Tag Archives: anthropology

Leeds IMC report for 2015, part 3

A weekend full of reading lists and finishing small things didn’t leave time for blog, but this week I am back on it with the third part of the report from last year’s International Medieval Congress at Leeds. A great deal of this day was connected with the retirement of Professor Ian Wood, the same circumstance which led me to be taking up a post in his absence next year, which left me feeling simultaneously as if it would be tactless of me to be at those sessions and as if it would be rude of me not to. In the end, therefore, I let reverence of the greats and relevance to my interests guide me, and so the day began like this.

1014. The Merovingian Kingdoms: sessions in honour of Ian N. Wood, I

  • Yitzhak Hen, “Introduction”
  • Danuta Shanzer, “Avitus of Vienne: onwards and upwards”
  • Régine Le Jan, “Merovingian Elite in the 7th Century: competitive and cooperative logics”
  • Paul Fouracre, “Town and Country in Merovingian and Early Carolingian Hagiography”
  • Yitzhak Hen, “Response”
  • Beginning of a text of the so-called Law of Gundobad, from Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 130 Blank, fo. 150r

    Beginning of a text of the so-called Law of Gundobad, from Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 130 Blank, fo. 150r

    Professor Shanzer brought to the feast some findings from the work of the ninth-century bishop Agobard of Lyons, who was one of the very few people to use the work of Professor Shanzer’s and Professor Wood’s shared interest, the sixth-century Bishop Avitus of Vienne. Specifically, he uses a dialogue between Avitus and King Gundobad of Burgundy (473-516), a heretic (as Agobard saw it) for his Arian Christianity, and he uses it as part of an argument against the provisions of Burgundian law still being used in court in his day but it obviously existed, and would be fascinating to rediscover.1 Professor Le Jan used Dado of Rouen’s Life of Eligius to show what happened when seventh-century Frankish court politics booted people out to the provinces, where the oppositions often continued under the cladding of Church disputes.2 Eligius, a ‘Roman’, contended with the local Irish monastic Church supported by the Mayor of the Palace, but unlike some he was a good enough middleman to be able to maintain relations with the Mayor anyway, and Professor Le Jan suggested that people like this who could use friendship to bridge political gaps might be the ones to study to understand why the faction-riven Merovingian kingdoms didn’t just disintegrate in the seventh century. Lastly Paul drew attention to what he saw as a shift in the scenes of action in these very politicised Merovingian saints’ lives, in the early ones of which most significant things happen in towns and it’s when bishops leave the towns that they are vulnerable without their loyal flock, like so many mitred Red Riding Hoods except that the woodcutter is the one to watch out for, but in the later ones of which we move to an inhabitation of the landscape, with foundations in the wilderness, driving off of wild beasts (always male) and rural devils (often female), whether in South-West Germany, West Germany or Frisia.3 Christianity moved out to the countryside in the seventh century, if these texts are to be taken as reflective. I might also note that it apparently starts ignoring bishops in favour of monks, and obviously the phenomena are complex; Paul suggested they were the roots of a colonizing culture, but the old one that the Irish penitential exiles change the face of the early medieval Church could still emerge from this unbeaten, I think.4 Lastly, in his response Professor Hen went back to Professor Shanzer’s paper and noted firstly that Avitus doesn’t seem actually to call Gundobad himself an Arian, whether or not Agobard does, and secondly that unlike with most heretics, the Church almost always responded to Arians with debate, not suppression, which might be worth exploring.

After this, whether from embarrassment or not I don’t know, I reverted to my numismatic background for a session.

1143. Conceptualizing Value in Early Medieval Europe

  • Dagfinn Skre, “To Value and To Trade: two sides of the same coin”
  • Alessia Rovelli, “La monnaie comme mesure de la valeur et moyen d’échange dans l’Italie du haut moyen âge”, with “Summary” by Chris Wickham
  • Rory Naismith, “Pecuniary Profanities? Money, Ritual, and Value in the Early Middle Ages”
  • This was probably something I had to go to anyway, wasn’t it? The value systems that support early medieval coinage are increasingly something I worry about, since it is used so differently to modern money that assumptions are too easily transported. Here were three other people worrying about it too. There is a sort of orthodoxy that money came into being as a means to make trade easier; Dr Skre had lately met the work of David Graeber that questions this and suggests that pre-monetary societies work differently, with exchange structured by obligations, not by value; as soon as you have value as an independent concept, as a quantity that can be owed, a line has been crossed that the introduction of money doesn’t alter.5 I’ve been agnostic about this so far but Dr Skre’s looking at the earliest Norwegian lawcodes for compensation tariffs, measured in coin-terms but obviously untradeable (since you can’t pass on someone’s eye, etc.) had me readier to believe it than I had been before. Dr Rovelli looked at late-eighth-century Italy, where a system based on Lombard gold was rapidly (as far as documents mentioning the things indicate) replaced by a system based on Carolingian silver but where, as she explained, finds of Carolingian coinage are really very rare compared to silver of other periods. Of the finds that there are, only Milan’s and Venice’s coinages seem to have travelled very far but even then there’s not much.6 As Chris Wickham put it in summary, this makes it seem like the Carolingian denier was much more a unit of account than anything people actually used. Rory then followed this up by looking at the question of hoards of coins used as ritual deposits, not just in pagan contexts but specifically as Christian alms in the context of the Forum Hoard which he and others have been investigating.7 Obviously these are not a priori economic uses, and Rory matched this with XRF analysis of the contemporary papal silver, whose content is pretty unvarying and often higher than its contemporaries. There’s no sign that stuff given to the Holy See was being melted down to make more coin, therefore, the spheres were kept separate. I have my reservations about XRF for trace elements even when done really well, to which we’ll return in a few posts’ time, but this had been done well and by this time what Rory was suggesting seemed to make sense anyway.

    Silver denaro of Pope Benedict IV with Emperor Louis the Blind, struck in Rome between 901 and 903, NAC Numismatica SpA auction, 18 December 2010

    Silver denaro of Pope Benedict IV with Emperor Louis the Blind, struck in Rome between 901 and 903, NAC Numismatica SpA auction, 18 December 2010, a very special coin not just because of the price it made but because it is also an early medieval rebus. Can anyone see it?

    There was lots of discussion in this session. To my delight this included an orthodox Marxist (Señor de Carvalho Pachá of the previous day) insisting that value was capitalist and that Marx himself showed that Graeber is wrong, to which Dr Skre replied that in his materials value was created by comparison, not production, and when you’re dealing with compensation for offences against the person, that is a strong position I think. I suggested that precious-metal coin was all too high-value for us to talk about monetisation in any market sense anyway and that it must have all been ‘special’ in some way, to which Dr Skre again reasonably replied that coin is a lot lower-value than the masses of bullion people in his research area sometimes stashed or transacted. Morn Capper argued with Rory about whether the Forum Hoard could really be part of the English annual donation to the Holy See known as Peter’s Pence, since there isn’t that much of it from that point of view, and I don’t think this got settled. I then wound up arguing privately with Morn about the use of bronze coin; as she said, it does sometimes happen in Northern Europe, such as eighth-century Northumbria, but as I said it also happens anywhere Byzantine but, importantly, that doesn’t lead to the non-Byzantine areas in contact with those ones seeing low-value coin as solving a trade problem they’ve always had and adopting it straight away. The utility argument for money actually falls over badly when you place it in the early Middle Ages. This is one of the reasons I now contend for the value of the study of this period; it often breaks other people’s general theories quite badly!

So that was all really useful and left me with much to discuss with people over lunch, but for the rest of the day I was called back to the Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre and the lauding and magnification of Ian Wood. The first of these sessions combined several loyalties, though, and I might have had to go anyway.

