Tag Archives: bad history

Enlisting medieval history against the Islamic State

Every now and then most medieval historians must get told that their discipline is ‘useless’. Usually this is being done by politicians out to shrink budgets, and they think we’re an easy target, though as Charles Clark found out, sometimes we are better armed for that combat than they expect. (Much better therefore just to cut funding in secret, as Australia’s former education minister Simon Birmingham chose to! Although as far as I know medieval historians were not among the victims that time.) Nonetheless, history can get into trouble when it preaches its utility; perhaps that’s why the best such preach was by America’s finest news source, The Onion, rather than by an academic historian. Usually, though, the problems that history is called upon to address are much more current affairs than the medievalists can easily get purchase on. But an obvious exception was the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which it’s easy to find people calling ‘medieval’ without looking terribly hard. If this was a return of the Middle Ages to the world, what did medievalists have to say about it? In early 2016, as I mentioned, I got to hear two attempts, and they’re worth comparing, especially in the hindsight we now just about enjoy.1

Cover of Hugh Kennedy, The Caliphate (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2016)

Cover of Hugh Kennedy, The Caliphate (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2016)

First of these was by Professor Hugh Kennedy, at that stage just finishing up writing the above.2 He was keen to stress that there certainly were ways in which ISIS was medieval, not just because Islamic thought doesn’t necessarily impose the division of medieval from modern that Western thought does (on which more below), but because of conscious medievalism on the parts of the terrorists’ public image manufactory and even its deeper theology. The Qu’ran, after all, was written down in the (early) Middle Ages; most of the thought about it that ISIS used was also medieval hadith (in the western periodization in all cases), and its political claim to a caliphate, which regarded pretty much all other branches of Islam, as murtadis (apostates) or Rafidis (ISIS’s term for Shi’ites), required it to strike its root as early as possible in the succession to the Prophet, before those divisions had arisen; that first unity was what they professed to renew. Very few later heroic figures or thinkers therefore got into their theology, as those figures themselves were suspect. Now, that would place ISIS’s historical reference point somewhere around AD 650, but their visual imagery was very often taken from a century or two later, being pretty consciously ‘Abbasid.

ISIS jihadis posed for propaganda video on horseback with black banners

ISIS jihadis posed for propaganda video on horseback with black banners

Perhaps this doesn’t look that medieval to the outsider, but let me quote to you a story supposedly told by the first Umayyad Emir of Spain, of the time when he was feeling to Africa from the Middle East after his family had largely been exterminated by the ‘Abbasid rebellion of AD 750:

“As I was on a certain day sitting under cover of my tent, to shelter myself from the rain, which fell heavily, and watching my eldest son Sulaiman, then about four years old, who was playing in front of it, I saw him suddenly enter the door, crying violently; and, soon after, he ran towards me and clung to my bosom for protection. Not knowing what he meant, I pushed him away; but the child clung still more to me, as one seized with violent fear, and began uttering such exclamations as children are wont to utter when they are frightened. I then left the tent, that I might see what caused his fear; when lo ! I saw the whole village in confusion, and the inhabitants running to and fro in great consternation. I went a little further on, and saw the black banners fluttering in the wind. At sight of these a younger brother of mine, who had also rushed out of the tent, and was with me at the time, began to fly at the top of his speed, saying, ‘Away, away with thee, O brother! for yonder black banners are the banners of the sons of ‘Abbas.’ Hearing this, I hastily grasped some dinars which I had just at hand, and fled precipitately out of the village with my child and my younger brother.”3

You can read the rest of it yourself if you like, but suffice it to say, the brother doesn’t make it to the next scene. So this has resonance, and the people who set it up knew that. But more subtle than that, argued Hugh, was the vision put forward by ISIS’s erstwhile magazine, Dabiq. The name itself was a clue: it is a town on the Syrian-Turkish border, as I guess we now know because of the efforts ISIS made to take it, but it’s important to them because it was, according to one prophecy, where the final confrontation between Islam and ‘Rome’ (i. e. Byzantium, in its original context, but for ISIS basically the West) was to take place. Not many people knew that when the magazine started, I think, and this is apparently far from the only such reference, to apocalyptic lore or particular theological slurs or just plain Islamic knowledge.4 Hugh said that he had struggled to place some of them, and you’d think he would be well qualified. Now of course this raises the question: if an expert in Islamic history isn’t catching their full drift, who is the audience for this kind of highly erudite theology? Well, doubtless there were (and are) people who were drawn in by the theology itself, but what may also have been happening here was a performance of superior Islamic knowledge; the normal reader didn’t always know what they meant but he or she could see that the writers know their Islam a lot better than the reader, average or indeed expert… So this is medievalism put to work, whether we like it or not.

Seminar poster for Julia McClure, «A New Politics of the Middle Ages: A Global Middle Ages for a Global Modernity", presented at the Medieval History Seminar, University of Leeds, 3 February 2016

A western view was more in evidence at Leeds on 3rd February 2016, however, when Julia McClure of the University of Warwick (then, anyway) came to address the Medieval History Seminar with the title, “A New Politics of Middle Ages: a global Middle Ages for a global modernity”.5 ISIS were only one of her examples of the ways in which modern political agendas appropriate the Middle Ages as a seat of all that was barbaric, cruel, irrational and so on. Despite my anciently mixed feelings about it I still think Kathleen Davis’s Periodization and Sovereignty has the best explanation of this I’ve read, suggesting that progress narratives work best if you’re pejorative about the state before and emphasise how far you’ve come and that winds up putting a barrier of transition between you and the past which it would be barbaric, irrational and undeveloped to breach. Then you can start applying the category to other places and taking them over because they’re not really politically grown up like what we are; sound familiar?6 Anyway, this was not where Dr McClure went with it, or with ISIS; instead she invoked the idea of ‘multiple modernities’, weakening the idea that our way of being modern is definitive and attempts by different competitors to claim the pinnacle from others; and we should admit that some modernities (for her, Marxism) have failed.7 Having done that, however—and for me this was where I felt a skip in the logic—we should choose to emphasise not the violence and conflict with which agencies like ISIS want to populate the medieval past and thus modernity, but the contact, inter-cultural transmission and general getting along between cultures that the Middle Ages can also exemplify, and let that be our message for those who would make the Middle Ages in their chosen anti-image.8

