Tag Archives: archives

Introducing the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive

I am buried in marking, so have to resort to stored content for this week, in the hope of more progress later in the week. This is a post that I’ve had stubbed for so long to complete, indeed, that I have just repeatedly forgotten that it should come next on quite numerous occasions. Now, however, its turn in the sun finally comes! For lo, it was in the year 2015, in the January of that year, while I was still residing in the settlement of Beormingaham, that word reached me of a new digital venture by two of my by-then-bosom colleagues, Dr Rebecca Darley (now of Birkbeck, University of London) and Dr Daniel Reynolds (still, but now establishedly, at Birmingham), called the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive.

Screen capture of the home page of the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive

Screen capture of the home page of the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive

If I have my memories right, and I seem to, this came about because while those two had been in charge of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts coin collection (in which of course they preceded me), they had found in the coin room several cardboard boxes of photographs and ephemera, which on inspection turned out to be nothing less than the photographic archive of the Byzantine excavations of Professor David Talbot Rice, eminent art historian and archaeologist at Edinburgh. Apparently his widow thought the Byzantine materials would be best homed with Birmingham’s famous Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies of which I once had the honour to be part. It was quite the little hoard, anyway, as most of his photographs had been taken before the Second World War, so he had, for example, pictures of Istanbul (where he’d dug the Great Palace of Constantinople) which showed it completely different to its current state, with things that are now long gone, built over, or otherwise inaccessible visible and inspected with an academic’s precision. And this being our modern digital age, the immediate thought of our bold curators was to get this stuff online.

Pages from David Talbot Rice's notebook from the excavations of the Myrelaeon in Istanbul in the 1920s, image Myrelaion 006 from the David Talbot Rice Archive, digitised by the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive, licensed under Creative Commons 3.0

Pages from David Talbot Rice’s notebook from the excavations of the Myrelaion in Istanbul in the 1920s, image 386 from the David Talbot Rice Archive, digitised by the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive

Now, those who know these two will also realise that no plan of theirs ever stays small. After all, though this was a special one, there are a lot of academics with photo archives, and what happens to them usually? If we’re fortunate, they go to a museum collection which may or may not have time to catalogue and/or display them; if we’re not, they either wind up in someone’s attic (or a coin room) or they go to landfill or recycling. What if someone set up a digital archive that could guarantee upload and preservation of such things? And thus was the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive born.

Rihab, St George, Jordan: stone-lined tomb with accompanying grave cover (left and middle). Image 15704362483, Rihab, by Daniel Reynolds, digitised by the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive, Creative Commons 3.0

Rihab, St George, Jordan: stone-lined tomb with accompanying grave cover (left and middle). Image 15704362483, Rihab, by Daniel Reynolds, digitised by the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive, Creative Commons 3.0.

Buy-in was pretty rapid. Dan contributed his own photos straight away, and their (indeed, my) then-colleague Matthew Harpster gave a load of his, but these were born-digital and in some ways easy pickings. Rather more of a coup was to obtain the promise, then the delivery, of the photos of Birmingham’s founder Byzantinist and then-living legend, Anthony Bryer, who had also trodden or ridden many a road no longer recognisable. Work to upload those is ongoing, and other scholars’ archives have been promised. But this is work that can use your help! To be maximally useful, these images need tagging. That’s a fair labour in itself, and both Rebecca and Dan now have full-time high-demand jobs that don’t leave much spare effort for tinkering with photographs, but there’s also the basic problem that some of them are unrecognisable, or at least unfamiliar to anyone but the seriously expert. By way of an example: can you identify this church? Because as far as I know, we/they can’t, as yet…

A church somewhere in Trebizond, c.1920, image 002 from the David Talbot Rice Archive, digitised by the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive, licensed under Creative Commons 3.0

A church somewhere in Trebizond, c.1920, image 002 from the David Talbot Rice Archive, digitised by the Birmingham East Mediterranean Archive, licensed under Creative Commons 3.0

So I, and Rebecca and Dan, invite you to have a look at the archive as it now stands and see what you can find. Please note their terms and conditions, and their careful statement of limitations, but also please note the possibilities, and if you think you can help, I’m sure that they’d love to hear from you!

What happened to Roman municipal archives: an old problem solved?

Every now and then, when I can still find the time to read, I read something really clever. One of my favourite sorts of cleverness, furthermore, is that which takes an old old historiographical problem and finds an elegant and satisfying solution to it, and this post was occasioned by me finding one. The problem is the fate of the Roman municipal archives known as the gesta municipalia and its solver is quite possibly Warren Brown.1

One obviously needs to start by explaining what the gesta were, and this is part of the problem. Where we see them most clearly, in Northern Italy in the sixth century, they seem to have been city tax registers, in which transfers of property had to be noted so that the liability to tax travelled with the owner. If you did this, you got a docket saying that you had, so that no-one could get you for tax evasion. The trouble is firstly that this process is not evidenced very much outside Northern Italy, which raises the prospect that we are seeing something either regional or else the result of Emperor Justinian’s fiddling with documentary practice, but the gesta themselves are evidenced, across quite a lot of Frankish Europe, and the further trouble is that they are almost always attested in formulae, that is, documents abstracted from once-real charters to provide models for future practice.2 This means that it’s possible reasonably to hold opinions right the way from ‘the gesta were all gone by the sixth century at the latest and the formulae are just throwbacks that people copied because they were old but which no-one actually used’ through to ‘the gesta were still going in some places in the Carolingian era’.3

Early woodcut image of Ravenna

Images for this post are really hard to find. No-one seems to have put images of any of the relevant manuscripts online and the one ancient book that has one which is on Google Books is there in a scan for which the operatuve didn’t open the gatefold, so you can only see the left margin. Consequently, here is an early woodcut image of early modern Ravenna, which is where most of the relevant documents survive, you’ll just have to imagine the documents somewhere in it, invisible…

Of late the weight of the argument seems to have fallen into ‘the Church sort of replaced the gesta as a place where you could store documents’, but on the other hand in the Lay Archives book I lauded so much when it came out (and even before I’d read it, though now that I am I’m not changing my mind) Nicholas Everett now pushes the scepticism still further out, to ‘the gesta are not some ancient practice, they were new in the fifth century and died with the tax system, which is why we only functionally see them in Italy where that survived longest’.4 He doesn’t know about my colleague Arkady Hodge’s suggestion that the gesta are attested in Cherson in the Crimea also, but Arkady’s astute observation would not actually make the theory wrong: Cherson too could have held a limited tax system together quite late, and there are all kinds of reasons why it might have had a central institution of record like this, starting with it being a tiny exclave miles away from any other government.5

Ruins of the Byzantine city walls of Cherson

Ruins of the Byzantine city walls of Cherson

So it is debated! I have always felt uncomfortably torn between sides here: I am persuaded that the mentions of the gesta in a formula probably mean something, but if they had survived into the era in which the formulae were being copied, the ninth century, it seems too much to explain away the fact that we have nothing surviving that looks like actual gesta records like those from Italy, and i don’t think churches filled the role because they obviously preserve actual charters, not records that such existed somewhere else. So I wind up uncomfortably believing that there probably were gesta municipalia in Frankish Europe but that our best evidence for them is atypical because of Justinian, and though this sort of works I’d really like a better answer.