1214. Material Culture and Early Medieval History: sessions in honour of Ian N. Wood, III

  • Leslie Brubaker, “The Earliest Images of the Virgin Mary, East and West”
  • Helmut Reimitz, “Between Past and Future: Roman History in the Merovingian Kingdoms”
  • Richard Morris, “Landscape, Archaeology and the Coming of Christianity to Northern England”
  • Alan Thacker, “Response”
  • Leslie, at this point still in my chain of command, detected a difference between the way that the Virgin Mary was depicted in the early Christian world between Rome, where the popes were her biggest champions and between the fifth and eighth centuries settled into depicting her as the Queen of Heaven, in full golden royal attire. Perhaps naturally, in the East the emperors did not do this; Mary appeared enthroned with the Son, yes, but the royal attire stayed firmly on the imperial patrons. Helmut’s paper, despite his title, was more about the use of Roman law in the Merovingian kingdoms, focusing especially on the trial of Bishop Praetextatus by King Chilperic, because Chilperic condemned him according to the canon law of the Roman Church.8 Admittedly, Gregory of Tours claims that the king had added these laws to the canons himself, but the relevant law is in eleven manuscripts of the Theodosian Code and copied into five of the Breviary of Alaric and one of the Salic Law. The Roman past was still in use here, but not always by its self-appointed custodians. Richard Morris, picking up on another strand of Professor Wood’s work, looked at a group of Northumbrian monasteries of which several are only known through archæology, arguing that they were usually on previously-sacred sites but also represent a fair degree of royal initiative to establish Christianity so widely across a landscape so fast.9 The identity of the founders seems to me hard to demonstrate from archæology alone and the group didn’t seem to me to be too unified on a map, but the pagan precursors were well demonstrated. Lastly Alan drew the papers together with the thread of the Empire, one of the papal Marian churches being an imperial foundation in origin and these churches being the inspiration for at least some of the Northumbrian foundations like the (non-royal) Wearmouth-Jarrow. This session also achieved its purpose to an extent in that it provoked Professor Wood to draw further links between the papers, because as Alan had said, his work had enabled the spread of the session and its range of comparison in the first place.

    East wall of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome

    East wall of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome, showing where Leslie’s materials are coming from

Then tea and back to the theatre once more for the papers in this group which, for me at least, had promised the most fun of all.

1314. The Transformation of the Roman World: sessions in honour of Ian N. Wood, IV

  • Ralph Mathisen, “Pacu and his Brother: a Romano-Alamannic family from post-Roman Heidelberg”
  • Chris Wickham, “Information Exchange on the Papal Estates of Sicily, c. 600″
  • Ann Christys, “Was Spain Different in the Eighth Century?”
  • Stuart Airlie, “Response”
  • Detail from a replica of the seventh-century Alemannic scabbard from Gutenstein

    Detail from a replica of the seventh-century Alemannic scabbard from Gutenstein, not showing a great deal of Roman influence but of course also rather later than we’re talking about. Photo by Schristian Bickel – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3078209


    Professor Mathisen focused on a single monument from the Agri Decumates, an area supposedly utterly lost to Roman control thanks to the Alemans in the third-century crisis; the names on the monument seem to show an Aleman with Roman children and invokes Roman gods but does so in a way that no other monument Professor Mathisen knew does, with a double field across which the text runs in continuous lines. I remember this and it looks weird—sadly I can’t find an image [Edit: but Mark H. can, as witness his comment, thankyou!]—but it’s obviously not a rejection of Rome, and there are apparently plenty of other signs of continuity in this area once one accepts that as possible. Conquest obviously wasn’t simple here. Chris then looked at the letters of Pope Gregory I, and I will probably remember nothing from this conference as warmly as his five-minute précis of the kinds of things Gregory was writing to his distant estate managers on Sicily about (“Give me back the onyx vase I lent you”), but the point was the level of micro-management Gregory was attempting by letter, chasing up cases and missed payments, making appointments, policing rent levels and answering pleas from his people against his own officials. It seems difficult to believe that this could have worked, given his removal from actual events, but he obviously thought it could, and this should perhaps make us think about other people whose letters didn’t happen to be preserved because of being pope.10 Ann Christys then reminded us of the awkwardly large gap we have between the conquest of al-Andalus by Muslim forces in 711 and the first texts that talk about it, from the ninth and tenth centuries; the archæology doesn’t show very much break until then either, but the texts are very uninterested in the Spanish past except as it had led to their conquest, even though it was still the environment in which their co-religionists and even they lived.11 Stuart Airlie, in closing, firstly wished that Bede could have done the response instead of him, secondly wondered why we even still try to divide the medieval from the ancient worlds and thirdly pointed out quite how many different agents we have to envisage in the transformation of the session’s title, working perhaps not as disconnectedly as is often imagined but all in their own local contexts and to purposes that cannot have been very much aligned. Whether the detail can ever be resynthesized is an open question but he encouraged everybody to keep working on it anyway. In discussion, it was Chris’s paper that drew the most questions, not least Professor Wood sagely pointing out that for some reason Gregory doesn’t try to manage his estates in Provence the same way, and Chris pointing out to someone else I didn’t know that tax can’t have been be the supporting infrastructure because it wasn’t to Rome that tax went any more. There was certainly a lot to think about now that we had been presented with a mechanic of governance in such detail.

Now, this was the night of the dance, but as is sadly becoming a tradition I didn’t go; I don’t like the Students Union’s club space in which it is held, or the drink they are willing to supply to help you endure it. I hope I’m not just too old now. I think I reverted instead to an ancient Leeds tradition of drinking beer in the bar with every intent of going along to the dance ‘to look’ until it was late enough that it made no sense to do so. After all, the next day was show-time, as I will report in a couple of posts’ time.


1. The text is his Adversus legem Gundobadi, printed in L. van Acker (ed.), Agobardi Lugdunensis opera omnia Corpus Christianorum Continuatio mediaevalis 52 (Leuven 1981), pp. 19-28 (no. 2). As far as I know there’s no translation yet.

2. Here the text is the Vita Eligii episcopi Noviomagensis, ed. by Wilhelm Levison in Bruno Krusch (ed.), Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici (II), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) IV (Hannover 1902), pp. 663-742, transl. JoAnn McNamara in Paul Halsall (ed.), Internet Medieval Sourcebook, http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/eligius.asp, last modified October 1998 as of 1 September 2016.

3. Paul’s examples were the Passio Praeecti, well-known to him of course and full of buildings, the Lives of the Jura Fathers, with the landscape out to get the exiles, Jonas’s Vita Columbani, where the rustics are the saint’s biggest fans, and the Vita Sturmi, Vita Galli and Gesta Abbati Sancti Wandregisili for clearance and colonisation. You can find these respectively as Bruno Krusch (ed.), “Passio Praeiecti episcopi et martyris Arverni”, in Krusch & Wilhelm Levison (edd.), Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici (III), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) V (Hannover 1910), pp. 225-248, transl. in Paul Fouracre & Richad Gerberding (transl.), Late Merovingian France: history and hagiography 640-720 (Manchester 1996), pp. 254-300; François Martine (ed./transl.), Vita patrum jurensium : Vie des Pères du Jura. Introduction, texte critique, lexique, traduction et notes, Sources chrétiennes 142 (Paris 1968), English in Tim Vivian, Kim Vivian, Jeffrey Burton Russell and Charles Cummings (edd./transl.), The Lives of the Jura Fathers: The Life and Rule of the Holy Fathers Romanus, Lupicinus, and Eugendus, Abbots of the Monasteries in the Jura Mountains, with appendices, Avitus of Vienne, Letter XVIII to Viventiolus, and Eucherius of Lyon, The Passion of the Martyrs of Agaune, Saint Maurice and His Companions, and In Praise of the Desert, Cistercian Studies 178 (Kalamazoo 1999) or as Vivian, Vivian & Russell (transl.), Lives of the Jura Fathers (Collegeville MN 2000); Krusch (ed.), “Vitae Columbani abbatus et discipulorumque eius libri duo auctore Iona” in idem (ed.), Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici (I), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) III (Hannover 1902), pp. 1-156 at pp. 64-108, English in Dana C. Munro (transl.). “Life of St Columban, by the Monk Jonas” in Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History Vol. II no. 7 (Philadelphia PA 1895); Eigil, Vita Sancti Sturmi, in Goegr Heinrich Pertz (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores in folio) II (Hannover 1829), pp. 365-377, transl. C. H. Talbot in idem, The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany (London 1954), pp. 181-204, repr. in Thomas F. X. Noble and Thomas Head (edd.), Soldiers of Christ: saints and saints’ lives from late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages (University Park 1995), pp. 165-188; Maud Joynt (ed./transl.), The Life of St Gall (Burnham-on-Sea 1927); and F. Lohier & Jean Laporte (edd.), Gesta sanctorum patrum Fontanellensis coenobii (Rouen 1931), as far as I know no English version.