Mihrab in the Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba

Mihrab in the Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba, by Ingo Mehlingown work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Much of this was therefore familiar to me, but some of her examples were truly ill-chosen. Above, for example, we have some of the inside of the once-Mosque of Córdoba, which Dr McClure invoked as an example of cultural fusion. And in as much as there is Islamic-style architecture justly lauded in what is now a cathedral, yes, there is fusion there; but given that it was first converted into a mosque by coercion then recaptured by violence for Christianity some centuries later, soon after which all Muslims in the relevant country were given a choice between conversion or expulsion, I do think the context should change how we read this monument! And indeed, Dr McClure said it showed how even in periods of conflict cultures still interpenetrate, showing the power of contact to survive conflict, but, as Michael Berube once said Auerbach said, “Ew ew ew ew ew!” Is it then OK to conquer people and nick their stuff as long as it’s a cultural growth experience? This was a building repeatedly established by the assertion of domination over one group by another and it is exactly the sort of thing that ISIS used and use to make their audiences angry at the ‘Crusaders’.9 Other examples included the adoption of Byzantine modes of decoration in the Church of il Redentore in Venice borrowed from the Hagia Sophia in what’s now Istanbul; that’s true but the fact that the Venetians also sacked and took over the city from which they got the idea again spoils it as a multicultural example for me, you know?10

The Chiesa del Redentore, Venice

The Chiesa del Redentore, monument to successful colonialism! By Il_Redentore.jpg: Wknight94derivative work: Alberto Fernandez Fernandez (talk) – Il_Redentore.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The problem here for me is not that Dr McClure’s paper was inaccurate, therefore. It’s that to follow her lead would be simply to choose another dominant modernity, or medievalism indeed, which would trump what anyone else sees as important. It’s not ‘multiple’ at all and neither does it seem to me decolonised; it’s still the western liberal philosophy being rolled out as a model to elsewhere. Of course, I am myself an exponent and a beneficiary of that western liberal philosophy but my problem with the strategy, if we were supposed to be applying this to an entity like ISIS, is that they simply wouldn’t have cared. Even if they did, they had a good enough grasp of the history to assert their own dominant medievalism, and their version of history arguably involved less special pleading…

As I see it, the basic problem actually just comes down to a clash of two maxims. I am a big believer in the basic philosophy “do what thou wilt, an it harm none”, and not just because of the subjunctive in it, but it sometimes runs up hard against one I’ve seen attributed to Isaac Newton or Thomas Jefferson but have never been able to trace properly, which runs, “No man can have peace longer than his neighbour wishes”.11 What do you do when the other party doesn’t care about harming none? We could, I suppose, have tried to have video-conference debates with ISIS-inclined imams where we posed the western alternative and the virtues of inter-cultural tolerance and contact, and it would just have made it clearer how effective blowing up Palmyra would be in getting ‘Rome’ to commit forces for the final conflict. ISIS never wanted peace. Given that starting position, why would the ‘Crusader’ gospel of tolerance ever have been interesting to their potential supporters?

So the medievalists of 2016 didn’t really have the answers, it seems. I’ve explained why I think Dr McClure’s suggestions ineffective already, but even Hugh, famous for his knowledge in the field, had few suggestions to offer about how to contain ISIS beyond that we needed to understand what they were doing and that it was smart. That may, I suppose, have helped us avoid mistakes (like having white professionals preaching capitalist multi-culturalism to alienated near-jihadis) if taken up, but I don’t think even Hugh had a better proposal than ‘know your enemy’. I don’t think that’s quite what an attentive Onion reader would have hoped we might deliver. The question could of course be asked whether we should be expected to solve the world’s problems with our research, and I am of course on record with other reasons we might want historians, but the trouble is that the reply of our funding bodies, our lobbying groups and, indeed, our employers, would be a resounding yes; it’s all over their publicity and their themes of interest that solving the world’s problems is what academics are for. This was an obvious problem when the USA started recruiting anthropologist advisors to serve with the military, the weaselly-named Human Terrain System, but that pressure to help with what’s visibly wrong now is the same sort of thing, in as much as it channels our work towards contemporary political problems by throttling funding for anything else. But however you feel about the morality of it, I’m not always sure about the possibility of it, and I think these two papers showed that the closer one gets to trying to do it, the weaker one’s position becomes.


1. Of course some people have disagreed: see David M. Perry, “This is not the Crusades: There’s nothing medieval about ISIS”, News in CNN, 16 October 2016, online here, or Jason T. Roche, “Islamic State and the appropriation of the Crusades – a medieval historian’s take” in The Conversation, 12 July 2017, online here.

2. Hugh Kennedy, The Caliphate (Harmondsworth 2016), repr. as Caliphate: history of an idea (London 2016); there now exists a rival text in the form of David Wasserstein, Black Banners of ISIS: the roots of the new caliphate (New Haven 2017).

3. Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Maqqarī, The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain, extracted from the Nafhu-t-tíb min ghosni-l-Andalusi-r-rattíb wa táríkh lisánu-d-dín Ibni-l-Khattíb, trans. by Pascual de Gayangos, 2 vols (London 1840), II, online here, p. 59. Al-Maqqari is thankfully not the earliest historian to quote this story, given his eight-hundred-year distance from the events, but it’s almost certainly not contemporary; I think it does have to date to the Umayyad period in Spain, however, because why would you invent the story once the dynastic hero was no longer relevant?

4. By the time it fell, however, the legend was sufficiently well-known that it was left to Islamic troops—no ‘Crusaders’ or ‘Rumi’—to take the place.