The mosaic of Emperor Justinian I and Empress Theodora in San Vitale di Ravenna

It’s all his fault! As with so much else. “Meister von San Vitale in Ravenna 003” by Meister von San Vitale in Ravenna – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

This, however, Warren has now provided! But! he is on record in several places arguing that the Frankish formulae were fairly flexible resources that people copied, and changed, because they were useful, not just out of some antiquarian spirit of editorialisation.6 How can he, therefore, follow Everett’s shattering argument, as he quite literally has to in the book in question? In two ways, it transpires; with a perceptive thesis and a wealth of previously uncollected examples (the latter of which was, of course, what the Lay Archives project was supposed to find). The thesis is the clever bit, and goes roughly like this.

What do people get out of reporting a transaction to the gesta? Obviously, yes, protection against tax liability, but also and as well as that, they get an officially-witnessed documentation of their new property. That is a thing people might want almost as much as the protection against the taxman, and most importantly it is a thing that people plainly continued to want even once (and where) the Roman tax system was inarguably dead.7 There are lots of ways we see that being done: people took their documents to court and got royal confirmations, under Merovingians and Carolingian rulers both; they took them to an ordinary court and had a confirmation issued by the gathering; they even, arguably, set up spurious lawsuits between each other so as to get the verdict publically issued that the recipient did indeed own the land.8 And, in some places where the formulae were known and the practice remembered, they went to a town and got the local bigwigs to fill the rôles of the old Roman curiales and issue something saying they’d seen the transaction documents, and the scribes who were writing this up knew the old formulae and wrote the dockets or records up accordingly. There doesn’t need to have been any surviving central archive: that wasn’t why people still did this. What was important to them was the document they got to take home.

Well, then, you may ask, why don’t we have any? And the answer to that is probably because they took them home! It is odd how few we have, even so, but we do have some, and it’s enough to convince me. The latest one Warren can find is from Prüm in 804, that monastery’s only gift of land from Angers, a city where they had a formula collection and knew about gesta (though, oddly, the Angers formula is not the one this record uses).9 That illustrates a further preservation problem, however; the scribe there copied four separate documents up as if they were one, but the first was a donation charter and really, that’s all you would need for a later cartulary. What good would it do you in the eleventh or twelfth century to copy up how this document had been confirmed by courts that no longer existed? The purpose of copying was no longer to prove possession, but to list and to remember, and for that the original charter was quite sufficient.10 Really, we shouldn’t expect any such documents to survive outside the original, and where would preserve them in the original except the personal archives that we hardly ever still have, the whole problem the Lay Archives project was meant to address?

So I think it all works, personally. It’s certainly much better than my halfway house answer and I’m very glad to have read it, certainly glad enough to share!


1. W. C. Brown, “The Gesta municipalia and the Public Validation of Documents in Frankish Europe” in idem, Marios Costambeys, Matthew Innes & Adam J. Kosto (edd.), Documentary Culture and the Laity in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2013), pp. 95-124.

2. The surviving examples are almost all in Ravenna, and edited in Jan-Olof Tjäder (ed.), Die nichtliterarische Papyri Italiens aus der Zeit 445-700 (Lund 1955 and Stockholm 1969), 3 vols, and are now discussed in Nicholas Everett, “Lay Documents and Archives in Early Medieval Spain and Italy, c. 400-700″ in Brown, Costambeys, Innes & Kosto, Documentary Culture, pp. 63-94, with refs; for the Justinian problem see Francesca Macino, “Documenti d’Impero: precedenti di età tardoantica (V-VI sec.)” in Peter Erhart, Karl Heidecker & Bernhard Zeller (edd.), Die Privaturkunden der Karolingerzeit (Zürich 2009), pp. 23-30.

3. I first met this debate in Ian N. Wood, “Disputes in Late Fifth- and Sixth-Century Gaul: some problems” and Paul Fouracre, “‘Placita’ and the Settlement of Disputes in Later Merovingian France”, both in Wendy Davies & idem (edd.), The Settlement of Disputes in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1986), pp. 7-22 and pp. 23-43 respectively, and I never really thought either side had enough evidence for their case. Scepticism has more recently been raised in Warren C. 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; Alice Rio, Legal practice and the written word in the early Middle Ages: Frankish formulae, c. 500-1000 (Cambridge 2009) argues for limited continuity and according to Brown at least, Josiane Barbier for rather more in her “‘Dotes’, donations après rapt et donations mutuelles : les transferts patrimoniaux entre époux dans le royaume franc d’après les formules (VIe-XIe s.)” in Régine Le Jan, Laurent Feller & François Bougard (edd.), Dots et douaires dans le haut Moyen Âge. Actes de la table ronde “Morgengabe, dos, tertia … et les autres …” réunie à Lille et Valenciennes les 2, 3 et 4 mars 2000, Collection de l’École française de Rome 357 (Roma 2002), pp.353-388, although in looking that up I find that she has now apparently got more to say in the subject in the form of Barbier, Archives oubliées du haut Moyen Âge : Les gesta municipalia en Gaule franque (VIe-IXe siècle) (Paris 2014), which must have been done without knowledge of Brown, “‘Gesta municipalia'”; I wonder how it compares?

4. The argument for Church replacement is started in Brown, “When Documents Are Destroyed” and made more fully by Rio in Legal Practice and the Written Word, but cf. Everett, “Lay Documents and Archives”.

5. A. Hodge, “When Is a Charter Not a Charter? Documents in Non-Conventional Contexts in Early Medieval Europe” in Jonathan Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout 2013), pp. 127-150.

6. Brown, “When Documents are Destroyed”; idem, “Die karolingischen Formelsammlungen – warum existieren sie?” in Erhart, Heidecker & Zeller, Privaturkunden, pp. 95-102; and there are certainly other things of his I haven’t read on similar subjects.

7. As to when that was, well… I can best refer you to Chris Wickham, “The Other Transition: from the ancient to feudalism” in Past and Present no. 103 (Oxford 1984), pp. 3-36, rev. in Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history 400-1200 (Londin 1994), pp. 7-42.

8. Examples of all these in Brown, “‘Gesta municipalia'”, but on the fake trials, Scheinprozesse, see most of all Chris Wickham, “Land Disputes and their Social Framework in Lombard-Carolingian Italy, 700-900” in Davies & Fouracre, Settlement of Disputes, pp. 105-124, rev. in Wickham, Land and Power, pp. 229-256; there is more work to be done finding such cases for sure outside Italy, though see Jonathan Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2005 for 2003), pp. 229-258, for at least one.