4. On which see for example Marie-Thérèse Flanagan, “The contribution of Irish missionaries and scholars to medieval Christianity” in Brendan Bradshaw and Dáire Keogh (edd.), Christianity in Ireland: revisiting the story (Blackrock 2002), pp. 30-43 (non vidi).

5. The book of Graeber’s I was told to read, long ago, is his Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams (New York City 2001), but it seems that his Debt: the first 5000 years (Brooklyn NY 2011) is now the go-to. On this exact subject, though, compare William Ian Miller, Eye for an Eye (Cambridge 2005), pp. 160-179.

6. This kind of detail of circulation can be got from Clemens Maria Haertle, Karolingische Münzfunde aus dem 9. Jahrhundert (Wien 1997), 2 vols.

7. See already R. Naismith, “Peter’s Pence and Before: Numismatic Links between Anglo-Saxon England and Rome” in Francesca Tinti (ed.), England and Rome in the early Middle Ages: pilgrimage, art, and politics (Turnhout 2014), pp. 217-254.

8. Described in Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1968), V.18; I’m sure you can find the Latin yourselves if you are such as need it.

9. Cited, and for good reason, was Ian N. Wood, “Monasteries and the Geography Of Power in the Age of Bede” in Northern History 45 (2008), pp. 11-26.

10. The letters are translated in John Martyn (transl.), The Letters of Gregory the Great, translated with an introduction and notes (Toronto 2004), 2 vols. There’re lots!

11. See now Nicola Clarke, The Muslim Conquest of Iberia: Medieval Arabic Narratives (Abingdon: Routledge 2012).

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Towards a Global Middle Ages III and final: bits and pieces from around the world

I’ve put in two quite heavy posts now about thoughts arising from the meeting of the Global Middle Ages Network I was invited to in September last year, and although they have not exhausted those thoughts they have used up all the big ones, so this last one collects the small stuff. Consequently it’s a bit less structured than the others and I will use headings to gather it up, but hopefully there’s something in it for most readers.

The Rôle of Cities

Cities were one of the things that those assembled thought would be most obviously comparable across a wide area, because most areas of the world had cities in the Middle Ages. But this set off my erstwhile Insular early medievalist’s alarm bells somewhat, because there’s a substantial debate in Anglo-Saxonist circles about when we can start talking about England having had towns, let alone cities, and in Ireland agreement is pretty universal that, unless big monasteries and their dependent settlements count, towns arrived only with the Vikings.1 This has led to some fairly theorised wrangling about how to define a town, with words like Kriterienbundel (a bundle of criteria) flying around it, and I’ve written about this here before. This was not a debate that we seemed to be having here and I wondered why not.

The ghost town of Craco, Italy

In the thirteenth century this place had a bishop, a lord and a university, and yet I cannot help thinking it is not necessarily what we all meant by the word city… It is the ghost town of Craco, in Italy. “Craco0001” by No machine readable author provided. Idéfix~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims).. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

It’s not that no-one asked what a city might actually be, not least because I did. The answer that Alan Strathern came up with, a settlement that can’t feed itself, presumably meaning by the agriculture or hunting of its own inhabitants, is actually a pretty good one in basic economic terms, but could again easily encompass a big monastery or an army camp while maybe not including, for example, fifth-century London as we currently envisage it, so I see some problems still.2 There’s also an important difference between a settlement that can’t feed itself and one that could, but is structured so as not to have to; some quite small places running on tribute were not necessarily doing so out of economic necessity, but because it was how they demonstrated and enacted importance. This kind of blur is why we need multiple criteria, but the western Kriterienbundel, which classically includes defences, planned streets, a market, a mint, legal autonomy, a rôle as a central place, population density, economic diversification, plot-type settlement, social stratification, religious organisation and political centrality, might not all make sense in, say, northern China.3 So I leave that there to wonder about, as I think it still needs it.

Map of Anglo-Saxon London in the seventh century

So, OK, we have defences and religious centrality, but probably not political centrality and while we do have economic diversification it’s not in the same place as the defences… I think I’ll leave this to them. Map borrowed from the Musem of London blog, linked through.

Anthropologists of resort

Here just a short note that there was, in some ways surprisingly little resort to anthropological models in this meeting but when the anthropologists did come in it tended to be the same one. I am of the opinion that while we can almost always profit from talking to anthropologists and then taking their models home to try on, a meeting and project with as broad a comparative framework as this one might need the outside help least of all; there are already an immense number of models flying about, surely, or ought to be. This is in fact more or the less the state I want to get my frontiers network to (had you considered offering a paper, by the way?), where we actually make our own theory. But until this group gets itself there, one name seems likely to recur, and that name was David Graeber. I have not read Graeber, though he is one of my anthropologist of resort‘s own anthropologists of resort and I know that I need to, and I see that he works on concepts that should indeed be comparable between societies, here mainly economic value, but I will need to read him before I can stop worrying about how well work based on him will encompass societies that didn’t use money and in which honour was something you could put a price on in law (which was supposed to be paid in money they didn’t have).4 I suppose this misgiving only exposes my ignorance and I ought to just knuckle down and get one of his books out of a library when I have long-term access to one again next month.5

Models of Trust

Some of the most interesting conversations in the meeting for me were about whether trust might be a concept around which one could organise a global comparison of medieval-period societies. It’s hard to dig further into this without basically summarising Ian Forrest‘s presentation, but he made the excellent point that as long as we are looking at contact over distances, trust was crucial because so little of what people knew of each other could be checked or verified.6 There was much debate about, firstly, whether this was a medieval issue or a more general one and whether that made a difference to its potential for the project, which Ian thought was best answered in terms of scale, often my favourite terms as you know, and secondly how trust could have been tested in such milieux, whether religion secured it and how foreigners could access that or whether kinship might work better (and how they accessed that.7 Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias told us of work that broke trust relationships down into horizontal ones, as between brothers, and hierarchical ones, as between boss and subordinate, and that in some ways the most interesting points of comparison might be between things that wouldn’t fit that scheme, and that struck me as really clever but also murderously abstruse to try and carry out, especially (as Ian had up-front admitted) in areas where the evidence was largely archæological.8 Lots to think about here but less clear as yet how to test it all…

And, types of network

There was also some interesting talk around the idea of networks. Jonathan Shepard had diaarmingly admitted that he was trying to continue working on empires by seeing them as large top-down networks, but was quickly led into the alternatives, because if a network is not top-down, no-one is in overall control of its structure, which will instead presumably develop as needed and possible and die off where non-functional. There were also in-between states to be considered such as diasporas, where the initial distribution is very much directed from above but its effects and low-level distribution is basically uncontrolled, or the slave trade, where the initial gathering of points of linkage is very localised but subsequent transmission takes place through a highly-structured network which is, nonetheless, not always there because, as Rebecca Darley pointed out, the early Middle Ages at least has to deal with the idea of trading places that occupied only intermittently.9 These were all interesting ways to think about intermittency and duration in almost any area. How were such intermittent networks accessed? If people rarely went somewhere, how did anyone know where to go? I imagined, for example, Norse settlers in Newfoundland sometimes, in very hard winters, trying to find the Dorset people to trade with (as some people think they did, even if perhaps in better circumstances), and going to places they supposed they might be and hoping to coincide. Does that still count? And if so, did it have much effect? In some ways you could dismiss it as occasional and not how that society usually worked (or indeed as entirely hypothetical) but if it ever did, they must have been pretty profound experiences for those taking part…

Wool recovered from a Dorset site in Baffin Island that has been argued to be a Viking import to the area

Wool recovered from a Dorset site in Baffin Island that has been argued to be a Viking import to the area

That’s about enough, anyway, but it goes to show that despite some of my big-order doubts about the viability of this group’s concept, attempting the work at all involves enough productive thinking about difficult cases of comparison and contact that we can all profit from their attempt even if it doesn’t achieve its main goal, and that might be quite enough to count it as a success!


