the last half-day also having a round-up and the shout-outs. Okay!

View of St Andrews from St Rules Tower, by Joel Afferty

View of St Andrews from St Rule's Tower, by Joel Afferty

St Andrews is one of my favourite towns, to visit at least; I might find it a bit slow to live there, but I keep hoping to try anyway. I have friends there, some of the people in the profession I would consider friends even if they weren’t colleagues and some others not in the profession, and I always find stuff there to make me think. This time the stuff mainly came from a conference organised by two postgraduates under the name of Monasteries and Secular Authorities in the pre-Millennial Medieval World, and it must be said that they did an awesome job. Maps, programme, equipment, accommodation and free-flowing socialisation all just seemed to unroll without any major problems, and these guys could surely be making better money as PAs somewhere, though I hope that they don’t take it. The whole programme was full of good stuff. You can read it at that link so I won’t replicate it here but just remark on a few of the papers that really made me think.

Aerial view of the Irish monastic site of Clonmacnoise

Aerial view of the Irish monastic site of Clonmacnoise

The first session was on the existence or not of the town in early medieval Ireland. It is widely argued that there was nothing in Ireland that scholars of other areas would recognise as a town until the Vikings fortified Dublin, and the debate isn’t even about that, really. The question is whether, until then, monasteries fulfil a similar function as centres of population, production and exchange. It seems to me that this is essentially subjective. A Roman villa could fit that description. Is Clonmacnoise up there any bigger than a Roman villa site? How large does a place like that have to get before it stops just being a farm with a religious function and perhaps some legal jurisdiction? This is a semantic field really and I prefer to deal in the archaeology of what was there, which is why I prefer the approach Martin Carver et al. have taken with Portmahomack in Scotland where such questions have essentially been secondary. Anyway. There’s some useful introduction at the link under that image if you want to know more. Charles Doherty argued that the important churches of Armagh and Kildare had political jurisdictions by virtue of being associated with kings and particular kingdoms from early on, but they eventually had to settle for essentially spiritual jurisdictions as politics left them behind. Against this Colmán Etchingham argued that a lot of the evidence for non-agricultural activity, especially assemblies, at these places is based on faulty equivalences between modern Irish and Old Irish terms that have shifted their meaning. Agreement was not general with either speaker, but these two have apparently been sparring for a long time and were able to disagree like gentlemen and be friendly to all, which is exemplary. It did make me think, however, that by their criteria any of my subject monasteries are towns, which makes no sense in a landscape with cities in it such as I have. I just don’t think it makes any more sense in a landscape where the cities are missing; there’s just a sort of social articulation that doesn’t happen in Ireland till later, though it’s worth saying that Dr Etchingham thought that the paper I mainly have this idea from was all kinds of wrong.

Ruins of the medieval abbey of St-Guenolé de Landévennec, Brittany, from Wikimedia Commons

Ruins of the medieval abbey of St-Guenolé de Landévennec, Brittany, from Wikimedia Commons

In the second session Roy Flechner introduced us to the questions around Irish kings who were clerics, clerics who fought in war, monasteries that went to war against each other and in general a rather different attitude to war and its combination with the life spiritual than we usually think of even for the Middle Ages. Then David Dumville gave a paper about the monastery at Landévennec in Britanny. I suppose many people know that I have old personal issues with Professor Dumville but this was he at his best, sharply discriminating with the evidence and imaginative with its solutions, as well as crystal clear in delivery. Landévennec is important because so much that we know about early medieval Brittany comes from the abbey of Redon, which is right on the border with Francia and very much a colonising enterprise, whereas Landévennec is right on the western coast in the Celtic-speaking zone. Unfortunately it also got trashed by the Vikings several times, its monks became fugitives and the documentation from it is basically missing, so it also contrasts with Redon by mainly being an archæological site. Professor Dumville looked dubiously at the precept that the monastery later claimed to have got from Louis the Pious via an abbot whose name appears merely to be Breton for `good monk’, and which has been used to argue that Louis put Brittany under Benedictine observance, his doubt largely because it’s simply unproven that the Carolingians ever controlled that far into Brittany. He suggested that any such success was instead driven from the bishopric of Tours, and that the best division to make in Brittany might not be Frankish/Celtic, native/incomer, or whatever, but pro- or anti-Tours. I think that has something going for it but obviously the fact that sometimes there were dukes or kings opposing the Carolingian kings needs to be in there too, though we don’t really know how much they controlled either.1 The other thing that came up in this paper was the fact that there is, despite the social dislocation that they caused, very little Viking settlement evidenced in Brittany, except right up in the north-east near Coutances. This caught my ear because Coutances is very near Bayeux, where we were discussing Viking settlement only a short while ago, and Alex Woolf later informed me that the Norse names in that area are in fact predominantly Hiberno-Norse, suggesting that the invaders came from Ireland. This may be where the Benjamin Hudson theory one commentator on the previous post mentioned is coming from.