Managing without an archive in c. 1000 Barcelona

There’s a story I’m fond of and that I’ve told you here before, in which a woman came to the court of Marquis Ramon Borrell of Barcelona in 1005 claiming that the monks of Sant Cugat del Vallès were moving in on her land.1 There’s all kinds of strange things going on in the background of this case, and I do urge you to read the older post, but the bit that interests me on this occasion is the basis on which the plaintiff lost her land, which is that Ramon Borrell and his tame judge decided that the land was in fact the count’s, by virtue of having recently been wasteland, “just as other waste lands belong to the right of the prince”.2 It’s a pretty mean claim given that most people got to hold onto lands they’d cleared, and if the monastery hadn’t also had a claim I doubt very much this bit of casuistry would have been perpetrated upon her. When I’ve looked at this case before, therefore, I’ve either seen it as an instance of the importance of back-story in this legal environment when one was fixing a verdict, or else as an instance of the fact that these rights the counts were claiming over waste lands were not in fact regular and were probably therefore new, which bears heavily on the theory that this was an ancient and long-respected right of the public power.3 Y’see, it’s a very rich case. But what I want to focus on today is the appearance that the document gives that the count didn’t realise, until the problem arose, that this could be claimed as his land. Up till now I have always figured this was simple exigency, that ordinarily he’d never have pressed such a claim unless it was of immediate political use, and I would still think that if what I was reading when I wrote this hadn’t just presented me with another case.4

Cover of Josep María Salrach's Justícia i poder en Catalunya abans de l'any mil (Vic 2013)

Cover of Josep María Salrach’s Justícia i poder en Catalunya abans de l’any mil (Vic 2013), which is what I had in fact been reading when this post got written

This one’s from 1013, and it’s Ramon Borrell again, at court with his good lady wife when a delegation arrived from a placee called Villalba near Cardedeu, complaining that the count had some time ago been persuaded by one Rigoald to sell him a meadow next-door to Villalba in what the document has the count call “an innocent and unreflexive manner”, and that Rigoald and his wife and son had started making encroachments into the villagers’ common land.5 Rigoald now being dead, the villagers dared at last come to the count, and he and Countess Ermessenda apparently called the widow and son, Quixol and Ramon, to court, had their charter examined and found it, “made in a fraudulent and deceptive manner, alien to right and to all justice.” Therefore the charter was destroyed in court, and Quixol and Ramon fined thirty sheep, which by a coincidence is exactly what the villagers gave the count in gratitude for the justice he had done them.

Chapel of SS Corneli & Cebrià de Cardedéu

It turns out in searching that Cardedéu has a rather nice Romanesque chapel sitting in its midst, so although I can’t make any direct connection between it and the post I think it will do for illustration anyway don’t you? I’m so glad. By Miquel vico (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s hard to see how anyone but the count and countess won here. Quixol and Ramon presumably felt they were secure enough with their charter, even if they had maybe overstepped its bounds; instead they lost all title to their lands, and what happened to them is not clear, and they lost thirty sheep as well, while the villagers had to pay the same just to get what they had argued was rightfully theirs. What good sixty sheep did the count and countess of Barcelona is less easy to see, but it is reasonably clear, as Josep María Salrach says in his discussion of this case, that Ramon Borrell got a considerable height of moral high ground, defending the loyal peasantry against oppressors even when those oppressors were in fact himself, correctly broadcasting an adherence to right over advantage, even if that right was best paid for. I’m more interested in the thread that seems to me to tie these two cases together, however, which is that Ramon Borrell apparently had only the sketchiest idea of what property he actually controlled.

Arxiu Fidel Fita d'Arenys de Mar, Mas Gelat de Santa Susanna, Mas Bellvehí de Vidreres 91.0.1

This isn’t from the comital archive, but it is a charter of Ramon Borrell, with Ermessenda, Arxiu Fidel Fita d’Arenys de Mar, Mas Gelat de Santa Susanna, Mas Bellvehí de Vidreres, 91.0.1 of 1001. Their signatures, done by the scribe I think, are dead centre of the last full line of text.

In some senses this may not surprise anyone who’s spent much time with the documents from this area, because one of the noticeable things about them is the scale of comital property, which is, tiny and widespread. It is at least arguable that the counts held some really big estates and, because they kept them, we have no transaction evidence in which to see them—there’s a huge complex at Palau de Gurb that we only ever see because it was slowly and reluctantly given to Santa Maria de Ripoll, but it would never have got there had it not originally been part of a comital son’s entry-gift, for example6—but they certainly also held an immense variety of tiny stuff. There’s almost no castle term in which some comital property doesn’t show up, even if it’s just a couple of meadows or similar, and of course they presumably considered the actual castles theirs in some way, too, but that’s not what I mean. Keeping track of this mess of busy little farms and smallholdings would have been beyond most administrations, and yet on the other hand the reason we know about this land is because people near it knew it was the counts’ and said so when called on to detail property boundaries. We know here not to underestimate the ability of tenth-century lords to take inventories and make lists, I think, so there seems little question that the counts could, just about, have known what they owned. So why does Ramon Borrell seem not to have?

Arxiu de la Corona d'Aragó, Cancilleria, Pergamins Ramon Borrell 2

This, on the other hand, is from the comital archive, is in fact Arxiu de la Corona d’Aragó, Cancilleria, Pergamins Ramon Borrell 2, but is nothing to do with the counts and doesn’t feature the man under whom it’s indexed! Funny old world, archives.

Well, there is one fairly obvious excuse in the form of the sack of Barcelona by a Muslim army in 985.7 Lots of documents got lost in that, and because preservation from the Barcelona comital archive is so patchy for the early period, it has been assumed that the counts were among the losers that day.8 I’ve always struggled with this, however, because while it is patchy it is very far from non-existent, so either they didn’t lose it all, or some of the documents that later came to the archive were held elsewhere in 985 despite being about comital property, in which case we’re already looking at a rather less centralised administration than the kind of property tracking we’re looking for might have needed.9

Besides, it’s not just Ramon Borrell who seems to have had this problem: a remarkable case from the reign of his father Borrell II, which Salrach also explores, shows the same issues coming up. This is a hearing from a place in Manresa called Vallformosa, in 977 so that the “day Barcelona died” can’t yet have affected things.10 Borrell was presiding over this court, which makes it all the more surprising what happened: his agent summoned the men of Vallformosa (some of whom were women, but fairly few, so probably the communty’s heads of houses) and claimed that their land was comital property because it had been so in the times of Borrell’s father Count Sunyer. The villagers however claimed that no claim had been made on them for more than thirty years, which under the Visigothic Law was the limit of any outstanding property claims, and so the lands were now theirs whatever the past situation might have been. The judge asked Borrell’s man Bonhom if he had any evidence to refute this, he had none, and so he had to make a quitclaim in front of his boss admitting the collapse of the comital claim, and that document then went into the comital archive.

Sant Salvador de Servitge de Vallformosa

Sant Salvador de Servitge de Vallformosa, which though much modified is possibly the oldest building standing in the village as far as websearching can tell me. Photograph by Antonio Mora Vergés.

Speculation about this has tended to go two ways, and Salrach covers both of them.11 Firstly, it can be seen as proof that the counts could lose, and that they did not have the will or resources always to force a verdict in their favour against determined opposition. Point against this view: why would you have the trail? Bonhom must have known he had no evidence to present, yet he sued the villagers anyway. It would have looked better for his side not to bother. Thus, a second point of view has been that the comital side must have intended to lose, the point being to establish publically the villagers’ rights; that is, that this was what is known in the scholarship of Italy and Germany as a Scheinprozess, a show trial. Point against this view: why must the count lose to do this? Why could he not just grant them a franchise or immunity? These documents were made by others, and indeed by Borrell himself before long, so this seems a very odd way to do it.