5. This was, acknowledgedly, a presentation of an article that was by then in print, so you can see for yourself in Julia McClure, “A New Politics of the Middle Ages: A Global Middle Ages for a Global Modernity” in History Compass Vol. 13 (Oxford 2015), pp. 610–619, DOI: 10.1111/hic3.12280.

6. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: how ideas of feudalism and secularization govern the politics of time (Philadelphia 2008), where pp. 62-74 show exactly this rhetoric being deployed by the English crown and the East India Company as they started their conquest of India, including invocations of ‘feudalism’.

7. McClure’s cite for the ‘multiple modernities’ idea is Arif Dirlik, “Global Modernity?: Modernity in an Age of Global Capitalism” in European Journal of Social Theory Vol. 6 (New York City 2003), pp. 275–292, DOI: 10.1177/13684310030063001), but in his defence, Dirlik warns against exactly the position I think Dr McClure reached.

8. Here, obviously, I would cite Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty or specifically for ISIS, Kennedy, Caliphate; Dr McClure’s cite was Michael Cook, Ancient religions, modern politics: the Islamic case in comparative perspective (Princeton 2014), which I admit I’ve not read.

9. A good essay on the symbolisms, and indeed chronology, of the building’s various existences is Nuha N. N. Khoury, “The Meaning of the Great Mosque of Cordoba in the Tenth Century” in Muqarnas Vol. 13 (Leiden 1996), pp. 80–98. If you prefer a more contemporary take, though, well, there’s me

10. And for a quick guide to this cultural aggressors’ church, there’s Deborah Howard, “Venice between East and West: Marc’Antonio Barbaro and Palladio’s Church of the Redentore” in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians Vol. 62 (Berkeley 2003), pp. 306–325.

11. I think, maybe, that I read it as a quote at the head of a chapter in a book by Gerald Durrell, in which case it is not impossible that he himself was the source. But I can’t find it, either way.

Debunking History: book review

Cover of Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley, Debunking History

Cover of Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley, Debunking History

Some time ago someone got me a copy of Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley, Debunking History: 152 popular myths exploded, 2nd edn. (Stroud 2009), as a present. Their reasoning was that as a historian I ought to enjoy it, and eventually I read it and my reactions were sufficiently mixed that I thought a review might be in order. That is, after all, a form of appreciation of a gift, right? It’s made me think…

I have to make some kind of disclosure beforehand, which is that the authors tackle nothing earlier than the eighteenth century and mostly British and European episodes, with some US ones and recent global politics salted over the meat. That despite, I don’t think I’m just ragging on them here from the perspective of the ignored medievalist; they picked that period and area because it’s the one they know, they say early on (p. xv), and indeed their currency with the debates seems pretty clear (though of course, I’m a medievalist, so they could probably fool me pretty easily). And they have a reasonable preface about the different ways in which people can be wrong about history: factual error, uncritical adoption of myth or legend (the one without historical foundation, the other with) and controversy of interpretation leading to an as yet unjustified opinion. At the least, this is thinking work, and I’m not unfriendly to such books, as my occasional mentions of the key medievalist one will have shown.

One does have to wonder about the title, though. As far as I can see, the authors have chosen their particular misapprehensions to combat largely by meeting them as school or college examiners (p. xv), and fair enough, but very few of them meet their own definition of ‘myth’; indeed, ‘Popular Misunderstandings’ is only one of the thirteen chapters, while in the case of some topics like the Carbonari, the Tonypandy Massacre, the Speenhamland system, Harold Wilson’s devaluation of the pound in 1967, the origins of the word ‘dole’ (which they get wrong, because of not knowing their ancient history) or the Ems Telegram, I doubt that there is any really ‘popular’ opinion to correct; some of these things were unknown to me, and I am a historian who tries to talk to his modernist colleagues every now and then and so on. Probably only someone who has examined history A-Levels in the UK for a long time is familiar with everything in this book. Neither, often, do these ‘popular myths’ wind up ‘exploded’; some of them are sustained, most of them are conditioned or qualified and a few outright rejected, but even in those cases the reasons that people have understood incorrectly are also usually set out and seem reasonable in their own terms. So I think the publishers probably have some blame to bear for deciding what would be on the cover of this book and how little relation it might bear to the contents. This is not History debunked: this is, I think, two experienced teachers claiming a right to decide what History is.1

Despite that, the contents often seem pretty good, though not always and the bad cases are worrisome as we’ll see. The balance is about forty-sixty between cases where the authors think that the jury must remain out (so that the ‘popular’ misapprehension is that there is an accepted answer) and cases where there is an answer and it’s not the one the authors think is popularly held. Each controversy is set up with a short summary rubric then the facts as we know them are set out and the changes in historians’ interpretations or the reasons for popular misapprehension exposed. It’s usually clearly and pithily written and it sounds authoritative, though it would take a lot of work to dig up the evidence on which they base their conclusions; there is a decent-looking bibliography (pp. 437-441), thematically organised (and mostly recent) and separated into a reading list and a reference list, the latter apparently being the support for the authors’ judgements but hard to link back to them. Despite that, the book would make a good update for someone who studied modern history a generation ago, I think, though that person might then want to read more than or differently from what he or she is set here.

That reader would need to be more neutral than the authors, indeed, whose own prejudices and interests sometimes loom very large in their writing. This is in part evident in the selection: one or both of them clearly have interests in military history and there is an awful lot of ‘great men’ stuff. But again, I don’t mind that. More problematic are the judgements made in such cases. Is it really a historian’s job to answer such questions as “Talleyrand: was he guided by principle or personal advantage?” (pp. 41-43: the latter, so no explosion here), “The Last Tsar: a vicious tyrant?” (pp. 53-56: thoughtless more than vicious), “How Deserved was the Reputation of President Reagan?” (pp. 205-208: undeserved but deliberately promoted), “Edwardian England: a golden age?” (pp. 179-181: not for anyone below gentry level), “Hitler: dictator or dreamer?” (pp. 319-322: a man without workable plans or the brains to realise that but with the will and opportunity to oppress those who threatened his attempts to bring them about anyway, so, both?), “Disraeli: the father of modern Conservatism?” (pp. 376-379: no!), “The Papacy: was it soft on Fascism and Nazism?” (pp. 398-402: yes but for the sake of survival) or, most of all, “Did Tony Blair betray British Socialism?” (pp. 420-426: socialism already long dead in Britain, sez they)? I could pick many more, and they’re all matters of opinion, as if a historian’s proper job is to guide society’s moral verdict on its architects or attackers. We do, of course, exist partly to make people feel better about things, I admit that, even if another part of our point is to make people question everything, but these potted verdicts are so inherently subjective that I would expect any reader who can follow them to realise that there’s nothing authoritative about them and that one really doesn’t need a historian to reach them.