1. My go-to for this is still Martin Biddle, “Towns” in David Wilson (ed.), The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England (London 1976), pp. 99-150, and for Ireland Charles Doherty, “The monastic town in early medieval Ireland” in Howard B. Clarke and A. Simms (edd.), The comparative history of urban origins in non-Roman Europe: Ireland, Wales, Denmark, Germany, Poland and Russia from the 9th to the 13th century, British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 255 (Oxford 1985), 2 vols, II, pp. 45-75; both are old but make the point.

2. I haven’t read this, but a quick search makes look like the obvious thing on this Howard B. Clarke, “Kingdom, emporium and town: the impact of Viking Dublin” in History Studies Vol. 2 (Limerick 2000), pp. 13-24.

3. Biddle, “Towns”, pp. 99-100; the idea is older, though, perhaps as old as Edith Ennen, Frühgeschichte der europäischen Stadt (Bonn 1953).

4. See Elina Screen, “Anglo-Saxon law and numismatics: a reassessment in the light of Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law” in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 77 (London 2007), pp. 150-172.

5. Presumably his Debt: the first 5,000 years (Bew York City 2011), but I’ll take recommendations…

6. For this I always think of Ernst Pitz, “Erschleichung und Anfechtung von Herrscher- und Papsturkunden vom 4. bis 10. Jahrhundert” in Fälschungen im Mittelalter. Internationaler Kongreß der Monumenta Germaniae Historica, München, 16.-19. September 1986, Schriften der Monumenta Germaniae Historica 33 (Hannover 1988), 5 vols, III, pp. 69-113, because of the stories in it about popes who just have no idea what is going on in many farflung places when people come from there to get it changed.

7. Some of these points came from Chris Wickham, who prefaced them with the name of Jessica Goldberg, whose most relevant work would seem to be Institutions and geographies of trade in the medieval Mediterranean: the business world of the Maghribi traders (Cambridge 2012).

8. I didn’t catch the reference here. My notes contain the word ‘Salura’, but I can’t tell if this is a cite or a place or what, sorry!

9. Professor Shepard’s examples were here coming largely from his (and others’) Dirhams for Slaves project, about which I have several reservations, but I can’t find that it’s as yet published anything, so I can’t tell you where to find the opportunity to think differently, sorry!

Seminar CXCVIII: steps towards an archæological theory for ritual

People who know the sad history of archæology as a subject at the University of Birmingham are usually surprised to learn that there still are any archæologists here, but there are, now housed in what is now Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology. None are primarily medievalists, however, so while I was a lecturer here I had direct business with them only through teaching (which, indeed, I was repeating only yesterday) or when, on the 18th March 2014, I turned up at the Anthropology Seminar to hear Professor Paul Garwood speaking with the title, “Ashes, Smoke and Fire: rethinking archaeologies of ritual”.1 This was off my usual map in several ways: I’ve not been to an anthropology seminar for years and never this one, there was nothing specifically medieval about the title and it turned out to be much more theoretical than usual for me, but I certainly got some things to think with from it so perhaps you will also.

As Professor Garwood acknowledged, there is a much-mocked but genuine tendency for archæologists to classify objects and contexts they can’t understand as ‘ritual’, which is in some ways a function of a definition of ‘ritual’ as non-functional behaviour; when an object doesn’t have a clear function, therefore… This, as Professor Garwood explained in a painstaking review of the field with due nods to the contributions of anthropological thinking to it, given what seminar he was in, stems from the belief of earlier archæologists that beliefs were not recoverable in material evidence, at least without unusually superb evidence. One of the places anthropology helped to change this was in giving archæologists a greater appreciation of the rôle of systematised behaviours in orchestrating and regulating societies, which meant that examining things like fires with no cooking or object elements in them, stuff deposited under building foundations or in floors or boundary ditches or similar, could be got at by trying to work out what the rules of this particular system of behaviour were. Nonetheless, we still have people (in all our fields!) saying that ‘ritual’ just isn’t a useful concept because of how much ritual is everyday or even, of course, functional.2 I think, for example, of rituals that are not a specific activity so much as a way or order of doing that activity, like a Japanese tea ceremony, which with no other context might not be archæologically identifiable as anything other than a high-status means of making tea but obviously is.

Teapot, mug and strainer in my kitchen

Even outside the Japanese world, this functional equipment can serve ritual purposes, and anyone who thinks differently has never seen the reverence with which I brew up

So what is needed is some ways to think about ritual as an archæological target that might save it as a concept, and these have been generated, in particular that of seeing it as a performance where as archæologist one is looking not for the matter being communicated by its symobology but its physical outcome, its staging and the environment that guided action in the ways desired; here, recent approaches to Stonehenge are exemplary. Frequency might ideally be a factor here too: was such a setting used so much as to be everyday or was it deliberately unusual and ‘other’? (The tea comparison still makes me think that this isn’t fine enough: I have a couple of teas I will not be able to restock—some Mariage Frères stuff from Rwanda, for example, lovely but now rather hard to get—so that I brew them only when there seems some special reason, but I use the same kit to do so as usual…) Professor Garwood seemed himself to favour an approach he termed ‘chaines opératoires‘, constructing models from the evidence of what the sequence of events and types of object involved had to be for the ritual to ‘work’, so that the technology of the process rather than the outcome remains the target, and that’s certainly easier to approach from finds. (Though would it pick up how important it is to warm the pot and for the milk to go in first?) I found myself inwardly comparing this to Actor Network Theory and similar approaches and liking this better because it left agency clearer, myself, but I understand that those that like ANT do so not least because it spreads agency to the objects, and I suppose that with ritual that is worship, that could be important: look at the big early medieval debate over whether people believed icons themselves did things, after all, and how to stop those people doing so if they did.3 Professor Garwood also recommended a definitional approach in which one looked at the processes in terms of workflow, almost like industrial process analysis: what did people need in what order to do this and what do we find? These approaches could obviously run into one another, but as he said, they do get us out of the basic problem of saying what ritual actually is!4 Free your mind, as they say, and the rest will follow…


1. I don’t know Professor Garwood’s work really, but there are obviously bits of it that could be of interest to medievalists, not least P. Garwood, D. Jennings, R. Skeates and J. Thomas (edd.), Sacred and Profane: Proceedings of a Conference on Archaeology, Ritual and Religion, Oxford, 1989 (Oxford 1991) or P. Garwood, “Rites of Passage” in Timothy Insoll (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Archaeology of Ritual and Religion (Oxford 2011), pp. 261-284, DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199232444.013.0019.

2. I think straight away of Geoffrey Koziol, “The dangers of polemic: is ritual still an interesting topic of historical study?” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2002), pp. 367-388, DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-9462.2002.00116.x but Professor Garwood cited Joanna Brück, “Ritual and Rationality: some problems in interpretation in European archaeology” in European Journal of Archaeology Vol. 2 (Leeds 1999), 313-344, DOI: 10.1179/eja.1999.2.3.313 and Ian Hodder, “Triggering post-processual archaeology and beyond” in R. F. Williamson & M. S. Bisson (edd.), The archaeology of Bruce Trigger: theoretical empiricism (Montreal 2006), pp. 16-24.

3. I came to actor network theory as applied archæologically by Patricia Galloway, “Material Culture and Text: Exploring the Spaces Between and Within” in Martin Hall & Stephen W. Silliman (edd.), historical archaeology, Blackwell Studies in Global Archaeology 9 (Oxford 2006), pp. 42-64; I’m not sure what the canonical cites would be for any other uses. As for the debate over icons, you should now see Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c. 680–850: a history (Cambridge 2011), and Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia 2009).

4. As is ineluctable with a paper about theory, there were a great many names flying about and I didn’t catch them all. Those I did I haven’t yet followed up, indeed, but they included, as well as those in n. 2 above, Marcel Mauss, “Les techniques et la technologie” in Journal de psychologie normale et pathologique Vol. 41 (Paris 1948), pp. 71-78, Clifford Geertz, Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (Princeton 1980), Victor W. Turner, From Ritual to Theatre (New York City 1982) and idem, The Edge of the Bush: anthropology as experience (Tucson 1985).