So I wonder if in fact they did all know what the outcome must be, or whether in fact no-one was really sure whether Vallformosa’s inhabitants would be able to raise a group of oath-swearers or that Bonhom would not be able to until too close to the trial to call it off. I wonder if, in fact, a trial like this was how both sides settled a question of ownership that beforehand they could not answer. A point for this idea, unlikely though it may seem, and a point against both the other two theories, is that the Vallformosa and Villalba documents survive in the comital archive. What I have called ‘Winner’s preservation’ here before ought to militate against this: why would the counts be keeping records of what they had not been able to claim? These documents ought to have gone to the villagers, so that they could be produced if the matter was ever raised again. The fact that what we have is the counts’ copies suggests to me an archive that barely existed, that was being assembled by chancing this kind of case and filing the results so that if, in the future, someone in Barcelona went, “That place Vallformosa, up north-west of Manresa, that’s ours isn’t it? Bishop says it’s not his…” someone checking would then be able to say, “Ah. No.”

ACA Cancilleria Pergamins Borrell II 63

I seem not to have images of anything from the comital archive from before the sack of 985 that doesn’t hail from Sant Joan de les Abadesses, whose stuff got added in later. There are some, all the same, but this is ACA Cancilleria Pergamins Borrell II 63, a Barcelona sale of 992 that, again, doesn’t feature the count and presumably arrived in the comital archive for some other reason

I admit that there is a nastier possibility, that the counts might lose the case but claim the right to keep the record, far away in Barcelona where no-one from Vallformosa could easily get at it. I would have to admit the possibility of that: but a comital administration with that kind of plan surely wouldn’t be as confused about its rights as it in fact seems to have been. I don’t want to let go of my older idea that Borrell and his son were actually trying to push for new rights under old legal cladding, and that what they attempted to get was sometimes unobtainable precisely because no-one had asked before. (This chapter of Salrach’s book is really good at adding texture to this idea, for a start.) However, I do now think that we probably ought to realise that a governmentalising apparatus with all kinds of strategies for power still doesn’t have to have been very good at them or well-equipped to carry them out…


1. J. Rius Serra (ed.), Cartulario de «Sant Cugat» del Vallés vol. II (Barcelona 1946), online here, doc. no. 464.

2. Ibid.: “Propterea iudicatum est in ipso iudicio melius et verius esse hec terra iuris principalis, sicut et cetera spacia heremarum terrarum…”.

3. J. Jarrett, “A Likely Story: narratives in charter material from early medieval Catalonia”, paper presented to the Medieval History Seminar, University of Oxford, 18th October 2010; idem, “Settling the King’s Lands: aprisio in Catalonia in perspective” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 18 (Oxford 2010), pp. 320-342, DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-8847.2010.00301.x.

4. Josep María Salrach, Justícia i poder en Catalunya abans de l’any mil, Refeències 55 (Vic 2013), here pp. 114-118.

5. Gaspar Feliu i Montfort and Josep María Salrach (edd.), Els pergamins de l’arxiu comtal de Barcelona de Ramon Borrell a Ramon Berenguer I: estudi i edició, Diplomataris 18-20 (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. no. 105. I’m working off Salrach’s account cited in the previous note here, which only quotes the document in Catalan translation, but he did edit the thing so I’m guessing it’s OK.

6. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. nos 419 & 420, show the dissection of the Palau de Gurb estate.

7. On which see Gaspar Feliu, La Presa de Barcelona per Almansor: història i mitificació. Discurs de recepció de Gaspar Feliu i Montfort com a membre numerari de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica, llegit el dia 12 de desembre de 2007 (Barcelona 2007), online here, last modified 15 September 2008 as of 3 November 2008.

8. Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos XVIII (Barcelona 1951), pp. xxxii-xxxiv.

9. Ibid., doc. nos 9, 12, etc.

10. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 1229 (or Udina, Archivo Condal, doc. no. 181, because it too is in the comital archive of before).

11. Salrach, Justícia i poder, pp. 109-111.

Gallery

In Marca Hispanica XXVI: in, but not inside, Montserrat

This gallery contains 11 photos.

On 5th December 2013, for reasons already described, I woke in Barcelona with a day and a half to play with. What to do with it? I had seen all the things I then knew I needed to see in … Continue reading

Leeds 2013 report part 3

This was the longest day of my attendance at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds last year, not just because of it ending in the dance but because it was the only day of the conference where I went to four sessions before the evening. I guess that for some of you this will be more interesting reading than for others, so, varying the usual pattern, here’s a list of the sessions I went to and their speakers and papers, then a cut and you can follow it up if you like!

    1030. Digital Pleasures, IV: scholarly editions, data formats, data exploitation

  • Francesco Stella, “Database versus Encoding: which methods for which results?”
  • Jean-Baptiste Camps, “Detecting Contaminations in a Textual Tradition: computer versus traditional methods”
  • Alexey Lavrentev, “Interactions, corpus, apprentissages, répresentations”
  • 1107. ‘Foul Hordes’: the migration of ideas and people in Pictland and beyond

  • Oisin Plumb, “Go West Young Urguist: assessing the Pictish presence in Ireland”
  • Tasha Gefreh, “Foul Iconography”
  • Bethan Morris, “Reading the Stones: literacy, symbols, and monumentality in Pictland and beyond”
  • 1207. Peripheral Territories in Early Medieval Europe, 9th-11th Centuries

  • Katharina Winckler, “Competing Bishops and Territories in the Eastern Alps”
  • Jens Schneider, “Celtic Tradition and Frankish Narratives in 9th-Century Brittany”
  • Claire Lamy, “Dealing with the Margins: the monks of Marmoutier and the classification of their possessions (11th c.)”
  • 1310. Texts and Identities, IV: violence, legitimacy, and identity during the transformation of the Roman world

  • Glenn McDorman, “Military Violence and Political Legitimacy in the Burgundian Civil War”
  • Adrastos Omissi, “Hamstrung Horses? Timothy Barnes, Constantine’s Legendary Flight to his Father, and the Legitimacy of his procalamation as Emperor in 306”
  • Michael Burrows, “Lower-Class Illegitimate Violence in the late Roman West”

If any of that piques your interest, then read on! If not, hang about till next post and we’ll talk larger-scale Insular funerary sculpture instead. Continue reading

Leeds 2013 report part 1

I’ve been backlogged with reporting nearly this far before now, of course, and it’s the annual conferences that always seem silliest to report on in these circumstances. Who cares about the 2013 International Medieval Congress now? We’ve already had the 2014 one! Thoughts like this flap round this entry, but completeness compels me, and besides, hey, maybe you weren’t there, maybe you were and just didn’t go to the things I did, I’ll cover it, but because it’s also huge, I’ll put the actual paper reports behind a cut.