This is especially worrisome when the authors’ own prejudices come out. They are in general pro-Britain although only in the twentieth century, where all its politicians have apparently done the best they can with limited information except maybe Blair (an absurd topic to include, given that we have only heard most of the evidence while this post has been in draft, six years after the book was even revised)! One of the authors at least, however, is acutely contemptuous of the USA, and this comes out especially in another of these worrying subjective verdict cases, “‘McCarthyism’: did the end justify the means?” (pp. 66-70). Here I’ll quote the most egregious bit (p. 69):

“Could the same phenomenon recur in American affairs? There is little doubt it could. The political leadership of the USA and the bulk of the American nation remain intensely patriotic in their feelings. They are starry-eyed to the point of mawkishness in their love of their homeland, whether or not the ideal qualities for which they regularly lay their hands on their hearts are as evident in their lives as they imagine. It is their firm belief that foreign states are deplorably feeble and cynical in not sharing their shining patriotic vision. To them, a clear-sighted grasp of America’s national interests, a single-mindedness in their country’s interests and a willingness to sacrifice themselves for their country are absolute imperatives, producing the same gut impulse to ‘save America’ as it did fifty years ago against communism. In this sense the McCarthyite spirit lives on, whatever may the ‘unseen enemy’ that seems to threaten thair sanctified vision of themselves.”

Now this is not history-writing; it’s not even journalism. It’s just defamation, and directed against an individual it would be actionable. What is it doing between covers of a book written by people who believe they are correcting misapprehensions with empirical expertise, and who can write in that same book (p. xi):

“… the borderline between error and deliberate misrepresentation is uncertain and often blurred. Sometimes what originated as a simple error has achieved a certain permanence in people’s minds because it seems appropriate – a myth perhaps even more appropriate than the truth…”?

One wants to use phrases involving words like “mote” and “beam” here, but perhaps the good old Wikimedian protest is still the best one:

Randall Munroe, “Wikipedian Protestor”, XKCD, July 2007, http://xkcd.com/285/


1. The book’s cover and online blurb both say, “Ed Rayner and Ron Stapley are history professors and authors of history textbooks.” The latter is easy to substantiate, but I can’t get anything out of the web to show the former. Odd?

The kind of maths we should not do

A lot of the problems any historian of the early Middle Ages faces are about how typical any given piece of evidence is. When so little survives, can we generalise from the few fragments we have across the great spaces where we simply know nothing? I came up against this while writing the post some time back about widow warlords, where as you may remember I wound up trying to argue for a level of social occurrence that could be common enough to be frequent while still being statistically unusual. The question remained then: how unusual? And this led me to thinking about the best evidence I have for female presence in local society, the good old Vall de Sant Joan hearing, and then the temptation stole upon me to do some very bad maths.

Aerial view of the Vall de Sant Joan de les Abadesses

Aerial view of the Vall de Sant Joan de les Abadesses. I know I use this picture a lot but I find it really hard to get tired of. However, I can no longer find where I got it from, so if you happen to own it do let me know…

Y’see, the Vall de Sant Joan hearing seems to be really good evidence for population size, at least by our starvling early medieval standards. We do not know the whole population of the area, but we think we know how many households there were in it, and we know what size it was: 269, by my count, and about 7 km2.1 Now, we could just multiply up, because the Vall de Sant Joan is in some sense a jurisdictional term and we know how many of those there were in the tenth-century county of Osona, give or take a few for changes, and it’s thirty-seven. If each contained this many households, tenth-century Osona would have been a county of nearly ten thousand households.

The town of Sant Joan de les Abadesses, viewed from across the Pont Vell

There probably aren’t that many households in the Vall de Sant Joan now, for a start, though I wouldn’t mind going back again to look (albeit this time with a car). Image by Espencat (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In fact, that is really unlikely to be true, because this was a frontier county and we’re counting its very inward corner, where we can document, more or less by the fact that we can document anything but also by the nature of the actual documents, that an ambitious lordship interest was moving people in here and encouraging settlement that is quite unusually dense.2 Such a figure is likely to be a massive over-estimate. So what should we do instead? Now, here the words of my old colleague Ted Buttrey come back to me with force:

“What should we do? We should do nothing. Nothing can be done. There is no solution to this problem, beyond inventing new data to push the inquiry into the realm of the fanciful. This is uncomfortable but it is true. If we allow ourselves, in our frustration, to confect the missing data, we will to that extent have destroyed our own purpose. To create quantitative studies built of imaginary data, to force an answer by assuring ourselves and others that we know what we do not, and cannot, is to compromise everything that we hold important. Each of us builds, and others build upon us: when we dress up guesses as data we do permanent damage to our scholarship, and to the scholarship of others.”3

