Tag Archives: bad history

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


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.

Trust some of the experts, some of the time

Partly because I had forgotten pretty much any of what was in it, and therefore how much use the students would find it, and partly because I owned a copy thanks to a patron’s generosity and it was annoying me that being true as well as the former, I was over the summer reading Margaret Gelling’s Signposts to the Past, an attempt to write an accessible account of what we can safely gather from English place-names and to stop people reading them wrong. This often comes close to being, and in the introduction is explicitly, an appeal to people to just take the experts’ word on trust because it’s too complicated for laymen, a stance that I never warm to, being more of the persuasion that if one can’t explain something in ten minutes in a pub one doesn’t understand it.1 However, Dr Gelling did provide one excellent type case that I thought merited recounting, its ethnic essentialism not withstanding:

The Anglo-Saxons had three words derived from the same stem as the verb ‘bury’ which they occasionally used in place-names to designate tumuli. These are byrgen, byrgels, burgæsn…. Either byrgen or burgæsn (probably the former) is found in two minor names in Oxfordshire, Berring’s Wood in Glympton and Berins Hill in Ipsden. There are early spellings for both these names, and the derivation is certain in the first instance and probable in the second. This etymology was put forward for both names in Gelling 1953, superseding a long-standing antiquarian association of Berins Hill in Ipsden with St Birinus, the apostle of the West Saxons, who was the first Bishop of Dorchester on Thames. There was an unexpected sequel to this when, by the sort of ghastly coincidence which place-name students must always look out for, an important pagan Anglo-Saxon cemetery recently came to light at a spot now called Berinsfield north of Dorchester OXF. This discovery led to immediate speculation about the derivation of Berinsfield from byrgen, which would have proved continuity of tradition about the cemetery from early pagan times. The caution prompted by the failure of the name Berinsfield to appear in any of the sources consulted for the place-name survey of Oxfordshire proved justified, however, and inquiries revealed that Berinsfield had been invented by a local historian for the benefit of the airfield situated there, and that he intended it to commemorate Bishop Birinus. Although the false derivation from byrgen had a short life, it managed to appear in at least one Ph.D. thesis, and the incident makes a salutary cautionary tale…. It is worth noting the circumstances in which this name, although of quite recent invention by a very well-known local historian, took root and appeared genuine to a team of archaeologists who knew the area initimately. The sequence of events appears to have been: (1) the antiquarian association of Berins Hill near Ipsden with St Birinus of Dorchester; (2) the invention of the name Berinsfield for an airport near Dorchester, presumably on the model of Berins Hill; (3) the alternative derivation of Berins Hill from byrgen in Gelling 1953; (4) the discovery of the cemetery at Berinsfield by archaeologists who knew that Berins- could be from byrgen.2

The archæologists just knew too much! A little knowledge is a dangerous thing! and so on. I think the thing I love most about this story is the way she could describe the discovery of a major new site as ‘ghastly’, but if I’d got implicated in a foul-up like that I might also feel the sting some time afterwards. I assume Dr Gelling was also involved in examining the Ph.D., and I would hate to have been that student, though it was hardly their fault either. But what’s the moral from the point of view of the local historian, whoever they were, that’s what I can’t figure…

1. M. Gelling, Signposts to the Past. Place-names and the history of England (London 1978, repr. 1979), e. g. p. 13: “Because place-name etymology abounds with snares of this kind, it is not possible to invite general participation in the process of suggesting etymologies. The rules have been objectively established: they are not arbitrary, but they are intricate, and few non-specialists master them well enough to be on safe ground in this branch of the study…. It is therefore important at the outset to ask people who have no special competence in the history of the English language to accept specialist guidance about the meaning of place-names…. Etymologies should be accepted from the philologists, or only revised with philological consent.” There’s probably a form you have to fill out.

2. Ibid., pp. 140-141, citing M. Gelling, The Place-Names of Oxfordshire vol. I, English Place-Name Survey XXIII (London 1953).

The faces of TV archaeology

One of the other things from the backlog that I wanted to talk about was what looks like a case of media misattribution. I want to stress straight away that I didn’t see the TV program in question—I’ve never owned a TV and in any case I’d never tune in on time—so I may have got the wrong impression through reports on the program. [Edit: as indeed it transpires! Please note emendations below.] If so please let me know! But for the moment, there was this National Geographic programme in February about the Ridgeway Viking burial that you’ve heard about here already, a program that got quite widely reported, presented by one Dr Britt Baillie-Warren of Cambridge.