The tomb of St Columbanus at Bobbio

The tomb of St Columbanus at Bobbio

The third session opened what was going to become something of a theme of the conference, the monastic family of houses left scattered across Europe by Saint Columbanus. Opening the theme was Sarah Tatum, who argued that the Vita Sadalbergae, ostensibly the saint’s life of the foundress of Langres and Laon, should really be seen as a piece of writing intended to stress their connection to the Columban familia, as opposed to the foundress’s own family who only get the endeavour into trouble. I have to say that I thought she made her point pretty convincingly. The other paper in that session was given by Alex O’Hara, who was looking at conflict between Columbanus’s house at Bobbio and local aristocracy in the tenth century (which is, as I’ve said to many people these two weeks, where it’s at). Here the interest for me came in the questions when Federico Marazzi suggested that the real deal here might not have been the landownership exactly, but who had the lordship of lands that had been public within the monastery’s endowment. As the royal ability to control the fisc waned, that is, this might have come up for competition in a way that it hadn’t before. This of course entails knowing more about the fisc… but I think there’s something in it, even if only one case of many. Damn, that makes this a feudal transformation post

St Gall illustration of Notker the Stammerer, from Wikimedia Commons

St Gall illustration of Notker the Stammerer, from Wikimedia Commons

The last two papers were perhaps the most challenging for me specifically. They were given by two of the people involved in the Lay Archives Project, of which I have oft-times spoke, and first up was Warren Brown who was emphasising again what he has said before, that the formula or model documents that we have lurking about in various early medieval collections tell us about a much wider range of things than those documents that usually survive, which are naturally enough usually about land (because that, too, survives longer than most other goods).2 The formulae preserve all kinds of unusual operations a scribe might have to record, but it is often argued that they are relics of an age when document use was different. One set that’s definitely not, as Warren was here emphasising, was that written up by Notker Balbulus, the Stammerer, monk of St Gall and biographer of Charlemagne, d. c. 912, which Warren therefore used to explore how lay people were using documents in Notker’s time.

One of the things that came out of this, among much else that might be of interest to few, was that one of the things Notker thought his pupils might need was a document whereby an old or infirm person made a donation in exchange for his upkeep for life, not to a monastery or cathedral necessarily (which are of course the ones we have) but to a layman. This is one of the things which, counter-intuitively, the Lay Archives project has repeatedly come up against, that really when we can see laymen using documents, they do just the same things as ecclesiastics do with them, albeit here saving body rather than soul.3

The reformed church of Wynau, Switzerland, once St Mauritz, proprietary church of the Bechburg family, eleventh- or twelfth-century

The reformed church of Wynau, Switzerland, once St Mauritz, proprietary church of the Bechburg family, eleventh- or twelfth-century

The second paper in that session was given by Hans Hummer, who was looking at monasteries as centres of lordship. The interesting thing there for me was his pointing out that really, though churches do not die in usual circumstances and are indeed not vulnerable to the divisions of inheritance, you still don’t necessarily want to try and shunt all your family lands into a church you control so as to keep them together, as has been suggested people did, because churches are vulnerable to other authorities, kings, bishops, reformers, and so on. You never wholly own a church, because it has a place in some wider hierarchy that’s outside your control. (Unless, as in the Catalan case, the bishops are all your cousins…) Because there is a body of work that contends that Merovingian- and Carolingian-period nobility, among others, did just this, the counter-perspective was useful.4 I wouldn’t like to guess which is more predominant but I like to have people considering alternatives.

The papers were given a closing review by Thomas Owen Clancy, who was erudite as ever, and then we dispersed to various locations for dinner that, St Andrews being the size it is, all wound up being the same one. I got drinking with Anglo-Saxonists, which can be dangerous, but lived to tell the tale and here I have been telling it. More will follow…


1. The top-down version of this story is told, as Professor Dumville graciously conceded, about as well as it can be told in Julia Smith’s Province and Empire: Brittany under the Carolingians, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series 18 (Cambridge 1992).

2. Warren has said this where others can read him in Warren Brown, “When documents are destroyed or lost: lay people and archives in the early Middle Ages” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 337-366.

3. See for Catalonia this case put in Adam J. Kosto, “Laymen, Clerics and Documentary Practices in the Early Middle Ages: the example of Catalonia” in Speculum Vol. 80 (Cambridge MA 2005), pp. 44-74.

4. The place I was most convinced by the original argument was Régine le Jan, “Convents, Violence and Competition for Power in Seventh-Century Francia”, transl. Jinty Nelson in Mayke de Jong & Franz Theuws with Carine van Rijn (edd.), Topographies of Power in the Early Middle Ages, The Transformation of the Roman World 6 (Leiden 2001), pp. 243-269, where the case is argued specifically for nunneries, but I was told at this very same conference by the estimable and charmingly irreverent Sarah Tatum that her thesis has thrown up a number of problems with le Jan’s examples, so that while the theory itself remains plausible actual evidence of it happening is somewhat lacking.

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.