He is right, of course, I know he’s right. He is also right that bad guesses get out there and get used even when they are explicitly qualified as such.4 So I must not, I must not attempt to correct the above error by breaking the data down, down to the level of households per villa (which would be 12·2 NO STOP IT), and then multiplying up by the number of villae in Osona. I should not do that not least because we don’t know with any certainty how many villae there were in Osona around the year 913, which is when this data would be comparable, probably not even in total for the tenth century which would add many more than there then were and would fail in any way to counter for the factor of population change over that century; I should not do that because, again, villae in the Vall de Sant Joan were probably over-many and over-stuffed compared to other areas and though those two errors might tend in opposite directions, we cannot know that they would cancel each other out; I should not do it because any operation involving multiplying up a small number to obtain a large one necessarily multiplies the error in that number just-as-many-fold; and I should not do it for many other good solid reasons of mathematical rigour. And in fact I will not. But it is sorely tempting, just because it’s hard to rid myself of the idea that if I could allow for enough factors, this would actually be a better basis for early medieval population figures than we currently have anywhere else.5 But every one of those corrections would be another piece of fiction, an error to be multiplied up. Ted again has the correct admonitions:

“When we enter on these kinds of calculation, we can be confident of two things. First, the answer will be wrong. Whatever it is, it will be wrong, since it cannot be right—once you are guessing, the number of possible permutations is gigantic. Worse, where the errors lies, and how serious they are, cannot be determined… Secondly, we can be confident of something else: when we publish this sort of thing, no matter that it be all set about with caveats and qualifications, the very fact that we thought it worth publishing will give it credibility.”6

And that is of course exactly the pain of it; there are figures that are thought credible abroad already that I feel must be wrong, because the person who put them together on the evidence we don’t have made his own set of assumptions about how the lack of evidence should be countered, and now I prefer my assumptions to his and would like to put into circulation alternative figures that are no more verifiable but feel more likely to me. But this will not make things better. Ted can have the last word, albeit he gives it to someone else:

“We should take to heart the dictum of a character in Umberto Eco’s novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, who explains, ‘For every complex problem there is a simple solution; and it is wrong.'”7


1. The reason we assume that the document, which is a vast parchment recording the names of people who swore that Abbess Emma of Sant Joan de Ripoll had been given the valley to settle by her father Count guifré after he expelled the Saracens from it, records households is because about half of its signatories are female, and mostly appear with a male partner. This looks like an attempt to implicate all the conjugal pairs of the valley in what was in fact a political fiction (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, DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-9462.2004.00128.x), but since there are others who aren’t in pairs, it must also be more than that. Hence, households seems likely. The argument is made most thoroughly in Gaspar Feliu i Montfort, “Sant Joan de les Abadesses: algunes precisions sobre l’acta judicial del 913 i el poblament de la vall” in S. Claramunt and M. T. Ferrer i Mallol (edd.), Homenatge a la memòria del Prof. Dr. Emilio Sáez: aplecs d’estudis dels seus deixebles i collaboradors (Barcelona 1989), pp. 421-434. The count of these households I just redid from a spreadsheet I constructed when writing the thesis that lies behind Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Tenth-Century Catalonia: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), where you can find more detail at pp. 35-51. The area I estimate from the map in Jordi Bolòs & Victor Hurtado, Atles del Comtat d’Osona (798-993) (Barcelona 2001), pp. 94-95 at p. 94. Thus my doubtless inaccurate estimation is already one basic source of error!

2. This is the basic story of Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, as above and also pp. 57-64.

3. Theodore V. Buttrey, “Calculating Ancient Coin Production: facts and fantasies”, The President’s Address in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 153 (London 1993), pp. 335-351 at p. 351.

4. My best example is another numismatic one, an article by Warren Esty, “Estimation of the size of a coinage: a survey and comparison of methods” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 146 (London 1986), pp. 185–215, which pitted a range of statistical techniques then in use to reason up to ancient currency sizes from current surviving evidence against each other by means of a randomly-generated virtual hoard, and concluded that all were more or less rubbish but a combination of two the least rubbish way to do this, the result of which has of course been that his least-worst method is now the standard among those who do such things…

5. I look here with especially narrowed eyes at Georges Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy: warriors and peasants from the seventh to the twelfth century, transl. Howard B. Clarke (London 1974), pp. 11-13, which does exactly the trick Ted decries (Buttrey, “Calculating ancient coin production”, pp. 349-350) of surrounding the data with all kinds of cavils and conditions and then rhetorically building on it just the same.

6. Buttrey, “Calculating ancient coin production”, pp. 349-350.

7. Ibid. p. 339.

A problem of concavity

Now that I am returned from all my conferences, I have a few very frantic months left as a numismatist before I demit that noble calling so as to return to medieval history of more traditional sorts. In fact, of course, I will not be leaving the coins completely behind me: almost the first thing I will be doing in my new rôle is to give a guest lecture back at the Barber Institute, as part of my own exhibition there, and then I’ll be going to the International Numismatic Congress in Taormina, and I should just be back from that in time to start teaching the aftermath of the end of Roman rule in the West. And in fact, even then, I shall have enough publication projects in hand what with All That Glitters and a couple of other things to do with the Barber’s collections that it may take a while for anyone to notice that coins are not, in fact, what I work on… In that spirit, therefore, here is something like an informal presentation of the problem my paper at Taormina will be addressing, which I do mainly so as to have a first go at posing the problem in text. Basically, my question is: why did Byzantine coins turn concave?

A tray full of pale gold and billon coins of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5704-B5735

A tray full of pale gold and billon coins of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, all concave, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5704-B5735

It is perfectly reasonable for your first reaction to this question to be “What?”, don’t worry. But this is a thing that happened: from the 1050s onwards, more or less the reign of Michael IV (1034-1041), Byzantine precious metal coinage began to be manufactured with a slight dish-shape that became more and more pronounced, and then spread to the lesser metals too. It also went badly downhill in metal quality, and by the reign of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118) the situation was so bad that despite the massive calls on his empire’s much-reduced resources he reset the coinage in the only way one really can in an international precious-metal economy, by accepting the degradation of the existing coins, reclassifying them and introducing a new, 80%-gold denomination, the hyperperon at the top of the tree.1 The old supposedly-gold nomismata became either electrum (gold-silver alloy) or billon (lightly-silvered copper) ‘trachies’, and this meant that the small change was also now concave, though there was also a flat bronze tetarteron that was used especially in what is now Greece.2 Anyway, I digress. The real question is, why adopt the dished design anyway?