Ornamented pillars in the anteroom of the Great Hall on the main University of Leeds campus

Ornamented pillars in the anteroom of the Great Hall on the main University of Leeds campus

Last year’s conference theme at Leeds was ‘pleasure’, and perhaps I’m just a gloomy type but this didn’t engage me much, so I found myself drawn by neither of the keynote lectures that always start the conference. Instead, I made an early assault on the second-hand book fair (which only runs till lunchtime the second day, so you have to be quick) and generally tried to get the shape of the new premises, because as you may recall the previous year saw the Leeds conference finishing its residence out at Bodington and Weetwood campuses and getting ready to happen on the university’s city centre campus. As you can see from the above left, parts of that are fairly splendid, and in general it did seem an improvement. There were still rooms that had people on the floor while in others seats were empty, and to be fair the conference staff did try and swap some sessions over when this became clear, at the cost of some delay, but in general the spaces and moving between them were more comfortable and having everything on one site was worth a lot.

Entry to the Great Hall on the main camopus of the University of Leeds

Entry to the Great Hall (where, in fact, I think I never went)

My fears that the essential communality of Leeds would be lost was unfounded, too: a centrally-positioned marquee serving still-dreadful but essential caffeine proved an anchor point past which almost everyone had to pass sooner or later, and in the evenings the main bar proved a reasonable place to search people out also and also had better beer than Bodington ever had (though not than the sadly-missed Stables pub at Weetwood). So in general the move seemed OK. But, the papers! Continue reading

Gallery

In Marca Hispanica XXIV: still welcome in Vic

This gallery contains 11 photos.

For the second day of my flying research trip to Catalonia of last May I was back in Vic. In fact I’d been in Vic all along, and commuted into Barcelona, since I knew that I would need longer at … Continue reading

In Marca Hispanica XXII: how hard can it be to get at an actual charter?

Not all of the apparently many things I did in May of last year were in Oxford, however much it might seem that way. I actually managed to squeeze a short research trip to Catalonia in between teaching as well! Because of the short time available, this had to be very targetted, and the strategic priority was the project on priests around Manresa, bits of which have already turned up here. In May 2013 I was set to give two papers on this project in the next two months, and you may remember that while it had become clear that I was going to need access to the original documents to do it properly, so that signatures could be compared, I was not going to be able to get this out of the abbey of Montserrat, where most of Sant Benet de Bages‘s parchments have wound up. So instead, I had to try and get pictures of all the rest, or at least, all the rest where scribes about whom I was suspicious might occur. That actually seemed fairly feasible in a two-day trip, but it meant starting with this place, about which you have heard my reservations before.

Entrance to the Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón

This is of course the Archivo de la Corona de Aragón. Despite its outward appearance, the ACA is actually quite a nice place to work. They have all the printed editions you might require, it is quiet, there are sufficient terminals to access all the digital resources and there are quite a lot of those, largely excellent, at which you can only get on the premises. There is also lots of desk space, but I don’t know why because the one thing they won’t let you do here is look at original documents. Sit with you and work through a useless microfilm, yes, talk you through the slightly arcane file structure of the digitised documents (based on the equally arcane eighteenth-century archival one, to be fair), but fetch up an actual parchment and put it in front of you, NO. (I subsequently discovered that they do in fact have to write to Madrid for permission to do this, so it’s not something you can achieve in a day at all.1) So I knew already that an order for reproductions was as good as I was going to manage, an order that was unlikely to be fulfilled in time, but which would hopefully stand me in good stead later. And they had actually simplified the process for doing this—there were now only four steps and none of them had to be approved in Madrid!—so I ordered digital reproductions of one charter from the Cancilleria, five from the Monacals d’Hisenda from Santa Cecília de Montserrat and, with some reluctance, one hundred from the Monacals holdings for Sant Benet de Bages, which was apparently the smallest subdivision of that collection one could order. I should have figured out why, but alas…

Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón, Monacals d'Hisenda, Pergamins de Santa Cecília de Montserrat, no. 6 recto

Archivo de la Corona d’Aragón, Monacals d’Hisenda, Pergamins de Santa Cecília de Montserrat, no. 6 recto, reduced from the much large image actually supplied to me. Here I was after Sunyer, whose signature you can probably distinguish at the bottom.

So, inevitably, these turned up way after the papers were given, but they did turn up, in an odd-shaped package that turned out to contain a CD-R and a roll of microfilm. The latter was why one could only order a hundred Sant Benet documents at once; the ACA are not, apparently, going to digitise whole microfilms for you on demand. But since I’d chosen and paid for digital images, this was extremely annoying; I was now going to have to digitise them myself, at my own expense. It damped considerably my delight at how good the digital ones they had been able to send me had been (and indeed always are, it seems). And worse was to come.

Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón, Monacals, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, no. 16 recto

Archivo de la Corona d’Aragón, Monacals, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages, no. 16 recto, enhanced by me in software and shrunk for web

I’m pretty sure that on my original order form I’d ordered reels 1 & 2 from the collection (not realising that was what I was doing). The confirmation form that is part of the process however listed reels 1 & 8, and I didn’t stop to wonder why. Once I got the film onto a reader at Birmingham, however (because that’s how long this took, though on the other hand it turned out that the library here had just bought some software for digitising microfilm which they were keen to have tested) I found out: I had fifty documents from 1000 to about 1011, and then fifty more from the mid-twelfth century, all very useful I’m sure but sadly not to me. And while some of the relevant ones are like the above, unfortunately rather more are like the below:

Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón, Monacals, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages no. 7 recto

Archivo de la Corona d’Aragón, Monacals, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages no. 7 recto, after enhancement in software

Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón, Monacals, Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages no. 20 recto

Pergamins Sant Benet de Bages no. 20 recto, likewise after enhancement. The verso image here I just couldn’t distinguish to enhance, I’m still not sure the charter’s actually in it.

I haven’t seen the like of this for a while, because I’ve forgotten what badly-developed films look like. In the room where I was doing the digitisation, which suffers from too much daylight for imaging work, as said in the caption, I couldn’t tell in a couple of cases whether there was a charter in the photograph at all. But this is the official state of access to these documents. There are also several numbers missing in the sequence and two documents photographed twice. I don’t really feel that I got my money’s worth out of this, and it doesn’t seem that ACA did when they paid for the original photography. At least this may constitute an argument that gets me access to the originals next time I try…

Inside one of the reading rooms at the Biblioteca de Catalunya, once upon a time the fifteenth-century Hospital de Santa Creu

Inside one of the reading rooms at the Biblioteca de Catalunya, once upon a time the fifteenth-century Hospital de Santa Creu

But folks, it doesn’t have to be like this, as I found even that same day (because since they wouldn’t let me actually see anything, I was done at the ACA quite quickly). So I trekked across town (photos will follow) and got myself to this place, the Biblioteca de Catalunya, which I’d never used before, and it became probably my second-favourite research library within the hour. It was no trouble at all to get a reader’s card, a five-year one even, and then it was equally unproblematic to identify and order up the five documents I wanted to see. And there they were, within half an hour, in plastic folders on my desk. And after I’d been looking for about five minutes, the desk attendant whom I’d asked about photography came back to tell me that actually these documents were all on the website, if that would make things simpler for me?