Dr Britt Baillie-Warren with the Parker Chronicle in the National Geographic program Viking Apocalypse

Dr Britt Baillie-Warren with the Parker Chronicle

On paper, Dr Baillie-Warren seems a slightly odd academic choice to present a program on Vikings in England. I haven’t met her or heard her present or read her work, so in some sense I shouldn’t judge, but the reason I haven’t is because her Ph. D. was on Vukovar in Croatia in the aftermath of the late twentieth-century break-up of Yugoslavia, and her current research is on landscapes in Jerusalem. I don’t mean to suggest that it is anything less than completely rigorous, I honestly don’t, but there’s nothing of the early Middle Ages in it [edit: although, as has been gently pointed out to me by e-mail, her B. A. was in Medieval Archaeology and she has in fact dug in Iceland]. Nonetheless, she seems to have grasped the nettle and come up with an interesting take on things, going from the isotope testing that revealed the bodies to be non-local and the radio-carbon dating that overlapped the St Brice’s Day Massacre of 1002, in which King Æthelred the Unready reportedly ordered the execution of `all the Danes in England’ resulting in the burning of St Frideswide’s Oxford as we’ve heard, the apparent equanimity with which they all faced execution and finally the fact that some of the bodies had had their teeth filed in a painful but presumably compellingly disturbing kind of group branding, to suggest that this group were, or modelled themselves on, a band of the almost-legendary Jomsvikings, whose Saga has similar sentiments about facing death and which claims Viking leader Thorkell the Tall as a member, Thorkell being one of the leaders of armies with whom Æthelred had to content at that time and who was definitely in England. (This was seemingly demonstrated from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle via a trip to the Parker Library, because we know how historical TV makers hate to point out that these obscure manuscripts locked away in ancient libraries are published and translated already, don’t we? Looking stuff up online just isn’t as telegenic.) Now, obviously Thorkell did not get executed on the Ridgeway, because he outlived Æthelred (whose reasonably loyal employee he became) and became an earl under Cnut. And, I might worry about the fact that the Jómsvikinga Saga (also well-published, but never mind) wasn’t fixed in text till the late twelfthis first preserved in a manuscript of the early thirteenth century [edit: something which I have now been told was in fact mentioned in the program], and so there’s every possibility that when it was fixed in text its stories had had recent heroes added to them. So in fact, overall, I’d rather say that the Saga was modelled on warbands like these (albeit more successful ones) than that they were modelling themselves on the stories, let alone the ‘real’ Jomsvikings. That would make these men a kind of second-rate Expendables, a group of soldiers from various places hired to do dirty work by an employer who then turned on them and whose price they paid for it. There’s a good TV program in there somewhere, too, but it’s clear that this too was a very good TV program because of the awe-struck quality of the reporting. So, what’s my problem, mere jealousy at not being invited on?

The Ridgeway burial pit containing 51 Viking-age bodies

Obligatory picture of the Ridgeway burial pit and its 51 Viking-age bodies, skulls detached

Well, no, or at least I hope not. My problem is simply with the level of contribution that the reporting all seems to have attributed to Dr Baillie-Warren because she was fronting the programme. The Daily Mail goes most overboard with this, as follows:

Archaeologists dated their bones to around the year 1,000 but had few other clues as to the identities of the men who met such a sticky end. Now a researcher at Cambridge University claims to have pieced the story together….

but the BBC story is similar. However, we know that her contribution was the Jomsviking theory and no more, because the actual dig was nothing to do with Cambridge or Dr Baillie-Warren, but was done by a contract firm called Oxford Archaeology (and they nothing to do with the University, lest I be accused of being partisan). It was they who did or got done the radiocarbon dating, the isotope testing and the analysis of the teeth, and you know this perhaps because I reported on David Score of OA telling a seminar about this but the journalists might have known about simply because their respective organs had also published that news some eighteen months previously. But if it goes onto TV with an identifiable face for the theory, apparently, out goes that racial memory. Only the Telegraph, in a rare display of journalistic caution, gives any indication that some of this might not be new news. Now, perhaps as I say the program was clearer about this than the reporting was [edit: and again I have been told that it was, and that OA’s osteoarchaelogist featured in it heavily], and if so I’d be grateful to know, but as it is it really doesn’t[edit: the papers and indeed the National Geographic’s own site really don’t make it] look like credit where credit’s due.