A billon trachy of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1092-1118, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5558

A billon trachy of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1092-1118, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5558

One thing, and really one thing only is sure about this, which is that it was not an easy thing to do. In the first place, the designs on the dies with which the blank coins were struck were carved in such a way as to keep the design correctly proportioned: it looks straight even though it’s bent, something that becomes very evident when you try to photograph them in such a way that they face you but are still clearly concave. Scanning is better for this because the fall of light emphasises shadow, but with adequate lighting the concavity is quite often visually undetectable in conventional photography. So that was cunning artistry, and not least because the dies themselves, we are fairly sure, were made curved, rather than deforming flat coins by striking them.3 In fact, it seems likely that the flat blanks were first struck with blank dies to curve them, and then the resulting curved blanks were struck with two obverse dies, one for each side of the coin’s design, to ensure a good impression all over the coin’s surface.4 This means that the manufacturers were readier to triple the production process complexity than to make dies that fitted each other snugly, apparently, but we can mainly take from this: there must have been a point to all this, but what?

Electrum nomisma histamenon of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1081-1092, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5224

Electrum nomisma histamenon of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1081-1092, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5224

None of the existing ideas seem very satisfactory. They are, roughly:

  1. it made the coins stronger, preventing them snapping;
  2. it made the metal quality of the coins more evident, reassuring people that they were good;
  3. it made the coins stackable in a way that the relatively high-relief flat ones were not;
  4. it brought coins whose low standard had made them much bigger than the older solidi with which they were notionally interchangeable, because gold is denser than anything it might be replaced with, back down to a more acceptable width;
  5. it made the coins better to play tiddly-winks with.5

Now, don’t worry if you’re already laughing at this; I think it is fair to say that thinking about this problem has not been the highest achievement of numismatics as a discipline. But if you’re not quite seeing the problems here, let me set them out for you.

  1. The concavity may make the coins harder to bend, but it makes them far more prone to cracking, because the edges come out so thin, as you see below. And once a coin is cracked, it’s actually in much more danger of snapping; we take a lot of care not to drop these things, in case that fault line should just complete on impact. Yet the practice was maintained for long after that would have been apparent. So, no.
  2. Electrum aspron trachy of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1143-1180, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5702

    Electrum aspron trachy of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1143-1180, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5702, nothing a bit of solder wouldn’t fix! (I jest.)


    Billon aspron trachy of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1143-1180, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5758

    Billon aspron trachy of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos, struck at Constantinople in 1143-1180, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B5758, probably beyond the soldering iron…

  3. The metal quality certainly is more evident, because of those same thin edges, but in that case it would be quite important to maintain that quality. Yet the concave coins went through just the same nosedive of purity again once reformed, and you’d think that even if making them flat again would have been some kind of admission of failure, at least it would have been unclear how badly you’d failed, whereas with the concave coins there’s no hope of concealment.
  4. They just don’t stack, seriously. The manufacture was not regular enough to guarantee anything but the most basic fit. And why on earth would this have been a desirable thing here, when even cultures that use money in strung-together multiples like Chinese cash are still flat? A much better way to do this would have been to cut the designs in lower relief, or just cut them deeper than the surrounding border, so that that became the point of contact between any two coin faces. I find this one actually a silly explanation, sorry.
  5. This seems to me to presuppose a point beyond which coins were just thought too big to use, one which is only obvious if you accept that this practice shows that the Byzantine Empire had passed it. But it had used bigger coins than this before and done nothing similar. So I see no reason to accept this kind of supposed cultural universal, but even if you do, one could have achieved the same result just by making the coins thicker, which would also make them stronger. It would make them harder to strike, in terms of force, but less fragile in manufacture, easier to cut dies for and anyway, brute force was not something any pre-modern state really lacked a supply of.6
  6. In so far as I’m going to take this seriously at all, why would you start with the gold for something that would ordinarily, surely, be played with low-value coins? And why on earth would the emperor care anyway? Still more why would any subsequent emperor not repeal this in the next reform?

So, we don’t have a good explanation. In Taormina I will try to propose one that is at least less bad, and that focuses more on the manufacturing process and its changed characteristics. I have a lot to read still, and I don’t want to give away my unique selling point as yet, although I’ve tried it in the classroom a few times by now, so for now I’ll go no further, but I hope I’ve at least intrigued you with the question! And if you have answers you’d like to offer, I promise due credit if I wind up using yours alongside mine in the paper…


1. On the circumstances leading to this reform see most easily Alex Nobes, “The economic and monetary policy of the Byzantine Empire under Alexios I Komnenos” in Rosetta Vol. 11 (Birmingham 2012), pp. 56-71, online here, but you might wish to compare Michael Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy c. 300-1450 (Cambridge 1985), pp. 513-517 and Alan Harvey, “Financial crisis and the rural economy” in Margaret Mullett & Dion C. Smythe (edd.), Alexios I Komnenos. Papers on the Second Belfast Byzantine International Colloquium, 14-16 April 1989, Belfast Byzantine Texts and Translations 4.1 (Belfast 1996), pp. 167-184.

2. For the actual coins, the best guide is indubitably Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 211-228, esp. pp. 223-228.

3. Simon Bendall & David Sellwood, “The method of striking scyphate coins using two obverse dies, in the light of an early thirteenth century hoard” in Numismatic Chronicle 7th Series Vol. 18 (London 1978), pp. 93-104.

4. David Sellwood, “The Production of Flans for Byzantine Trachy Issues” in D. M. Metcalf & Andrew Oddy (edd.), Metallurgy in Numismatics, Royal Numismatic Society Special Publication 13 (London 1980), pp. 174-175.