Biblioteca de Catalunya, Pergamins 2201 recto

Biblioteca de Catalunya, Pergamins 2201 recto, shrunk for the web

The website’s lovely, too, another obvious point of comparison. The ACA has a portion of a larger state site, and the only means of electronic contact is a form that doesn’t work. The BC not only has all kinds of social media enabled but also a crowd-sourced transcription initiative.2 One could be forgiven for thinking they actually wanted people to use their collections. And it is a lovely place to sit and read, indeed, and I hope to do so more in the future. But the contrast between it and the ACA could really not be more sharply drawn!


1. The person who told me this also suggested that one would need to sacrifice a black goat under a full moon for this to achieve any actual result, but obviously I’d guessed that already. (This is sarcasm, by the way.) The more canonical strategy for Spanish archives beloved of English investigators, to wit, buying the archivist lunch until he decides you’re OK (this is not sarcasm, it’s well tried and tested), won’t work at the ACA because its staff is too large and rotates, and in any case my Castilian’s not up to it…

2. They currently have up requiring transcription an unedited, unpublished tenth- and eleventh-century charter collection from the Priorat d’Organyà, and I tell you, it is very very hard not to procrastinate with that…

In Marca Hispanica XIII: more stones than parchment I (Santa Maria de Ripoll)

Santa Maria de Ripoll, photographed from a car in 2008

Santa Maria de Ripoll, photographed from a car in 2008, which is as close as I then got

The kind lift back from Vallfogona recounted in the previous one of these posts put me in the town of Ripoll, with the option either of running for a train right away, or waiting an hour and looking around. Even in the failing light, the latter seemed the wise option because last time I was here, I had to miss it out and I didn’t want to do so twice. Besides, Ripoll grew somewhat during industrialisation and its medieval heritage is now constrained to a fairly small area, which is easy to look around if, as I had, you arrive too late to get inside the monastery.

Old railway shed, with locomotive still therein, now cut off from the railway at Ripoll

Old railway shed, with locomotive still therein, now cut off from the railway at Ripoll

The industrial nature of the town is still fairly clear when you come in; at a distance the monastery’s tower shares the skyline with cranes, silos and chimneys. Things are still not what they once were here, though; the station used to have seven tracks through it and was now making do with two out of a notional four. The Estació Nova, a handsome nineteenth-century building, stands derelict and a new concrete bungalow does for the job of the old Estació that was presumably once insufficient. The railway apparently died back so quickly here that it wasn’t even worth recovering the shunter (switcher, if you’re speaking US English) that lurks still in that disconnected shed. There is a preserved post-war electric locomotive parked on the station verge (visible in the photo linked for Estació Nova above) as a sign of what so recently was; the town has been amassing history recently as well as in my period.1

West front of Santa Maria de Ripoll in evening sunshine

West front of Santa Maria de Ripoll in evening sunshine

If you are a medievalist, however, you’re here for the monastery of Santa Maria, which I have often mentioned here before but for which I now have my own pictures. Even this is more nineteenth-century history than you might expect, though, because as has also been mentioned here this place was burnt down in 1835, with the loss of its entire archive. What you see here is a careful and painstaking 1880s reconstruction. It’s a tremendous job, but there is therefore a reason why it appears so well-preserved.

Arcades around the central apse and most northerly apsidiole at Santa Maria de Ripoll

Arcades around the central apse and most northerly apsidiole at Santa Maria de Ripoll

Santa Maria was big, really big. I mean, you may think Sant Joan de les Abadesses or Sant Benet de Bages were big but that’s just peanuts… well, no, OK, but it is fairly substantial. One good example of the intent of the builder, who was none other than that metal bishop we’ve seen here before and will again, Oliba of Vic, also Abbot of this and several other monasteries, ex-count and an originator of the Peace of God, already, is that he had already had Sant Miquel de Cuixà’s church rebuilt with five apses rather than the usual three (one for the nave, one for each aisle). Somehow Santa Maria, which obviously needed to defend its premier status, wound up with seven.2

The apse and apsidioles, transept and two of the three towers  of Santa Maria de Ripoll

The apse and apsidioles, transept and two of the three towers of Santa Maria de Ripoll

Santa Maria is now very much embedded in the town, but it probably always was since the actual parish church, Sant Pere de Ripoll, which like Santa Maria and Sant Joan have been here a long time in some form or other, is hardly any distance away at all, and as early as we can tell this sort of thing about it (908, to the best of my knowledge) it was being staffed by the monks.3 So Benedictine though it might have been, this monastery was in direct contact with the people it ruled.

The tower of Sant Pere de Ripoll, with Santa Maria beyond

The tower of Sant Pere de Ripoll, with Santa Maria beyond

The loss of records is still immensely frustrating though. Santa Maria was a sufficiently large landholder that it had property in every county of Catalonia, it may have been the largest landholder in the region (albeit probably second to the counts of Barcelona). I mean, it says something that they had four cartularies, even if one of them substantially duplicated another.4 The counts managed to get Sant Joan, similarly privileged but not as wealthy, shut down; Santa Maria they could only take over from the inside.5 And we have almost nothing to go on in reconstructing that importance. We don’t have nothing: one of the place’s archivists, a chap called Roc d’Olzinelles, wrote a manuscript inventory of the most important donations by nobles and others with extended abstracts of the texts, and that survives.6 Also, Santa Maria, like many religious establishments in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, divided its revenues up into shares that were assigned to individuals at one point, and one of these, the Pabordia de Palau, later came under the control of the Bishop of Vic somehow, which meant that in the eighteenth century Vic got abstracts made of all the documents relating to property serving that Pabordia, which also survive. So we have, if you like, the icing and decoration and one slice out of Santa Maria’s overall patrimonial cake, but we can’t tell how much of the cake the slice is and since both sets of abstracts omit witnesses, neighbours and in extreme cases the names of the donors, and very rarely record sales which other archives suggest should have been the majority of documents preserved, these are portions from which all the fruit, nuts and silver balls have been removed already to make it easier to digest.7 Pah. Certainly, I can’t do my sort of stuff with this sample in any useful way, which leaves me continually struggling to estimate what the dark matter of Santa Maria’s influence in any given area I study might have been, especially at smaller but better-preserved Sant Joan, which had once been run by Santa Maria’s abbot and where people might easily play the two monasteries off against each other, but I can only very rarely see that happening.8

The two western towers of Santa Maria de Ripoll in slanting evening sunlight

The two western towers of Santa Maria de Ripoll in slanting evening sunlight. Weirdly, it's the smaller and less Romanesque one that is original; the original of the other one came down in an earthquake in 1428, and had never been replaced when the nineteeth-century rebuild here was done, so they used models from elsewhere. (Linked to details; the picture is mine though.)

That impossibility of putting the place to work for me is one of the reasons why I’ve never made the effort to get here for the place itself; instead I have tended to be here because it’s the railhead for exploration of the Ripollès more widely. Nonetheless, it is very much worth seeing: as a learned correspondent said of it in an exchange at the time, “comme c’est beau!”.