Paying the pipe-maker

Here’s a probably-unfinished thought arising from something I read very quickly a while ago, always a good basis for a blog post surely. The thing was a book chapter by C. A. Bayly on the symbolism of cloth in British India and why it could and did never become a simple commodity due to its numerous layers of cultural meaning.1 That bit’s all interesting but the bit that set me thinking was an explanation of the political economy of the Mughal court. All I really know about the Mughal court is its money, for old professional reasons, and so its ideology is strange to me, and may also seem so to you if you are as I am an Occidental capitalist running-dog:

The major institution that mediated between commoditzation and singularization was the office of the king, whether this be construed as the dominant caste brotherhood within the village or the emperor of all India. The duty of the king was to consume the wares of his subjects and to make his court the great engine of redistribution. In this way, the needs of the particularistic local community producing a good could be balanced with the needs of the polity as a whole. The propagation of diversity in patterns of consumption – of cloths, fruits, spices, grains – was the physical manifestation of the King’s classic role as arbiter between the castes. And it was changes in royal consumption, or the consumption of those aspiring to local political dominance, that provided the Indian economy with the dynamism Bouglé thought it lacked.2

The implications of this are quite interesting if you pull them out from a westerly direction. The idea that nobody owes anyone else a living is explicitly contraverted here: in a properly-ordered polity by this scheme, everybody should have a living and so it’s the responsibility of the ruler to provide the demands that people are equipped to supply, by reason of their skills or the natural resources of their communities and so on. There must be a farther edge at which it ceases to apply, a commodity one could produce that even despite the Mughal court’s love of novelties (which Bayly explains as assisting to demonstrate the infinite variety of the emperor’s dominions,3 an argument to which my own of earlier about Charles the Bald and Judas makes me sympathetic) the emperors would find too silly or trivial to establish a demand for, and as them so much more so the local élites (them again). But in its basic form this balanced set-up has a certain logic to it that is neither socialist nor capitalist (though the idea that the state should find employment for people when no-one else can is obviously not unrelated).

A diplomatic guest being received at the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar

A diplomatic guest being received at the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, amid some pretty snazzy fabrics. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Naturally enough, perhaps, I then thought of early medieval courts, which we are also now taught to see as centres of consumption and patronage for craftsmen and merchants.4 This is usually fairly pragmatic: by aggregating to itself the monopoly on the distribution of luxuries and prestige goods, the ruling class make themselves indispensable to those who wish to acquire the kind of status that those goods bring. (That is of course not the only kind of status at these courts, as Bede’s stories about bishops giving away precious-metal gifts to the poor or Columbanus’s harangues of profligate and polygamous Frankish monarchs amply demonstrate.) One gets this status because one can spend it, it’s Bourdieu’s idea of symbolic capital. And even with Bayly’s picture on India that’s not missing: the king gets great status from being able to make gifts, especially in cloth since in that inheres the royal persona, with which the recipient can join for a while.5 But what’s also sticking with me is the idea that the patron is obligated to support the producer. It puts me in mind of the Anglo-Saxon laws that gather the legal protection of merchants to the king, usually assumed to be because no-one else will do it since, as travellers, they lack a nearby source of support from kindred and clientage groups.6 And of course the king needs the merchants, for all the reasons above, and he also needs the craftsmen, and it’s advantageous to him to have some reason to get them to court where he can control what they make for whom.

Wayland the Smith as depicted on the Franks Casket

One craftsman who did not get his due from the royal court, Wayland the Smith as depicted on the Franks Casket

So that system has its own logic and it doesn’t need this social ethic to make it run. But I am, all the same, wondering if it has room for that ethic anyway. Once the king acknowledges that these people are his responsibility in some way, it’s obviously to be expected that they would appeal to him. But had that been the case for longer? If one learnt to make really intricate brooches or whatever, was one not already making one’s support the business of the kind of élites who could get the stuff with which you could work? Is not, then, to learn such a skill to expect élite support? Is a ruler of this period obliged to maintain crafstmen and other sorts of specialist (ritual, military…) not just because he needs them and can use them but because, once they have specialised, he is the only support they have?

Swadeshi khadi cloth

Swadeshi khadi cloth, now available online! (What does that do to its ethics?)

There’s several reasons why this comparison fails in places, I think. Firstly the goldsmiths and whatever don’t easily fit next to Indian weavers, because ultimately (one of the points of Bayly’s article, which is centrally about the swadeshi campaign to revert to home-made cloths in the face of British imports) any household with access to the raw material, which you can grow or raise, could make cloth, albeit not necessarily fine cloth (silk weaving might therefore still work) but not everyone could get enough gold to make a sword pommel. Secondly, Mughal India was socially more articulated and was running at least two competing religions and there were lots more ringfenced zones in its market economy where specialism could flourish than in early medieval Britain, for example, where élite households and big churches were most of it. The idea of being a professional weaver in Anglo-Saxon England is already pretty odd, let alone there being extensive caste prescriptions about their status. There are also places I don’t want to take it, one being that many an early medieval ruler also had similar obligations of protection to Jews, who do not contribute to his prestige and importance in so direct an economic way,7 and the other being the modern parallel invoked by the title, that of the higher education ‘industry’ in which because we can produce something, whose significance is not solely or even basically economic, and wish to continue doing so, we strongly assert (but struggle to demonstrate) the necessity of the goods we can provide to society.8 As with many an anthropological comparison thinking with other people’s assumptions invites us to check our own. But as I say, those would be thoughts for another post and I find the medieval relevance, even if I had to struggle to get it, interesting enough.


1. C. A. Bayly, “The origins of swadeshi (home industry): cloth and Indian society, 1700-1930” in Arjun A. Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: commodities in cultural perspective (Cambridge 1986), pp. 285-321.

2. Ibid. p. 298; see also p. 302.

3. Ibid. p. 305.

4. Richard Hodges, “King Arthur’s Britain and the End of the Western Roman Empire” in idem, Goodbye to the Vikings? Re-Reading Early Medieval Archaeology (London 2006), pp. 28-38, provides a punchy system statement; more broadly see Catherine Cubitt (ed.), Court Culture in the Early Middle Ages: the Proceedings of the first Alcuin Conference, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 3 (Turnhout 2003).

5. Bayly, “Origins”, pp. 297-300.

6. This is actually harder to instance than I expected: none of the cites used by Henry Loyn, Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest, 2nd edn. (London 1991), pp. 101-103, actually deal with royal protection of traders, rather than what happens to traders who don’t follow procedure, except III Edgar, available in Agnes Jane Robertson (transl.), The Laws of the Kings of England From Edmund to Henry I (Cambridge 1925), and some would tell us that Edgar’s world was a different one (though see the next post!) All the same, I hope this is a defensible thing to say…

7. I’ve not really found anything good on the position of Jews in early medieval society; the literature about Jews tends to get going once society starts persecuting them and they start to appear in their own sources. Before the eleventh century this is hard to find, and the opposite easier. We’ve already seen that Jews were not so mistrusted that they couldn’t be used as envoys to a king, and I can also point you to a charter in which two Jewish landowners (yes) come to Louis the Pious to complain that they can’t get justice at the local mallus; it is Claude Devic & Jean Vaissete, Histoire Générale de Languedoc avec les Notes et les Pièces Justificatives. Édition accompagnée de dissertations et actes nouvelles, contenant le recueil des inscriptions de la province antiques et du moyen âge, des planches, des cartes géographiques et des vues des monuments, aug. É. Mabille, E. Barry, E. Roschach, A. Molinier, ed. M. E. Dulaurier (Toulouse 1875, repr. Osnabrück 1973), 12 vols, II, Preuves : chartes et documents, no. 97.

8. Necessity is of course the wrong metric; we should be arguing for desirability, which is why the powers-that-be have stuck us with the former in the form of ‘impact’; we can’t prove it so they don’t have to pay us for it… More on this in due course.