5. Strength: as well as the article linked, Cécile Morrisson, “La concavité des monnaies byzantines” in Bulletin de le Société française de numismatique Vol. 30 no. 6 (Paris 1975), pp. 786-788, criticising the work of Hendy cited below, for which reason no doubt Hendy not unjustly responded in Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, p. 510 n. 313, “Neither explanation [that of Grierson mentioned below or Morrisson’s] is totally satisfactory by itself, as neither takes full account of the curious inconsistency of its early usage”, and indeed I could show you flat nomismata contemporaneous with the earliest concave ones right here where I write. Indicator of metal quality: Michael F. Hendy, Coinage and Money in the Byzantine Empire 1081-1261, Dumbarton Oaks Studies XII (Washington DC 1969), p. 6; Alfred R. Bellinger & Philip Grierson (edd.), Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection. Volume Three: Leo III to Nicephorus III 717–1081, by Philip Grierson, Part I: Leo III to Michael III (717–867) (Washington DC 1973), pp. 5-7, to which cf. Morrisson, “Concavité des monnaies byzantines”, p. 787, accepted by Grierson, Byzantine Coins, pp. 197-198. I don’t yet have cites for the stacking or tiddly-winks theories, alas; they are much repeated but never with attribution. For the idea that the flans were now too big and had to be reined in, see Franz Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Basil II to Eudocia 976-1067: corpus from Anastasius II to John I 713-976 with addenda; structure of the issues 976-1067; the concave/convex histamena; contribution to the iconographic and monetary history, ed. Italo Vecchia, transl. H. Thomas Hofmänner (Lancaster PA 2014), pp. 103-124 esp. pp. 122-124.

6. This last point, though obvious, I had to have pointed out to me by Dr Rebecca Darley.

Working for San Salvatore III: what they got out of it

I have now gone on at great length about the polyptych of Santa Giulia di Brescia without really talking about my actual purpose in reading it, so it’s time to do that.1 You may remember a long time back that I had a go at the idea, repeated in textbook after textbook, that agriculture in the Carolingian period ran at yields hardly more than the grain that was sown.2 This is self-evidently ridiculous if you are familiar either with actual growing of crops (which I am only second-hand) or can do basic maths, but it persists, and the reason it persists, like many another medieval cliché, is Georges Duby.3

Georges Duby

The late Georges Duby

This is not entirely Duby’s fault. He wrote a couple of textbooks in the 1960s and 1970s that somehow remain the world standard for any history of the early medieval economy that actually contains agriculture, and he used the best thinking available and sources known at the time.4 He did a pretty good job of synthesis on that, and though one might wish he’d thought about it a bit harder, it’s really not just him who’s failed to do so, and those that have thought about it haven’t really looked hard enough at his evidence.5 That was, in large part, the Carolingian estate survey of the fiscal centre at Annapes preserved in the text known as the Brevium Exempla, and some time ago already now I gave a paper at Kalamazoo in which I showed that Duby had in fact read the text wrong, or rather failed to read all of its data, as had all those he used, even, I’m sorry to say, Philip Grierson, and I considered that dispatched and proceeded to writing it up.6 But Annapes was not Duby’s only source that seemed to support these awfully low yields, and so I needed to see if the same tricks could be performed with the others too, and you will by now have guessed or maybe already know that one of them was the polyptych of Santa Giulia di Brescia.

Santia Giulia di Brescia from the air

Santa Giulia di Brescia as it now stands, from the air

Duby dealt with the figures from Santa Giulia only in summary fashion. In Rural Economy and Country Life he works Annapes over extensively, coming up with output figures of between 1·5:1 and 2·2:1, and then goes on:

“We must not, of course, generalize from one set of figures obtained from a single source. But it is possible to find elsewhere some other traces of output, somewhat higher than that which can be derived from the Annapes inventory, but even so representing a low yield and a derisory rate of profit when compared with the value of the capital in land and seed corn. One significant fact is that compilers who visited the farms (cours [apparently left in French from Latin ‘curtes’]) of the abbey of San Giulia of Brescia in 905-906 to compile a polyptych found there reserves of grain in the barns which were barely higher and sometimes lower than the quantity needed for sowing. Thus at Prozano where the fields could take 300 muids of seed corn, the stocks in the estate barn amounted to only 360 muids of which 140 were of millet (mil). At Canella 90 muids were needed for sowing and 51 were in the barns; at Temulina 32 and 37.”

And with that he moved onto Saint-Germain-des-Prés near Paris and pulled a similar trick there.7 And in the slightly later and much shorter Early Growth of the European Economy he didn’t even give that much detail (or a reference to the primary source), limiting himself to dealing again with Annapes and then adding:

“The Lombard monastery of St Giulia of Bréscia [sic], which consumed some 6,600 measures of grain annually, would have 9,000 sown to cover its needs, which means that the return normally available to the lord was being estimated at 1·7 to 1.”8

The best way to see what is wrong with this is to look closely at how the compilers of Santa Giulia’s polyptych were using their figures, figures that I’ve already argued here they were receiving in a standard format. And doing so shows firstly that Duby, and Luzzatto before him, were again wrong in assuming that these figures mean what they wanted to mean, and in fact that using them to calculate yield is impossible except in one single case where the formula was bent, and in that case it comes out at at least 4·25:1 and probably rather higher. Don’t believe me? Watch this! Continue reading

Link

If it does not exist, it may be necessary to invent it

Crowds flock to Spanish church after Holy Grail claim

There is actually a case to be made for a subpyrenean origin to, if not the Holy Grail, at least stories about it, as we have occasionally mentioned here.1 Nonetheless, this is is one book I see no reason to buy…


1. See Rita Lejeune, “The Troubadours” in R. S. Loomis (ed.), Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages: a collaborative history (Oxford 1959), pp. 393-399.