The western portal at Santa Maria de Ripoll

The western portal at Santa Maria de Ripoll, from Wikimedia Commons, whose photographer had better light than did I; this is your actual authentic Romanesque.


1. And, obviously, at all points in between; it’s just that it’s substantially the eleventh and twentieth centuries they’ve chosen to memorialise in the parts of the town where I went.

2. There’s a number of dedicated studies of Santa Maria, largely from an architectural point of view, but I’m here working off Antoni Pladevall i Font, Joan-Albert Adell i Gisbert and Xavier Barral i Altet, “Santa Maria de Ripoll” in Pladevall (ed.), Catalunya Romànica X: el Ripollès, ed. Jordi Vigué (Barcelona 1987), pp. 206-334. On the metal bishop geezer, see n. 5 below.

3. Sant Pere turns up in a donation of that year from the lost Ripoll archive that we have in regestum, a donation made by one Francolino, who was the person who by failing to provide proof that backed up their claim lost Guimarà and Bonita their case against Abbess Emma in 918 that I mentioned in the Vallfogona post, in fact; this was a small world. The document is printed in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i de Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. 156, which explains: “Abbates enim et Monachi servientes domum S. Petri presentes et futuri ita obtineant sicut ceteris alodibus S. Petro pertinentibus”, ‘for the abbots and monks, present and future, serving the house of Saint Peter may obtain it just like the other alods belonging to Sant Pere’. Sant Pere doesn’t have an abbot or monks of its own, so they must be coming from the monastery next door. For more on Francolino, see n. 8 below; for more on Sant Pere, see Antoni Pladevall i Font, Joan-Albert Adell i Gisbert, R, Bastardes i Parera and J. Bracons i Clapés, “Sant Pere de Ripoll” in Pladevall, Catalunya Romànica X, pp. 335-343.

4. The old archive is discussed pithily by Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, I pp. 36-39.

5. This they did by putting Oliba, son of a Marquis of Cerdanya and brother of the count whose son became bishop on the back of Sant Joan’s endowment after it was shut down, in as a monk who soon became abbot. It was really a very handy monastic conversion, although I don’t mean to suggest it wasn’t sincere; Oliba was quite the churchman over his life, and probably well suited to the vocation. For the details behind my cynical take on the episode, see J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (London 2010), pp. 70-71 and references there; for a nicer account that leaves Oliba creditable motives, see

Cover of Ramon d'Abadal i de Vinyals's L'Abat Oliba, Bisbe de Vic, i la seva època, 3rd edn.

Cover of Ramon d'Abadal i de Vinyals's L'Abat Oliba, Bisbe de Vic, i la seva època, 3rd edn.

Ramon d’Abadal de Vinyals, L’Abat Oliba, Bisbe de Vic, i la seva època 3rd edn. (Barcelona 1962), repr. as “L’Abat Oliba, Bisbe de Vic, i la seva època” in Abadal, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i documents XIII & XIV (Barcelona 1969, repr. 1974, 1989), II pp. 141-277, at pp. 83-111 of the original, which I cite because I bought it the next day from Costa Llibreter in Vic, a lovely bookshop stacked with things they can only just find just aa proper bookshop should be—it doesn’t come over the same way on the Internet but they are there—and here is my copy! That all said, a quick English-language introduction to the man and his career can be found in Adam J. Kosto, “Oliba, Peacemaker”, in Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 135-149, but you may actually find Abadal’s book easier to get hold of…

6. Roc d’Olzinelles, “Índex de les donacions de comtes i reis i de les butlles pontifícies existents a l’arxiu de Ripoll”, Biblioteca de Catalunya, MS 430. Not on loan when I wrote this, you’ll be glad to know!

7. Quite a lot of this material is in Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, and presumably lots more is in other volumes of the Catalunya Carolíngia, but it’s still quite hard to know how much we do have that was copied by various people for various purposes and is now scattered from Madrid to Paris. A reasonable dissertation project for someone close to the area might be to try and assemble a kind of Diplomatari de Ripoll and see if we can work out what survives, how much there might originally have been and what areas we’ve obviously not got. I did inquire about getting a grant to do this from the Generalitat at one point but it never got further than informal enquiries because those never got answered. Oh well.

8. One instance being Francolino, seen in n. 3 above, who had land in many places around Sant Joan apparently but whom we only see give to Sant Pere de Ripoll, and another being a chap called Anno, who at one point is working as saio, a kind of Visigothic constable, in Vallfogona, but is seen before that representing the Abbot of Santa Maria in court. On these guys see Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, pp. 62-64 & 42-43 respectively. For the phase before Abbess Emma’s majority when Santa Maria’s abbot, Dagui, ran Sant Joan, see R. d’Abadal i de Vinyals, “La fundació del Monestir de Ripoll” in Miscel·lània Anselm M. Albareda Vol. I, Analecta Montserratensia Vol. 9 (Montserrat 1962), pp. 187-197, repr. in idem, Dels Visigots als Catalans Vol. I, pp. 485-494, though be aware that this is one of many cases where they fitted the reprint into its swollen double volume by leaving out the useful documentary appendix.

Seminar XCI: dealings with the Fatimid Caliphate

It’s nearly the new term and I haven’t finished talking about the last one yet, again, to say nothing of Catalonia. Therefore, we must speed things up here and so I am going, reluctantly, to say basically nothing of Professor David Abulafia‘s presentation to the Late Medieval Europe Seminar in Oxford on the 22nd February 2011, for all that I have a great respect for David and that he is one of the people to whom some blame for this whole thing my research could reasonably be attached.1 I justify this because although the paper was jolly interesting, it was also a précis of a book that you will soon be able to read for yourselves, should you choose.2 So, instead, let me move on a week and talk about Professor Marina Rustow, presenting to the Medieval History Seminar here with the title, “The Fatimid State as Viewed by Medieval Jews”, on the 28th. You have perhaps heard of the Cairo Genizah? If not, this was an amazing cache of manuscripts of all ages, deposited in a synagogue loft in Fustat between the eleventh and nineteenth centuries, which was then slowly opened up to scholarship, and has been so huge that this is still happening. I can’t do any better than quote the web-page of the largest project based on this material by way of deeper explanation:

A genizah is a storage room where copies of respected texts with scribal errors or physical damaged, or unusable documents, are kept until they can be ritually buried. The dark, sealed, room in the arid Egyptian climate contributed to the preservation of the documents, the earliest of which may go back to the eighth and ninth centuries.