Seminar LXXXIII: arguing about kinship with anthropologists and families

Sorry, fell off the ‘net to a certain extent again there. Let me return to the fray with a seminar report, from where the amiable and erudite Dr Conrad Leyser (a man whose Oxford web presence is even more exiguous than mine, but who is at Worcester College, not Jesus College or Manchester University any more, whatever their webpages may tell you) presented at the Oxford Medieval History Seminar (though there again he is not listed, he’s like the Internet’s invisible man) under the title, “History, Anthropology, and Early Medieval Kinship”, on 31 January 2011. This was a lively paper, which is not something you can ordinarily say about presentations on the history of scholarship (unless they’re by Dr Beachcombing of course). It also served to teach several of us, I suspect, including me, just where some of our teachers, mentors and in Conrad’s case parents had been getting their ideas from…

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Edward Evans-Pritchard

Edward Evans-Pritchard

The reason Conrad was doing this was that he is editing the proceedings from the sort of interdisciplinary conference we don’t have enough of, and has therefore got to write an introduction.1 This was one possible shape of it, explaining how we got to the points of needing the conversation that that conference had provided. Conrad started the paper by setting up a great opposition in old (social) anthropology, between the structuralist approach of Claude Lévi-Strauss (who only died in 2009), interested in working out what the system of kinship does for society and especially in the incest taboo, and the much more empirical, descriptive approach of Edward Evans-Pritchard, more interested in just documenting different societies than reflecting that back on the entirety of humanity, and seeing genealogy not as a structure, since it was so readily edited in the social memory, but as a narrative, with a point to make.2

From here Conrad diverted into history, but for summary I think that works better at the end so I’ll stick with the anthropology for a minute. By the 1970s, he told us, anthropology was getting quite suspicious about kinship as a term an a field of study, the suspicion being that it was occidentally-centred and a political concept unsuitable for application to many of the subjects of study. The logical outcome of this was that the field began to look at such ideas much more in the west itself, and that some genuinely challenging work has come out of the debates around in vitro fertilisation, because sometimes donors of eggs or sperm can be close kin to the people who will raise the child.3 Asking who then is the real parent is tricky enough in any surrogate situation—an ex-girlfriend of mine has six parents by some reckonings, thanks to adoption and divorces—but it gets a lot trickier to describe relationships when the incest taboo is broken like that, and so forth. Conrad pointed out here that medieval and indeed modern Christianity wrestled or wrestles with this all the time: Jesus was after all a surrogate baby, right? But He was also of the house of David! via, er, Joseph… Exegetical kinship in the minds of our subjects is therefore something that this kind of work may help us find words for and thus be able to explain better.

But, you would be entitled to ask, what has all this to do with medieval history? Well, fair enough, and as I say Conrad had kept that ball in the court all along, I have just chosen to do it differently here. The point is, of course, that the anthropological state of the field has informed an awful lot of the work we now take as gospel in early medieval kinship. Furthermore, it has often been only one side of the field that people pick up, citing “anthropology” much as we cite archæology or even history itself, as a more or less positivist bank of knowledge on whose existence we are all more or less agreed, without realising or if realising, without making it clear that the interpretation of such knowledge is crucial to its presentation, expression and safety of use by outsiders, and that even what look like raw datasets are being shaped by these debates before they reach the reader. Thus, the shift that Georges Duby and Karl Schmid saw from an agnatic to cognatic kinship system around the year 1000, from a broad kindred drawn from both father’s and mother’s families to a patrilineage and ultimately primogeniture, for example, this is derived ultimately from Lévi-Strauss and does not use the rival English work. Conrad’s father, Karl Leyser, based in England (indeed, in Oxford) however took a much more Evans-Pritchard-like line, there was an argument about it that didn’t establish either point and as a result Jack Goody was able to borrow the point back and use Karl Schmid’s work as a fair and accurate guide to the development of medieval families, and then of course (I editorialise here) the historians all cite Goody, even if we disagree, because he’s an anthropologist and therefore we think he has special knowledge, not realising where it came from and via whom, and round and round it goes.4

Back in the field of history, however, others were noticing that our categories for this sort of thing had been assumed ever since Duby and were adjusting to the idea that kinship might be more strategic than structural, altering reproductive practice and inheritance rights to fit social circumstances.5 Now even those ideas have been called into question—who sets a family strategy anyway and how do you get anyone to keep it?—and, for example, Kate Cooper (who is Conrad’s wife; his mother, Henrietta Leyser, was also evident in questions, which must be especially awkward to argue with but at least proved, along with the other factors, as Chris Wickham said, the abiding relevance of kinship in academia!) is now arguing for an agnatic-cognatic shift under the late Roman Empire, a change which Karl Ubl is reading in basically functionalist terms…6 so it may well be that after a while in which anthropology and history have had little to say to each other on such matters, it is actually time we got them talking again. But to do that, it’s necessary for each side to have some idea of what the other has already said. So I guess Conrad’s conference was a timely affair!


1. It’s thankfully fairly easy to cite stuff for this because half of Conrad’s handout was a seriously thorough bibliography, which I even showed to my anthropologist of resort and they agreed that it was as fair a summary as you might fit onto a side of A4, so if the above seems inadequate or just wrong, it’s going to be my fault not Conrad’s. From it, anyway, I can tell you that the volume in question is C. Leyser & K. Cooper (edd.), Making Early Medieval Societies: conflict and belonging in the Latin West, 400-1200 (forthcoming). Conrad’s handout doesn’t give place of publication for anything, and I’m afraid I’m going to skimp on time and not provide it either, just because there is so much backlog to clear here.

2. Cited on the handout: C. Lévi-Strauss, Les structures élémentaires de la parenté (1949); E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Kinship and Marriage among the Nuer (1951).

3. Here citing especially J. Carsten, After Kinship (2004), though the handout also has M. Strathern, Reproducing the Future: essays on anthropology, kinship and the new reproductive technologies (1992) and C. Thompson, Making Parents: the ontological choreography of reproductive technologies (2005), which I include because it strikes me that this is the kind of edge-of-the-human territory where some of my readers have their camps currently set up and they may be interested…

4. Duby himself learnt a lot from Schmid, whose “Zur Problematik von Familie, Sippe und Geschlecht, Haus und Dynastie beim mittelalterlichen Adel” in Zeitschrift für Geschichte des Oberrheins Vol. 105 (1957), pp. 1-62, remains seminal (edit: thanks to Levi below, details corrected here) but remains untranslated; there is however his “Über die Struktur des Adels im früheren Mittelalter” in Jahrbuch für fränkische Landesforschung Vol. 19 (1959), pp. 1-23, transl. Timothy Reuter as “The structure of the nobility in the earlier Middle Ages” in Reuter (ed.), The Medieval Nobility: studies on the ruling classes of France and Germany from the 6th to the 12th century (Amsterdam 1979), pp. 37-59, for an Englished introduction to Schmid’s arguments. For Duby Conrad cites the foundation stone, G. Duby, La Société aux XIe et XIIe siècle dans la région mâconnaise (Paris 1953, 2nd edn. 1971, repr. 2000), which is largely untranslated (a few parts as “The Nobility in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Mâconnais”, transl. Frederick L. Cheyette in Cheyette (ed.), Lordship and Community in Medieval Europe: selected readings (1968), pp. 137-55) but, as Conrad’s handout mentions, quite a lot of the supporting work and especially that about family structure is available in English in Duby, The Chivalrous Society, transl. Cynthia Postan (1977). The argument that failed to convince is Karl Leyser, “The German Aristocracy from the Ninth to the Twelfth Centuries: a historical and cultural sketch” in Past and Present no. 41 (Oxford 1968), pp. 25-53, Donald A. Bullough, “Early Medieval Social Groupings: the terminology of kinship”, ibid. 45 (1969), pp. 3-18 and K. Leyser, “Maternal kin in Early Medieval Germany: a reply”, ibid. 49 (1970), pp. 126-134. Goody’s contribution is of course J. Goody, The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe (Cambridge 1983).