How to escape one’s theoretical baggage in four pages

A while ago now, a long while indeed, I submitted an article somewhere and it came back with three more-or-less positive reviews and a request from the editor that I send it somewhere else. Giving up on that journal at least, I nonetheless wanted to place the thing somewhere and consequently looked over the reviews in detail. One of the reviewers, whom I’m pretty sure I can identify, was enthusing about the theories of the state they saw implicit in what I was expounding and wanted them made explicit. There was no doubt in my mind that this would make the article better, even though those ideas had been so implicit I hadn’t realised I had them; this is what a good critical review can do for one’s work… Anyway, the result of this has been that for the last quite-a-while I have been working my way through a Vienna volume called Der frühmittelalterliche Staat – europäische Perspektiven, edited by Walter Pohl and Veronika Wieser. This was the proceedings of a conference that was itself a follow-up to a previous conference and volume, with more people talking shorter than the first time round.1 There is an awful lot of arguing, largely in German, about concepts of the state, about whether these even apply to medieval polities or whether the concepts are too restrictive and should do,2 and especially a lot of wrangling about the German word ‘Staatlichkeit’, which has no English equivalent. If it were to be given one it would be something like ‘statishness’, the qualities by which one characterises an organisation as a state, and by extension ‘the manner in which a state behaves’. At least, I think that’s fair.3

King Alfons I and Ramón de Caldes review royal documents in the Arxiu de la Corona de Aragó, as depicted in the Liber Feudorum Maior

How does one picture Staatlichkeit? I Googled images for it and I’ve been reading the book so long, and had it in my sidebar here all the while, that almost all the images are from here… Thus, a reused one, King Alfons I and Ramón de Caldes reviewing royal documents in the Arxiu de la Corona de Aragó, as depicted in the Liber Feudorum Maior and looking a lot like state administration to me

There is a problem here that’s more than simply translation. I tend to be surprised and not a little put off when encountering much German scholarship by its wish to categorise the data of our sources according to ideal types, as if that tells us something about it that is greater than mere description would be. You’ve seen me complain about this when the categories are those of feudalism, but you can imagine a similar set of arguments around categories of state action and so forth. There is, of course, a counter-argument that says that my atheoretical positivist background leaves me doing this categorisation unconsciously, picking things that I think are important or interesting according to structures of thought I don’t acknowledge,4 and that therefore the model I’m characterising as German is more honest and correct, and I’m sympathetic to that whilst still thinking that going no further than categorisation and classification is a mistaken carry-over from the natural sciences that doesn’t advance our understanding. What I suppose this shows is that even when we’re conscious there’s a problem, it’s hard to entirely escape the preconceptions with which we were first equipped by our nazional-akademische Bildungscharakter, or whatever.

Max Weber aged 30

Here’s a national-academic character portrait all right! This man is probably partly to blame, this being of course Max Weber, here aged 30, and some years before inventing the ideal type as a tool of social analysis. “Max Weber 1894” This file is lacking source information. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In this volume there is a piece by Steffen Patzold, oft lauded here of course, that I think performs this escape.5 It’s rather stylish. The simplest way to demonstrate it may be to type up my notes on his first section. They go like this:

“How staatlich is Karolingia? is it a state in any modern sense? It lacks, for some, a clear legal order or state monopoly on force, but some would argue over most states if Weber sets criteria, and Charlemagne and Louis the Pious etc. clearly have some conception of a state or polity, so their categories probably more important; it certainly can’t be called stateless. Our categories still wrong ones, though, not least as barely admit several UN member states now, and there are bits of Berlin or Paris where state doesn’t reach… while at other end of scale international organisations beyond and outside states now affect most of them. Political theorists now dodge the issue with term ‘governance’, and question becomes ‘what forms of social practice are institutionalised in a given collectivity’? At that point, opposition of medieval and modern state harder to see, and this question can be asked of C8th and C9th Francia without problems….”

I imagine that some of my choices of words there for his carefully-chosen German will make Steffen blanch, and it could probably be argued that I still haven’t really understood the full subtlety of it, but it’s still fairly powerful, I think; he starts well within the intellectual tradition people expect, with Weber and indeed by talking theoretical approaches for the first four pages of a thirteen-page chapter without using the first noun in his title once. Quickly, however, he goes for the obvious weak points in the old approach to break a door open, and assembles various newer work into a fresh approach that looks as if it could mean more or less the same thing but which has the great advantage of transportability. This goes, to me, to show the extraordinary value of being willing to adapt others’ theories. I’m not entirely sure who couldn’t use that question of their area of study, if they wanted, which puts it a long long way ahead of ‘Gab es Staatlichkeit oder Urstaatlichkeit in dieser Volksgruppe, und wie viel?’ or similar. I’ve learnt something I can apply to my article from most of the chapters in this volume but this is one I shall be able to take away and cite and think with. Thankyou, Professor Doktor Patzold!


1. W. Pohl & V. Wieser (edd.), Der frühmittelalterliche Staat – Europäische Perspektiven, Denkschriften der philosophisch-historischen Klasse 386, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 16 (Wien 2009); Stuart Airlie, Pohl & Helmut Reimitz (edd.), Der Staat im frühen Mittelalter, Denkschriften der philosophisch-historischen Klasse 334, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 11 (Wien 2006).

2. A debate exemplified in English usefully by Rees Davies, “The Medieval State: the tyranny of a concept?” in Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 16 (Oxford 2003), pp. 280–300, vs. Susan Reynolds, “There Were States in Medieval Europe – a reply to Rees Davies”, ibid. pp. 550-555.

3. Walter Pohl, “Staat und Herrschaft im Frühmittelalter: Überlegungen zum Forschungsstand” in Airlie, Pohl & Reimitz, Staat im Frühmittelalter, pp. 9-38.

4. Carl Łotus Becker, “Detachment and the Writing of History” in The Atlantic Monthly Vol. 106 (Washington 1910), pp. 524-536, repr. in idem, Detachment and the Writing of History: essays and letters of Carl Ł. Becker, ed. Phil L. Snyder (Ithaca 1958), pp. 3-28.

5. Steffen Patzold, “Bischöfe als Träger der politischen Ordnung des Frankenreichs im 8./9. Jahrhundert” in Pohl & Wieser, Frühmittelalterliche Staat, pp. 255-268, section abstracted here pp. 255-259.