That website, which has digital images of some of the texts too (see below) says there were about 200,000 pieces of manuscript in this Genizah, but Dr Rustow was talking in terms more like half that again. This mass of evidence she handled clearly and comprehensibly throughout: she is an excellent ambassador for a field of study about which most of her audience, perhaps, knew very little. (It’s not safe to gamble on what people don’t know, round here.) Most of the sample, she explained, is as you’d probably expect given its preservation Biblical or Talmudic texts, which are themselves of importance for Jewish theologians, but most of the work I know about has been on the actual documents within the sample, of which there are about 10-15,000. Those best known are the ones from Jewish traders from around the Mediterranean that somehow wound up here, showing a criss-crossing set of links and connections that really make the Sea alive with medieval traffic (of which, after all, the Jews were probably only a part; think of all those supposed Syrians!)3 but Dr Rustow’s particular interest was in the fact that among this stuff there is also a certain amount of Islamic government material: letters to officials, petitions, decrees and memoranda, often having arrived in the Genizah after being recycled and written over for some other purpose.4 The Fatimid chancery of Cairo appears to have written big and with lots of space left over…

New York, Jewish Theological Seminary, E. N. Adler MS 3616 9, recto

New York, Jewish Theological Seminary, E. N. Adler MS 3616 9, recto. Note the widely-spaced lines of Arabic faded or washed out and the new script written in at right angles. If you follow the link you'll see an entire letter was then written on the other side. Whether this is actually a chancery document I have no idea but this is the process Prof. Rustow described

Why this stuff, and indeed the various documents with solely Christian (Melkite and Coptic) and Muslim (Sunni and Shi’a) participants, wound up in a synagogue loft is a problem still currently unsolved, and a lot of the questions that we raised and that Dr Rustow had for us, indeed, were about preservation and documentary cultures in east and west, who keeps what for what reason and so on. Here it seemed to me by the end of the discussion that we had actually brought East and West closer together, that there are odd occasional caches of original documents, from Sinai and Mount Athos to Catalonia via Fustat or Sankt Gallen, that show that with the right luck this stuff can survive and tell us that it probably did in other places too. Once again we have to face up to just having lost an awful lot of stuff. There is an idea, largely the fault of Patrick Geary and not without some foundation, that the West keeps copies of this stuff instead of originals, but there are enough places that have both cartulary and original documents that I think we can doubt whether the disposal of originals was quite as close on the heels of copying them as he seems in places to suggest.5 The same seemed to be true in the East, with a number of the 400-500 documents that Dr Rustow had found to work with in those of the many many archives over which the Genizah material is spread being copies of documents that had previously been copied by the Mamluk régime of thirteenth-century Egypt, meaning that at that point they had survived three centuries and were still thought worth making new ones of. Dr Rustow thought that this suggested that the documents themselves were only of short-term value, but I wonder if that might mainly be true for the régime and whether those actually holding the kind of land or revenue concession that these documents transferred might have had their own copies that they held onto more carefully, but which of course ultimately don’t come down to us because of that. This would match the situation in the West perfectly well, I think, where again people do have documents but only the actual property-holders usually keep them, which ultimately means the Church. In the Islamic zones that non-state archive institution doesn’t really exist, and so we have lost what it might have held, but that doesn’t make what survives in the West typical of what was actually in use.6 Anyway, I could go on in that vein all day and my questions were, as you can imagine, probably a bit too long. Back to the actual point of the paper!

New York, Jewish Theological Seminary, E. N. Adler MS 4009 2

New York, Jewish Theological Seminary, E. N. Adler MS 4009 2v: pen trials

Once they reached the Genizah, however, or rather immediately before, these Fatimid documents appears to have been being kept just as papyrus for pen-trials or as formulae to use in new documents (which is a model I think we have to face in many other places too). There were also a few instances where régime change had apparently led to the previous incumbent’s archives quite literally being thrown out and sold in bulk as second-hand papyrus or paper. What they actually show us, however, is a state apparatus that could be accessed, to a certain extent, by individuals, by means of petitioning. This was an ‘Abbasid innovation, one of the ways in which those high-minded coup-mongers were able to present themselves as being better justified and less tyrannical than the first, Umayyad, caliphs, and acted both as legitimisation and as a check on the state’s officials (much like Charlemagne’s circuits of missi but more centralised, as the Islamic states could manage to be).7 It was presumably much easier to get access to the court machinery of audience with suitable contacts or bribery, of course, but the same was probably true everywhere. Nonetheless, the possibility that a humble person could seek redress from the Caliph himself (which is also littered through The Arabian Nights, you may remember, even though that is kind of the Scriptures of Western Orientalism along with Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra as its New Testament) was a kind of consensus on which the régime could rest. Dr Rustow’s takeaway point was, therefore, that when we actually have evidence for the workings of these supposed Oriental despotisms, we don’t find purely ideological and theocratic justifications of power but a régime that was as interested in giving good justice and being fair, or at least in seeming that way enough to keep its people from revolt as any in the medieval West. In other words, this is no more ‘Oriental despotism’ than the high medieval west is a ‘feudal system’; in both cases there is far too much social theory that lurks around assuming that these two ideal types had more real existence than they did and in both cases that theory needs a sound kick in the paradigms, which it here got. This was a good paper.8


1. Because how, Professor Abulafia used to run an undergraduate paper on Muslim Spain, and taught it to me, and one of the things he set as reading was Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “Christian-Muslim Frontier in al-Andalus: idea and reality” in Dionisius Agius & Richard Hitchcock (edd.), Arab Influence upon Medieval Europe (Reading, IL. 1994), pp. 83-96 and from that I learnt that the Muslim-Christian frontier was full of weird anomalous social groupings and at Masters level resolved to investigate them and well, here we are.

2. It’s called, if I remember, A History of the Mediterranean and covering really quite a timespan.

3. This is classically described in Shelomo Dov Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: the Jewish communities of the world as portrayed in the documents of the Cairo Genizah (Berkeley 1967-1993, repr. 1999, 2000), 6 vols; a single-volume abridgement (Berkeley 2003).

4. This material is partly published—given how scattered the collections are anything more than partial is a major effort—in Geoffrey Khan (ed.), Arabic legal and administrative documents in the Cambridge Genizah Collections (1993), but of course, as I have myself discovered, Cambridge is not the whole world.

5. Originally in P. J. Geary, Phantoms of Remembrance: remembering and forgetting in the tenth and eleventh centuries (Princeton 1985) though Professor Geary has been as enthusiastic as anyone about modifying and refining his suggestions there in conference volumes such as Olivier Guyotjeannin, Laurent Morelle and Michel Parisse (edd.), Les Cartulaires. Actes de la Table Ronde organisée par l’École Nationale des Chartes et le G. D. R. 121 du C. N. R. S. (Paris, 5-7 décembre 1991), Mémoires et Documents de l’École des Chartes 39 (Paris 1993).

6. See for the West, of course, 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 and Alice Rio, “Freedom and Unfreedom in Early Medieval Francia: the evidence of the legal formulae” in Past and Present no. 193 (Oxford 2006), pp. 7-40.

7. If you don’t know your Umayyads from your ‘Abbasids, the starting point probably has to be Hugh Kennedy, The Age of the Prophet and the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the 6th to the 11th Century, 2nd edn. (London 2004). If, instead, it’s the mention of missi that has you in a mither, Matthew Innes, “Charlemagne’s Government” in Joanna Story (ed.), Charlemagne: Empire and Society (Manchester 2005), pp. 71-89 might be the magic.

8. I realise that I do default to this position a bit too readily, even now, but I persist in thinking that it is a reasonable and rational check on theories of human society supposedly based in history to say, “it was not like that at the times and in the places when you claim it was, so I do not think your theory is valid, however lovely it may feel”. How are we ever going to understand human if we don’t actually know what it’s like and what it has done?