This contrasts weirdly with another case from about a month before, of which I learnt through a protest campaign mounted at the Archaeology in Europe blog and about which I’d also then intended to write, the addition of a co-presenter to legendary British archaeology TV series Time Team. This hit the news, as far as I can see, partly because it was one of a set of changes that caused the long-time stalwart of the programme, Professor Mick Aston, to step down one series prematurely, but also because the company that makes the show, Wildfire Television, had if the newspapers are to be believed decided specifically to add pretty much a token woman without significant expertise, for reasons left as an exercise for the reader:

Mick Aston, the archaeologist, has quit Time Team after producers hired a former model as the programme’s co-presenter.

The 65-year-old, who has been on the show for 19 years, said he had been left “really angry” by changes which led to the introduction of co-presenter Mary-Ann Ochota and some archaeologists being axed.

He was responding to changes first proposed by producers at Channel 4 in late 2010, which included a new presenter to join Tony Robinson and decisions to “cut down the informative stuff about the archaeology”.

An email to archaeologists last year from Wildfire Television, which makes the programme, said it was seeking a female co-presenter who “does not have to be overly experienced or knowledgeable as we have plenty of expertise within the existing team”.

This is the reporting from the Telegraph, on this occasion much further into its comfort zone as you can tell and quite certain what the best way to present the situation is. Certainly, the situation appears to have been bad, as shortly after this Mrs Ochota also announced that she would not do another series and it seems that much has been rethought as to how the program will now continue. But again, ethical reporting has failed here. The first reason is of course that cheap shot, “ex-model”. By that same token you could, equally accurately, describe my current employment as “ex-barman and one-time telesales person hired to teach students Anglo-Saxon history at top university”. In fact, just as I do actually have some relevant qualifications also, Mrs Ochota, while not a research archaeologist like occasional female presenters Carenza Lewis or Helen Geake (of Cambridge both), was not academically unprepared for this gig, because she has a degree in archaeology and anthropology (also from Cambridge…1) and was and is in fact well-known already as a TV anthropologist. (I haven’t met or heard her either, I should maybe make clear.) If Wildfire were genuinely looking for a token woman with nothing of her own to contribute, though, I’d say they got the wrong one. (The coverage in the Daily Mail does quote more of whatever document this was, adding “However, they added: ‘Intelligence, natural curiosity and a passion for archaeology is a must.’” That’s something, I suppose?

TV presenter Mary-Ann Ochota

Mary-Ann Ochota, before her slot with Time Team

Now, when I first read of both these stories I cynically assumed that what we were looking at was TV companies trying to `sex up’ what they saw as a dull subject dominated by men in jumpers (though Professor Aston’s jumpers surely deserve star billing by themselves, even if only as some kind of warning), such as has been complained of about other programs on the Middle Ages. That certainly seems to have been the take of the Telegraph (of whom we might expect no better) and the Daily Mail (of whom we might expect worse and who recorded Mrs Ochota’s arrival with the headline, “‘What’s she got that I haven’t?’ Veteran quits as Cambridge beauty joins TV’s Time Team”; this quote was apparently ‘expressive’ rather than factual, you’ll doubtless be surprised to learn). That should have been enough to warn me, really, if I’m in agreement with the Mail I’ve probably missed something. Nonetheless, the difference in reporting is weird: in the first case we have a bright, young and, yes, female, archaeologist, having other people’s work attributed to her despite an apparent lack of relevant expertise[edit: statements to the contrary], and in the second a bright, young and, yes, female, anthropologist whose archaeological and anthropological training was basically overlooked because the journalists decided it made a better story to focus on her looks. I would guess that it was more the “archaeologists being axed” and the threat to “`cut down the informative stuff about the archaeology'” that made Professor Aston angry, myself, but the actual issues do not seem to be what got the journalists’ attention. As the saying goes in some places, “We ent arrive as yet“.

Time Team at Salisbury Cathedral, 2009

Time Team, including Helen Geake, in 2009, jumpers mainly made safe

1. I grant you that there is possibly a question to be asked here about why every woman I can mention in this post works or studied at Cambridge, but the answer is probably simply “Catherine Hills” so I’m not going to worry about that just now.