5. So, see for example Pauline Stafford, “« La mutation familiale »: a suitable case for caution” in Joyce Hill & Mary Swan (edd.), The Community, the Family and the Saint: patterns of power in early medieval Europe (Turnhout 1998), pp. 103-125 or Ian Wood, “Deconstructing the Merovingian Family” in Richard Corradini, Maximilian Diesenberger & Helmut Reimitz (edd.), The construction of communities in the early Middle Ages: texts, resources and artefacts (Leiden 2003), pp. 149-171.

6. Kate Cooper, The Fall of the Roman Household (2007); Karl Ubl, Inzestverbot und Gesetzgebung: Die Konstruktion eines Verbrechens (2008).

Book bit bullets IV

There being little time for anything else, it’s time for another post of short reflections on reading; I’ve been travelling a lot lately so there has been time on trains for reading to be done. And I’ve come across quite a few interesting things, so here’s the traditional bullets.

Sveti Donata u Zadru

Sveti Donata u Zadru with accompanying Romanesque belltower

  • This is a round church in Croatia, Sveti Donata u Zadru, or San Donato de Zadar if you’re Italian—thankyou Phil for the Serbo-Croat version in comments—which I recently learnt actually predates Charlemagne’s chapel at Aachen, but resembles it so closely because basically as soon as the Croats learnt about the one at Aachen they seem to have remodelled this one to look more like that. This was part of an article that successfully set out the weird disconnection of the enthusiastic imitation of Carolingian court culture and architecture by a ruling élite which was otherwise deeply embedded, and indeed partly legitimised, by its political resistance to the Carolingians…1
  • Secondly, I am at last reading Mayke de Jong’s In Samuel’s Image and I just wanted to say, anyone who has met and talked to Mayke will be able to hear
    her at full strength in her preface; rarely have I seen a personality so clearly rendered in print. Also, of course, the book is really interesting and I’m glad I was given an excuse to make it urgent.2
  • I took it to Kalamazoo and back and never quite got round to reading it, but now I have finally read Cullen Chandler’s 2009 piece in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History.3 Detailed comment would be out of place here but it was a really strange experience to see someone else using so many of the examples I know well, and often to a different purpose. It was rather like going to a meeting or similar and finding that the person you’re meeting know half your friends via an entirely different route. Meanwhile, the article as a whole gives me plenty to think about, mostly in the area of why I tend to favour economic over social explanations of transaction and whether I should rebalance that, and on the other hand, when Cullen gets to read my book, he is going to wonder whether I somehow sneaked an advance peek at his paper and then used all his references, because we really have picked up on quite a lot of the same people…
  • As well as my ridiculous to-read pile (pile? nay, bookcase…) I also keep a computer folder of PDFs that looked interesting. I’m less far behind with these than I am with the books, and so just caught up with something that T’anta Wawa shoved in my direction when I first started talking interdisciplinarity with them, an article called “Facing the State, Facing the World” by Michael F. Brown, which is about Amazonian peoples and how their self-identification has changed through their dealings with their various ruling states.4 The amount of stuff that rings out to me from this about identity formation on my tenth-century borders is so huge that I am basically going to pounce on TW as soon as their thesis is finished and brandish plans for a joint paper at them, in which I pontificate and they rein me in. There is plenty of this conversation to have. You may also find the paper interesting…
  • In an ideal world I would have managed to read all of Wolfgang Metz’s Karolingische Reichsgut before I had to give my Kalamazoo paper, or indeed before I finalised the text of “Settling the Kings’ Lands”, but at that point the world was not ideal in that way. He was asking a lot of questions I’ve always wondered about, to do with just how the Carolingians ran their lands and kingdoms, and one of the things he’s principally concerned with towards the end of the book is whether the nobility are given fiscal lands as part of their office, and how much and where, or whether their family lands are more important. Almost in the closing pages he suggests particularly that the Carolingian kings kept the nobility out of their biggest estates, the palace complexes like Ingelheim and Frankfurt, and that the counts of these palaces, while they seem in some cases to have had land associated with their office, had it at dispersed estates in the neighbourhood, rather than actually being in a position to live off the palace lands proper.5 This makes me wonder just how far the Carolingians were aware of the origins of their own rulership and the danger of over-mighty nobles in their lands. It should also serve to remind us of course that what of the fisc the Carolingians gave away is not half as important as what they retained, especially since in charter evidence we only really see the former and the latter remains a kind of fiscal dark matter which, in the case of places like Frankfurt at least, retained considerable gravitational pull.
  • Lastly, we have spoken here before of the erudite scholar and gentleman, Professor Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, and his slightly pessimistic view of the welfare of the peasantry in Catalonia’s feudal period. He deserves a lot more readership than he gets, especially among anyone working on the peasantry. I have also, I hope, mentioned his considerable generosity with time and photocopies, I’d have found the field far harder to work without his ready help, and now he has a new book out, a volume of collected papers including some stuff that’s new to me and which I shall have to get through urgently.6 Happily, and kindly, he has made this much easier by sending me a copy, for which I owe him many thanks—I hope I can reciprocate soon—and this makes me very pleased. It must be said though that he is almost in danger of stereotyping himself as the peasant pessimist, because not only does this collect most of the material in which he makes such arguments, but also the volume bears a title that could hardly be bettered in that line, La llarga nit feudal. Mil anys de conflicte entre senyors i pagesos, or for those reading only in English, The Long Feudal Night: a thousand years of conflict between lords and peasants. I assure you that he is a lot more cheerful in person than this makes him sound…
  • Cover of Gaspar Feliu's new book, La llarga nit feudal

    Cover of Gaspar Feliu's new book, La llarga nit feudal


    1. I learnt about this from M. Jurkovic & A. Milosevic, “Split. Croatas y Carolingias: arte y arquitectura en Croacia en la alta edad media” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña Carolingia: arte y arquitecture antes del románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 165-170, transl. as “Split. Croats and Carolingians: art and architecture in the early Middle Ages”, ibid. pp. 501-504.

    2. M. de Jong, In Samuel’s Image: child oblation in the early medieval west, Brill’s Studies in Intellectual History 12 (Leiden 1996).

    3. C. J. Chandler, “Land and Social Networks in the Carolingian Spanish March” in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History 3rd Series Vol. 6 (Brooklyn 2009), pp. 19-44.

    4. M. F. Brown, “Facing the State, Facing the World: Amazonia’s native leaders and the new politics of identity” in L’Homme : revue française d’anthropologie Vol. 33, nos 126-128 (Paris 1993), pp. 307-326, online via Persée here.

    5. W. Metz, Das karolingische Reichsgut: eine verfassungs- und verwaltungsgeschichtliche Untersuchung (Berlin 1960), pp. 187-195.

    6. G. Feliu, La llarga nit feudal: mil anys de conflicte entre senyors i pagesos (Valencia 2010).

Seminary LXV: pagans, shamans, teenage vampires and John Blair

When the first e-mail on two successive days has to be an apology for something that went on the blog the day before, which you then have to edit, and you’re getting people’s names wrong in comments, many would advise that you should step away from the keyboard for a short while and get some sleep. I heard this advice “that I giv’ meself”, but I have so much stuff to write up… So let’s see if I can recover some generosity of spirit and discretion of approach with a seminar write-up, to wit, John Blair presenting to the Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminar to the title “Can we know anything about the beliefs of the laity in pre-Christian and early Christian England?” on 27th April just gone.

Zoomorph biting its own back, detail from a seventh-century gold brooch, Fitzwilliam Museum M.63-1904

Zoomorph biting its own back, detail from a seventh-century gold brooch, Fitzwilliam Museum M.63-1904

Blair started by asking, as a framing question, whether we can say what was in the mind of an Anglo-Saxon convert to Christianity. There are of course Bede’s famous exempla, the sparrow flying through the hall and so forth, but Blair wanted to use archæological and anthropological evidence to put flesh on the bones, or in some cases add bones to the flesh I suppose. Starting with pre-Christian beliefs, he was suitably circumspect but pointed out the pronounced focus on animals in ritual and art from that period, especially animals fighting each other, birds and snakes, birds and fish, zoomorphs at each others’ necks, etc., which he suggested might be good and bad principles of violence locked in combat, and also their presence in ritual deposits.1 (This included a nice instance from the letters of Saint Boniface condemning interlace, the same sort of interlace perhaps that has been found carved into the portals at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow, indicating that views differed.) The animal focus led him to parallels with shamanic religions still or recently recorded, though he stressed firstly that the parallels are inexact, and secondly that those religions are (as m’colleague T’anta Wawa would doubtless insist) much altered by exposure to modern society, his example being a Mongolian (I think) shaman woman photographed rolling up to a ritual in the 1960s in her chauffeur-driven car. All the same, the idea of mediating supernatural forces expressed as animals may provide a parallel.

Modern illustration of St Sefan of Perm cutting down a sacred tree of the Komi people in the 1380s

Modern illustration of St Sefan of Perm cutting down a sacred tree of the Komi people in the 1380s

He next spoke about shrines, of which we know very few, and which may have been solely vegetational in many cases, but he suggested that there was an increasing trend to monumentalisation by 600 or so, barrows, burials, cairns and so on, and also to development of complex sites, such as Yeavering, as well as the adaptation of older monuments like Iron Age and Bronze Age barrows.2 This, to me, sounded very much like what Martin Carver‘s been saying about Sutton Hoo since the early 1990s and it was odd not to hear him name-checked; certainly the same idea came up, that this might be a reaction to an incoming, coherent and monumentalising Christianity.3 Another change that Blair highlighted from this same sort of time was an increased manufacture of amulets (though this bothered me: surely the evidence is of increased survival, which isn’t the same thing) and a shift in the amulets’ cores from carnivore teeth to beaver teeth, especially in women’s graves.4 This struck me as really interesting, but mainly because while apparently demonstrable it seems almost inexplicable in any terms we can so far reach. It does illustrate that there is source material for beliefs in this kind of study, though. Some of these amulets are Christian, too, as demonstrated by Scriptural inscriptions in them, and here of course obvious parallels came from the Staffordshire Hoard’s gold strip.

Seventh-century Anglo-Saxon beaver-tooth pendant, on display at the British Museum

Seventh-century Anglo-Saxon beaver-tooth pendant, on display at the British Museum

The next section of the talk focused on Viking evidence, for which Blair relied pretty much on Neil Price‘s book The Viking Way; this seems well-regarded, but I hadn’t heard of it before, I must fix this.5 From that Blair drew us a picture of women seers, women authoritative within the household; if this went for pagan Anglo-Saxon England too, Blair wondered, how does this affect convert-period monasticism? He mentioned double monasteries under women like Barking Abbey, but one could also think to Bede’s Letter to Egbert about family monasteries, and that would seem to support this picture less well.6 The possible rôle of some women as mediators with the supernatural however had a darker side, as revealed in burials that contained bodies bound up so as to be unable to walk, staked through the heart and so on.7 He drew a parallel between these bodies that, it was apparently feared, would not die properly, and the incorrupt bodies of some saints, in particular two roughly contemporary cases, none other than St Æthelthryth of Ely, found incorrupt at translation with great celebrations huzzah huzzah &c., and a 12-year-old girl put into a barrow at a cemetery of the same period just down the road, on the perimeter of whose attendant burials was a decapitated disjointed woman whose legs had been tied and who had been buried with a load of amulets, the disjuncture apparently having happened after she’d been in the grave some time.8 There is a reasonable if small literature about such ‘walking dead’, of course, to which Blair himself has just contributed, but the parallels with Audrey would never have struck me otherwise, and as he said, there would have been people in Ely who were aware of both exhumations.9

Face-down burial with legs bent found at Whitehall Roman villa, 2003

Face-down burial with legs bent found at Whitehall Roman villa, 2003; the webpage insists this isn't a deviant burial, and it's centuries too early, but by gosh it looks the part

Words like ‘witch’ and ‘vampire’ are of course hanging all round this, and shouldn’t really be used because they only get defined in the way we now understand them in the sixteenth century, and it’s not clear that we’re talking about any of the same complex of beliefs here, even if there is a clear relation. It is however clear in the evidence that most of these burials, not all but most of those where it can be checked, were young women. This, as with the beaver teeth, seems to me to be real evidence of something of which we haven’t yet got clear sight. The other thing, though, is that they increase in incidence at about the same period as the other changes Blair had focussed on, monumentalisation, ‘beaverisation’, and so on. Blair’s overall picture, then, was that in the conversion period disruption to earlier religious practice, most specifically burial, rises towards the end of the seventh century and reaches a peak, after which it almost disappears. A scholar called Dunn, whose work I don’t know, apparently suggests that this may be related to the plague of those decades,10 but Blair adduced parallels from anthropological work in Greece where the cause of upset was changes to family structure, because a lot of importance was placed on the flow of blood within families and that was now being constrained. In Anglo-Saxon England the result of this pressure, on whatever we choose to blame it, seems to have been manifested as fears about the dead, which could obviously be tied up with ideas of resurrection in the body and so on but might have equally been a crystallisation of non-Christian belief needing to make itself evident, if Carver be followed. Interesting stuff! And it will be really interesting to see how far Blair can make this stuff go, because after reading Nancy Caciola’s article I would have said there was little more that could be done. In fact, it would seem that, as I should maybe already have known from Andrew Reynolds’s new book that I haven’t yet had time to read,11 the answers may yet lie in the soil…


1. Blair’s cite for this, which I crib from his really useful bibliography handout, was Tania M. Dickinson, “Symbols of Protection: the significance of animal-ornamented shields in early Anglo-Saxon England” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 49 (London 2005), pp. 192-239.

2. Blair’s handout suggests that we should read J. Blair, “Anglo-Saxon Pagan Shrines and their Prototypes” in Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History Vol. 8 (Oxford 1995), pp. 1-28. All I know about Yeavering, meanwhile, I got from the original excavation report, Brian Hope-Taylor’s Yeavering: an Anglo-British centre of early Northumbria (London 1977), but a recent conversation at Heavenfield alerts me to the fact that there is more recent work, though I don’t know what to recommend from it. Michelle may be able to add more…

3. Most obviously in M. Carver, Sutton Hoo: burial ground of kings? (London 1998, repr. 2000, 2005), but there is a swathe more indexed here along with some classic pictures of the man himself through the ages.

4. Blair cited Audrey Meaney, Anglo-Saxon Amulets and Curing Stones, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 96 (Oxford 1981).

5. Neil Price, The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia (Oxford 2002), currently being revised after at least some critical adulation, or so it seems from this page.

6. Bede’s harangue about false monasteries does seem to include some that were occupied by members of both sexes, indeed by married couples, but there’s nothing in it that seems to me to justify any idea that women ruled these mixed communities; he sees them as entirely secular ventures of implicitly male landholders (Bede, Letter to Egbert, cc. 12-15).

7. Here Blair’s cite was himself, J. Blair, “The Dangerous Dead in Early Medieval England” in Stephen Baxter, Catherine Karkov, Janet Nelson and David Pelteret (edd.), Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald (Aldershot 2009), pp. 539-559. I do wish Patrick could have seen some of this stuff.

8. Published by Sam Lucy, Richard Newman, Natasha Dodwell, Catherine Hills, Michiel Dekker, Tamsin O’Connell, Ian Riddler and Penelope Walton Rogers, “The Burial of a Princess? The Later Seventh-Century Cemetery at Westfield Farm, Ely” in Antiquaries Journal Vol. 89 (London 2009), pp. 81-141, the ‘princess’ in the barrow pp. 84-91 and the teenage vampiredeviant pp. 91-94. Told you this bibliography was good!

9. I would first think, always, of Nancy Caciola, “Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual in Medieval Culture” in Past and Present no. 152 (Oxford 1996), pp. 3-45, online here, but see now also Blair, “Dangerous Dead”, obviously. Caciola’s article also uses lots of juicy evidence from the Continent.

10. Blair’s bibliography gives this as M. Dunn, The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons (2009), and full details appear to be Marilyn Dunn, The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons c. 597-c. 700: discourses of life, death and afterlife (London 2009), as you can see from this review by Barbara Yorke at Reviews in History, where the work is called “erudite, but sometimes controversial”.

11. Andrew Reynolds, Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs (Oxford 2009), which is one of the few things not in the bibliography.